For National International Student’s Day, we’ve chosen a special blog post. Thanks to Trevor Wadlow for his essay, “Traffic.”
As drivers, Marc continues, the Chinese are as pragmatic as you would expect.
My friend, Marc Chen, (his name alone attesting to a foot in two cultures) once told me that if you really want to understand the essence of a culture, observe the traffic. I could hear a cliché coming but, this being Marc, I knew it would start ordinary before becoming transcendently extraordinary. I glanced around the Abbey Road ex pats’ bar on Hengcheng Road. The waitress in black casual clothes smiled. On her t-shirt was a badge bearing the name, Apple. As drivers, Marc continues, the Chinese are as pragmatic as you would expect. If a figure of authority is not present, they will ignore red lights if that gets them to where they really want to be. But there is more to it than that. I signal to him to elaborate. When a Chinese person gets astride an electric bike or into a car they are immediately lost in a dream of arriving: it absorbs them to the exclusion of everything else. If it appears that they do not see anything at the side or behind it’s because they don’t.
Though I take this with a pinch of mono sodium glutamate the thought returns to me now as I join the queue at the kerb. I am in a part of Shanghai that is in a transitional phase. Both sides of the street are lined with tiny noodle sheds and knick-knack shops; spicy smells insinuate themselves into the air, steam billows from tiny shop fronts. In the near distance a new mall rises Odeon-like, beckoning to the newly-affluent.
Beside me is a young girl engaged in ‘cosplay’, an activity that involves turning oneself into a cartoon character. With her ill-fitting strawberry blond wig, Mary Janes and rah rah dress she is every inch the Little Bo Peep. In order to make the rouge spheres stand out on her cheeks she has applied foundation to whiten the naturally yellow tinge of her complexion. The effect is that of a ghost of someone from another time walking among the shoppers.
The traffic light turns green and the pedestrians surge forward. An old woman on a bicycle negotiates the crowd skilfully before joining the road, but she is no match for the BMW that sharks suddenly in from the right, clipping the bike, and sending the old woman flying, potatoes and apples rolling into the gutter. Noone comes forward to help her, as is the way here. When I first witnessed this phenomenon I assumed that it demonstrated an unexpected callousness until Marc explained that if involved in an accident it is always the other person’s fault (even when it isn’t) and that hospital bills and compensation had to be settled. As a result, no one helps anyone in an accident for fear of being implicated.
The old woman hauls her bicycle to the curb and calmly pops potatoes and apples back into a canvas shopping bag. She looks only slightly dazed, as though this were one of the disadvantages of getting lost in a dream of arriving, but worth it in the long run. The driver is long gone, lost in his own dream. I hurry across to the other side, lost in a dream of simply staying alive.
The English Language test examination venue is in a large campus. Grey low-rise blocks are relieved by huge swathes of ornate, green rock pools. Today, flattered by warming sunlight, it looks quite beautiful. Yet I know that the landscape in this part of China is nothing without sunshine. In winter the bare trees and cropped lawns will foreground the grey blocks, emphasising their gauntness, giving the campus the semblance of a prison. A trick of the light, you might say.
Venue, I like that word. It brings to mind music concerts and other pleasurable activities. I wonder whether it is a deliberate, if cruel, euphemism or simply a way of lessening the gravity of the situation. Excuse my pedantry but language is my business, after all.
On the way in I pass candidates sitting on the grass or the steps of the main building, scanning sheets of flimsy paper, holding them to their chests and mouthing words into the air. Some of the girls have dressed for the occasion. I am told that there is a Chinese website which offers advice to test candidates: young women should wear a low-cut dress and a crucifix on the grounds that, “Examiners are foreigners and most foreigners are Christian”. How this sits with the low-cut dress is not explained.
In the Supervisor’s office on the third floor I join the queue of fellow examiners waiting to sign for their examination folders. Confidentiality is paramount, as the Instructions to Examiners booklet clearly states: the folder is never to be left unattended at any time.
Examiners come in all shapes, sizes and genders, from the young, studiously diffident new boys to the authoritative matron. We jostle and crack in jokes like members of the same tribe. Cliques form, people pair up, drinks arrangements are made.
