Schmucks With Underwoods


“You do have copies of all this, right?”


The sea air of Dalian has done me good, but I wish the persistent downpours and thunderstorms would clear the gritty air here in the Jing. As it is, it’s just a bit of a grey hellhole right now. Even so, I set off under the clouds to say goodbye to a colleague that I’ve known all too briefly, someone who is soon to swap Beijing for St. Petersburg. We are both ‘frustrated writers’, so we figured that the most appropriate place to meet was a dingy coffee shop. It got our heads out of the rain and smog at least.

At the same time, my director friend back in England shared the rough-cut and a poster mock-up of the short horror film we wrote. Encouraging stuff!

It all made me pull the metaphorical digit from the metaphorical orifice and start archiving and organizing some old writing, something that yet another friend (soon to swap Kazakhstan for Egypt) has been nagging me to do since he saw me burning some old screenplays on a Northampton rooftop (see above quote!) It’s a more monumental task than I had hoped, scouring hard drives and iPads and email accounts for needle-like nuggets of corn in the giant haystack of absolute effluent that is the metaphor for my writing.

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My now-ex-colleague but still brother-at-arms left me with a stack of horror movies and science fiction episodes, knowing full well the struggle of finding anything to watch on China’s anemic imitation of Netflix. I have already devoured David Cronenberg’s pervert’s choice classics Videodrome and Naked Lunch (his hallucinatory palimpsest of William Burroughs’s great novel). The film version has its flaws,* but I dug all of the different machinery; the tools of the trade coming to life, eating each other, shape shifting; the idea that a writer works better with certain instruments than others. (I must admit, the typewriter that morphed into a weird dick-arse creature and slithered off into the night was probably my least favourite).

I also liked the scene where the guy’s buddies turned up and magically got his book published for him. It reminded me of a scene that I watched the other day in Spike Jonze’s Her, where the main character’s girlfriend edited all of his writing together into a coherent piece that gave the publisher a boner. It’s one of the reasons I finally decided to organize some of my own work: because that’s not gonna happen!! There is no Ginsberg or AI operating system that’s going to pull all my old incoherent writing together and tell me how great I am. Shit’s up to me.

I’m not actively looking to publish or produce anything right now, just gather it all together and take stock. See where I am. And see if I’m still a writer.


*(too many silly accents in Interzone. And old Robocop is a right bloody mumbler, isn’t he?)

Master of Puppets


“You ever want to be somebody else?”
“I’d like to try Porky Pig.”
“I’ve never wanted to be anybody else.”
– Easy Rider


When I was a kid I guess I wanted to be some kind of action hero: an Indiana Jones; a Luke Skywalker; maybe, at the very low end of that spectrum, a Bob Hoskins as Mario. One day I swung through the cavernous tomb of my own bedroom cupboard with a bullwhip that my aunt had brought over from India. the whip snapped, the railing on the cupboard collapsed and my mum frantically took me aside and told me I was going to have three kids and a mortgage instead.

My parents used to tell me off for staying up late, for watching too many movies, or for showing off to my friends. Overused parental catchphrases included “stop filling your head with nonsense” and “don’t play up just because you have an audience”. My kindergarten teacher used to call me ‘foghorn’, although that disappeared under a layer of shyness and social awkwardness a few years later.

Fact is, I now get paid to shout like a foghorn and play up to an audience. Turns out that filling your head with nonsense can actually be quite the lucrative investment. I’m not exactly flashing the qian but I can afford to live the way I want to for once. I don’t even have to dress like a hobo or live on junk food anymore (I still do sometimes, but I don’t have to).

 


“Ah,so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.”

– Doctor Who, The Three Doctors


 

As a college student, despite briefly flirting with the idea of training as a stuntman, a puppeteer or a functioning alcoholic, I suppose I wanted to be a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Harry Dean Stanton. I once jokily berated a new guy on my acting course for turning up in a Hawaiian shirt. “That’s my gig, man! I’m the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts around here.” For some reason, instead of socking me in the mouth or telling me to piss off, the guy just stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts; as, a few short years later,  did I.

Eventually I settled on the idea of just being me.

I sometimes lamented the painful truth that I rarely left the streets of my East Midlands hometown, but I always reminded myself that Socrates never left Athens. I visited Athens once and I thought it was a shithole. If his shithole was good enough for Socrates then, I reckoned, my shithole should be good enough for me. But then I became aware of an even more painful truth: certain parallels in questionable personal hygiene aside, I am hella not Socrates.

