Happy places

Twelve middle aged women in fuchsia tops are dancing in the middle of the street. Their chirpy music mingles with the lounge soundtrack of the Starbucks terrace.

I’m on Shamian Island, where colonial powers established their residence in old Guangzhou. Heavy European architecture, stucco, balustrades, pillars. If it wasn’t for the dancing ladies, the tropical heat and the dangling roots of the giant trees, I could imagine I was in Prag, Berlin or Budapest. But I can’t think away the heat, the trees, or the people. I’m in southern China, late summer, with a mild film of sweat over my face. I rolled up my jeans to let my legs breathe.

I was in that exact same seat two years and a half ago. Back then, I was living in Nanjing – it was freezing winter up on the Yangtze, and for Christmas, I fled south. I stopped over in Changsha for a day, and arrived in Guangzhou on the night of Boxing Day. I still remember that feeling, getting out onto the street at FangCun subway station. The air was welcoming. I bought peanuts from a street seller, then bananas on LuJun Jie, where I walked among plastic tables where locals enjoyed late night barbecue. I walked along the Pearl River, sipping milk tea. Teenagers were out with skateboards. And I felt happy.

The next day, as I did this morning, I crossed the river on a ferry, looking out the window at the grey waters of the Pearl River. I walked along the stalls of the Fish Market, past piles of polystyrene boxes, mounds of seashells on the floor, among the strong smell of mud and water. I walked along the canal, under the dangling branches of evergreen tropical trees. I crossed a bridge, and arrived on Shamian Island. Then, I settled on the terrace of the Starbucks with a cup of espresso. I felt safe, home, happy.

Over the course of my travels, I have gathered the memories of a few such happy places.

There is a food court in the Singapore Chinatwon, where retirees gather after dark for cheap food and beer. In November 2014, after a difficult year running my first festival and applying for a PhD, I spent long hours there, finally resting, reading Watchmen and drinking addictive sweet coffee. This is the background image on my iPad.

There is another food court, in Penang, on the seafront. I sat there with Philip in early December 2008, eating curry, fried chicken, ice Kacang. We were getting to the end of our three month overland migration journey, and after exhausting times in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, we felt that in Penang, things became easy, we were getting close to our new home, and we could breathe.

There is a cafe in Chippendale, in Sydney, where I sat down after my first major talk on the Chinese Internet in 2014, and again, after finishing a major stretch of work recruiting candidates for the first round of CAMP. It’s a little hipster place with fancy muffins, light blue pat, second hand wooden chairs, across a park and a new residential development.

There is a Bench in Queenscliffe, overlooking Port Phillip Bay. In 2011, I took an emergency two-day off there, after incorporating Marco Polo Project. I walked along the ocean to Point Lonsdale and, halfway through the walk, felt dizzy. It was evening, I was alone, and thought I might simply collapse there, from sheer exhaustion. I pause, I breathed, I looked at the waves. I slowly wake de all the way to point Lonsdale, trying to leave the burden behind. I made it there. A bus took me back to Queenscliffe, where I sat on the bench, looking out onto the water.

There are other places, but these mostly come to mind. These are places I reache after a feat – a difficult and transformative experience. There, I felt I could pause, relax, and take the time to regain strength before I start again. Is is what I am doing today. I just completed my first report for the Global Challenges Foundation – this has been one of my most difficult, if rewarding, professional experiences. And before I start again, or move on to something else, I need to take some time in my happy place, to renew.

On cosmopolitan settings

Today, a friend shared an article about international students in Australia. The piece lamented the lack of integration between Chinese and Australian students, and called for change.

This is common rhetoric: international students have limited interactions with locals, what a missed opportunity for both sides! Yet if we dig a little, where exactly does the problem lie? In a city like Melbourne, where one person in four was born overseas, who are these mysterious ‘Australian students’? I’ve been here for seven years, and hold two passports. When I go to Monash University for my PhD, am I a local?

