Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Nineteen – A powerful instinct
By Chris Clancy
Early October, 2007.
Thiti heard her father had died after a long illness. She returned home for the funeral. I was alone again for a few weeks. Fending for myself. Time seemed to slow down.
At intervals, I found myself getting up and wandering around the apartment - for no apparent reason. Aimless really. The place was so quiet – no music, no TV, no non-stop chatter in the background – so empty.
Every time I had a wander something new would strike me – how much the place had changed - I'd hardly noticed.
Pictures hanging on the walls - framed photographs positioned here and there - vases of beautiful hand-made flowers - doormats all over the place - even the main balcony had been meticulously cleaned and decorated with pot plants.
In the lounge ornaments had appeared along with boxes to hold DVDs and CDs, a shoe and slipper rack, an umbrella stand, two small bookcases, one magazine rack and a carpet between the coffee table and the TV – and so on it went.
The bedroom was immaculate – the wardrobe, linen cupboard and chests of drawers – all filled with neatly hanging or folded clothing, sheets, towels and so on.
The main bathroom had come a long way too – a far cry from one towel, one tube of toothpaste, one toothbrush, one razor, one bottle of hair shampoo and one bar of soap!
Then there was the refrigerator in the guest bathroom. I've never seen so much food neatly wedged into such a small place.
The kitchen was fully stocked with all kinds of new things - cups, saucers, plates, cutlery, pots and pans and all the rest of it. The cupboards were full – of tins, bottles, packets and sachets - all neatly sorted and arranged.
She'd even tied a few small bows on some of the cupboard handles – made from tiny red silk ribbons – so simple and sweet.
Enough to make any man weaken. The intention no doubt.
She once told me that every woman had a thousand tricks. In her case you could probably double the number.
Anyway … whatever room I went into, the thing that struck me was how clean and tidy, and yes, how "homely" the place had become. It had taken her six months. But, bit by bit, my shell had been transformed it into a home.
The only exception was my "workroom" – I won't grace it with the word "study". She could do whatever she liked with the rest of the place – but that mess was all mine.
I wanted to make sure it looked just as nice as she'd left it, when she returned. I asked a neighbour's cleaning lady to come for an hour each day and give the place the once-over – just while Thiti was away – this she did and did a great job.
For two or three of the days while she was away I had to attend a residential departmental conference entitled, "Bilingual Teaching Strategies and Practice".
As usual, this just seemed to come out of the blue. I was asked to prepare something about my teaching method.
I heard the sound of warning bells ringing in the distance.
It didn't take much to realize that this had little to do with my teaching method and everything to do with the presentations.
I wasn't sure how the question, or questions, would be framed, but I made sure I had a reasonably good one-size-fits-all answer.
I'd be OK.
I mean, after all, this was the gentle world of academia – wasn't it.
Other things happened in-between then and the conference - but let's just cut straight to it.
My presentation went reasonably well. I went through my "Bilingual Teaching Strategies and Practice" methodology. I used as many actual examples from my organizational plan, group system and teaching method, as I could. What must have been obvious to everyone was not only had I generated nearly all of it by myself, but also it must have taken a great deal of time and hard work.
I remember stressing, at one point, that I used the textbook only as a back-up for teaching – never as a replacement for it. I added that the same applied to my use of PPT – it was an excellent aid to teaching – but only an aid.
For those who understood what I was saying this probably didn't go down very well.
In general, the reaction to what I was saying was fairly clear. Only the young female teachers tended to show any interest. For the rest, I got the impression it all sounded a bit too much like hard work - which it was – and they had no intention whatsoever of changing how they went about things – no matter how dull, boring and unimaginative it all was – for them and their students.
When I finished I took questions from the floor. They were all user-friendly except for the last one - the one I had been waiting for – about the presentations.
It was asked by a young guy at the back of the room who didn't actually mention the word "presentation" - but that's what his question would lead to.
Although I expected the question, what I did not expect was the insolent and hostile fashion in which it was asked.
It took me by surprise.
I was suddenly in the firing line - the whole department was watching – credibility destruction imminent!
So much for the gentle world of academia and my carefully planned, one-size-fits-all answer. Not much protection against the trapdoors and landmines which, I was sure, were carefully laid up ahead.
Time to move into survival mode.
Only one option – only one escape route. Don't let him talk. Give a reply which is as long and convoluted as possible – just keep going – run out the clock.
In other words - waffle!
I launched into it.
Waffle, waffle, waffle …
Self-preservation is an amazingly powerful instinct.
Every time he tried to interrupt, I cut him off, raising a hand and forcefully saying he'd asked a question which required a very thorough answer. This was a lie of course - but I didn't have much choice – if he'd got on to the presentations proper I didn't have a leg to stand on.
I can't remember exactly what I said – which is a good thing – because it was a near constant flow of meaningless BS.
