March 23, 2020

Stuck with who you are

December 21, 2019

  Was wondering today whatever would it take to make a Chinese feeeeel they must make restitution. What, I wondered, makes for reciprocity in China? It must exist, surely. How could the society function if no one ever paid off their obligations? But then it occurred to me, nothing ever makes a Chinese feel like providing restitution. If anything ever did, they’d be horrified and angered. It’d be a considerable affront to make someone else pay off what they took from you.


  That’s to say, this society isn’t fueled by reciprocity. This society is discrete, long standing groups of persons who participate in the group by from time to time sacrificing themselves to the group. Simplest example, fighting over the check at mealtimes. Neither fighter likely can really afford to pay for everything, but they win that fight by taking on the burden of fucking up their finances today to feed everyone today and sometime down the line someone else there will take that role, but it won’t be one-to-one. Down the line someone else in the group will sacrifice themselves in some other way, for example by fucking up their production line at work because someone in the group needs their own company to supply substandard parts to yours. And so on.

  Question is, what lets you into such a group?

  Answer for me is I’ll never know. I’ve spent fifty years being the loner I am. I’m about as ready to embrace collectivism as I am to give up my own identity.

  I’m sure that must read bad, but is there really any way to say it is bad? Is it ever sensible to say the foundation of my ways of thinking about the world and value are can genuinely be switched out? You can fix parts of your worldview by recognizing you’re a dick of some kind, but will you be switching out the parts you’ve never found yourself considering broken?

December 8, 2019


December 8, 2019

  I’ve been in China this whole time. Ten years ago I went to live in Sydney with a view to, somehow, transitioning out of China teaching, but while there I quite quickly discovered a puzzle piece to a teaching opportunity that I would actually like, and I pitched it to the school I had just left. They surprised me by being enthusiastic so – after eight months blowing through my tiny nest egg in Sydney – I came back to China. The t qing was born.

  I have a pretty decent program now. It isn’t recognized by the school but it teaches something real and it keeps on being revelatory. The highpoint was late 2017 when after various iterations of “business teacher” I went full “discourse instructor” and produced four class groups of students who could take over management of a case study and generate 90 minutes of both adequate and appropriate class discussion week after week until it got to be kind of ribald how much uncorrected English they were using. If someone had been in there taking advantage of all that production, week after week, not only would those students have sounded human finally, as they did, but they would have perfected so much of what they had been developing over their learning career, it’s kind of embarrassing.

  2018 was a disaster, btw. The new cohort had been grouped into classes of 40+ students *and* I dumped them straight into discourse practice, not giving them the benefit of all the writing prep the successes of 2017 had had. They sat back and held their tongues for a year.

  2019 has been significantly better. The third cohort are still in counterproductively large class groups, but somehow the discourse program has been more accessible for them. They’re not at the level of the 2017 classes, but they might be by next semester, so I wonder of course if I have a next semester. The school formally understands me to be teaching three different one semester courses whereas I understand myself to be teaching one 3 semester course. It’s the same textbook all three semesters and it’s meant to be taught over two years anyway etc and so on, but the school doesn’t record it that way and one year ago the third part of the course was suddenly no longer mine to teach. That was fine at the time because it meant I wouldn’t have another semester with the 2018ers, but it’ll suck if I don’t get to build on what I’ve learned for the 2019ers.

Publication Record

November 16, 2019

  Thing I was reading about today is, I worry, going to be more general in the future

How to Conduct Business with Chinese Companies That See a Dark Future

  Belts tightening, leaner futures, closing up shop more generally. China itself will toddle onward, but foreigners will increasing fall by the wayside. It’s a reasonablish other side of the coin to “tariffs! MOAR TARIFFS!” I think it means one should harden up one’s approach to the motherland. One should be less forgiving of China’s status as “just a developing” and more hard-nosed realistic in making deals.

  I’m for instance thinking I’m on the way to fucked by my masters – either shifted out of what I like to teach or simply not renewed at some point – and to counter this, rather than suck up to leadership or be more accommodating to the caretaker now in charge of my department, I’m going to….. write an academic paper.

  All around me people talk of research this and research group that. It’s aspirational bullshit given the factory worker standard of academics here. But in China, as we all know, aspiration is lethal. It doesn’t get laughed off and replaced by more realistic assessment of capacity. No, it gets hammered in your face as the new reality.

