Archive for March 2nd, 2008


Communists, Dumplings, Chicken Killing: How to tutor English in Beijing

Since I’m supposed to be working on research regarding Chinese IP law and enforcement (or lack thereof), I haven’t been all that great about blogging this last week, and as it is, I should keep this as brief as I can. I wasn’t even going to post again for another day or two, since I wanted to get this particular project over and done with. But I just experienced something quite odd, and I thought I should write down my thoughts while they were still fresh.

Tonight, I visited the home of the 16 year old student that I am being paid ¥150/hour (about $23/hour) to speak English with, and otherwise tutor for English. The girl herself is bright, inquisitive, and her English, though needing a lot of help, is already well-developed enough such that I can speak with her with little difficulty if we keep things simple, and I speak slowly. She’s into Anime, so I’ve already given her an assignment to write an essay about her favorite Anime series. I suppose you could say things were odd enough that I was invited, as a complete stranger, into her family’s home to tutor her in her bedroom. I think that people in China don’t seem to be as worried about sexual aggressors as people in America – that is, an American family in a similar circumstance would’ve demanded that we leave the door open, or that we work in the living room, or some such. I’m told that many tutors actually have the students come to their homes to work. Odd from an American perspective, perhaps, but not so odd as such.

I should mention, by the way, that by Chinese standards, and possibly even by American standards, this family is quite wealthy. After I met this girl about two weeks ago, Allison noted that she had to be in order to afford this tutoring agency, and to have braces. Sure enough, her home is quite large by Beijing standards, and offers a stunning view of the city from the 18th floor of an apartment building. It seems the father is a doctor specializing in kidney ailments, of all things. They had a lot of great art throughout their home, a piano, a plasma TV, and… two daughters. I don’t know what to make of that, but I suspect that unless they once lived in the countryside, where families are allowed to try for kids a second time if their first child is a girl, that they must have been wealthy enough to pay whatever fines come with breaking the one-child policy.

But things got really weird with dinner, that is, when I started getting to know the rest of the family. The father is pretty cool, as far as I can tell, and speaks very good English. He may have studied medicine in the west, as many here do. Dinner consisted of mostly of dumplings, and also of these weird raw vegetables that I was told are related to carrots, deep fried tofu and strawberries. A very tasty meal, to be sure, and I was amused that they seemed surprised that I knew how to use chop sticks. I think they expected me ask for a fork and knife, but not necessary. I’ve gotten to be quite handy with the chopsticks.

The family, like many Chinese families, has the girls’ grandfather living with them. He spoke no English, which wasn’t surprising. He seemed like a very nice old guy, definitely up there in years, but alert enough to still be a cute old man. He wore this very nice red silk outfit, the kind that is supposed to be expensive to get tailor-made. More about him in a moment.

As the meal was winding down, we were talking about some relatives they have who live in the countryside, and from whom the family gets their chicken meat. They asked me if I’d be weirded out if someone were to bring a live chicken inside and kill it by snapping its neck. I thought they were kind of kidding, or perhaps alluding to what they experienced when they visited their relatives. But no. It turns out that this family actually has a storage room where they keep live chickens, and they brought out three chickens into the kitchen where, I assume, they were killed. Chickens are surprisingly loud, I learned, and definitely don’t appreciate being manhandled and killed with someone’s bare hands. They explained that they keep their own chickens because they are concerned about pollution getting into chicken meat. Only by raising their own do they have any certainty about that kind of thing. I didn’t literally see the chickens being killed, but I saw the chickens being brought alive into the kitchen, heard them screeching, and saw one of them being hung upside down, with some splatters of blood, gone limb. Curiouser and curiouser. Fortunately, I don’t think I looked horrified or anything. I believe my attitude was closer to a kind of raised-eyebrow-amusement than anything else.