More surprising is the way we seem to consider interactions between Chinese students. They spend most of their time among themselves, I read – well, maybe. But with over a Billion people in China, I doubt they’re spending their time with cousins or village neighbours. More likely, they’re developing entirely new networks across their country, and discovering its culture and diversity from the safe neutral ground of Australia. Not to mention their encounters with Korean, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American students.

When Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway for dinner in Paris, did they yearn after the presence of ‘a real French person’ to make their experience worthwhile? To what extent does it matter that international students in Melbourne integrate with elusive locals? Not if they have a deep experience of learning about the world and themselves, and leave with rich networks and countless insights. But focusing on that may put too much pressure on universities to think hard about their current methods and mission. Beside, who said foreigners could have a good time in our country without us?

On rituals

There is a particular pleasure to rituals, whether inherited, or made up. Such is – for me – the January 1 action movie that I watch with Philip on DVD, as we finish a slow day, started late, purging the excesses of New Year’s Eve. This year, it was Ant-man.

To talk of celebrating a ritual, the Chinese say ‘过节’. The character 过 refers to the physical act of crossing a river or a road,  but is also used as a grammatical particle to mark a form of the past tense, equivalent to the English past perfect – I have been, I have gone.节 refers both to a festival, and a joint. Celebrating festivals is therefore represented as crossing an articulation in the skeleton of time, and transforming a past period into an experience. Rituals accompany this transformation.

2015 has become our past. By celebrating New Year, and accomplishing the rituals that accompany the celebration, we make it history, converting the loose threads of remembered moments, images and sounds into patterns of meaning and causality. We cross the border, and move onto the next segment of our articulated lives, 2016, January, the new cycle.

And so the wheel turns, rituals marking each of its spoke: Australia Day, Easter, Bastille Day, August 15, Halloween, Christmas – celebrations we share – and our own personal ones: birthdays, anniversaries. Cyclically repeating, every year.

In Australia, as in France, it is common to make resolutions with each new start of the cycle – committing to doing one thing at least differently. Not so that our lives will spin into a different groove; but so that our spiral may go both higher,  and deeper.

Chi Ku

When I was in China, I often noted that people seemed to put particular value on ‘working hard’ – working hard is the ethical equivalent of ‘being busy’ in the West. Working hard, long hours, with pain, is seen as positive – the result is not interrogated so much.

I also noted the long hours that people worked. When I was teaching at Alliance Francaise in Tianjin, my Chinese colleagues all had a full-time job, and taught on week-ends and evenings, adding twelve hours to their week. The same was true of students: almost all of them were professionals, and spent seventeen extra hours a week at Alliance Francaise to prepare their migration to Quebec.

Later, during my stay in Nanjing, I started questioning this ethics with Chinese friends. They said working a lot is seen as a form of virtue, no matter what the result is. Is there not a risk that this will develop a form of stupidity – the stupidity of oxen and donkeys carrying their load ahead without thinking about the goal, or how to lighten the burden.

As China rises, let’s not be carried over into the worship of long hours. Let’s be careful about our ‘busy’ culture.

Festival time

Three days to the Marco Polo Festival! It’s been eighteen months at least since I first sat down in Little Lonsdale Street to discuss an idea for a program that would bring together writers and readers from Australia and China who embraced the internet as a key part of their practice – combining online and offline events.

Marco Polo Festival events

Preparing a Festival takes a lot of energy, and as a result, I’ve been a bit silent on this blog – but I haven’t exactly stopped writing. One pleasant aspect of working as a Festival Director is the level of attention you get – even when you’re just running a junior, first time gig – and I was able to publish a few things over the last month or so: a piece on Translation in Writer’s bloc, another on ‘Translating Asian Voices in Australia‘ in Peril Magazine, a Q&A with Writers Victoria, and an interview with the new Tongues magazine.

And now Festival time is a-coming – we’ll be talking all things digital and cross-cultural, sometimes all in English, sometimes in two languages. And I look forward to sharing ensuring thoughts and meditations here, or on the Marco Polo Project blog. Meanwhile, if you’re in town, come along and take part in the conversation!

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

Just for a short visit

Yangzhou pavillion

“I’m really glad you took us here, thank you.”

