Some bad words

Sexism and gender bias in China is extraordinary, widespread, insidious. It hides in plain sight. For example, female students are allowed to study medicine, but they ‘can’t’ become surgeons. I have been told every year, by students and staff, that this is because women are ‘not strong enough’ for surgery, as if surgeons were expected to spend their days sawing the femurs of un-sedated soldiers in half with hastily-sharpened plastic rulers. As is so often the case, a question that they don’t know the answer to is met with silence and a blank look. ‘What about keyhole surgery?’ Blank look. ‘What about surgery on soft tissues, like abdominal surgery or caesarean sections?’ Blank look. ‘We have female surgeons in Britain. Do you think they are less competent than the male surgeons?’ Blank look. I also had to intervene in a conversation between two students (one male, one female), both intending to study engineering. The girl (Jane) was brighter than the boy (Eric) and I had encouraged her to consider studying Engineering Maths at Bristol, a five-year course with a very small cohort and some very special students. Jane and I were looking at the syllabus on her laptop, which included a picture of two rather dashing male students in serious conversation with a not-very-dashing male professor. Eric leaned over and pointed at the screen. ‘You not apply that,’ he said. ‘That for men.’

Three years ago, I introduced the idea of showing the kids a British film at the Chinese summer school. My original intention was to supply material for the practice interviews. Accordingly, the film we showed them was Passport to Pimlico, as I’ve described before (see Bite Me). Last year, and with gender issues in mind, I chose The Full Monty (recall Gary saying to his fellow unemployed former steelworkers that, ‘a few years and men won’t exist, except at the zoo … not needed no more, are we? What can lasses not do?’). This is the perfect film to show Chinese students who are trying to learn about British culture. There are regional accents, a non-Oxbridge setting, social issues such as unemployment and broken families, changing gender relations and lots and lots of swearing.

Several things have stayed with me from the 2013 film night. First of all, the students laughing at some of the same things that would amuse a British audience, such as Gary and Dave discussing Gary’s plan to steal a jacket to wear to a funeral (Dave: ‘what colour?’; Gary: ‘orange’), which I thought might actually damage some of the students, they were laughing so hard (partly at the joke, but also I think partly out of sheer pleasure that their knowledge of both English language and culture was good enough that they understood the joke). There are also things that are much funnier to a Chinese audience because of their love of physical comedy and slapstick (Nathan dropping the steel girder in the canal, leaving Gary and Dave trapped on an abandoned car, which then starts to sink). Secondly, I was asked to pause the film at the point when Dave rescues Lomper from his car, in which Lomper is attempting to kill himself via a hosepipe attached to the exhaust. The students asked me to pause the film because they hadn’t understood what was going on (‘his car won’t go like that!’ one of them said agitatedly. ‘He will choke!’ said another). I explained that he was trying to kill himself, my words falling into a suddenly silent room.

Thirdly, the response of the students to the homosexual relationship between Lomper and Guy. The film is exquisitely restrained in how it deals with this: we see the two of them mostly naked and panting, I admit, but they are mostly naked (as are all our heroes at that point) because they have been raided by the police while practicing their striptease, and they are panting because they have fled the scene and then climbed in through a first-floor window. Later, we see them holding hands at the funeral of Lomper’s mother, and that’s it. The students, who I will remind you live in a country where homosexuality is illegal (and which can be punishable by death in some circumstances), greeted the sight of Lomper and Guy holding hands at the graveside with a spontaneous oh! of recognition and sudden understanding. I think they were genuinely touched (one commented to me afterwards ‘just like married couple. I never see that’). If I may channel Jane Elliott for a moment, people aren’t born with prejudices. They learn them, and anything that can be learned can be unlearned.

Fourthly, again the power of the Embarrassing Questions Box asserted itself (see Please use power wisely), in that when I was trying to decide which film to show, I leafed through some of the questions from the 2012 Box, and came across this one: ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (see Open the Box). Accordingly, as the film loaded, I explained that what they were about to see was going to include a lot of swearwords, and that I wanted them to jot down as many as they could, to see whether they could identify swearwords simply from the context and tone in which they were used. At the end of the film, the kids listed the words they had written down.[1] We classified the words into nouns, adjectives and verbs as we went along, to help the students use the words grammatically. They even picked up some of the more unusual naughty words, like ‘chuff’, which I don’t think gets used much south of Watford. One student then raised his hand and told me seriously that he had written ‘pick-and-mix’ and was pretty sure it was a noun. ‘Did anyone else have pick-and-mix?’ I asked, at which point two more students put up their hands (one held up his notebook as evidence, like they do on Countdown). ‘Dave said it,’ one of the students explained, absolutely straight-faced. ‘He says, that fucking pick-and-mix was driving me crazy. He probably means his manager, or colleague, is a pick-and-mix.’ For the rest of the week, the students could (very occasionally) be heard using the phrase ‘pick-and-mix’ to each other in exactly this way, and then dissolving into giggles.

