Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Twenty – "No Reading Please"
By Chris Clancy
January 2008. We decided to stay put for the Spring Festival. I busied myself with a very long reading list on Austrian economics – by the end of it many things would have fallen into place.
While this was going on Thiti busied herself with the language.
About two weeks before the semester began I still didn't know what I was going to do about the presentations. Not for the first time in my adventure, chance or coincidence chose to intervene. A teacher in the tax department asked me to help her decipher a document written in English. When we finished she showed me a book, a freebie, she had received in the post.
The whole book concerned itself with financial accounting case studies.
I opened it feverishly – like an addict who hadn't had a hit for a while - thinking that my prayers had been answered. Unfortunately it was just more of the same - except for one thing. Each case study was followed by a list of short questions rather than just one longish question, or an observation ending with the word, "Discuss".
This use of short questions got me thinking – nothing solid at that point – but perhaps this approach could be used to spread the presentations between group members. A week or so later I set about getting something down on paper - anything – just to get started. The case studies had to follow each chapter in the course textbook.
The first chapter concerned itself with an examination of what is meant by "accounting information", what constituted "useful" information and then moved on to the establishment of accounting standards based on accounting concepts and conventions.
On the face of it, this is about as interesting as watching a door warp. I got busy writing the first case study around this material.
In the end the actual case study itself ran for about one page. It was followed by up to ten short questions which were called, "Case Study Issues". The last item was a traditional discussion-type question; I left it up to each group whether they used it or not. I provided notes for the group who would make each presentation along with a list of key words and phrases in English and Chinese.
My instructions to each group were very straight forward:
The rules were exactly the same as before only this time I provided the topic and the material and, of course, it was specifically related to their major.
They didn't disappoint me.
As before they competed with each other, learned from each other and produced highly imaginative, informative and intelligent presentations. My end of things was to start each week with a blank sheet of paper and finish with a new case study.
I should have guessed from the start, that whenever I found the extra "something" I had been looking for, it wouldn't come from a sudden flash of inspiration. It would instead be the result of bloody hard work and, as it turned out, bloody hard work spread over three solid months!
Fortunately, I found that all the reading I had been doing over the previous eighteen months had given me plenty of ammunition. Without this knowledge, I simply could not have fattened out the case studies in such a way that allowed each group to take control of the things and turn them into something special.
For example, I worked the Enron story into the first case study along with Sarbanes-Oxley and its aftermath. When we got on to accounting for intangible assets I had the opportunity to bring in China and the IPR debate. For derivative instruments we could touch on the sub-prime mortgage debacle. I used the escapades of "crazy" Eddie Antar in the USA to highlight inventory manipulation. Then there was the marvelous story of the Haier Corporation and TQM which I managed to link this to the forthcoming Beijing Olympics … And on it went.
Once I got into the swing of things I was OK – but it was exhausting.
The only break came in May, when I was asked to speak at yet another conference. It was titled, "International Symposium on the Theory and System of Education Practice".
Once again, for the purposes of this conference, I was promoted to full professor.
This time around I knew what was going on. There wasn't much time to prepare. I went to the internet and stole something which I called, or was called, "Higher Education Funding in the UK: Background and Evaluation of 2004 Reforms".
I asked two of my students, Mary and Kevin, to give me a hand. Mary would act as interpretator and Kevin would take care of the PPT.
We practiced together twice after which we were satisfied we would do a reasonably good job.
The conference itself turned out to be quite a low key affair - very poorly attended – which was just as well. The organization was not up to its usual high standard. There were technical problems at the beginning – which tended to unsettle the organizers - which in turn tended to colour everything which followed.
For example, the presentation which Mary, Kevin and I had prepared, involved using two lecterns with computers, which were supposed to be placed either side of the PPT screen. We felt this would work quite well. However, the organizers were afraid of more technical problems and would only let us use one lectern.
On-the-spot changes like this, of which there was more than one, served only to cause confusion and make things look rather amateurish.
Kevin had to stand beside me and do the translation whilst Mary was forced to sit it out. I felt very sorry for her. Not just for the time she'd spent preparing her translation, but also because she had spent what little money she had on hiring a very smart white blouse and black skirt for the occasion.
One way or another the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a shambles. No-one to blame really. Sometimes it just happens.
However, there was one particular incident, which I have related many times subsequently, when talking to students about public speaking.
At some time during the conference a German professor got up to speak – only he didn't "speak" - he simply started to read directly from his notes. After a few minutes Kevin, who was sitting directly behind me, stood up and said: "Professor. No reading please."
This was not said aggressively. It was more like a polite request.
"Pardon?" said the professor – stunned. I'm sure he'd never experienced anything like this before. Certainly, it was something which I had never witnessed before.
"No reading professor. Please."
The professor was taken completely by surprise. He stammered and stuttered a little and then murmured something like, "Of course - you are quite right - I'm sorry."
Kevin was one of my brightest students. He was also very unusual in that if I said anything he didn't agree with he would always challenge me – always politely – but always very directly. For any teacher worth his or her salt, having students like this in your class is an asset not a threat – they help to involve others and raise the level of things. I knew immediately what had prompted his interruption; his perception was that the professor had no problem accepting his all-expenses-paid jolly, but a big problem when it came to doing some work for it.
