Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Twenty One – It's in the post
By Chris Clancy
September 2008. This semester turned out to be one of those bitty affairs – every time I thought things had settled down something else would crop up. I started it with great enthusiasm. Having been through the new presentations once, I could now polish and refine them week by week, add in and take out bits and pieces - change things around - write some new ones - drop others… and so on..
It came as no surprise that the students did an even better job second time around – but best of all - they were very popular.
This was very good.
What happened next was not quite so good.
I was foolish enough to think that I had got on top of all the Austrian stuff. When I was chatting with a group of students I got on to the subject of economics. Bright and highly educated as they were they had never heard of Austrian economics. This was no great surprise – neither had most other students around the world.
I decided to run a free weekend course every Saturday morning. It would simply be an introduction to Austrian economics. I thought it would last about eight to ten weeks.
A nice idea.
The course started about mid-September.
Thus far my re-education in economics had all been self-taught. Learning like this is fine but it can leave “blind spots”. If I had had the opportunity to meet with other people and discuss the stuff I was reading, these problem areas would probably have been unearthed and addressed.
Unfortunately for me this didn’t happen – so I had to find out the hard way – in front of a group of high-calibre students.
There’s an old adage in education. If you really understand something you can explain it. Put another way, if you don’t really understand something you can’t teach it – not properly anyway.
And that’s the way it was with this course. Things went well until I got on to the Austrian explanation of why we have booms and slumps in economic activity. At this point the questions and queries started to come thick and fast.
I was found “slightly” wanting.
What started as a pleasant idea gradually became a bit of a grind – plenty of stop-gap reading in-between Saturdays – something which I had not anticipated and certainly did not intend.
I hate to say it, but this was a case of pride coming before the fall. I had jumped the gun. I discovered there were still lots of gaps in my learning and I was simply not ready to teach a course like this. However, to try and be positive, the experience not only highlighted what the gaps were, but also, more importantly, which areas needed to be re-visited.
Whilst this and other things were going on I became a grandfather - on October 3rd to be precise. My eldest son and his wife, in Guangdong, had had a great little chap who they called “Wu”.
I must admit I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. It seemed somehow … sort of … unreal? I was fifty-four and now a grandad. Being fifty-four was OK – but a “grandad”?
I was reminded of a book I’d read many years before. At one point the author wrote about how he felt when he became a father in his middle years. He said that the child was all the more special because he was old enough to realize that his time with it was limited.
My situation was somewhat similar – but different.
The arrival of Wu was a gentle reminder that middle age was now melding into something a bit deeper - something a lot more profound. The thought struck me that I was more than halfway through my life journey – that a lot less time lay ahead than was behind – a sobering thought.
Luckily, I didn’t have time to dwell on such stuff. I had plenty of other things to occupy my mind – but the thought lingered all the same – and would only strenghten as the years passed.
Later that month I had to attend another conference. This one was titled, “The Zhongnan and Curtin University Sino-Australia International Conference on Accounting and Finance”. This was a big affair and very well organized. I was given the honour of acting as Chairman at one of the sessions. A rather dubious honour as it turned out. Unbeknown to me, the speaking order I was given had been changed. I therefore introduced the first speaker using another delegate’s name.
The confusion which followed was not very impressive. It made me look like some kind of hair-brained academic. Immediately after the session I went to see the organizers. They said the Australians had changed the batting order without telling them.
I let it go.
This was the last conference I participated in at ZUEL.
The Austrian course finished around the end of November. The students could see that at times I struggled but were very gracious and good-humoured about it. Mind you, if they had had to pay for it, things might have been different.
With about four weeks of the semester to go my computer was attacked by a virus. I asked a group of my students to come around and help me out. They set about their task in a very Chinese way – do first and plan second - as a Chinese professor once said to me when we were discussing the Three Gorges Dam.
This virus was particularly nasty; not only did it casually munch its way through my files but it also attacked and ate whatever anti-virus software the students loaded.
After a few days of furious activity – all to no avail - they called in a computer whiz. He arrived early the next day and set about his task. He worked almost continuously, throughout the morning, afternoon and evening. Around midnight he was done.