Fifthly and finally, the discussion after the film, which largely revolved around gender relations, has stayed with me. You may recall that Dave is made redundant, while his wife continues to work fulltime, and this creates ‘female’ behaviour in Dave, such as comfort eating and anxiety about his weight (much of this takes place in that most masculine of strongholds, his shed). ‘Dave clearly thinks that a husband should earn more than a wife,’ I said, ‘and that part of a husband’s function is to earn money. How many of you agree?’ The class of thirty was split, roughly 50/50, but not along gender lines as you might expect: five of the twelve girls expected a husband to earn more than his wife and thought it was part of a man’s role to have a job and earn money. Again, as with the surgeon example above, the reason give was that ‘men are stronger’. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Dustbins, cooking pots and hoovers are pretty heavy, aren’t they? If men are stronger, shouldn’t they do more housework?’[2] One of the girls said, ‘yes. Men should do more housework.’ I was about to ask her a follow-up question (‘more than women do, or more than men currently do?’) when she added, ‘unless they earn enough to employ a strong maid.’

Several years ago at the summer school, I took six male students into a room on their own and shut the door. This was in order to ameliorate the face problem that they would have had if I had chosen to say what I had to say to them in front of all the other students (and staff), an option that I personally would have preferred at that point.[3] The students that come on the summer school are supposed to be very bright, very motivated and able to speak, write and understand English at a level concomitant with their ambition to study at a British university. While I don’t flatter myself that I am anything like as accomplished a teacher as the incomparable Jane Elliott, I model my teaching style on hers, in the sense that I tend to hold a conversation with the class as a whole. These six students, who had sat right at the front of class every day, had not joined in that conversation once. When students send me a complete, finished PS, I keep the good ones intact, to use as source material for future years. I only ever keep a mediocre or poor PS as a series of anonymous quotations to use in a PS workshop, where I show the students examples of both good and bad personal statements and ask them to critique what they are shown (which, in turn, I hope, teaches them to apply the same thinking to their own work). Of the six students I am talking about, two had not submitted a draft to me at all; two had ‘finished’, in the sense that what they had written had improved as much as it was going to; and two were still ‘working’ on what they had written.[4] One of these personal statements has disappeared forever into the mists of time, while the other exists as a single slide in the workshop I mentioned above.[5]

I hope that quick summary conveys this simple fact: these were not strong students. They were not bright or motivated, and as I was wondering how to help them, I realised that there were two interlocking problems. One was that they lacked the third quality I listed above (good English). This also explained why they were sitting right at the front of class, where they might be able to do some lip-reading. The other was that they were all boys, with markedly lower grades than the other students, as if I had been teaching a top set and one of the tables had been quietly switched for a table from set three or four. In other words, these boys had not earned their places, but nevertheless somebody other than them had decided they should be present. When I asked the Chinese staff about these students, they were all open about the fact that the students’ parents (in four cases they used the word ‘father’) had demanded that their sons be included.[6] These six students were clearly not to blame, so they all had some time with me discussing some second-tier universities that might actually be interested in making them offers, and they all had what the other students had at the end of the week (a more or less finished application, a list of universities and courses, and a realistic idea of what they could expect), as well as the very clear message (from me, to their parents) that I was Not Amused and they should not expect such a tactic to work in Britain.

If one removed these six students from the cohort that year, the gender balance was equal: twelve girls, twelve boys. I couldn’t help wondering whether the three girls who had been excluded were as bright, and as likely to be dismissed, as Jane.

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[1] It was like a very smutty game of Boggle: the kid that initiated the discussion shouted ‘BASTARD!’ at the top of his voice and then looked horribly embarrassed.

[2] My own hoover is so heavy that sometimes I have to ask Giant Bear to carry it upstairs for me.

[3] Because I was under the (mistaken) impression that the students were deliberately wasting my time and therefore needed to be told off (and that it couldn’t hurt the other students to hear me doing so).

[4] I’d like to put ‘still’ in single quotation marks too here: they never started an activity that I would have described as ‘work’, and therefore ‘still’ isn’t any more accurate than ‘working’.

[5] The student had attempted to convey his love of his chosen subject (Architecture) by beginning his personal statement with the arresting sentence, ‘A boy like look lots of buildings every day’.

