Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Eighteen – Groucho hits Wuhan!
By Chris Clancy
Thiti found settling in to China fairly easy – to begin with at any rate. We had a few major arguments along the way – but, as mentioned already, this was to be both expected and welcomed. While I was busy teaching etc. she divided her time between finding out where everything was on the campus and whipping the apartment into shape.
Becky and Alien continued to come once a week. She reserved the big jobs for when they came – like cleaning the windows, the kitchen cupboards, the floors, the balconies and so on – all three would pile in together.
When the exams got near they stopped coming. I suggested getting replacements but she said no. Much as she hated cleaning she wasn't happy unless she did it herself.
So be it.
Bit by bit the apartment started to change. Things started appearing – in the kitchen, in the bathrooms, the lounge, the bedroom and even on the balconies – a slow, barely noticable transformation process had begun.
After about four weeks she got to work on one of the spare bedrooms. She turned it into her prayer room. She'd brought a lot of her Buddhist bits and pieces with her – statuettes, medallions, pictures, prayer books and so on.
She built a small shrine and would pray there maybe once a week. There seemed to be no particular day or time – just when she felt like it. Yet another huge difference between us. She was committed to her religious beliefs. I didn't have any.
If opposites really do attract then Thiti and I must have been the very definition of it.
At some point early on we invited Phil and Kell for a meal. They were both very kind. They complimented Thiti on her cooking and how nice the place was looking.
In reality, however, I doubt if they gave us much of a chance.
Not that I could blame them for this. The scenario was all too familiar. For Thiti and I it was supposed to go something like this:
I had taught many overseas students when I worked in London – on adult education courses - most were female. I can recall two woman in particular, who told me straight out, that the above mentioned route was the one they'd chosen. At the time I wasn't sure what to make of it except to feel that it was wrong.. Not that there was anything new going on here - one way or another it had been happening for a very long time - eg."Mail order brides" etc.
But how my views and opinions about so many things had changed.
And this is a good example.
For most women living in parts of the world where there is no Western-style welfare system, life is grim – and that's putting it mildly. If their only way out is to find a Westerner and marry for a passport I don't blame them in the slightest.
Incidentally, regarding the two women mentioned above, one went for the "stay with him" option, the other took the "ditch him" option.
Not that any of this had much to do with us. We'd both been married before and neither of us was keen to repeat that particular dance. Not anytime soon anyway.
Early July 2007. The semester ended. This coincided with me reaching the "starting line" in my economics re-education. Having done my best to un-learn all the Keynesian stuff I could now start going forward.
At the same time as this my department made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
In return for signing a new two-year contract my monthly salary was almost doubled and my teaching hours cut to six per week.
Only two classes!
There was something going on here. The undercurrent of discontent about my teaching methods – especially the presentations – was still going on. But nothing, as usual, was said openly. Yet here I was being offered far better terms than any other foreigner could ever hope for?
No. Something was not quite right.
My perception was that there was a lot of maneuvering going on behind the scenes. My colleagues in the department were not quite sure where to hang their coats. Not sure whether they should love me, hate me or ignore me.
I don't want to start sounding paranoid at this point, but I began to wonder if some kind of power struggle had not gotten underway in the department? Could it be that those who still held sway – amongst them my "protectors" – had decided to give my critics a very public bloody nose – a reminder of who was in control and who was actually running the show.
I wasn't too worried at the time. Come October I would be.
With the teaching behind me I set myself a two-month program of reading. As I got down to this Thiti extended her exploration to Wuchang whilst at the same time continuing to work her magic on the apartment.
There was only one slight hiccup in that July.
In celebration of my up-coming fifty-third birthday, she decided to tint my hair.
Note the key word here is "tint". To my understanding this meant that a "little bit" of colour would be added.
I wasn't all that keen – I didn't even mind the "grey look". But she insisted – she said all men in Asia dye their hair – which, in general, is true. To her it was no big thing. After assuring me that she knew what she was doing I let her go ahead.
She mixed up some kind of goo, trowelled it onto my head and then spread it with a comb. Ten minutes later she showered it out.. My hair had gone from a greying brown to a browny-black mop – I looked like I was wearing an old wig.
I wasn't happy.
She surveyed her handiwork and decided the problem was the eyebrows.
"Wait a minute!"
They were given the treatment. She applied the goo very liberally. Then worked it in with a toothbrush.
Again I was hosed down.
I looked in the mirror - Groucho Marx stared back – the only thing missing was a painted on moustache!
Not only had she dyed the eyebrow hairs, but the skin underneath and around them.
A major row ensued.
Thank God it was holiday time. I didn't leave the apartment for a week.
In August she returned to Bangkok to sort out her apartment, belongings, paperwork etc. We'd decided to give it a year together and see how it went.
While she was away I enrolled her onto a one-year Chinese language course. It was organized, if I remember correctly, by ZUEL's Foreign Affairs Department. When she returned we converted her holiday visa into a one-year student visa.
This was one problem put to bed. Another would begin once her course started.
