The Nanfang / Blog

PRD People: Transport Planner and Shenzhen Stalwart Mike Clark

Posted: 04/23/2014 11:00 am

If you had worked and been successful in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Haven, Connecticut, where would you choose to live? Englishman Mike Clark, 67, one of the world’s leading transport planners, has done all those things and decided that Shenzhen is the place where he wants to spend the rest of his life.

Mike Clark in Yunnan, image via Shenzhen Stuff

Clark has been a transport planner since shortly after he graduated from Bristol University in 1968 with a degree in Pure Mathematics. His career, which has also taken him to Algeria and Bolivia, saw him become one of the most sought after transport planners in the world in the 1990s, when he lived in Hong Kong.

Clark is also a well known character in Shenzhen who is known for – among other things – well-attended annual birthday parties, coining the term “YCG” (Young Chinese Girl), and having a cross-dressing alter-ego named Meimei (more on that later). This week, he took the time to talk to The Nanfang about Shenzhen, transport, ageism, and the impossibility of reintegrating after being an expat for so long.

A career in transport

Transport planning is the first stage of developing major infrastructure projects such as highways, railways, ports, and airports before or in parallel to the engineers, land use planners, economists, and other experts. He started out as a transport modeller in London before moving to Hong Kong in 1973 for his first particularly well-paid job.

“A transport model is a set of relationships which allow transport demand to be forecast from sets of input data including transport supply, socio-economic data, what are the costs of transport by various means of travel, and what transport policies are in place,” he explained to The Nanfang.

Clark left Hong Kong for Algeria in 1976 but would return several times in the eighties, most permanently in 1988 when his employer won a project called the Port and Airport Development Strategy [PADS] for the Hong Kong Strategic Planning Unit. The next decade would prove to be the most colourful period of his career.

“The project looked at ways of relocating Hong Kong’s port and airport and the necessary infrastructure and land use plans to go with those relocations. It was a very high-profile project with steering committees up to the Chief Secretary’s, and presentations to Hong Kong’s parliament, so I got a lot of exposure at the highest level,” he told The Nanfang.

Moreover, many of the government people he had worked with in the 70s and early 80s had progressed to very senior positions in the Transport Department and Transport Bureau. They knew, liked and trusted him. “As a result, our company won most of the important projects during the 90s, including Updating of the Second Comprehensive Transport Study, Electronic Road Pricing Study, Third Comprehensive Transport Study, North Lantau Development Study, and Hong Kong Airport Terminal Design,” Clark said. The common factor in all these studies was Mr. Mike Clark, so if somebody, somewhere had a transport question they would call him.

Life in Shenzhen

Despite having retired in 1999, he came to work in Shenzhen in 2003 when the consultancy he had worked for won a project called The Shenzhen Comprehensive Transport Study. He has since made a life for himself in Shenzhen. “Shenzhen suits me well now given what I want from my life, but wouldn’t have suited me in other stages. I wouldn’t want to be raising a family here for example,” said Clark.

One reason he cites for preferring Shenzhen to Hong Kong or the U.K. at this stage of life is the relative lack of ageism. “I know that I am old because I have a calendar, but I don’t want to do the things that old people are supposed to do in the UK. The western world is ageist in a way that China is not,” he opined.

His belief on the subject can perhaps best be summed up by two quotes on his Shenzhen Stuff page: “It’s not getting old that stops you doing things, it’s stopping doing things that makes you get old.” and “Honestly, I often think that it would be good to act my age, but it is so difficult.”

Enjoying the freedom of not having to act his age has led to some memorable moments in Shenzhen, many of which have involved his cross-dressing alter ego Meimei. “At fancy dress parties I usually wore a female costume from university days onwards,” he told The Nanfang when explaining how the character originated in 2009.

He discovered he could get a qipao made for 250 RMB shortly before his young adult daughters came to visit from England. “I think it’s part of a father’s duty to embarrass his daughters,” he explained.

But the most important thing keeping him in Shenzhen, along with the ease of travel for residents of the city, is the people he knows. “I can act as I wish with the friends, restaurant staff, people I meet on the metro, other expats cut adrift from their roots, whatever,” he said. His birthday parties, which are held in Huaqiangbei every December, are among the most popular annual events in Shenzhen’s English-speaking community.

Eternal expat

Although he still spends a good chunk of every year in Worcestershire, England, he is convinced that he will never be able to fit in again in his home country. Having worked overseas since 1973, he initially tried to stay in touch with school and university friends, but their lives have taken different paths. “Our life experiences and expectations were so different that we gradually lost common ground to support our friendship. My friends became more and more my colleagues and those people I met overseas,” he said.

Continuing on the subject of ageism, he claimed that in the U.K. there is a separation between young people places and activities and old people places and activities. “I was clearly part of the old people, but wasn’t interested in doing old people things. I found it almost impossible to make friends with young people and wasn’t accepted in their places,” he said.