  So, Imma do it. I have a decent idea (“Why communicative methods fail in China and outside”). I think I could get it properly published too, even in one of the bonus level journals. Officially at this school if you get an article in one of the “top” journals (as measured on the citations index), you get 30,000 yuan bonus.

  I’ll need to write it, of course. I’ll need to make it sufficiently academic that it can be considered by a real journal. I’ll need to get it published. It’ll take one to two years, probably, from go to “papers on the ground”. I think I’ll get screwed anyway. I think they’ll find a way to deny the bonus. I think they’ll attempt to co-opt the result. I think actually no one will care.

  But I’ll have a publication and they can go fuck themselves.

  So what I need now is a high school level business case study set wholly within a collectivist culture. China business, maybe. Some company story in japan would be good. France even? Just one is probably all I need, but a collection would be great. If I could use some such discussion in a classroom with a suitable set of developmental questions, I’d have my academic paper.


November 2, 2019

On Giving Up

November 2, 2019

  I recently gave up on a “research group” I’d made some effort to establish. Mostly it was a friend who set it up. We have some academic history (she wrote a poorly formed book review and wanted me to edit it – the process of editing was tortuous but seemingly successful) and so when I mentioned to her I was looking to set up an IELTS training/researching group, she called some of her friends.

  Now, okay, I did say it was IELTS training. But I also said it was for young teachers only. And I said it was like that because I wanted feedback. What I got was a small group of important wives and one or two of their younger friends. They were indeed all teachers from this and nearby schools. They all had some interest in IELTS. They were all in one way or another interested in research. At least two were planning international Masters degrees and one was already studying under an authority of some kind in the capital city.

  We started meeting in the summer. Honestly, I thought it was going well. I’d do some background research on IELTS, got a lot of texts of various types, found up-to-date tests, and I put some classes together. What I found out almost immediately is how closely tied IELTS performance appears to be to empirical reasoning schemes. (That’s to say, if you consider Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe empirical reasoning skills and indeed to provide a model for how to organize an empirical reasoning presentation….). Take a look at any spekaing test. You’ll find groups of questions organized around a scheme of fact, fact, assessment, generalization. First question in the group will ask you to present a fact, so will the second, possibly with some elaboration. Third question will ask for some talk about how something works. The “something” will be related to the facts you presented. The last question will ask you to abstract away from the facts and the assessement into a general statement, like an evaluation.


Now, let’s move on to talk about… Your Hometown

What kind of place is it?
What’s the most interesting part of your town/village?
What kind of jobs do the people in your town/village do?
Would you say it’s a good place to live? (why?

  All of those questions can be answered by simple factual statements. And you get a shitty score as a result. Or you give something simple for the first one (“It’s a small town”), something fractionally more elaborate but still factual for the second (“We have a famous tea that makes your penis large”), then some kind of assessment based on those facts that describes how something works (“Well, everyone in town makes this tea because, as we all know, penises are a growth industry. If anyone really wanted to change their job I guess they’d have to be a girl or not really like penises after all.”), and then some kind of evaluative statement for the fourth (“Honestly, it’s a difficult place to live because everyone has to prove the benefits of the tea so all these men walk around with sausages and two hamburgers in their pants. But overall we all love China and we are glad to contribute to China’s ‘development'”.)


  It was going to be interesting, these classes. I was going to want to know, does the same scheme appear in the writing test? (It does.) And what about the listening and reading tests? (Probably it does too, but it’s harder to detect because are you looking for the scheme in the materials or in the questions…..) And I was going to want to know, what do you all think about it?

  But they didn’t have any thoughts about it. And then the semester started and I was face-to-face with how the students act again. And I was seeing very uncomfortable parallels between the goddamned undergraduate class behaviour and the behaviour of these teachers in the crappy side room we’d started using for meetings. And that started weirding me out. Why were grown women, married to important men, themselves seeking educational betterment, acting so like high school girls?

  On the one hand, I could take it as high praise for myself. They were acting as if I were the authority. They came to “class” and listened carefully. They might not believe anything I said, but they never, ever showed any kind of disrespect – apart from the obvious one of being top administrator wives speaking Chinese with their friends in front of teacher. But, as far as I could tell, they were never using those speaking times to do anything other than be respectfully attentive to my “teachings” (and chat with friends).

  On the other hand, goodness it was boring. And tiresome. I was basically being English teacher again. This “master” role of being the big teacher is sooooo insular and soooo claustrophobic, it keeps you separate from any idea-generation. It makes everything you say become tradition “idle talk” or the highest Confucious variety, but geez, how alienating is that?!