“Yes, it’s really pleasant, isn’t it.”

It was my parents’ first visit to China, and after a few days running around the busy streets of Nanjing, I thought a day-trip to Yangzhou would make them happy.

“Is this the same tea we tried yesterday? It tastes a bit different.”

“Yay, yesterday was Osmanthus tea, this one is just green tea, I’m not sure what kind.”

They were enjoying themselves, at least reasonably, but I was exhausted. They didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and I had to organize everything.

“Get the last cake, mum.”

“No, you have it – I’m finding them a bit heavy, and I need to leave room for tonight.”

The culmination of their journey was coming soon: a big introduction dinner to my future in-laws. Below the gleeful surface, that’s all we were thinking about.

“Should we go?” I suggested, biting into the last gingko-nut cake.

We stood up from the wooden table, and resumed our stroll across the canals of the Slender West Lake area, crossing over arched bridges, wandering through bamboo groves, or gazing through circular moon-gates at the distant pavilions. Then, exhausted from so much beauty, we got a cab to the station, and arrived just on time for the 5h05 train back to Nanjing.

We sat opposite a loud group of country people who kept staring at us for most of the trip, repeating the word ‘laowai, laowai’, and laughing. They reeked of cold tobacco, and spat sunflower shells all over the floor. My mother did a regal job of ignoring them, but I could see my father passive aggressively looking out the window. His goal was probably to shame them into silence, but his behaviour had absolutely no success.

Chen Jie came to pick us up at the station, and escorted us back to Gulou. My parents had 15 minutes to refresh. ‘That should be enough’, said my mother, ‘I’ve already chosen my dress and shoes for tonight’, but I could see that my father was annoyed at having to rush. ‘We’ll be waiting in the lobby’, I said, hoping that would encouarge them to do their business quickly.

‘So will you go to Yangzhou again?’ asked Chen Jie. She was wearing a slim black top with thin straps, revealing her slender round shoulders. Her hair was attached in a ponytail, and her eyes shone their black magic back at me. ‘You know I love it there. Maybe we should go for our honeymoon.’

She gave me a mock-smack on the arm: ‘You said Paris.’

I laughed, and held her in my arms, while she mock-pouted – meanwhile pressing her body close to me mine.

‘Do you think your parents will arrive early?’ I asked.

‘That’s OK, you don’t need to worry.’ She replied. But I knew she didn’t mean it: 7h30 was late for a Chinese dinner, and I didn’t want my family to seem impolite.

The trip to Yangzhou would play in our favour though. Chen Jie’s father was working for the local government there through the nineties, before he got transferred to the regional capital. According to the family mythology, he played a crucial role in protecting historical parts of the city from destruction – which made him a retrospective hero when authentic Ming dynasty temples started to push up the price of nearby commercial real estate.

By 7h10, my parents still hadn’t made their way back to the lobby, and I started feeling murderous instincts. I could picture the Chens alone at a large table, and their impassive smile.

‘Maybe your parents are tired, and they needed some rest’ said Chen Jie.

‘They’re fine,’ I replied, ‘they just don’t have a very good sense of time’.

I started dreading the coming dinner. Would my father sit brooding all night, or make obnoxious remarks about China? How should I react if he did? Play filial son, and shut up, or politely contradict him, at the risk of us all losing face? Chen Jie was generally my guide through these arcanes of cross-cultural politeness codes, but when it came to my family, I couldn’t dream of asking her directly.

They finally came down at 7h15. ‘It’s my fault’, said my mother, ‘sorry: I had my dress on, and then I made a big stain with my lipstick.’ Chen Jie smiled ‘It’s OK, you can be late in China.’ My father though it was the perfect moment to press his point: ‘See – you’ve been rushing us for nothing.’ I cringed.

We finally made it only ten minutes late. The Chens had insisted on taking my parents to ‘Grandma Xiang’, a new traditional Jiangsu restaurant on the top floor of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. ‘Are we going to some sort of food court then?’ asked my mother, slightly perplexed, when we stepped onto the escalator past a Starbucks, and emerged into aisles of menswear. I explained, again, that the best places in China were often located inside shopping malls: ‘I guess it’s just the way they do it then,’ she said, and on we went along stalls of jade jewellery.