I want to be as fair as I can here. Maybe the professor had accepted the invitation at very short notice, or maybe he was feeling a bit off-colour that day, or maybe this was how he always started before he relaxed and spoke more freely.
I don't know.
However, rightly or wrongly, he was surprised and shaken. Had this happened at a large and vibrant conference, his reputation, or even his career, would have taken a severe hit.
He tried to continue without referring to his notes but the result was embarrassing. He started to sweat profusely, his speech began to tremble and falter - his eyes kept going back to the Kevin – almost inexorably – as if drawn there by a powerful magnet.
It just got worse and worse.
The "speech" dragged on until it eventually collapsed and died about ten minutes later.
I seem to recall an awkward silence followed by a slight ripple of applause.
In general we tend to learn from the misfortune of others. Anyone who speaks at something like an academic conference, or an AGM, a public hearing or even a PTA meeting, is giving a "live" performance. Nobody knows precisely how the thing is going to work out – whom or how many will attend – what will go right – or what may go wrong.
These can be very much "at risk" situations.
Therefore, the only way you can protect yourself is to make sure you know your venue, know your audience, know your equipment and, most especially, that you know your material - practice it until it's almost memorized.
If not, then, like the professor, you could well come unstuck.
Anyway, to continue … by the end of the semester I had a full bank of new case study presentations - I had found that extra "something" I had been searching for – and saved my own skin into the bargain!
While I was busy with the case studies Thiti more or less gave up on her Chinese course. She attended enough times to stay "legal" but that was all. She concentrated on going out and meeting people - making as many Chinese friends as possible. She also spent more and more time with groups of my students – going shopping and meeting them for lunch.
Given her talent for languages she was speaking Chinese reasonably well by the time the summer holiday arrived.
I had had a good semester. The new style presentations had gone down well – with everybody. The somewhat strained atmosphere of the previous twelve months seemed to relent. I was very pleased about this – a return to some kind of normality – people were less on edge, more relaxed, smiling and friendly again. The power struggle would work itself out but I felt I was no longer a factor in the equation – thank God!
Mid July 2008 I submitted an article to LewRockwell.com. It was about how I discovered Austrian economics two years before and how from then on everything I thought I knew about economics had been turned on its head.
To my amazement he published it.
Another door opened – I didn't need a second invitation for this one.
Near the end of July Thiti returned home for two weeks. A few days after she left I caught what I thought was a cold. It quickly turned into a cold like no other I'd ever had in my life. I'd never felt so ill.
When Thiti returned we went to a clinic on the campus. They decided I should go to a hospital in Hankou for "tests". Here began one of the biggest rip-offs I've ever experienced in my life. In the course of just ten days they emptied my bank account. They gave me one test after another. It was very much a pay as you go affair. Every time a test came back negative they suggested another.
They seemed to be determined to find something wrong with me.
In between tests I was hooked up to expensive drips. Again, no pay no get.
During my stay an old woman who Thiti had befriended turned up at the hospital. I was so drugged up I only have a vague recollection of her visit. She took one look at me and left. She then advised Thiti to leave me there - I was on the way out – she would find her someone else.
Had Thiti done so she would not have been vilified. After all, we weren't married.
In the absence of a Western-style welfare system, love and romance for women who do not have means, usually comes in a very poor second to security.
For Westerners, both men and women, there's a huge learning point here.
The last thing they gave me was a full body scan. I don't think I ever really understood the meaning of the word "terror" until they put me in that thing. If there were ever any doubts in my mind about being cremated after I go, this experience put an end to them.
When there was no money left they told me to cut back on drinking and smoking and take a rest.
At this point it's interesting to note that back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, as far as possible, embarked on a full-blooded assault on socialism. However, there was one thing which she didn't touch – something which was very noticeable at the time - the National Health Service. Having experienced the alternative at first hand, I have to conclude that she made the right decision.
Once we got home my recovery was rapid.
What had been wrong with me?
I checked out my symptoms on the internet. As far as I could tell I had caught some strain of malaria – I think – whatever it was, I'm glad to say, never returned for a second visit.
September 2008. Thiti signed up for another one year Chinese course at a different university. While some attempt was made to actually teach, many of the bad feelings from ZUEL had gone ahead of her. In many ways it was a case of more of the same.
She didn't actually seem that bothered.
By this stage she had become very good friends with a number of my students. Friendships that still last to this day. We even started to have visitors – something which never happened when I was alone – and never would have happened if not for her.
For a while she started mixing with a few foreigners in our apartment block and elsewhere on the campus. But it didn't last long. A significant number chose to look down their nose at her. Unlike her problems with Old China, which she just didn't understand, these people she did understand.
They were a type of foreigner she had become familiar with in Thailand – and they all seemed to have one thing in common - whoever they met or wherever they went, the first thing they would proudly declare was that they were "Christians".
Now, I understand that the meaning of some words can change over time as a language evolves. But clearly, in their case, I was still working with a definition which seemed to be out of date. I really must make time to look up the modern meaning of the word, especially if it is preceded by the combination, "born-again".
Let me put it this way. If the attitudes and behaviours of these people, born-again or otherwise, were sufficient to book a place in the hereafter, then you can sign me up for sainthood.
And that's all I'll say on this subject.
In the meantime, a new semester was beginning, the sun was shining and happy days were here again.
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.