Comparing the strong friendships he has in Shenzhen with the dull conversations about cars and gardens that he is forced to have when in England, Clark – who has just received a three year visa – is in no doubt that he prefers life in the Pearl River Delta to England: “Maybe I’ll go back there to die, but that’s what it would be.”


In praise of…The Mandarin bum

Posted: 04/16/2014 11:00 am

There is Phil from the United States who has the very Chinese affliction of clinking glasses with you every time he takes a sip of booze, which is alarmingly frequent. There is Barry from South Africa who is a black belt in several martial arts and has his hair done up in a Qing Dynasty-style queue. There is also Sam from Canada who came to China in 1999 and for most of the next 14 years would work in Shenzhen without the right visa.

These men have two things in common. They speak fluent Mandarin and they are not professionals. They are examples of what is known in some circles as “The Mandarin bum”. They have spent the bulk of their working lives in the notoriously unstable position of teaching English in China. They are the antithesis of those on corporate packages who live in an “expat bubble”.

Do these English teachers warrant the label of “loser” that is often attached to expats who fail to carve out a professional career? Well, the “loser” is a concept that is particular to modern urban culture in which the value of a person is measured not by what they bring to the local community, but by the amount of wealth and status they acquire. By this measure, the migrant workers on whose labour China’s economic miracle has been built are also losers.

More important than usefulness

Novelist Alan Garner said in his book of lectures and essays “The Voice That Thunders” that nowadays we learn languages for the wrong reasons. We learn German not to see into the heart of Goethe, but to book a hotel room in Berlin.

Poet Matthew Arnold, who was the son of a headmaster of the famous Rugby School, said education should be about studying the best things that have ever been written and said. He lived in Britain during a time when elite education revolved around Latin and Ancient Greek. This also happens to be the time when Britain ruled the world, but that’s beside the point.

There are plenty of reasons why learning Mandarin makes you a smarter and more interesting person. Reading Chinese aloud activates far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere of the brain than English, probably because of the subtlety of both visual and tonal demands by Chinese, according to Ian McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”

The pictorial writing system means the language wears its etymology on its sleeve in a way European languages don’t. For example, the character for man – “男” is a picture of an east-Asian field on top of a sickle, which is a symbol of strength. This most likely symbolizes the belief that the societal role of men is to offer strength in the field. The character for woman – “女” appears to be a picture of a demure woman curtsying or crossing her legs. The language is misogynistic as hell, but at least it lets you know.

Moreover, mastery of this language gives learners access to one of the world’s great cultures. It is the culture of the four great novels, Tang Dynasty poetry, The Tao Te Ching, and great scholars of more recent history such as Hu Shi and Lin Yutang.

It is also the culture that gave us the Sui Dynasty poem that goes “In books there is always a golden house. In books, there is always a beautiful woman.” Admittedly, just about every graduate in China is learning that real life is not poetry and it takes more than book smarts to earn enough to buy any house, let alone a golden one. But education is, lest we forget, about learning the greatest things that have ever been written and said.

Why Mandarin is probably not that useful

Will Mandarin ever be a global language? Going to Yangshuo and listening to Russian tourists communicate with Chinese locals in broken English is a reminder that it will take some time before English is supplanted as the lingua franca. In fact, a study by French investment bank Natixis last month concluded that French could be the most spoken language in the world by 2050, leaving both English and Mandarin lagging.

Maybe East Asian languages just weren’t meant to go global. According to linguist Claude Hagege, writing developed in Europe and the Middle East for the purpose of controlling crops, herds, and people. Writing in China did not appear to develop with the same ominous, utilitarian agenda. “The origin of Chinese writing appears to have been magicoreligious and divinatory rather than economic and mercantile,” writes Hagege.

When I met a fellow of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting (ITI) last year, he told me that the Japanese military didn’t bother encoding much of its most sensitive information during World War 2, so confident were they that no foreign devil would ever understand. Japan’s post-war economic rise certainly didn’t lead to the language taking over Yangshuo.

For this reason, becoming fluent in one of these languages is no guarantee that you will get a decent job. As a member of the ITI, I am technically a professional Mandarin translator, but I am neither rich nor powerful. Still, I’m one of the lucky ones. Phil, who we met in the first paragraph, is also fluent in Cantonese but cannot return to Hong Kong because of the six-figure credit card debt he amassed when he lived there.

Escape routes from Mandarin bum status

The Mandarin bum exists, but this article is by no means suggesting that learning Mandarin while working as an English teacher is a dead end. Matt Schiavenza, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic was an English teacher. After attaining an advanced qualification in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese at Kunming College of Eastern Languages in 2008, he (and this is the really important part!) then developed related professional skills that would help him stand out in the job market.

Being a trained journalist is good, being a trained journalist who is fluent in Mandarin is better. Learning English is nothing short of a national obsession in China, so as well as mastering this language, students of it need to think about how they will set themselves apart from hundreds of millions of fellow Mandarin speakers in the job market, but only if that’s what they want.