Pease alllow me to invent at this point, just to give a flavour of what they had to listen to - as my waffle moved into overdrive:
" … and just to elaborate on the pedagogical lucidity factor … "
Waffle, waffle, waffle …
" … the manifestation of this fascinating but debilitating phenomena … "
Waffle, waffle, waffle …
" … and critically, an interesting juxtaposition materialises which … "
Shamelessly, I went on and on and on …
" … as for the hiearchichal malfunctional obsolescence concept… "
Waffle, waffle, waffle … and on and on … desperation setting in …
" … she sells sea shells by the sea shore .. "
Near the end I was getting to the point where I thought I might have to start telling them what I had for breakfast.
Mercifully, and to the relief of all present - none more so than myself - the chairman called an end to the session.
I headed for the sanctuary of my hotel room. I felt like padlocking my door and putting a chair up against it! After a long cold shower I reflected on what had gone on.
Two things really.
The first was a very old chestnut - that "talk", as ever, is cheap. This is especially true when it comes to talking about "change". Talking about what needs to be done to effect real change is one thing – that's the easy bit – having the courage and determination to go away and do it is quite another.
Without coercion, nothing of any real consequence ever changes. I was neither surprised nor disappointed by their reaction. It was just human nature.
The second was far more troubling. Having been in China for more than three years, I knew the last question amounted to a lot more than just a question – his tone of voice, facial expression, body language and so on – all told me if I had given him the opportunity, a planned assault on my "teaching method", in an open forum, would have followed.
Even more troubling, I knew he must have been put up to it, because he simply wouldn't have dared do anything like this on his own initiative, not unless he was sure of some powerful support in the background.
This is how such things work in China.
So here was the conundrum.
On the one hand I had been offered a very juicy contract – for which the sub-text was clear – "We want you to stay".
On the other hand an attempt had been made to leave me in shreds in public – the sub-text here was equally clear – "We want you to go".
What in the hell had I done to deserve this?
Some kind of power struggle was indeed going on and yours truly was caught up in it – somewhere in the middle – a pawn in the works.
Thiti returned the first or second week in November. She was especially happy to find the apartment just as she had left it.
I said it was nothing.
She returned to her course – such as it was.
Things had simply went from bad to worse. Attendance was in single figures – low single figures. Thiti continued to attend every single lesson. She showed great determination. Not too sure why. The teachers simply ignored her – wouldn't answer her questions - refused to even make eye contact.
Something very feminine going on.
Then someone, somewhere, decided to kick the rumour machine into action.
It was put about that she didn't like China or Chinese people. This was taken up with relish and spread like wildfire.
The speed of the thing was unbelievable.
Chinese people themselves have told me their worst quality is their proclivity for gossip. It's something they say they all hate but, perversely, something they all get caught up in. Given the massive underemployment it's understandable – they gotta pass the time somehow. If they get hold of something meaty – regardless of whether it's true or not – the thing grows it's own legs.
So it was with Thiti.
She'd stepped out of line so she got the treatment. One way or another, for the rest of our time in China, the bad feeling and gossip toward her remained. It sort of ebbed and flowed bytimes - erupted and then subsided – but was always there.
I'm not sure what they were saying about her by the time we left, but am quite sure it had little to do with what they'd started with.
There's a learning point here: the influence of leaders in China rarely extends beyond their city. If you put your foot in it, you can't simply change jobs in the same city and start afresh – the word is out – it's too late. If you want to start again you have to move to another city, or better still, another province.
There were times when she said she'd had enough of it. The silences, the dirty looks, the off-hand treatment and so on. But moving was out of the question. I was locked into a two year contract and, besides, I knew I wouldn't get a better deal anywhere else in China.
We learned to live with it.
It would be nice, even romantic, to say that it drove us closer together – made us stronger. But it didn't. It almost destroyed us - and on more than one occasion.
But we made it through.
This was only possible because the problems came from "Old China" and officialdom – not from "Young China".
Here things were the opposite. If it wasn't for them, I doubt if we would have made it through together.
The semester drew to an end peacefully enough.
I began to think more and more about what I was going to replace the presentations with. Whatever it was had to be directly relevant. This meant it had to be case studies on financial accounting. OK, that much was clear. If so, then I had to find a way of devising thirty minute group presentations on financial accounting which the students could not only make informative, but also interesting and entertaining.
Quite a problem.
If you want to appreciate the size of the problem, just open a text-book on financial accounting and have a look.
As Christmas approached I let it go for a while – this was my problem for the New Year.
We decorated the apartment together and got a Christmas tree and lights. On Christmas Eve I had a class late in the afternoon. I had told them the week before we would be having a special guest after the first lesson.
The class was packed – not sure what to expect. I gave the class as normal.
During the break I loaded the John Lennon song, "So This is Christmas". When everyone returned I dimmed the lights and hit "play". The sound system was fantastic. As Lennon started singing, a beautiful Christmas cartoon began playing on the PPT. About a minute later Thiti entered, dressed as Santa, and started throwing out candy from a large sack, all over the classroom.
The students loved it.
In my mind's eye I can still vividly picture the scene and still almost hear the spontaneous roar that went up.
I'll never forget it.
After the class we walked slowly back to the apartment - about a ten minute walk. It was one of those comfortably cold winter's nights - "starless and bible-black". She linked my arm. We didn't say much.
She was still wearing her Santa outfit. I was wearing her Santa hat.
We spent our first Christmas together.
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.