For better or worse, the place was remarkably noisy – hot and loud, as the Chinese say. The waiter escorted us to a window table where the Chens were waiting for us. There were two small cups of green tea on the table, and a small plate of sunflower seeds, untouched. Everyone shook hands, unsure how much physical contact was appropriate on a first meeting. Then we all sat down, foreign parents facing Chinese parents, while Chen Jie and I took both ends of the table, so that we could informally translate through the dinner.

The dinner was painful, but catastrophe was avoided. Conversation rolled over first impressions of China to the canals of Yangzhou, then to modest insights into the Chen family mythology. High-speed and low-speed trains featured – the pace of urbanisation – and heritage conservation. Then the food arrived: salted duck in thin slices, sweet lotus root, stinky tofu. Mrs Chen remarked, impressed, how agile my mother was with her chopsticks, and Mr Chen, cheerful, called for a bottle of Baijiu.

My father fought over the bill, as I instructed him to, but the Chens had already made a deal with the restaurant. We duly thanked them, promised a similar feast when they came visit, and shook hands – this time with slightly less embarrassment – outside the doors of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. Chen Jie walked her parents back home, while I escorted mine in a taxi.

‘Chen Jie’s really lovely’ my mother said when we got back into their room. ‘How long have you known each other now?’

‘It’s been almost a year, but we’ve only been seriously dating for five months.’

‘I can’t believe you’ve been gone for so long’, she commented.

My father walked up to the window, and looked outside.

‘You know,’ I said, ‘there’s many Westerners dating Chinese girls, but I’m lucky with Chen Jie. It means a lot that we’ve just had this dinner. Generally, Chinese families are not too keen on their daughters marrying a Westerner.’

My mother was looking at me, smiling.

‘But I think it went well today.’

‘Did we make you proud at least?’ asked my father, turning around. My mother laughed – ‘oh, don’t tease him.’

‘You did a good job, dad,’ I replied, and he went over to sit in an armchair opposite me.

My mother was boiling water now, and shuffling around the kitchen:

‘So, do you have a date for the wedding?’ she asked?

‘Not yet – but we’re thinking next year in Spring.’

‘Are you doing it here, or coming back home?’

‘Probably here – and then Paris for our honeymoon.’

She nodded: ‘We’re just getting used to it now, but soon we’ll be experts.’

Then my father said: ‘I never thought, when you were little, that you would take us to China.’

I wasn’t an early sinophile: I studied French in high school, and had no particular interest in Asia beside kung-fu movies and pork dumplings. Then I got this scholarship to spend a year in Taiwan, and that’s when it really started.

‘It’s a fascinating country,’ my father was putting on his serious news-analysis face, ’I mean, it came out of nowhere – Japan, yes – but China? And then suddenly, it’s all everyone’s interested in. But you’ve already studied the language, and now you’re introducing us to local aristocracy.’

My mother made a little loving noise, and I smiled back at him.

‘Seriously, I’m wondering – are Chen Jie’s parents actually powerful? I don’t really know what anything means here.’

My mother laughed: ‘Richard, It doesn’t matter. I think they were really nice people.’

But I still thought I should reply something: ‘I think they are – but I’m not too sure. I’m just figuring things out as I go.’

‘You’ve always been adventurous,’ he said. ‘Remember that time we were camping in the mountains, and there was a river nearby: it was so cold, you were the only one mad enough to go swim there – and you kept mocking us for not following you; then one day you got caught in a whirlpool, and I had to jump in and rescue you?’

We gave each other a warm smile of affection, then started exchanging memories of past holidays together.

‘Water’s ready,’ said my mother, ‘What would you like? Lipton teabags from the hotel, or that nice green tea we bought today?’

‘Don’t open the pack mum,’ I replied – ‘I’m happy with just a teabag.’

Then I beckoned my father to the window: ‘Come, I think we can see my apartment from here. I’ll show you.’

NOTE: This story is the fifth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.