Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


[Continued from 94. 2]

A multiple book review essay on:


  •  Iron and Silk (1987), Mark Salzman
  • Twilight In the Forbidden City (Revised 4th Edition, 2009) Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston
  • River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2006) Peter Hessler
  • Pretty Woman Spitting (2012), Leanna Adams 
  • Unsavory Characters, The Rather Eclectic Group That Are The English Teachers In China, Marc. C Rush  (2010)
  • Tune In  Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries, Tim Anderson  (2011)
  • Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim (2013)
  • Surviving Paradise, Peter Rudiak-Gould (2009)

River Town’s broad scope and textual elegance contrasts with Marc. C Rush’s Unsavory Characters, a fictionalized account of the author’s five-year (starting in 2005) experience teaching English in Beijing.  Rush, it seems, like many English teachers in China, got there by way of having majored in something other than languages in college (law in his case), but was unable to find a suitable position at home. The first person account often reads with the narrative flaccidness of a student’s travel journal entries. “She had black hair. It was a little longer than shoulder length. She wore a lot of make up. She had a black dress on. I could see enough of one of her legs to see that she had black stockings and stilettos heels on.”   Such is his description of a prostitute he meets in the bar.  As the title indicates Rush’s account deals more with his relationships with other English teachers than it does with pedagogical matters.

English teaching assignments in China are often to specific professions—medical students, business students—and in Rush’s case one of his assignments was airline (or aspiring) pilots.  But still, there were some things common to most Chinese teaching experiences: students are often shy and deferential to teachers, but curious about their teachers that almost always started with the question, “Do you [teacher] like Chinese food?” or declaratively, “Many Westerner’s like Kung Pao Chicken.” Unavoidably, the teaching of a language is also cultural instruction as well. Inevitably, the teachers devise different tactics to draw students out that often betray as great an interest in their moral and philosophical postures as in their capacity for expressing them.  A Chinese student’s curiosity might well go beyond their teachers’ culinary preferences, but lacks the fluency to express a counterpart to the entendre of a teacher asking “Would you help to fix the tire of the bicycle of a pretty lady?”  Then following up with “Would you help to fix the tire of the bicycle of a not pretty lady?”

 Like Rush, and many other who become “English teachers” in Asia, Leanna Adams (who may or may not be the Pretty Woman Spitting), presumably acquired her posting at Anhui Normal University near Wuhui not from an English teaching background, but from a desire for travel and perhaps some adventure.  Like many others she had little initial familiarity with Chinese history and culture and no facility with the language.  Those deficits make for (providing the writer has the curiosity and writing ability) cultural contrasts that have now become commonplace (“the Chinese don’t hug,” and Chinese food in China doesn’t taste like Chinese food in America), to curiosities such as the head of the English department to which she was assigned didn’t speak English.  There is a curriculum of sorts but, as with most other English teachers there is a good deal of ad hoc methodology that often depends on the personality of the teacher.

Much of Adams’s account relates to her living experience, surprises about squat toilets, lack of toilet paper, unheated classrooms, and the English names students take for themselves (Tea, Smile, Apple), and the group-think and group protectiveness that seem tantamount to a heritable trait in Asian students.  A free and critical thinking American student would be as alien a curiosity as ET in any of these classrooms.  It is not untypical, when asked an opinion question by a teacher, for students to be more concerned with the reaction of their classmates than that of the teacher.  While there are those who risk deviation from the prevailing norms it is usually in degree rather than in kind.  Usually it is these deviations that give these accounts the most interest. Students often remain respectfully distant, but Adams and her two Western female colleagues are greatly assisted by one of their male students, who even invited them to a visit to the home in the village of his parents.

A particularly poignant part of Adams’ account is when one of her Western colleagues, an older woman (Diane, an Australian, age 60), becomes ill, ends up in a Chinese hospital, and dies.  Surgery was performed to address a cerebral aneurysm, but was unsuccessful. Although there is no suggestion that she was improperly diagnosed or treated, the event is sobering and cautionary about the standards of hygiene and safety as well as health care in China in general, and in particular in the less advanced parts of the country. Adams comes away from her China experience with an evenhanded summary.  It was time enough for her to have become close enough to her students and colleagues to both have regrets upon leaving, but to realize as well that it was time to go.

Tune in Tokyo is the experience of a gay American who recounts his experience with humorous self-deprecation and unabashed recognition of his homosexuality.  His writing style is hip, breezy and opinionated, but non-judgmental.

In Japan English teachers are also besieged by their students with the Chinese equivalent of “Do you like Chinese food (sushi)?” “Can you use chopsticks?” and “What is your favorite movie?”  The prevalence or ubiquity of such questions might go to the need for students to understand the degree of cultural distance between them and their instructors, a gauge of trust, or simply a means of deflecting the conversation to subject areas with which they have some familiarity and opinions of their own. Anderson displays a predilection for the pop culture side of Tokyo, frequenting districts like Shinjuku, and what he calls the “hot-to-trot” districts of Shjibuya and Harajuku.

One of the ways in which we can appreciate the difficulties Asians might have in mastering English is if our teachers also make an effort to learn the native language of their students. Anderson makes this point with the following anecdote:

It’s amazing the difference one little omitted syllable can make. [Yoko] shakes her head and waves her hand like she sending away a bad smell. …  the syllable ‘”o” is an honorific, placed in front of some words to make them sound softer or more polite. I omitted it in front of the word “money,” and this omission had drastically altered the sound of the sentence, judging from Yoko’s reaction. So instead of saying, “Thank you so much for the books. I brought some money,” I’d actually said something like, “Here’s your money, you greedy bitch. Thanks a fucking lot.”