But eventually I had a wash, grew into my own skin, and became a little more comfortable with myself.

 


“A puppeteer told me he loved me today. I know, I can’t think of anything more pathetic!” – Catherine Keener


 

A couple of years ago, when I was looking for an escape hatch from Tongzhou (a slightly less comfortable shithole), I applied for a job with Sesame Street English as a curriculum writer. Sesame Street was and is one of the many ESL companies in the Jing that the guys I worked for in the suburbs couldn’t compete with on any level. Sesame Street was the sleek, predatory shark while the now bankrupt company I was with at the time were, even then, the upside down goldfish.

On the whole I like teaching drama more than ESL. Maybe I like it more than I’d have enjoyed writing for Ernie and Grover. My first full semester as a drama teacher is now over. A couple more days of teaching a summer camp and then I’m on holiday. I’d like to think that my grand, poorly drawn stage designs for next term will contribute to the juvenile drama centre equivalent of Michel Gondry meets François Delarozière, but the truth is gonna be… well, much less French for a minimum.

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I like my job here, even if I’ve always had mixed feelings about the theatre. I like anything that’s an art form, and I like a storytelling art form a thousandfold more. I like that theatre at its most basic is just one or more person performing in front of one or more other person, which is what I’ve been doing with me life since I was a kid.

It’s comforting and interesting to know that the cavemen in Wangfujing were once doing the Neolithic version of what I teach, and that future eight-limbed generations, perhaps people who don’t have to work for a living and can just tell stories for the sheer post-humanity of it, will be performing dramas long after someone’s pushed the big red button on our current society.

But British people are supposed to be cynical and rip the piss out of anything as wanky as the theatrical arts, especially if it’s popular in France.

I’ve got mixed feelings about teaching, too. Robert McKee, who’s not exactly short of opinions, once barked that “the world is full of people who teach things that they themselves cannot do” (and he must know, let’s be honest). Or, as the hoary old caveat has it: those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, probably just teach anyway.

Most teachers I know, when they are honest, will jovially admit either that they are doing something creative in their spare time and wish they did that for a living, or are approaching burn-out. Some, bless ‘em, are doing both. You can use your own imagination and judgement to decide which category I fit into.

Wayfinding

“Strangely clean, lacking in texture, like video games before they’d learned to dirty them up”
– William Gibson, on Vancouver


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If someone had told me a year ago that I would miss Beijing I’d have thought they were as crazy as the ‘brain infected’ old man from Shogun Assassin*. That I’d miss China? Maybe. That I’d miss my slinky, shoe-washing co-teacher? Certainly. But that I’d miss the smoggy North Capital itself? Nah.

There is a joke that certain people once whispered in pre-Brexit Britain**: “What’s the difference between yoghurt and Canada? Yoghurt has culture!” A similar joke is told here in Vancouver, except ‘Canada’ is pronounced ‘Calgary’ and ‘yoghurt’ is pronounced wrong.

The tricky thing about evaluating ‘culture’ is that it’s a pretty subjective concept. To me, culture is like a planet’s atmosphere: something fiendishly complicated and occasionally life-supporting that builds up in the right conditions over a long period of time***.

I’ve spent most of my 2016 working in a hostel in my adopted homeland, making beds and scrubbing vomit from washroom floors. Some might say it’s a step down from teaching the children of wealthy Chinese families but if you’d ever worked for the same company as me in the Beijing boonies, you’d know that it’s actually an improvement!

But I have missed the Jing, which is why I’ve decided to go back there. I like Vancouver. The people are, on the whole, both dope and chill, usually because they spend a lot of time smoking dope and/or chillin’.

To my eyes, Vancouver is a young city. Not jailbait young, but certainly not creaking at the knees under the weight of its own mythology (like, say, London or Paris). Van City, therefore, comes with all the advantages (and disadvantages) that youth has to offer: It’s beautiful, the air is fresh, there are as many mountains as skyscrapers; it’s got bicycles and beards and artisan coffee shops coming out the wazoo. A veritable Utopia for a pretentious hipster type such as myself! It’s even relatively safe to cross the street without worrying about being hit by a car.