Then there’s the sweet old man, Nicole’s grandfather. (Nicole’s her English name). He seemed to like me, or perhaps took in some amusement over my look of surprise. During the meal itself, he would occasionally motion toward me with his hands, making sure that I got plenty of dumplings, and finally strawberries at the end of the meal. After we were done eating, Nicole wanted to show me the rest of the apartment, and some of the things she was most proud of – her piano, this stringed-instrument thing she says is only played by 200,000 people, a population that’s dwindling. And her hedgehogs. She also played the stringed-instrument, and the piano for me – songs she said are from an Anime, one from a movie I actually recognized, Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that she sort of has a crush on me, or at least really wants to impress me.

Just as I was thinking that I’d be able to make a graceful exit, and just as her father sort of said that it was time for me to go, her grandfather wanted me to see some things of his. Okay, I thought. I learned that though he is retired now, his career was, get this, in politics. In particular, he was some sort of ranking member of the Communist Party, enough to have that as his job. The thing he wanted to show me as a very lovely photograph that Nicole had taken of him with all of his medals. One, I was told, was for his military service in World War II, for fighting against the Japanese. Another, I was told, was for his service during the war with the KMT, culminating in Mao’s seizure of power in 1949. Another was for 60 years of service to the Communist Party.

Now, how does one handle something like that? Particularly when one is about as hardcore a laissez-faire capitalist as myself, and who believes Mao to be one of the evilest men in history, guilty of mass murder on a scale dwarfing even that of Hitler’s, only on par with Joseph Stalin himself? I did my best to sort of smile and stay polite – I’m employed by this girl’s parents, and whatever ideological delusion the man was under, whatever crimes he might’ve been guilty of himself, he was a very old man not far from death. And I did not wish to generate any trouble for this family or myself. I sort of said that it was impressive, and left it at that.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The last thing he wanted to show me was this elaborate and fancy piece of Chinese calligraphy framed in the family’s living room, the kind that looks like a very professional Chinese calligraphist produced. That, I was told, was produced by none other than Chiang Kai-shek’s younger brother! WTF?! It seems that Nicole’s grandfather knew him, and was on friendly terms with him. Through Nicole’s translation, it sounded like he was saying that he didn’t hate the KMT so much as he just hated Chiang. He didn’t even dislike his brother, he explained, he just hated Chiang. I don’t know if this means that he was a less than committed Communist or follower of Mao, but I did take note that Nicole, at least, emphasized that she had no desire to become a member of the Party or any party. Perhaps there’s a streak of political independence in this family, despite the grandfather’s odious background.

I only saw medals for WWII and the Chinese Civil War, but there’s no telling what his level of involvement or support for other projects might’ve been. My mom’s father served as a medic in the Pacific theater in WWII, so at one point, I had a member of my family fighting on the same side as he. (Sort of – depending on who you read, there’s some indication that although the Communists were supposed to be cooperating with Chiang and the KMT as a united front, Mao weaseled his units out of any serious fighting against the Japanese, leaving Chiang’s Nationalists to bear the brunt of all the losses of blood and treasure against them. By the time the fighting was over, the KMT’s units were severely weakened, and Mao’s Communists were rested and ready. It was not too long after victory over the Japanese that the Communists resumed their insurgency with greater vigor than ever before, and successfully drove Chiang and the KMT off to the former-Japanese colony of Taiwan. But I digress.) My father’s father, though, served in Vietnam. And though the Chinese weren’t directly militarily involved, it’s clear who they were rooting for. How awkward it might be, I thought, if Nicole’s grandfather were to ask me about my own grandfathers’ military service.

All in all, Nicole seemed very happy with our conversation practice, and I’m sort of looking forward to learning more about contemporary Anime. That’s the other thing. I thought I was pretty well versed on some of the major Anime out there, but the thing I kept running into with Nicole was that she kept saying that the ones I knew were too old, and before her time. She didn’t know anything about Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Lain, or most of the Miyazaki films I mentioned. Since these were mostly from the 90’s, this made me feel quite old. I was just getting used to having students too young to remember the 80’s, and now this? And of course, that’s only going to get worse.