Anderson also makes the observation that most of us who have spent some time among Asians, even if we are teaching English, exhibit a tendency to slip into Engrish because we are in learning mode (if unconsciously) as well. “ I have taught so many lessons that I’ve begun dropping all articles, prepositions, and sometimes the verb ‘to be’ from my speech just to be more easily understood. (‘On weekend went to movie and ate nice restaurant. Food so delicious.’)”

Teaching English in Asia is therefore, for many, learning to some degree the host country’s language and culture as well. Except in the case of Korean-American and Korean-speaking Suki Kim. Kim immigrated with her family to the U.S. from South Korea at age thirteen. After higher education in the West she managed to obtain a year’s English instructor post at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) under somewhat false pretenses—she joined a group of thirty Christian missionaries “disguised as teachers”****

Much of what we already know to be true of the black hole that is North Korea—“in that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out, not phone calls to or from anyone, Mo emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime,” she writes in the prologue—turns out to be even truer in this supposed “educational” institution. So, Kim’s students are woefully un-informed, not only about their world, which they are conditioned to regard in Panglossian white-washing of an obviously failed system, but they also mis-informed about the world beyond, especially about its great adversary, America.

Kim had to download her notes and information about the school onto flash drives to keep them hidden from the spying and snooping of the school staff and risk being ejected from the country. PUST’s students were from the privileged segments of the society, with good political bona fides.  Since the other universities had been closed down they were an especially privileged group who were often unaware of conditions beyond the environs of Pyongyang. Still, the monastic rhythms of PUST instituted a rigid schedule of class-time, study, recreation and meals, at which the faculty joined the students. The students also had periods during which they were required to wear uniforms and keep guard duty in even the most inclement weather. Such is the paranoia of isolation and ignorance.

Here the questions to the teacher were “How long does it take to fly here from New York?” “Do you miss your mother?” “Who would you marry, an American or a Korean man?” But teaching English with any informative substance was severely constrained not only by the naïveté and ignorance of the students, but by the self-censoring of the faculty not wishing to utter anything un-politically correct. While Kim’s students were generally bright, diligent, eager and curious she had to write:

Right away I was struck by their astounding lack of general knowledge about the world. These were North Korea’s brightest students, yet photos of the United Nations, the Taj Mahal, and the great pyramids of Giza elicited only blank expressions.  . . .  Hardly anyone knew what country first landed men on the moon, despite the fact that they were science and technology majors. Asked what year computers of been invented, most had no idea.

Kim was at the end of her tenure when the “Great Leader,” Kim Jong-il died and was succeeded by her students’ new leader Kim Jong-un. By then she had come to see some individuality in her students, and would leave with some emotion, perhaps recognizing that while the word “education” means to “lead out,” in the DPRK it means “to close in.”

Being “closed in” in a rather different sense might describe the English teaching adventure of Peter Rudiak-Gould, a twenty-one-year-old American who was seeking the social and geographic isolation the tiny island of Ujae in the Marshall archipelago afforded.  But he begins to doubt his motivations early:

How had I wound up incommunicado on an island five thousand miles from home, two thousand miles from the closest continent and seventy miles from the nearest store, hotel, bank, restaurant, road, car, faucet, shower, refrigerator, or fellow American?  Why had I can find myself to an ocean flat, third-of-a-square miles speck? Why had I chosen to reduce myself from a college graduate to this: an infant, a deaf-mute, a cultural orphan?

 As it turns out Rudiak-Gould’s account really doesn’t do much with teaching English, but is far more about the education of a well-meaning first world visitor to and unquestionably Third World backwater.  Although they had supposedly studied English for seven years Rudiak-Gould’s students “revealed a complete lack of knowledge in all aspects of the English language” and, since he knew nothing of the local tongue, he was all but reduced to the ultimate language teacher’s nightmare: grunts and gestures.

His students wee unable to locate the United States on the map he showed them on his first lesson in the tin-roofed hut that was to serve as his “school.” They sharpened their No. 2 pencils on rocks since there were no pencil sharpeners. The mimeo machine was non-functioning, so Rudiak-Gould copied by hand the multiple choice exam he gave them to asses their level, but what that revealed was that “Some had filled in their own answers. Some had circled the question. And several students since we sat at your desk, circling nothing at all, seemingly perfectly satisfied with his performance.”

So the bulk of Surviving Paradise is about the author’s surviving a place that is mostly a “paradise” in the stories of Gauguin and the pages of The National Geographic, but is occupied by an amiable people of a simple traditions derived from centuries of isolation, limited resources, and no space to dispose their wastes. Rudiak-Gould is stunned to discover that their lagoons, rather than pristine pools for Fletcher Christian and Miamiti, functioned as the island’s communal toilet.

Still, Surviving Paradise has its redeeming elements. The experience obviously played a part in the author’s eventual receipt of a doctorate in Anthropology from Oxford for research on public perceptions of climate change in the Marshall Islands (the low profile islands are under threat from global warming induced sea rise. Indeed, the students of the Marshalls might have a more urgent need to get their English up to snuff; they could well be swept off their island “paradise” into the English-speaking world.



©2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.11.2015)

*I have also taught at the University of Paris and some observations on that experience are recounted in my forthcoming book,  Mon Cahier de Paris: Café Writings 1989 and 1999.
**Despite the fact that some countries have highly competent English teachers their highly-accented pronunciation (if not just their ethnicity) can disqualify them from obtaining an instructional post.
***The Lore of Cathay (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1901,) P 287, Quoted in Johnston Ch. 14.
****The missionaries were not there to immediately evangelize, but to prepare the way for the day, whenever it might come, when the DPRK would see the end of the Kim dynasty or otherwise open up to the West and seek the divine beneficence of a deity that wasn’t a funny-looking fat guy with a weird haircut. As has been in much of the history of the West’s insurgence into Asia the soulsnatchers have been the vanguard.