So what has prompted me to return to the not-so-mysterious east? Why the sudden urge to re-enter the dragon? Why do I want to become Ben the Foreigner again? Was I polishing some fans at work when I suddenly inhaled dust that triggered a wistful memory of Tongzhou’s fecal smog? Had I run out of toilet paper and become misty-eyed at the recollection of squatting in a hutong with a red-raw medieval arsehole?

The short answer is, “No, don’t be silly.” I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that, like Stallone between Rocky 5 and Rocky 6, I retired too early. That there’s more of China still to experience.

I’m also a little tired of hearing myself start almost every conversation with the words “when I was in Beijing…”

I arrived in Hollywood North the same way I left the Big Dustbowl: with mixed feelings. There is, of course, the temptation to disappear into the woods like Emily Carr or Henry David Thoreau, to play at being Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans or to go on some sort of shamanic quest (at least as far as Banff). But there is also the temptation not to bugger about with that sort of thing and to face the fact that I’m still more interested in where the sun rises than in where it sets.

I told you I’d see you on the next adventure. Are you ready?


*see https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/hello-world/. (I’m not made of film references!)

**(before nearly everyone there started Googling ‘How To Move To The Great White North’)

***(NOT something that happens instantly in scientifically inaccurate movies at the push of a button while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes are popping out of his head).

“Kvit Skrewing Awound!” (and other pearls of Austrian Wisdom)

Please, please read all quotes aloud in an ‘Arnie’ voice!


Last week a Facebook friend posted a short documentary film about the early years of one of my favorite Austrian philosophers: http://youtu.be/wJPRj19OU-w

As a kid growing up in the nineties, it was impossible to escape the mighty grip of VHS tapes featuring violent male heroes like Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, guys who proved that you don’t have to be able to act or string a sentence together (or even be American) to portray the quintessential All-American badass: blue-collar guys who won the day not through wit or intelligence or any other discernible life skill that careers advisors try to drum into people, but through rippling muscles and a huge arsenal of weapons that they are constitutionally entitled to. There were many sweaty, white, aggressively heterosexual heroes at that time, but nobody did it better than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are many films that show us the tenets of Schwarzeneggerain philosophy: End of Days remains a particularly quotable favourite. He tells Rod Steiger’s priest “between your faith and my Glock nine millimeter, I’ll take the Glock!” He shows his respect for the hallowed institution of the Vatican by shooting a cardinal in the manner of the stigmata. When the cardinal professes that he’s not afraid to die, Arnie responds “Good. Because I’m not afraid to kill you!” And, if that isn’t all philosophical enough for you, he then goes on to loudly berate Satan (yes, the Satan), “you’re a fucking choir boy compared to me. A CHOIR BOY!” before blowing him away with a combination of grenade launcher and prayers to Jesus.

My number one piece of philosophical wisdom from The Austrian Oak, however, remains the exchange between him and a villain from another movie, a guy who keeps cloning his dead self for reasons that are never quite adequately explained. “You should clone yourself while you’re still alive,” advises Schwarzenegger. When the villain asks why, Arnie pops metaphorical cap into metaphorical ass by shouting “So you can GO FUCK YOURSELF!”

I like Arnold Shwarzenegger. I like him because whatever his faults as an ‘actor’ and (let me make this absolutely clear) philosopher, I think he’s led an amazing and inspiring life that has proved if there is such a thing as the ‘American Dream’, then it’s possible, with an industrial amount of hard work and self-belief, to grab a little slice of it.

Ānuò Shīwaxīngé is popular here (possibly because many young male Bejingers like watching stuff explode for absolutely no reason). Yonganli and Sanlitun are chock full of knock-off DVDs bearing his grisly visage, and I recently watched one where he spent the whole film stubbornly refusing to shoot Little Miss Sunshine, even making a valiant effort at bursting into tears at one point (imagining him, three takes in, breaking down and wailing “I can’t do it, I am not a girly-man!”, nearly brought tears to my own eyes).

Before watching the documentary film, though, I had no idea just how hard Schwarzenegger had struggled during his national service in Austria, surrounded by friends and family who told him he was crazy for wanting to be a bodybuilder, and having to go AWOL (and therefore suffer dire consequences) in order to enter a bodybuilding competition that he’d be too old to enter the following year. It was clearly a very tough decision for him, and if he’d refused to make it then his story would have ended very differently.

One of the reasons he was able to make the choice in the first place, is because he had a plan. A template. Someone to look up to: the bodybuilder and ‘actor’ Reg Park, who played the same role that Ānuò went on to play in his debut feature: Hercules. “It is possible,” said the young Schwarzenegger to himself, “Reg Park did it, right?”