Expats who manage to go from being backpacker English teachers to professionals deserve lots of credit. But climbing a career ladder is only one of many reasons to learn a foreign language. As the English teacher in the Alan Bennett play and 2006 movie “The History Boys” tells his students: “All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”

And if that notion is corny, then corn me up.


PRD People: International school teacher and author Sarah Li Cain

Posted: 04/9/2014 1:00 pm

John Steinbeck once said that great teachers were as rare as great writers, but Shenzhen-based Canadian Sarah Li Cain has managed to carve out decent careers doing each. As well as teaching grades two and three at the Shenzhen American International School, Sarah has a web content writing business that has led to considerable exposure and more clients than she can even handle.

Sarah Li Cain, via Google Images

Since graduating with a degree in English and Visual Arts Education at York University in Toronto, Sarah’s career has taken her to Australia, the United States, and Hong Kong. She was working in Seoul when she accepted her job in Shenzhen, where she now lives with her husband in Shekou.

Sarah kindly took the time to talk to The Nanfang about living, teaching and writing in Shenzhen.

International school teacher

Sarah’s teaching is all based on the common core standards found in the US, focusing on project-based learning. Her students are currently creating a website for tourists of their own age coming to Shenzhen.

Trained as a high school teacher, this is different to what Sarah is used to, but she enjoys the challenge. “Basically, kids learn about problems in the real world and through self-discovery and guided inquiry, solve that problem,” she told The Nanfang.

Since taking this job, Sarah seems to have come to agree with what Aldous Huxley said about the child-like man. As any teacher knows, working with kids is not for everybody, but Sarah just about manages it. “When I first arrived, I was really scared about teaching little kids, and thought I had no idea what to do. It has turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Little kids have a lot to teach adults about life,” said Sarah.

Much of her writing focuses on overcoming fear, and Sarah had to overcome two fears in Shenzhen. The first was a lack of Mandarin: “I spoke a little bit of Cantonese when I arrived, and now I can at least carry a simple conversation in Mandarin if I need to.” The second was a lack of experience with children, but she quickly overcame that: “The children I teach are some of the funniest and genuine people I’ve met.”

Running a web content business

When she is not teaching, Sarah blogs for a wide variety of clients. “I guess you could say it’s self help. I mean I write about my experiences and how to reclaim your fearlessness, and people have told me about how they’ve taken some of my advice,” she says of her writing style.

One of her best known pieces is one in Life Hack published in November 2013 titled “Don’t go into marriage if you haven’t done these things.” The piece gives a list of 20 experiences and abilities one needs to have before getting married. It has been shared over 6,400 times on social media so has obviously pushed the right buttons with a lot of people.

Another, titled “Practical ways to use unemployment to your advantage,” was syndicated by Chicago Tribune and AOL jobs. The piece puts a positive spin on the situation of long-term unemployment faced by so many in Europe and North America since the global financial crisis of 2008.

This business has opened doors both personally and professionally. “I’ve met quite a few writers how have shared their stories with me, and it really helps when I get frustrated with work or my business. Through blogging people have also recommended me resources or books which have helped me immensely in my professional life, and I’ve gotten more clients that I can handle at the moment,” said Sarah.

Bringing it all together

To some expatriates, everything they do is a side project. But some are lucky enough to have their various projects feed into each other. “Teaching definitely feeds into entrepreneurship! If you think about it, you’re left alone with a group of kids with some resources and are working towards making them successful. It’s a lot of trial and error. I feel like that’s been the same with my business,” Sarah told The Nanfang.

These twin passions for teaching and entrepreneurship could yet lead to more projects. “Just the other day I was talking to a programmer and I was mentioning how I’d love to create an educational app one day. He’s showing me a couple of things now. I’ve been asking my students a lot of questions about what they like, and what they want to learn, so maybe I can use that as part of my market research,” said Cain, suggesting a possible future project.

For now, Sarah will continue building on her body of work about subjects such as travel and yoga, growing and hopefully helping others grow along the way.


In Praise of…Teaching English in China

Posted: 04/2/2014 10:05 am

While the Chinese word for teacher “老师” (laoshi) is an antiquated term full of respectful connotations, the word for foreign teacher “外教” (waijiao) is a recent addition to the language. This little piece of linguistic apartheid says much about what website Middle Kingdom Life (MKL) called the “de-professionalised” status most expats have when they come to China to teach.

Such blogs as Beijing Kids, Chinasmack, and Shards of China have all discussed the problem of unqualified foreigners working as English teachers due to poor quality control. So lax is the regulation and so great the demand for white faces to teach English that it emerged last year that two foreigners linked to child sex scandals in their home countries had been teaching in China for years.

Those are extreme examples, yet beg the question why so many people travel so far to take such an oft-criticised job? Firstly, in being relatively low on status and pay and relatively high on work/life balance, it is the opposite of more traditional careers and involves advantages that they don’t.

The opposite of investment banking

Because the pressure to excel tends not to be high, the amount of free time provided enables foreign teachers to pursue hobbies and side projects with the kind of dedication that wouldn’t be possible for people with more demanding jobs.

