Open the Box

Regular readers may have noticed that I went a bit quiet for a minute there. That’s because I’ve been away working in China, The Land That Internet Freedom Forgot.[1] This is a world where creepy men in grey suits (I assume. It may be women in full evening dress) read everyone’s email; ban works of art, arrest people at random, commandeer other countries and destroy their language and culture; where you can be shot or hanged for being a drug dealer or a homosexual; where forced abortions are commonplace, and sexism and lack of religious freedom are givens; and where psychiatry and organ transplants are used as weapons of political oppression. However, before we all get too depressed, China is also a country where, every year, and for reasons that I fail to fully comprehend, the best and brightest students are sent overseas when they are at their most impressionable, to learn skills like independent thought, and the value of questioning assumptions. In other words, it is a country that can change.

China is also a country without Facebook or YouTube, and it has a very restricted blogosphere. While they struggle to deal with being denied instant access to the inane thoughts of everyone they know fifty times a day, Chinese teenagers can comfort themselves with cultural whatnots such as congee (prawn porridge for breakfast), toilets that one is forced to crouch over as if someone is about to strike one vigorously on the crown, and baths that are so short and so wide that I, at less than five foot seven, can only get my entire body under the water by filling the bath to the brim and then executing a sort of walk-like-an-Egyptian pose, in which I cannot reach the soap, the taps or any part of my body that might require washing. There are several interesting things to say about my most recent trip, but I will confine myself to just two for the moment. First of all, as well as several days with my beloved Father, I spent the bulk of the time working with A-level students. They come from all over China and are trying to determine whether they want to apply to universities in the UK, and if so, how to go about it. Therefore, I was in China on business. I must have been, because I had a business visa, I flew business class (but didn’t pay for it. Oh yeah!), I gave out a ton of business cards and I worked like a dog for four days.[2] Secondly, there were a lot of students. Usually there are thirty or so. This year, there were seventy-eight. SEVENTY. EIGHT. It was an overwhelming experience, something akin to being rolled in catnip and then released into a room of kittens. Normally I would put time and effort into learning all thirty names, but this year that proved to be a task that was quite beyond me. It did, however, lead me to thinking about the names that the students choose for themselves.

We have already given some consideration to the names of things (see Eve’s Pudding), including foodstuffs, babies and small towns. Consider now the names of Chinese students, which generally they choose for themselves in their early teens. It is one of my more interesting tasks to talk to students who may have chosen a name that they may come to regret when they arrive in the UK, and see if they can be persuaded that, say, Desmond Dong isn’t a name they want hanging around their neck like the proverbial albatross for the next three years. This year, my only failure was a girl called Eagle, who declined to change her name (on my list of alternative suggestions were Robin, Linnet, Ava, Jemima and Elsa.[3] I also had Ganymede, which I admit is a little fanciful and perhaps on reflection not a great improvement). Anyhow, she wasn’t having it. “It’s a perfectly good word,” I said, “just a bit unusual as a Christian name. Maybe you could choose another bird?” She thought for a bit and said, “I like ducks. Can I call myself Duck?”

I did, however, manage to persuade a boy called Ding Dong to change his name, although I will admit I wavered a little on this one because I could hear Leslie Phillips saying it in my head (he changed his name to Ben, after Big Ben. This makes me very happy). Another boy changed his name to Ben (this time after Gentle Ben), on the grounds that one, his Chinese name (Da Xióng) means ‘big bear’[4] and two, his chosen name was Marmaduke. Another boy told me that his chosen name was Noah because his Chinese name means something along the lines of ‘big boat that sits on the water alone’. These are the names I like best: the ones where the name can become a talking point with other students in Freshers’ Week; where the student has a genuine reason for choosing their name; and where the name says something positive about them, rather than a terrible pun that they don’t understand and can’t defend themselves against.[5] One of the girls this year arrived with the chosen name Panda. This is a tricky one, I think. Sometimes the really idiosyncratic names are charming, endearing and original (viz. students from previous years named Vanilla, Rock, Young, Bee and Song, all of whom kept those names and all of whom had no trouble with them). Sometimes, however, the students sound like they were given their name by a lazy racist (‘No, no. Lots of British people are called Tiananmen Slitty-Eye. Enjoy your time at university, you tiny yellow idiot’). Moreover, thanks to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian, British people are temporarily knowledgeable about the habits of giant pandas, and their sexual habits (or lack of them) in particular.[6] Panda was a shy, unassuming creature and I couldn’t bring myself to explain all of my reservations to her. Instead, I simply suggested that maybe Pandora would be marginally better (I had other suggestions, but that was the one she liked best).