Since watching the documentary several days ago I’ve started employing the practice of setting an alarm on my phone for one hour (I don’t believe that anyone is busy or lazy enough that they can’t find one single hour out of twenty-four). Don’t get excited, because I haven’t suddenly taken up power lifting, or even regular exercise! For that hour I focus on nothing other than the project I’ve been writing in my spare time (inspired also by the fact that November is National Novel Writing Month in the UK, the time that writers traditionally pull thumb from arse and get their latest magnum opus finished).

It’s nothing short of amazing to me, how many people use the word ‘impossible’, especially when other people are discussing a dream of theirs. Before Roger Bannister ran the one-minute mile, or Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, people said that was impossible. Nobody believed in electricity (electricity, for fuck’s sake!) until Benjamin Franklin burned the arse of his trousers in a thunderstorm**, or gravity until Isaac Newton was smacked in the head by it.

People don’t like other people rocking the boat, saying things like “I wonder if I can run a mile in under one minute,” I wonder if I can travel at the speed of sound”, “I wonder if I can tell Satan he’s a girly-man”.

Of course you can. “Reg Park did it, right?”

Can you imagine a world where Schwarzenegger said “everyone else is right. I’ll never be a bodybuilder. Better knuckle down and drive this tank.” The Terminator would have been played by OJ bloody Simpson! Yes, seriously.

When I started admitting to people that I wanted to be a writer, someone said to me “Come on! How many famous people do you know who come from Northampton?” Luckily, like any aspiring writer, I’d done my research. “I never said I want to be famous,” I replied. “I said I want to be a writer! But Matt Smith is pretty famous. He comes from Northampton. There’s Alan Moore. John Clare. H.E Bates. Even Errol Flynn did his repertory training here. Three of those famous people are writers.” “Alright, alright”, sighed my conversational companion, “go and fucking do it then!”

When I started telling people I was going to China for a year, a lot of people’s replies used words like “seriously?” and phrases like “Do you really want to go?” or “Are you looking forward to it?” All of these replies, like many other questions that people ask about other people’s dreams, are synonymous with “well, I wouldn’t do that, not in a million years!”

People seem to forget that I’m not asking them to (and that, quite frankly, I couldn’t give a tinker’s motherfuck what they do with themselves!)

I want to be a writer.

I’m going to China.

You can stay at home and watch Strictly Come Dancing or the new season of Doctor Who. Don’t fret!

Arnold Schwarzenegger is someone who shows us what can happen if you’re brave enough to put the effort in and hunt your dreams down with the AK47 of hard work and the RPG of determination. Not what will happen. For every Ānuò there’s a  Mike Katz, someone working just as hard who ends up relegated to the ‘also-ran’ section of bodybuilding history, but as a certain Austrian philosopher once said, “you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets!”

Or, in simpler terms, “do it. Do it NOW!”


**There’s a Doctor Who story set in the early days of electric lighthouses, where an old-school lighthouse keeper only trusts oil lamps. “In the early days of oil,” says the Doctor, “he’d have said there’s notthing like a really big candle!” Everyone knows someone like that keeper, because the world is not exactly short of arsewipes.

Training Montage

“All in all not a bad guy – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.” – The Coen Brothers


Before coming to China I was, like pretty much everyone who is both creative and working class in the UK, on Jobseekers. I was in a difficult position, where I was under-qualified for most of the media positions I was applying for* and so overqualified for the other jobs that no one believed I was genuinely passionate about cleaning the toilets in Home Bargains (I actually find that cleaning is a pretty meditative experience. Some of my best ideas come to me while I’m ironing of doing the dishes, but that ain’t what Home Bargains want to hear, apparently). Luckily, my ‘careers coach’, probably a frustrated dreamer herself, could see that I was serious about my writing: sending scripts and stories to the right people and constantly applying for jobs. She was actually a fairly pleasant individual.**

One thing that they make you do after six months on the dole is a training regime to help you polish up CVs, ace difficult interviews and deal with the constant tedium of bitter defeat and crushing rejection. It’s actually not a bad idea for a struggling writer to do such a training regime! I met people who are still turning up as characters in my stories to this day, mostly as dickheads (“Finding a job is a full time job, isn’t it?” Well, no actually. In fact it’s literally the opposite, you daft bastard!)