Plenty of foreign teachers have done interesting, worthwhile things such as travel and voluntary work, one prime example is Guangzhou’s own Albert Wolfe. Plenty of others have used the time to learn valuable skills like Mandarin that have boosted their employability and led to successful careers, not to mention giving them more stories to tell than a person who had a more conventional career trajectory.

But all this talk about self-improvement takes away from something even more fundamental – job satisfaction. Although decidedly falling down on the negative side of the fence, MKL acknowledges that the job can be hugely rewarding. “Those who have a healthy degree of self-esteem to begin with — and do not require recognition and approval from their superiors — are able to find enormous satisfaction from the appreciation of their students and so they stay year after year,” one of the site’s editors writes.

For me, keeping in touch with students, some of whom I haven’t seen since 2007, has been the most helpful way of learning about China and the unique path it is on. For New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler, it provided the bulk of the material for his second book, “Oracle Bones.”

The dead-end question

Since moving to China I have come to dislike the Eagles song “Hotel California.” This is partly because of its ubiquitousness and partly because the line “You can never leave” is an unwanted reminder of the situation of so many expats, particularly teachers.

Investment bankers do have to work hard, but once they’ve established themselves, the pay does increase and the hours do decrease. The lack of room for career advancement and sparsity of opportunities to lay down roots is a worrying thing for English teachers in the middle kingdom.

But school teachers and career advisers often neglect to mention that some people just weren’t meant to have a normal life. As Scottish academic Alastair MacIntosh wrote in his memoir/polemic “Soil and Soul,” the mainstream manufactures people as a monoculture. “It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning. It forces growth in standardised ways. The song that we sing from within the mainstream is thereby not our own song,” hymns Macintosh.

The song I find captures the spirit of people coming to China to teach English in a much more pleasing way is that sung by Tex Ritter for the 1956 Western “The Searchers.” I particularly like the way it begins by asking “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?” then declines to answer its own questions, simply howling “ride away” in the chorus.

Why it’s right for some people

One of the tools that education is supposed to provide is the knowledge that there are myriad ways of finding meaning and identity in the world. Even some career teachers may find teaching English in China to be right for them as it simply involves teaching. It is very rare for a foreign teacher in China to have to deal with parents nights or office politics, as there are few office hours and extremely high turnover anyway.

This blog post “How to Find Your Dream Job” offers a viewpoint that the English teacher-bashers might find repulsive but many English teachers might relate to. “You won’t get promoted, which is a good thing. Promotion means more responsibility, more out-of-work stress. It also means more money, but you’ll end up spending most of that on travel, junk food (you’ll have less and less free time to prepare real food), medicine for when you get ill from junk food or increased stress, and entertainment and drugs to numb the emptiness that defines how you earn your food tokens,” argues Dan Bartlett.

And lastly, as one English teacher stated on a Shenzhen forum in 2011, if you disrespect teachers all that much, there’s a period of China’s history in which you would have fit right in.


Public schools in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District to accept expat kids

Posted: 03/28/2014 12:33 pm

Children of expats working in Nanshan District could be allowed to attend public schools in the district, according to a proposed policy, Shenzhen Daily reported today. The policy will also apply to children of Chinese parents who studied abroad and returned to China, and children who have permanent Hong Kong or Macao residency but whose parents are mainlanders, Nanshan’s education bureau said.

The paper has more:

The policy is an effort by the district’s government to enhance Nanshan’s appeal for international talents and professionals. Eligible parents must either have made investments or paid taxes in Nanshan, the policy states. Details and a timetable for implementation were unavailable.

Chinese public schools are tuition-free under the country’s nine-year compulsory education program.

Nanshan has seven international schools, Liu Gengping, the bureau’s chief, said. Many Shenzhen families whose children have Hong Kong or Macao residency cannot afford tuition at international schools, however.

A Shenzhen Government policy on free compulsory education that was implemented in 2012 excluded foreign children and children with Hong Kong or Macao residency from attending Shenzhen’s public schools.

More than 15,000 students from Shenzhen cross the border every weekday to attend Hong Kong schools.

Would you send your kids to a public school in Nanshan if you had the chance?


Sun Yat-sen University opens nation’s first English Creative Writing Department

Posted: 03/21/2014 7:00 am

Sun Yat-sen University this week opened the first English-language Creative Writing department in mainland China, Nanfang Daily reports. Classes in Creative Writing will be optional for undergraduate students, according to the paper.

This year’s seniors have the option of making a piece of creative writing or a translation of one part of their dissertation. Post-graduates have the same option, and can also write an analysis of a translation of a piece of creative writing as their thesis.

The introduction is partly aimed at improving the creative thinking skills of its graduates, something that Chinese youngsters have long been said to lack. The camp also intends to invite established authors from around the world to hold “writing camps,” short courses on improving writing. This is how a lot of writers support themselves as the “writer’s life” is becoming more precarious than it has been for decades in the post-financial crisis world.