[6] I didn’t get a straight answer to the follow-up question, ‘did money change hands?’, annoyingly, but it would be entirely consistent with what I know of Chinese culture and the way in which parents in particular can be utterly ruthless.

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‘Please use power wisely’

This year’s trip to China was a little like Men in Black: shorter than one might expect, but packed with incident. There were the usual strange little vignettes that stay embedded in the mind like burrs in a sock: the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch advertising Dunlop tires via an exchange of eloquent glances with someone I think we were supposed to infer was his butler; the comment from Chinese friends and colleagues that my new husband ‘look like Brunel’ (because of his sideburns, rather than his propensity to wear a stovepipe hat); snippets of conversation, overheard or relayed later (my colleague K, giving interview feedback to an un-named Chinese student: ‘You speak extremely slowly’. Chinese student: ‘I … disagree’). Of course there were also the wonderful malapropisms, urging me to leave my ‘privates’ in the smaller of the two laundry bags, ‘keep hand on your package and prepare get off with other passengers’ on the airport shuttle bus, and reminding me to switch the lights and air conditioning in my room off at night (not like at home, where I recklessly leave both on until 3am), so that the hotel could ‘use power wisely’.

Looking through my reports on the individual students, I am struck by how some of them spring into sharp focus immediately, while others have already faded into the background, never to be recalled. Here is a sentence from my report on a student called Jack:

This was the only student whose name I never managed to get right, because he is so quiet (I want to describe him as ‘anonymous’ because that is almost literally true). Even now, I would only be able to pick him out of the group by a process of elimination, by which I mean lining up all the students and naming the other twenty-seven first.[1]

People who haven’t visited China (and who don’t fully realise that what they are about to say is both factually inaccurate and borderline racist) sometimes comment that it must be difficult to tell the students apart because they all have the same hair colour, the same eye colour and a small number of haircuts arbitrarily divided between them.[2] I find these similarities cause the differences in facial features, voices, body language and other mannerisms to stand out more. Moreover, everyone having black or brown eyes isn’t the same as everyone having the same black or brown eyes. This year I met a student called Chengxi with the most extraordinary bloom to the irises of her eyes. It was almost pale blue in colour and formed a sort of ghostly corona around the pupil. Similarly, a student last year named Terry stands out for having unusually curly hair (curly for a Chinese, that is), with a noticeable sprinkling of thick white strands, which he told me were caused by pollution. Jack notwithstanding, I rarely have trouble remembering the students’ names or telling them apart, even this year when we had students called Lavender (who reminded me of a girl from two years ago called Sunny) and Ruby (who reminded me very strongly of a student from last year called Lavender). Those that stand out in the mind most clearly, however, are the strong students, and the unusual students.

The students do presentations about their subject area on the final day, for which I arrange them into groups. The presentation can take any form they like, last no more than five minutes, and describe why their subject or subjects are relevant, useful and important. One group decided to create a diagram, filling a six-foot-long whiteboard in such a way as to show what contribution each of them would make (once qualified) to building and maintaining a new town. Lavender (town planner) drew two maps, one showing empty, riverine countryside, and the other plans for houses, shops, public buildings, roads and bridges. Ann (architect) drew a beautifully-realised architect’s diagram of a public library, in perfect perspective and without a ruler. Pauline (civil engineer) sketched Golden Gate Bridge (instantly recognisable and also without help from anything with a straight edge) as a symbolic gesture (‘it mean I do this sort of thing’, she explained). Finally, Rain (who, wonderfully, wants to be an environmental engineer, which is why I allowed her to keep her name just as it is) drew a diagram of the chemical reactions involved in cleaning the river water to make it drinkable. Better than all of that (and, of course, the real object of the exercise), they had enjoyed animated discussion of exactly where the dividing lines lay between their different disciplines; I overheard Pauline saying to Ann (with some heat, which I guess is why she switched to English), ‘Engineer do bridge! Architect do building!’ When I asked the girls whether they would like to live in the town they had designed, they all said yes immediately. Lavender explained that the whole idea behind the design of the town was community. The banks of the river running through the town were to be divided into allotments; the river was to be filled with carp to keep the water clean, and the fish were to be fed by the people who lived nearby, creating a sense of ownership and civic pride (a phrase she learned during the week and was delighted to say back to me). Moreover, they had included tourist attractions, one of which was Ann’s library, and a large park to encourage people to mingle with their fellow citizens as well as those from outside. I hope I don’t need to point out that this is somewhat different from the last few thousand years of Chinese foreign and domestic policy.