  They wouldn’t share their own opinions. It’s possible they had none. It’s possible they didn’t know they were supposed to. It’s more than likely they were just that unfamiliar with analysis as academic currency that they simply did not know they were not paying me in suitable coin. I got some nice lunches out of it, a box of chocolates, and two shirts ffs. But no new idea that didn’t come from me by myself.

  So i cut them off. Just stopped. I’ve probably made some enemies as a result. The main friend was definitely disappointed and angry (but, thankfully, quite contained about it). Two of them I’ve seen since and the theme is patience. You didn’t have patience with us. You know, like the students used to say back in the day. Like every “teacher” is supposed to do – to be patient and carefully lead. And this was actual teachers talking. It was weird.

  But I already know how long it takes to make undergraduates practice analysis. I already know that even when they get used to it, they still don’t like it. Teachers were supposed to be better.

  Basically, I abandoned the idea too soon. They were not at all beyond hope. In two or three years, we could have had something very cool. And if my teaching life didn’t threaten to turn upside down with the arrival of every new semester and every new yearly contract, yeah, I’d be down for that kind of investment.

  The foreign affairs officer said of me, you are someone who has a lot of good ideas, but then you give up. At the time, I laughed. Yeah, I said, after only fifteen years. Occurred to me only later, give up what? What was I suppose to keep fighting? Lucky for me I found, fifteen years too late, this idea of normative vs empirical. She obviously wasn’t making an empirical claim although empirically it’s true, I “gave up” on a lot of ideas. Stopped pushing ahead with leaders and deans. Didn’t put the work in to finding “evidence” and similar programs elsewhere. Stopped pretending to be a dean myself. I think she was using a powerful admixture of two norms: “work is work only if it is hard working” and “Chinese receive, foreigners give”. I believe I’m right to claim her position to be so self-serving because her comments set up everyone else as gatekeeper and me as worker. I had to be the convincer; no one had to be the supporter.

  I’m not right to give up. I’m just not finding any support that i recognise. (And I’m asserting that I should, I guess.)


October 17, 2019

Normative Truth

October 17, 2019

  A signal difficulty in working with Chinese lies in recognizing that Chinese do not make truth claims. They sound like they do. But they are almost always stating norms instead.

  And that in the modern world, they may be making up the norms that they state.

Truth and Critical Thinking in China

October 16, 2019

  There’s something going on with truth and knowledge in China. Consider how often you notice anyone questioning what they hear. Consider how often a person’s utterances strongly connect to anything real.

  An example from a classroom. There’s this telemarketing case study I’ve used for a few years now. It includes the following sentence: “Because of the nature of the job – telephones must be operated 18 hours per day – there is no available time for meetings between all of the staff and workers.” Every year, without fail, class discussions will include someone saying how terrible the work conditions are, staff work 18 hours a day. Which is fine. Maybe it’s a language question. But when the 18-hour work day claim is made, the speakers rarely quote the line. They just say the staff must work 18 hours per day. And no one in the room says “Wait a minute…” No one questions the claim. No one observes how odd such a work day must be. No one seems able to assess claims in terms of their likely relationship to reality.

  The suggestion is that in China, truth and knowledge are normative, not descriptive. In descriptive terms, saying X is Y in China means not that X necessarily is Y but that X ought to be Y.

  Fine. But how does a normal person deal with such a version of “truth”. Well, for one, you don’t test it against current reality. You don’t deploy “critical thinking” as it is known in, say, the Western-ish world where truth claims are contestable claims about current reality.

  So nope, you don’t test truth claims. You instead settle in for the long haul. Something happens over the long term as people are woven in or out of the pre-established relationship network you have. You alter their version of “truth” by… some means. And they alter yours. And together you… make dreams come true? Or perhaps extinguish dreams because the future isn’t for alteration, people aren’t active controllers of their own destiny. They exist in a relatively fixed, mostly inescapable network of relationships, and “mei banfa lol”. There is nothing we can do.

  Progress then is… not like the west.

  Point I’m trying to make is toeing the party line is the shallow version of what Chinese actually do. There’s something far more sophisticated than simple repetition of dominant narratives. Do they recreate those narratives? If they do, do they alter them ever? What does a person do to get by in this world? An dby the bye, now that rampant materialism has gutted this society, it’s increasingly hard to find what a real Chinese narrative would be. What the ideal would be. What the best of Chinese society could be.

  Meanwhile, classroom teaching becomes quite different from challenging the students to think.

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