Can creative writing be taught? That question has been causing a stir in the British media in recent weeks after award-winning novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (who teaches on one) said the courses were “a waste of time.” Saying that 99.9% of his students are not talented, Kureishi said that taking a Master’s degree in Creative Writing “would be madness.”

Other authors agreed, saying it was “the biggest con-job in academia” and it was all about lying to young people. But, Tim Clare, a graduate and teacher of such a course posted a riposte on his blog titled: “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s a Prick.”

You can get a sense of the tone of the riposte by the second paragraph:

I try not to respond to manifestly stupid statements from authors, in the same way that I don’t respond to toothless medicine-swigging men’s bellowed warnings to pigeons that MI5 are poisoning our Irn Bru with flourine. There are just too many of them and engagement sometimes convinces these people that they are rational interlocutors in a debate, when really they are deserving of our pity and baffled compassion.

The debate continues to rage and is sure to go on doing so. Which side are you on?


In praise of… Da Shan

Posted: 03/19/2014 11:35 am

To most people, Benjamin Franklin’s remark that the only two certainties in life were death and taxes holds true today. But to any foreigner who has attempted to learn Chinese, there is a third certainty – the spectre of Da Shan. Being reminded that the Canadian comedian and television celebrity, whose real name is Mark Rowswell, is out there and speaks better Chinese than us is as much a fact of life for foreigners in China as squat toilets and “hello” catcalls.

Like anything repetitious, this can be annoying. A comment on the Peking Duck blog in 2006 tried to explain to a Chinese netizen what it’s like: “Imagine every time — YES, EVERY TIME — you met an American, they said to you: ‘You look like Bruce Lee! Do you know Bruce Lee! Bruce Lee speaks great English! Bruce Lee is very famous! I like Bruce Lee! Do you know Bruce Lee?’” Da Shan himself even presented some theories as to why he is hated.

Da Shan smiling for the camera, image courtesy of Google

But it is easy to take for granted the difference that Da Shan’s unique career has made to China’s perception of foreigners. Since his emergence in the late 1980s, Da Shan has shattered the deeply held belief both within and without China that – as the missionary William Milne put it two centuries ago – learning Chinese is “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of springsteel, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah.”

A pioneering career

Da Shan became an instant celebrity in 1988 when his fluent Chinese delivery at the CCTV New Year’s Gala was broadcast to 550 million people. He has been a star ever since. Jesse Appell, comedian, former Fulbright scholar and founder of Laugh Beijing, explained to The Nanfang some of the significance of this: “People who grew up with the idea that at least one foreigner speaks Chinese were more open to the idea that others can learn as well, and that has allowed non-native speakers to engage with China in so many new ways.”

In our age of fleeting, pointless fame falling on the most unremarkable people, one does not remain a national celebrity for over 25 years without having something interesting to offer. Da Shan doesn’t just speak the language well, he is an accomplished comedian, a rare example of an artist who has flourished in a second language.

Appell, whose website has the assertion “When we laugh together, we learn about each other” shared his admiration for Da Shan as a comedian. “Humor generally functions the same here as it does in other places, with surprise, wit, funny logic, and self-deprecation creating humorous outcomes. Da Shan has been effective at doing those things in whatever role he plays, whether it is as a host, or as a judge on a show,” Appell said.

Musician publisher, and former Reuters journalist Graham Earnshaw agrees. “He plays a difficult role – foreigner in the maw of China’s state media – with skill and without sacrificing his integrity. I can think of no one else who has managed it,” Earnshaw told The Nanfang.

His comedy also can’t just be dismissed as imitation. Xiangsheng, the type of comedy that Da Shan is primarily known for, is not simply a form of stand-up comedy as we know it in the West. It has a group of skills and pieces that one must know in order to be a legitimate Xiangsheng performer, Jesse Appell explained. Like any Xiangsheng artist, Da Shan’s role was to adapt traditional pieces and give them his own flavour. So contrary to popular belief, Da Shan is no more of a “performing monkey” than most other entertainers on Chinese television.

That smile

One of the biggest criticisms of Da Shan is his fixed smile, which some less generous netizens have described as a “shit-eating grin.” This is symptomatic of the much-maligned lack of edginess to his act. But why should he be edgy? Being a successful populist is just as difficult as being a successful underground artist.

If he were a journalist, his failure to stick it to the powers that be might be an issue. But he’s not a journalist, he’s an entertainer. And anybody who is good at selling themselves knows that it’s difficult (maybe even impossible) to resist a smiling idiot.

The reason Louis C.K is (probably) the most acclaimed stand-up comedian in the English-speaking world today is because he shows that he understands the innate absurdity of his role. Unlike other giants such as George Carlin or Bill Hicks, Louis C.K doesn’t set himself up as the smartest guy in the room and this makes his act stronger.