He then relaxed and sat with us for some tea. He was a senior student – a computer science major – his English was very good. He spoke as if this was a skill he had needed to acquire – a sort of annoyance – which he had learned very quickly just to get it out of the way. The students told us there was only one other student in the whole university who could hold a candle to him. When I asked if he was applying for jobs he said he didn’t have to – that the employers would come after him.
We tried to pay him for his time but he wouldn’t take a penny.
He said that curing the virus problem hadn’t taken too long. The rest of his time was spent identifying what the virus was, where it came from and then devising something far worse which he sent back.
“Unless they really know what they’re doing,” he said matter-of-factly, “it will destroy their system.”
A remarkable young man.
And there are, literally, millions of others like him in China - something which most people in the West just don’t get – not yet anyway.
But it’s in the post.
Before going to China I had not properly embraced the world of IT and the internet. At DJK this didn’t matter too much - but had to change once I got to ZUEL – simply for common sense practical reasons. I started emailing all my handouts to students, texting messages on my mobile, teaching using PowerPoint and making extensive use of the internet.
For a few days, the calamity with my computer forced me to do things the old-fashioned way – bring printed handouts to class and then chalk-and-talk etc.
How much things had changed from when I first entered the world of work all those years ago.
How differently we work now – how much more quickly we do things and therefore how much more we actually do nowadays. People of a certain age will remember how much time we used to spend writing and posting letters, finding a telephone booth that worked, making visits to the library, handwriting copious notes, queuing up for photocopies and even using those old things called “typewriters”.
It was a different world.
But time passes.
Shortly before Christmas the department went on a three-day package tour. No proper warning as usual – it just happened. Besides almost freezing to death at night the only other thing I remember was the political maneuvering that seemed to be going on constantly – especially at meal times. As part of the shenanigans, Thiti and I were strategically moved from one table to another – and then observed.
By this point I had given up trying to read what was going on.
All I knew was that when my time was up at ZUEL the boom would be lowered very swiftly. I had seen it happen before. An official would simply inform you, usually over the telephone, that your services were no longer required and that would be it.
Forewarned is forearmed and all that.
Christmas was almost upon us.
At Thiti’s behest, about a dozen students arrived to decorate our apartment They brought another two Christmas trees with lights, as well as tinsel, baubles and so on, scores of balloons and all sorts of coloured paper with which to make decorations.
By the time they finished we had our very own version of Santa’s Grotto!
For my Christmas classes we repeated what we did the previous year. We added carols at the end after which students brought out cards and presents.
We would have two more such Christmases in China.
The year drew to a close.
Many historians have cited 1968 as a pivotal year in world history. I wonder if, in years to come, they will write about 2008 in the same way? The latter half finished with the onset of the Global Financial Crisis. It was this event which, it is argued, pushed “undecided” voters away from McCain towards Obama. I’ll leave it to historians to sort this one out.
However, what followed is not a matter of debate – four years of the most catastrophic government seen in modern times. As if we needed to learn the lesson, the Obama administration demonstrated yet again, the utter and total failure of socialism as a viable economic system.
Certainly for China, 2008 was a big year. A good/bad year in fact.
Amongst many important events there were two which were immense.
In May, a massive earthquake hit Sichuan province.
At the time I was standing on my balcony in Wuhan. I noticed workers streaming out of a high-rise under construction quite near to us. The workers in the topmost floors had felt the quake all the way from Sichuan – such was its power. Government figures estimated that over 69,000 people lost their lives.
Then in August, Beijing hosted the Olympic Games.
One would have to be churlish in the extreme not to grant them they put on quite a show. China had arrived on the world stage.
For me too, 2008 was also a good/bad year. Starting with the erroneous idea that I had finally gotten to grips with Austrian economics, then discovering that extra “something” for my course, then putting in the work in to make it happen, in the midst of this the conference with Kevin and Mary and the German professor, then getting published by Lew Rockwell, then the departmental conference, then the hospital, then the new semester, then the Austrian course, then becoming a grandfather, then the Sino/Australian conference, then the problems with my computer, then the package tour and finally topping it all off with a very happy Christmas … and thoughts about the future.
My time at ZUEL was like climbing a mountain. As 2009 opened I could at last see the summit and felt I was within striking distance.
Once there I wasn’t sure what came next.
Except, perhaps, that it would be time to start looking for another mountain.
What a shame I never found one in China.
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.