The training included writing up mock application forms, acting out mock interviews and trying desperately not to mock any of the people delivering the training.

Once, when ‘brainstorming’ what we might ask potential interviewers, I came up with:

Me: What’s your company ethos?
Trainer: What’s that mean?
Me: Well, do you have a good ecological policy? Do you use sweatshop labour in Indonesia?
(This was shortly after the roof of a sweatshop building had collapsed and killed 1,130 people)
Trainer: Uh, okay. Good question. Maybe… try to get the job first?

Trainer: When is it appropriate to turn up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt?
Me: When you work in the performing arts.
Trainer: Really?
Me: Yeah, if you turn up in a suit people think you’re well pretentious!
Trainer: Okay, well when else is it appropriate to turn up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt?
Me: Media. Tech start ups. Construction, maybe.
Trainer: Okay, let’s move on.

One other aspect they covered was ‘personality’:

Trainer: Not everyone wants to be a fireman. Not everyone has the ability to work in a call center. Apply for the right job for your personality.

I don’t like personality tests. At university we had to make a ‘group documentary’, and our tutor had the idea of grouping us all by personality using the Myers Briggs test.The results were predictable: everyone absolutely hated the groups they were in. My group was made up of people who were all too imaginative/abstract/conceptual to agree on a documentary subject while being too warm/compassionate/introverted to do anything about it except slag each other off behind our backs. I eventually went out into Northampton town centre on my day off and shot my own documentary without the group. “Great,” beamed my film tutor, clapping his hands together, “that’s exactly what an INFP should do!”

The personality test that Job Centre Plus used is not as universally recognized as the Myers Briggs. They grouped us, like a scene written by Ricky Gervais, as ‘birds’.

Yes, that’s birds. I wish I was joking.

“You are a sparrow. Often quiet, you find it difficult to get what you want. You settle for the nest that you are given.”

“You are a cuckoo. Sometimes appearing manipulative…”

That sort of shit.

To what would have been my genuine surprise (had I given anything other than not a single shit), I was the only one on the training course who was an ‘eagle’.

“You are an individual with the ability to soar to great heights. The sort of bird who would happily devour every other bird in this room, shit them out of its arsehole and tell us that our test is a load of wank.”

It wasn’t all bad. One day they made us apply for several online jobs, just to be sure that we weren’t  taking their fifty pounds a week and scratching out balls with it. “Have you thought about jobs abroad?” said one of the trainers, “you seem like the kind of bloke who wouldn’t have a problem relocating.”


*I even went for an interview as social media writer for a school, and was so desperate to get back into the workforce that I ignored the fact they wanted someone with graphic design experience. “Are you,” asked a wise friend of mine with narrow eyes and gritted teeth, “sure about this?” “Yes,” I lied. “I’ll be fine right up until they ask me to design something!” This was indeed the case, and they were rather underwhelmed with the new ‘school logo’ that I drew them in MSPaint.

**The days that she wasn’t in, however, were sheer torture. I came very close to asking one hatchet-faced old bint, “Have you got any jobs here, love? I reckon I’d make a great patronizing cunt!”

Dust Days

“People don’t come to Beijing because the weather’s nice, or because they think “that’ll be a nice place to live!” People come to Beijing because they want to make money.”


October, with its pagan harvest roots and Halloween vibe, has always been a great time for storytelling. For the last couple of years I’ve tried to set some time aside in October to read creepy tales and horror stories. Last year it was A.M. Keen’s Witch*, some of HP Lovecraft’s tales and David Wong’s comedy-horror John Dies at the End. This year I’ve read The Invisible Man by HG Wells and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Next on my list is Dracula.

By far the scariest book I’ve read this month is something altogether different, though: High Tide by Mark Lynas. It’s not some fantasy-horror about deep sea demons or biblical tidal waves. It isn’t even fiction. It’s a book about climate change. The theme is clear: it’s happening. It’s getting worse. And, most frightening of all, pretty much bugger all is being done to stop it.

I’ve never been sure why so many people are willing to believe in a god despite zero evidence of its existence, while easily as many people adamantly refuse to believe that those polar bears weren’t swimming a few years ago. I think the answer has something to do with morons.

A friend of mine once said about smokers, “I’ll bet if that gooey black shit was growing on the outside of their body, they’d soon quit!” I disagree. I think people, as a rule, have a pretty huge capacity for self-delusion and self-imposed ignorance.