Finally, their town contained only one building taller than two storeys (the pentagonal clock tower of Ann’s library). I found this quite startling, as all the students come from vast Chinese cities of millions of people living in high-rise buildings. ‘Why have you done that?’ I asked, directing the question to all of them since it seemed to have been a joint decision. The answer was that this would ‘allow people to see right across town’, in the hope that they would get to know each other. The clock tower was to have a clock on each side ‘so people not need wear watch, but can watch library’ (the accidental pun made them all giggle, in that charming, childlike Chinese way, behind an upheld hand, but with the smile poking out either side). Rain added, ‘Yes. If people go up the library tower, they can see people in the town. And also, they can wave!’ She waved cheerily. ‘Like this!’[3] Lavender responded that another reason for keeping the buildings low to the ground was to make it easier for drivers and tourists to find their way, and the street-lighting more efficient. ‘We want to use power wisely,’ she told me, ‘like it says on the power unit in the hotel.’

There were several other students that struck me as both strong and unusual this year. When you consider that they come from a country where uniformity is almost always considered a good thing, it becomes all the more impressive to meet students that have no intention of being uniform. As usual (and as I have written before: see Open the Box), the Embarrassing Questions Box proved a useful tool for encouraging students to think about broader cultural issues. One question read: ‘Which is more important to British man? Real love, or sex?’ Having agreed that it depended on the man in question, later on that day I asked the boys to vote on which they thought was most important in a relationship. Intriguingly, real love and sex received the same number of votes each, with one abstention. I noticed particularly that none of the boys (except Daniel, the student who abstained) had any trouble deciding which they preferred. Daniel was strikingly reminiscent of Oddjob, minus the lethal hat, plus glasses and a T-shirt declaring vegetarianism to be the way forward. He explained to me very seriously that although he wasn’t vegetarian, he liked the T-shirt because the pictures of vegetables were arranged in neat rows, ‘like vegetable patch grow on my chest’ (this in turn made me wonder whether the girls had got the idea for their riverbank allotments from Daniel’s T-shirt, or whether the idea had arrived by some other route). Daniel is a large, soft-spoken boy, cautious of expressing an opinion he hasn’t had time to think through. I asked him why he abstained, and he replied, ‘I need to try both options before I decide’. I said, ‘With the same girl?’ He said, ‘Ideally, yes’.

Another student stopped me as I wandered around the room with the Box in search of questions (we call this ‘feeding the Box’), and said that he had been thinking about the purpose of the Box and its symbolic power (‘what Box mean’). He said, ‘the Box know everything. If we don’t know something, we should ask the Box. He is very wise.’ He thought for a moment, his face screwed up. ‘Also, perhaps it is a she-Box. I am not sure. But the Box knows everything, so it must know if it is a he or a she.’ I put the Box on his desk. ‘Do you remember me explaining earlier in the week that knowledge is power?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Yes. Box powerful.’ The Box, as I described in an earlier post (see Open the Box), is nothing more than a cardboard container, previously home to reams of paper, and with (on this occasion) ‘Embarrassing Box’ scrawled across it. It doesn’t look very powerful, but of course he was right: like any deceptively simple, well-designed item, the Box is powerful.

‘Would you like to feed the Box?’ I asked. He tore a page from his notebook, wrote feverishly for a second and dropped it in the Box. It read, ‘Dear Box, Please use power wisely.’

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[1] I’m ashamed to say that, although the reports appear alphabetised by first name in the final document, I had to write this one last so as to be absolutely sure.

[2] France used to have a list of approved names for new babies. Is there a similar list of approved haircuts in PRC?

[3] That all four girls were happy to live in the town they had designed reminded me that I, the creator of the Box, am obliged to answer the questions that are put into it. It also recalled a conversation had I overheard as we were removing our baggage from the overhead lockers in preparation for leaving the ’plane in Shanghai:

Stubbly American (rueful): Hell is a place where everyone who designed a shoddy product has to use it.
Scottish guy (laughing): I agree. Like the bastard that invented the ironing board.
Stubbly American (lifting down his case from the overheard rack): Right! Ironing boards, man! Or this piece-of-shit case I have to use!
Scottish guy (sympathetic): Did you design it yourself?
Stubbly American (hangs head): Yes.

Robert Fulghum tells a similar story: ‘I report a conversation with a colleague who was complaining that he had the same damn stuff in his lunch sack day after day. ‘So who makes your lunch?’ I asked. ‘I do,’ says he.’ Robert Fulghum, It was on fire when I lay down on it (New York, Villard Books, 1989), p. 6.