Although Da Shan’s comedy is necessarily cut from a very different cloth, Da Shan shares this refreshing lack of self-seriousness. Despite once having been described by author Matt Schiavenza as “self-important”, this tweet shows that Da Shan has few delusions:

A valuable legacy

Despite not being the Laowai with the most interesting China story (that would probably be Sidney Rittenberg), or being history’s most impressive foreign Chinese learner (that would have to be Matteo Ricci), Da Shan has inarguably done more good than harm.

He has done immeasurably more for developing understanding between China and the great country of Guowai (foreign land) than pseudo-politically engaged celebrities like Sharon Stone and Bjork who have made the news with controversial remarks about China that were largely forgotten within a few weeks. As Da Shan himself argued on Quora, he works within accepted cultural norms, which he understood through living in and adapting to the country.

So next time you have a conversation in Chinese that is about topics other than your foreignness, remember that Da Shan played a small part in making this possible. Having said all this, if you ever catch yourself saying: “I suppose I do look a bit like Da Shan,” it probably is time to leave.


PRD People: Guangzhou-based singer and TV personality Hazza

Posted: 03/12/2014 11:00 am

Of the handful of Westerners who have taken to singing Mandopop songs as a method for learning Chinese and reaching out to their host country, one of the best known is the Guangzhou-based television personality Hazza Harding.

Hazza in the music video for his original song “Let Go,” via Google Images

Hazza, 23, became an online celebrity in 2010 for singing covers of Mandarin pop songs while still a student back in his native Australia. He was subsequently offered a job in television in Guangzhou where he still lives, currently presenting the chat show Face Time.

Singing in Chinese

Hazza first became interested in China when he travelled to Beijing on a school trip in grade 7, but it wasn’t until he heard one of Jay Chou’s songs that he started to become fascinated by Chinese culture. “I bought Jay Chou’s ‘November Chopin’ at a dingy CD store in Chinatown back in Brisbane – best $15 I ever spent. I have listened to that album hundreds of times, the CD is all scratched up now,” Hazza told The Nanfang.

Singing in Chinese became a big part of his life while studying the language at university and it is what gave him his first taste of celebrity, making his current career possible: “Now looking back, learning Chinese songs wasn’t the best way of learning Mandarin (probably evidenced by my exam marks) but I guess I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if I hadn’t taken this approach,” said Hazza.

Serendipitously, the earliest videos of him singing in Chinese coincided with the rise of Sina Weibo in 2010. “At first I just uploaded a few videos to share with some of my Chinese friends from university, and all of a sudden they were re-tweeted a few hundred times. I guess this encouraged me to keep going,” he said.

Passion for Mandopop

Even though he acknowledges that a few million hits to his videos might not count for much in a country of over a billion people, he is proud that his videos have received a combined total of more than 12 million hits, half the population of Australia. His most popular video with several million hits has been his cover of Jay Chou’s “Nocturne,” the song which happens to be the one that got him interested in Mandopop all those years ago.

“Obviously I love (Mandopop), otherwise I wouldn’t be trying to make it! Some people think that Chinese songs are too ‘soppy,’ and sometimes I would have to agree, but there’s something about the sound that I really like and that attracts me,” he said, echoing some points made by The Nanfang last month.

He also writes his own songs in Chinese. “I released a single, ‘Let Go,’ that was on the ‘Guangzhou New Music Charts’ last year, and am currently working on my next single – it will be released in a couple of months. I hope that I have stayed true to the genre whilst adding my own individual touches at the same time,” Hazza told The Nanfang. Here is the video of Hazza’s original song “Let Go”:

Television work in Guangzhou

His online celebrity helped him land an interview for a job with Guangdong Television where he has been employed as a television presenter since early 2012. The job enables him to meet all kinds of interesting people while travelling around the country.

“Of course I enjoy interviewing models, despite the fact that they make me a little nervous. But by far, my favourite episode was when I interviewed my Chinese teacher from Australia who was here for a holiday,” he said, describing the moment as “surreal”. Other highlights of his time working for Guangdong Television include going backstage at a Wilber Pan concert and being put up in hotels that are way beyond the price range of most expats.

Despite having a relatively glamorous job, Hazza does not get out much in Guangzhou. “When I’m not at work, I’m at home sleeping (that’s my number one hobby) or learning new songs,” he said, adding “I would LOVE to meet some Australians who are in Guangzhou though, because I really miss my friends from home sometimes.”

As for the future, Hazza is happy to keep doing what he’s doing with his singing and his media work. “To be honest, I know I still have a LOT to learn when it comes to hosting and singing but I do put 100% into what I do because I know the chances that I have got are very hard to come by.”


In praise of… being a China expat

Posted: 03/5/2014 11:00 am

The dorm full of English teachers I lived in in 2007/2008 resembled the Big Brother house in its intensity and internal politics. We would often stay up into the small hours chatting over cigarettes, beer and (occasionally) stronger substances having long conversations at the heart of which was the conviction that there was more to our being in China than the pleasures and conveniences.

Sometimes these conversations may have spilled over into self-congratulation and some of us may have fit the description laid out in this song which ridicules English teachers as “losers”. The anti-China blog Mylaowai illustrates this stereotype in more detail in the post “The Decline of the West.”