“What gooey black shit! Wtf are you on about? Got a light?”

When Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were hired to do a horror movie for one of the Hollywood studios, they  drafted a script that included pollution and cancer and nuclear war: all the sorts of things that people should be genuinely afraid of. Supernatural horrors are only frightening until you put the book down or turn the movie off (although, having said that, my mum once slept with a bible under her pillow after watching The Exorcist). The list of recorded deaths involving ghosts and vampires and children of satan is so short that you are literally 100% more likely to shit yourself to death worrying about them than to be killed by one. When it comes to cancer or nuclear war, your odds ain’t so great.

High Tide devotes one chapter to the UK, with particular emphasis on flash flooding. Two chapters are devoted to America (the Alaskan pipeline and hurricanes in Florida). “In truth,” says Lynas in the preface, “I could have written this whole book about the United States.” He probably could have written the whole book about the subject of one other chapter, too. A chapter that opens in Beijing during a ‘dust day’.**

Beijing is an amazing place. A fascinating city. But to say that it’s a pretty pleasant place to live is kinda like saying that John Wayne Gacy, despite his many faults, was a pretty pleasant children’s entertainer. I’ve met people who’ve lived in Beijing for anything from three years to seven years, and I always ask the same thing:

“Why?”

The answer is usually either a slightly nervous: “Haha, I don’t know, really!”

or an open and honest: “Money!”***

The guidelines for air safety here in the ‘Jing is that an Air Quality Index score of anything above 150 is ‘unhealthy’, and that 300 is ‘hazardous’. If the AQI measures 300+, a lot of companies tell employees to stay at home with the windows shut and avoid going outside at all costs. Some companies even pay foreigners ‘danger money’ just for working here: a golden handshake that comes with a sticky note reading “thank you so much for living in a bit of a shithole.”

As I’ve said before, Beijing has been a good testing ground for me: especially when it comes to testing my patience. After mid-autumn festival, the factories started working overtime to belch out a fresh batch of hazy grey smog, and the AQI measured as high as 320 one day. I dragged myself into work to muster enough professionalism and enthusiasm to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a coughing, spluttering three-year-old, and then dragged myself home again.

Something that a lot of Chinese people, usually ones who’ve never been abroad, say is that twenty years ago the sky in London used to look like Beijing. I’ve no idea if that’s true. Twenty years ago, I wasn’t in London. I was living in the Rocky Mountains, where fresh air wasn’t much of a problem.

What I do know is that if I had lived in London, and the sky looked like that scene from Insomnia where he shoots his mate because he can’t see anything, the last place I’d be going would be into work, especially to teach a single three-year-old kid with the cough of a sixty-year-old chain smoker.

The Invisible Man is about ‘science gone wrong’, and Metamorphosis is about ‘nature gone wrong’, but High Tide shows something even more terrifying: what happens when we go wrong? Both the characters of Griffin (in the Invisible Man) and Gregor (in Metamorphosis) pay a high price. What is our price going to be? What is our gooey black shit?  What are the still unseen (and therefore ignored) long-term effects that are happening, and will continue to happen, while we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge or correct our mistakes?

Don’t ask me. I just work here.


*(I actually thought I’d be adapting it for the big screen for a friend to direct, but that’s another misadventure entirely)

**(the author investigates how much of northern China’s fierce dust storms, droughts and desertification is down to global warming, and how it affects the capital)

***(a lot of ‘Jingers earn more than I do, which maybe makes choking on grit and feaces slightly more bearable, I dunno)

Honesty & Cobblers


Me:” What do you think of my new hat?”

Co-teach: “I think it is quite like pervert.”


I like honesty. There’s an old cliche about policies, and about where honesty ranks in terms of them. One of the many films I watched on DVD over mid-autumn festival was the engaging sci-fi epic Interstellar. One of the characters in that movie is a NASA robot who’s ‘honesty’ setting is at 90% because brutal honesty is not often what humans want to hear, especially on a mission in uncharted deep space. “Honesty,” said John Lennon,* “won’t get you a lot of friends, but it will get you the right ones.”

Like all the English teachers at my company, I work with a Chinese co-teacher. Her name, for the sake of anonymity, is Co-teach. Earlier this evening, I met Co-teach at Xiabu Xiabu for a hot pot. She speaks almost fluent English which, for someone who’s never been outside of China, is quite an impressive achievement. Instead of studying the language, she pretty much taught herself English by watching and re-watching Sherlock and Once Upon a Time. This is also quite impressive, because most native English speakers who watch that sort of stuff over and over again only learn how to significantly lower their social skills.