In general, as mentioned before, teachers in China do not have to "push" their students. This is done by their parents - they have a vested interest in trying to make sure they end up in well paid jobs – or any job for that matter. It is also done by the students themselves who understand how fiercely competitive the job market is.
The upside of this is that student motivation is rarely a problem.
The downside is that the whole concept of what is expected of a teacher in China is very different from what we expect in the West.
The expectation is not that teachers "teach" as such, but that students "learn". This they do, but only do so effectively when they're out of class, working like hell by themselves.
In the West, and in many other countries, teachers are expected to do a great deal more than simply stand in front of students and deliver, what amounts to hour after hour of didactic lectures – text-book driven, examination based, no activiities, no Q&A sessions, no tutorial or support system and absolutely no TLC!
Foreign students I met in Wuhan were usually confused to discover that education in China is very much a DIY business. Not only were their classes of little or no value but, worse still, they were mind-numbingly and excruciatingly boring!
They would often complain that their teachers simply made no attempt whatsoever to try and inject even a few grains of interest or enthusiasm into what they were doing; that they were either oblivious to, or just didn't care about, how bland and uninspiring the whole process was.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but in general this is a valid criticism.
The cause of the problem is not rocket science. Chinese teachers themselves spend years and years coming through an educational system where they are expected to be passive and never challenge their teachers. Only students with a bad character complained. They were considered rude, or worse still, trouble-makers!
It just wasn't done – no wonder they became complacent.
Thiti's course started with about one hundred and twenty students. Over eighty percent were Chinese majors from South Korea. They were only there for one semester - on some kind of exchange program.
These students already had a working knowledge of Chinese.
The other students came mainly from Africa and Europe. For them, Chinese was a new language.
Why they were all lumped together in one class I don't really know.
But problems began right from the start.
Given that it was for "beginners", it was reasonable to expect a bi-lingual approach. But no, the whole thing was in Chinese. Class after class; the teachers simply walked in and started working in Chinese, from textbooks.
It wasn't long before attendance by the South Koreans fell off dramatically. No surprise. The course was of no benefit to them. Those who did turn up, presumably when they had nothing better to do, sat at the back of the class and talked to each other.
The teachers rarely said anything – just continued their monologue.
The other foreign students all spoke reasonably good English and expected this to be the common language through which they would learn Chinese.
But again, no. Some of the teachers could speak English, others could not. But it didn't matter. It was all in Chinese – and that was that.. Clearly, this was a ludicrous situation, but in spite of frequent requests and complaints, nothing was done.
If students wanted to learn Chinese they'd have to do it themselves. In other words, buy their own learning materials and then get out there and start talking to people.
Needless to say, most of the other foreign students didn't understand this "novel" approach. Thiti, in particular, found the whole thing very strange. She was no stranger to learning a foreign language. In addition to her native tongue she grew up speaking Cambodian and Laotian. She majored in English at university and after graduating went on to learn Japanese.
Unlike me, she had a talent for languages. Not so for numbers. Here she was practically innumerate - except when dealing with money.
It wasn't take long before people started leaving, transferring or just not attending.
Three or four weeks into it, she and a small group decided to make a formal complaint. Having paid to be taught they were demanding, not unreasonably, that they actually receive some "real" teaching. The guy in charge of the course spoke very good English. As Thiti spoke equally good English the group made her their spokeswoman.
Had I known anything about this I would have stopped her.
If she had one big character flaw – then this was it - impetuosity.
He assured them that something would be done and sent them away.
Again, nothing was done.
I'm not sure they really understood the meaning of the word "complaint", never mind how to deal with them.
What did happen was that Thiti became public enemy number one. The teachers on the course were all women. They took it as a personal insult that "she" had made an official complaint against "them"!
She was never allowed to forget it.
While Thiti was beginning to have her problems I started to have mine.
As the first few weeks of the semester passed, the presentations started to become more and more familiar to ones made in the previous three semesters – similar topics, role-plays, visual aids, PPT and so on – not carbon copies, but so similar that most of the positives which flowed from each group doing the whole thing from scratch, by themselves, was lost.
Therefore their use as an integral part of the course could no longer be justified – not when they took up one third of class time.
To make matters worse I couldn't just stop them – doing so would have caused even more problems – in this case with the students themselves.
They had to run their course.
In the meantime my detractors now had something they could really use against me – and it wouldn't take them long to discover it – the fifth columnists (every class has at least one) would see to that.. Put simply, they would argue this was contact time not well used – which of course was now true – but, all the same, it would be a rich criticism coming from that lot!
Only one thing was clear at that point. Even though the presentations had helped me a great deal, they had to finish at the end of that semester. The problem was they were very popular and had become the heart of the course – they made the thing work – so what was I going to replace them with?
I had a big problem.
I remember some "positive thinking" guru once proclaiming, "Every problem is an opportunity!"
This is quite true.
But until I solved the problem I was a walking target.
It didn't take long before someone tried to open up - with a Howitzer - in my direction.
Dangerous place this Education!
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.