As well as choosing a new name based on nothing at all, the students are also expected to navigate a brand new culture with no information whatsoever. In particular, they have not received any sex education. The legal age at which they can get married, the students tell me, is twenty-two for men and twenty for women. The students were also under the impression that these ages are also the ages of consent, but in fact the Chinese staff explained that the age of consent is fourteen for both genders. Therefore, these students are at something of a disadvantage when they arrive in the UK, and so we have attempted to address this with the Embarrassing Questions Box.[7] The idea is that the students may have questions that they want and need answers to, but that they are too embarrassed to ask in front of everyone else, or that perhaps they don’t feel they have the command of English to ask. The Embarrassing Questions Box is usually requisitioned from the local photocopying room, and it lives at the front of the lecture theatre throughout the week. The students write their embarrassing questions on slips of paper and put them into the Box. Lindy West writes as follows of a ‘mother-daughter puberty class’, whatever that is:

There was a part of Growing Up Female where everyone was supposed to write their most embarrassing questions on little note cards and the pube instructor would answer them anonymously in front of the class.

Ladies and gentlemen, for our purposes here, I am that pube instructor.[8] On our last evening in China, I and my male colleague K (and, in previous years, my dear father) take the questions out of the box and answer them as honestly as we can. I wish with all my heart that I had thought of asking the newly-named Pandora to open the Box for us.

The first question out of the Box this year was ‘How can I get a boyfriend like K?’. K is a six-foot-five fluent Mandarin speaker from Belfast with a Cambridge degree and a moustache, so I was tempted to reply that I’d certainly never met anyone like him and that they would just have to work it out; K’s response was to say simply ‘the Box is not a dating agency’ and go onto a question about laundry. Other gems from previous years have included ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (no); ‘Is it illegal to be a flasher?’ (yes, but more importantly, why are you asking?); ‘What should I do if a homosexual sits next to me on public transport?’ (I’ve no idea how you’d be able to tell simply from the way he or she sat down, but the polite thing to do would be to wish him or her a cheery good morning); and variations on the theme of ‘How can you tell if someone wants to have sex with you?’ (I believe my answer was, ‘if you can’t tell, you probably shouldn’t be doing it’). Having dealt with the Embarrassing Questions in a plenary setting, we then divide the students into two single-sex groups, and I have some time with the girls while the male member of staff has some time with the boys, to follow up anything that may have come out of the Box (hope, for example). Having done this, we swap over, and the male member of staff has some time with the girls and I have some time with the boys. The Chinese staff cram themselves into these sessions at the back, giggling to each other behind their hands. It is not to be missed.

This year, the questions from the girls were very practical: can you explain European bra sizes, will I be met at the airport, can I learn to drive, will British people be able to understand my accent, and so on. The questions from the boys were all about sex. Every single one. We were using the staff room while the girls had the lecture theatre, and the boys were sprawled on the floor, over the sofas and lounging about against the walls, laughing and digging each other in the ribs. There were the usual questions about repelling the advances of homosexual men, who are of course well known for hitting fruitlessly on heterosexual Asian teenagers; anxiety about British girls being voracious sexual predators and/or fawn-like in their skittishness; and of course dating etiquette, in the form of questions about how much they should spend on gifts and meals and so on (plus a question from a student called Jerry, who thought he might be too fat to get a girlfriend and wondered what I thought. I wanted to give him a hug). I was able to respond to a question about whether British girls like facial hair by explaining that the thing on K’s face was a moustache, and that the wispy, sad butterfly things some of them were sporting on their top lips were in fact embarrassing and pointless and akin to donning a sandwich board reading ‘I DON’T HAVE ANY TESTOSTERONE’ (pleasingly, two of them turned up to the final morning session having removed the offending hair overnight). Towards the end of the session, however, the boys surpassed themselves, with my favourite Embarrassing Question ever. It came from Kim (a nervous kid with a stammer), who prefaced his question by saying ‘I’m r-r-r-really embarrassed about this.’ I had already explained to them that, after ten years of university work and student problems, I was completely unshockable and they should make the most of the opportunity to ask whatever they wanted. ‘That’s alright, Kim,’ I said encouragingly, ‘You’re among friends.’