According to the stereotype, we were wishy-washy hipsters who forewent working for “the man” to come to China and live in a bubble in which we felt important. But hidden in these rants is the admission that people become expats in China for a reason even more primal than pleasure or convenience – meaning.

Why China?

Over the past two years, a large number of high-profile, long-term expats have left China. Many of them wrote lengthy explanations as to why, citing problems such as pollution, food safety and corruption. Why did a country that’s facing so many obstacles attract so many accomplished people in the first place? Why does it continue to do so?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl used the Nietzsche quote: “Those who have a why can live with almost any how.” Considering the place that China occupies in the world’s imagination, there are plenty of reasons why an expat would endure hardship to get the chance to feel part of the place.

China is the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, it is the world’s most populous nation, the land of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. It is the country whose economy grew seven times as fast as America’s in the first decade of this century and is set to become the world’s largest economic power within twenty years. China appeals to the megalomaniacal instinct in all of us in a way that, say, Vietnam or Cambodia might not.

In 2007, in a drunken discussion with my first employer in China, we threw around the term “nostalgic for a time yet to come” to describe our host country in its pre-Olympic year. One year later, as the final preparations were being made for China’s “coming out party,” I was based in a town where such nostalgia was needed. Most of the students who lived in Longchuan, a predominantly Hakka county in north Guangdong, had parents who worked in Shenzhen or Guangzhou but did not have the documentation to get their kids into a good school in those first tier cities.

I taught in the relatively prestigious Longchuan No. 1 Middle School, which was established in 1913, as well as twice a week being motorbike-taxied across town to teach at Longchuan Experimental School. During these motorcycle trips, the only thing I saw that could be described as a feature was the muddy river.

Burnt out from exam stress, the students could be difficult to enthuse. My role was largely to provide an English-speaking environment in a very traditional Chinese classroom. One of the breakthroughs in bringing some excitement into the classroom was to teach the song “Be What You Wanna Be” by Darin Zanyar, a song about having the world at ones feet, which is how I imagined the new China.

During this stay in Longchuan, while in my bed that lacked a mosquito net in the unfurnished appartment I was provided with, I read “The Way to Paradise: a Novel” by Mario Vargas-Llosa, in which the main character Paul Gaugin muses that the place where we are born is just a matter of happenstance. To gain a genuine sense of belonging, we had to go however far was necessary to find it.

In spite of surroundings that, on the surface, gave little to be cheerful about, I felt a sense of belonging in Longchuan because of a sense (however misguided) that I was part of a large entity that was working towards a bright future.

Why we can’t integrate

In “Descendants of the Dragon,” a patriotic folk song turned into a pop hit by Lee-hom Wang in 2000, the Chinese are described as being a race identified by dark hair and yellow skin. As author Peter Hessler found out when he lived in Sichuan from 1996 to 1998, his Caucasian appearance led to him being subjected to “mocking catcalls” of “hello” on the street reminding him that he would always be seen as a foreigner.

Li Yang, founder of the company “Crazy English” and one of the most influential education gurus of the past decade, called on his followers to see foreigners they encounter as being “English opportunities” they should practise on. Li Yang did not explain what a “foreigner” looks like or the logicalities of simply talking to a stranger without a specific topic.

Countries in which English is the predominant language, particularly the United States, Australia and South Africa, have colonialism and racial prejudice woven into their national histories. The racial sensitivity that pervades these societies today is a reaction to this. For this reason, when a Chinese person shouts “hello” or practices their English on a person of “foreign” appearance, they may well be committing the ultimate cultural faux pas – singling a person out on a basis of ethnic differences.

This is why what are most likely just gauche attempts at friendliness are so offensive to people like Hessler and a former colleague of mine who said I should see the “hellos” as challenges to my manhood.

In legislative terms, efforts are being made to help foreigners integrate. Social security for foreigners was introduced in 2011. A talent visa has been created for those who can offer essential skills. Immigration laws have been tightened to increase the overall calibre of foreigners, which will hopefully lead to better relations between expats and locals.

But there is still a long way to go if China wants to attract large numbers of foreigners happy to call themselves immigrants, and this is a problem deeply rooted in recent history.

Between about 1949 and about 1979 China was in one of its more hermetic phases. One of the few foreigners to make a life for himself here was left wing American Sidney Rittenberg. Rittenberg came to China as a U.S. soldier during World War 2, joined the Chinese Communist Party and lived in China throughout the whole of Mao Zedong’s time as chairman. Despite helping the communists win the civil war while stationed in Yan’an, even he was accused of being a spy and twice held in solitary confinement for a combined total of 16 years.

The inward-looking Chinese government that Rittenberg lived under was itself a reaction to the “100 Years of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. The Mao years are still very much within living memory and the resentment over what the foreign powers did often manifests itself in disturbing ways such as the schadenfreude over 9/11 that many American expats encountered at the time.

So why be an expat?