She also ‘gets’ English jokes (which, according to my cursory and superficial research,** is a sure sign that you understand a language very well). An example being: –

Me: So the interviewer asks, “what do you consider to be your biggest weakness?” The applicant says, “honesty.” So the interviewer replies “I don’t consider honesty a weakness.” And the applicant says “I don’t give a fuck what you think!”

Co-teach: Haha. She didn’t get the job!

Me: Exactly!***

Like most Chinese people I’ve met (and the human  character Anne Hathaway in Interstellar), Co-teach’s honesty setting is way above 90…

My uncle once told me that the first thing you notice about a person is their shoes. According to Co-teach, this is an old Chinese saying. It’s not something I’d given much thought to because, call me old fashioned or cynical or whatever, but the first thing I usually notice about someone is me minding my own fucking business.

Nevertheless, I learned about this saying during a weird conversation that Co-teach and I had at Xiabu Xiabu. I didn’t, unfortunately, record the conversation so what follows is a Crimewatch-style reconstruction. I have removed some of my more colorful responses (the blue ones) which are marked by an unambiguous “…”

Co-teach: May I give you some advice?
Me: Sure.
Co-teach: You should wash your shoes.
Me: Wash my -?
Co-teach: Shoes.
Me: Why the … should I do that?
Co-teach: Because they are dirty.
Me: They’re dirty because I live in Beijing. They’re white. White shoes in Beijing will always get dirty. It’s very dusty here!

(I initially thought that was the end of the conversation, but as well as Chinese honesty, Co-teach also has a more British streak of stubbornness.)

Co-teach: I wash my shoes.
Me (pointing at her Nikes): You washed these?
Co-teach (nodding): And brushed them.
Me: You washed and brushed your shoes?
Co-teach: Yes.
Me: … me, I barely have time to shower in the mornings! Have there been complaints?
Co-teach: About what?
Me: My shoes. Have parents said “this teachers shoes are too dirty!”
Co-teach (Pause): Noooo.
Me: You just hesitated. You had to think about that!
Co-teach: There have been no complaints.
Me: Has anyone refused to sign as a student, after one of my demo classes, because they thought my shoes were too dirty?
Co-Teach: No.
Me: Then I’m pretty sure my … shoes are fine.
Co-teach (diplomatically): You could wash them at work?
Me: I’m not gonna wash my … shoes at work.
Co-Teach: There is a brush. At work. There is a brush.
Me: I’m not gonna brush my … shoes at work either!

(We lapsed into silence, and Co-teach regretted bringing it up.)

Co-teach: I should not have said this. About your shoes. I knew you would be angry.
Me: I’m not angry, Co-teach, I’m just not going to wash my … shoes.
Co-teach: You are angry,
Me: I’m not … angry, Co-teach!
Co-teach: You swear when you are angry.
Me: I swear all the … time! I’m … happy, you’ve given me something to blog about!

(Co-teach then launched into a children’s song that goes ‘Brush, Brush, Brush my Teeth’, but she wittily replaced the lyric ‘brush’ with the lyric ‘wash’ and the lyric ‘teeth’ with a lyric that I’m sure you can figure out for yourself.

(I had an idea. Then, Instead of dropping the subject, I mentioned my idea to Co-teach.)

Co-Teach: What idea?
Me: If you feel so passionate about the shoes, then I can give them to you and you can wash them. You did a good job washing your shoes. They look very clean.
Co-Teach: I cannot do this.
Me: Why not?
Co-Teach: Because [her housemate] will see me and she will ask “why are you washing Ben’s shoes?”
Me: Okay, you’ve got me there.

(After dinner, having avoided the thorny subject any more, we said our goodbyes.)

Co-Teacher: I will see you at work tomorrow.
Me: Yeah, I’ll be the poor … at the sink who’s turned up half an hour earlier to wash his … shoes.


*(And I honestly know I’m at the risk of belabouring the point here)

**(I read it in a book once and have yet to summon the enthusiasm to fact-check it)

***(Another example being: – when the punchline is delivered on a Chinese joke, I usually just chuckle politely or say ‘oh yeah?” My honesty setting is just above 90%)