‘Can you t-t-tell us everything you know about s-s-s-sex?’ he said. In the sudden tense silence, I glanced up at the clock. There were ten minutes to go. I cleared my throat.

‘I’ll need a volunteer,’ I said.


[1] Or indeed most kinds of freedom. I can write that without fear because they don’t have WordPress in China, natch.

[2] Yes, dear readers. This *does* mean that I finally have a job I am actually good at, that I enjoy, that pays me very well, and that doesn’t involve me spending time with people I can’t stand. The university can sink hissing into the sea for all I care (see Exemplum Docet).

[3] Ava is derived from the Latin word avis, meaning bird; Jemima is the Hebrew word for dove; and Elsa is the Anglo-Saxon word for swan, Fact Fans.

[4] I found out afterwards that da xióng can also mean ‘elephant’, yet another quirk of Mandarin that suggests a bunch of baffling underlying assumptions (‘What shall we call that massive grey thing over there? I can’t help noticing that it doesn’t have any fur and couldn’t possibly climb a tree.’ Zhou scratched his head. ‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘You make good points, Li, but if I’m honest, lack of fur and tree-climbing abilities aside, it reminds me of a massive bear. Let’s just call it that until we think of something better.’ Li shrugged. ‘Fair enough,’ he said).

[5] In previous years, it has been my privilege to rename numerous students, including a very shy girl whose chosen name was, tragically, Swallow Wang.

[6] Yang Guang means ‘sunshine’ and Tian Tian means ‘sweetie’. In other words, even the pandas have better names than some of my students. The word panda itself is not Mandarin (given that da means big or giant, I had somewhat naively assumed that pan meant bear), but probably derives from the Nepali ponya, which means eater of bamboo. Since giant pandas are not native to Nepal, we must assume that this word originally applied to the red panda only (should we assume from this that the red panda came to the attention of the Western world first? Not sure). The red panda and the giant panda, then, are united by their love of bamboo, but are in fact not closely related. The giant panda is a bear, while the red panda is a raccoon. Mandarin calls the red panda hon ho (fire fox), and has various terms for the giant panda, my favourite of which brings us back to where we started: zhú xióng, bamboo bear.

[7] I found this wonderful example of co-evolution in 2014, which I append here to show what a useful tool the Box can be.

[8] Lindy West, ‘Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, A Person Who Is Not A complete Freak’, in Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (London: Quercus), p. 27f. Brilliantly, she goes on: ‘I don’t remember what my question was, but I do remember that when I went up to put it in the pile, I recognized my mom’s handwriting on the top card. ‘Please talk about inverted nipples’ it said, succinctly.’

Things that make me happy

I’ve just found a list of things scrawled on a post-it note. It is entitled ‘Things That Make Me Happy’ and the first thing on the list is the opening sequence of Baywatch. I don’t think it’s possible to explain Baywatch to the uninitiated, so see for yourselves what I’m talking about. The other items on my list were as follows: Glenn Miller; assorted sacred music (‘esp. Verdi’ I have added later in another colour); My Family and Other Animals, which I must have read thirty times and never get bored of; Bill Callahan’s song Jim Cain; kilner jars and the things in them; an old passport photograph of my father, now sadly lost in the mists of time (the photograph, not Father. Father was allowed out unsupervised to take passport photographs in a booth, and I can only assume that the flash took him by surprise as he appears to be recoiling from the screen as if he has been kicked on the shin, affording the camera an unparalleled view of the inside of his nostrils); and finally, ‘the food Giant Bear keeps in his pockets’, which can be anything from cough-sweets to pies.