Why do so many foreigners still insist upon living in a land where, at this point in history, integration is impossible? All expats in China are either running from something or running to something. The things they are running from could be earthly concerns (debt, the law, domestic turmoil) and so could the things they are running to (work, romance, lifestyle).

But what could be the main spiritual reason why foreigners make this commitment? In the 1944 film “This Happy Breed,” the patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) lectures his wayward daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh) by saying there are worse things in life than being normal, boring and respectable. But this implies that there are still better things.

Coming to China is an alternative to living at home and being normal, boring and respectable and thus it becomes an acquired addiction. The fact that, for an expat in China, being normal, boring and respectable is an impossibility makes it all the more appealing to search for that undefined better thing.


PRD People: Albert Wolfe, Laowai Chinese founder, blogger and author

Posted: 02/26/2014 10:00 am

When Albert Wolfe first came to China in 2005, there weren’t many resources with which a foreigner could learn Chinese and few people were blogging about it. Now Wolfe, 32, runs Laowai Chinese, one of the most respected Mandarin education blogs around. This is one of many interesting and rewarding side projects he is able to work on while employed as a teacher at Peizheng College in Guangzhou’s Huadu District.

Albert Wolfe, image courtesy of Baidu

Wolfe came to Guangzhou in 2007 after spending a year in Nanchang followed by a year in Kunming. Since coming to the Pearl River Delta he has published a non-fiction book, written a novel and written several dozen songs in both English and Chinese, some of which have been played on local radio.

Tackling China and Chinese

After taking a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Wolfe got his TESOL certificate and chose to come to China. “I wanted to learn Chinese. There was something alluring about the Chinese language,” he told The Nanfang. Wolfe added that he found the Chinese graduate students he knew to be very friendly and gave two main reasons why he wanted to tackle this language:

“Number one, (with Chinese) I could communicate with a huge amount of people. Number two, Chinese has a reputation for being so hard, I just wanted to see if I could do it,” said Wolfe.

When he arrived, there was one particular source of dissatisfaction – a shortage of resources with which to learn the language. “Learning to read from scratch, there were things my friends and I couldn’t find an explanation for.”

This frustration was part of the reason why he founded Laowai Chinese. “I put it out there for other people to benefit from,” Wolfe explained.

The blog has proved popular, useful and opened doors both socially and professionally for Wolfe. He has taught beginner Chinese classes for foreign teachers at his college which employs 65 (yes, 65!) foreign teachers.

Plus, Wolfe’s first book Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Learning Mandarin, published in 2009, was made possible by the blog. Just a few months after he founded the blog at the beginning of his second year in China, a publisher approached him asking him to write the book.

Writing books and songs for publication

This was not to be Wolfe’s last book. Writing has inadvertently become a big part of his China experience. “I never thought I’d be a writer. I didn’t come to China with that in mind, just something I got into as a result of being here,” he told The Nanfang.

After Chinese 24/7 was published by Stone Bridge Press, Wolfe joined a writer’s group with two colleagues at the college in which they would write something and meet every week to read it out. After the first chapter of a sci-fi novel that Wolfe was writing went down well, he decided to persist with it. The work that Wolfe read out at these weekly gatherings became “Faceless,” a novel Wolfe says portrays “The worst case scenario for social networks.”

Wolfe’s next book has the working title of “The Great China Quest.” It is about a trip across China made with colleague Adrian Winter in 2010 without flying and with 15 Scavenger Hunt challenges to complete. Here is a brief description from the website:

With only the starting and ending points decided, and a time limit of just 30 days (July 29 to August 27, 2010), The Great China Quest is the story of our journey to cover the 2,000 miles from Urumqi to Guangzhou (without flying) while attempting to tackle 15 scavenger-hunt challenges that our Chinese students have dared us to complete (see The Rules).

“That’ll be a really fun book,” Wolfe told The Nanfang. As well as the story itself which is compelling enough, it is full of side anecdotes about the two men’s combined 15 years in China. Some of the best China books about what life is actually like here are memoirs (think “Mr. China,” “River Town,” etc. rather than more scholarly works).

Aside from the books, Wolfe has also used his spare time in China to get into the habit of making music. He has published two albums of English songs and two albums of Chinese songs for free on his website. His Chinese songs have been played on local radio. The comments are overwhelmingly positive but with characteristic self-deprecation Wolfe told The Nanfang: “People tend not to complain when a product is free.”

A teacher at heart

In spite of all the time he spends on these activities, he describes them all as nothing more than just hobbies. “I really feel like a teacher at heart,” he said.

To Wolfe, his job at Peizheng College is an “excellent” gig for people who have a large number of side projects. He describes the college as being “special” and having a “very supportive faculty.”

He teaches English, music and Chinese at the college and writes intelligently about the process on his blog. As many other Laowais have learned, language-teaching and language-learning are highly conducive to each other.

Having said that, the hobbies are a huge part of what keeps him at Peizheng College, where he is staying indefinitely. “The ones who stay are the ones who find some meaning here.” Indeed.

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