I hurry across to the other side, lost in a dream of simply staying alive.
On a separate sheet are photos of the candidates, lined up like volunteers for an identity parade.
Tests are always conducted in rooms like this: large and draughty with off-white walls, functional desks and hard chairs, a platform at the front where the teacher stands. Pictures of esteemed Chinese scholars, each with a thin goatee, line the walls. Only the large, modern air-conditioning unit tells me that this is not the nineteen fifties. At the front of the room two tables have been pushed together, chairs at either side.
I open my folder and lay out the materials: pencils, post-it notes, test booklets, a score sheet. On a separate sheet are photos of the candidates, lined up like volunteers for an identity parade. Inevitably, I try to gauge their characters from their images: the pretty girl who has followed the dubious website advice (lazy Daddy’s girl, aims to charm the examiner); the bright-eyed young man who grins through his raging acne (expensive private lessons, keen to talk about Yao Ming and basketball); the tomboy girl or effeminate boy (anguished but rebellious).
I must do something about my cynicism.
After propping the microphone on the eraser, I sit back in the chair and settle into myself. Some examiners remain aloof, even vaguely hostile. I follow the instructions: using nods and smiles, aim to encourage and relax the candidate. But, of course, do not allow yourself to be duped.
Good cop, bad cop.
‘Lazy Daddy’s girl’ is my first candidate. She sashays into the room, heels clicking, flimsy silk dress hanging off her dangerously-thin frame like a banner. She perches on the edge of the chair and arranges her hair over her shoulders.
I study her face as I log time, date and name into the recorder: untypical large brown eyes (surgically enhanced, perhaps), long thin face, full lips, something glittering on her eyelids. Her hair is fashionably crimped and tinted. For some Chinese girls this works, emphasising their delicate features. For others it brings out a pallour, making them blend into the background. This girl comes under the latter category, though she has tried to mute the effect with a little blusher and mascara.
It is the eyes that give her away, eyes that dart around in search of invisible enemies. Her body is something she knows how to decorate and dress but somehow she is not quite in control of it. She fumbles and twitches, stress and discomfort emanating from her like a poisonous mist. Something tells me that this is not the standard exam nervousness.
“Shall we begin, or would you like a minute – ”
“I’m fine,” she says sharply.
I unpause the recorder and introduce myself. I ask her for her name.
“Whereabouts in China are you from?”
“Qingdao, Shandong Province.”
She speaks with an unusually deep, slightly husky voice and a vague American accent. So many Chinese students acquire the accent of their foreign teacher, despite teachers’ insistence on its irrelevance. They ignore this, as though they wish to elide themselves through the new language and the culture it expresses.
So far so good. Often this simple question prompts the first piece of recitation, the unrateable language that squanders valuable seconds of the test: “I am from Qingdao, a coastal city in the Shandong province where the people are friendly and the food is delicious.”
I am already aware of the lack of stress-timing. Each word has the same value, creating an unreal clarity.
Use the opening section to relax the student. “What do you do for a living?”
“I am a student.”
She picks at a fingernail, avoiding my eyes.
“I see. What subject are you studying?”
This pulls me up sharp. Almost every candidate answers this question with either Finance or Logistics. Making money or moving things around in order to make money, the twin motors of the Chinese economy.
“Why did you choose this subject?”
She frowns. “Because I want to be an artist.”
I flick over the page. “Now, I want you to look at this topic…”
I click the stopwatch, allowing her one minute to prepare. Randomly chosen, the topic requires her to recall a happy time from her childhood. The stopwatch beeps twice when the time is up.
“Right, when you’re ready?”
She clears her throat and sits up straight, suddenly assertive. “I want to talk about the happy time I spent with my grandfather in Anhui Province.”
I smile encouragingly.
“The reason I lived with my grandparents is because my parents divorced. My mother went to Wuxi, my father went I don’t know where, and so I lived with my grandparents.”
Because I want to be an artist.”
She pauses, seeking appropriate lexis.”
This is the first time I have tested a candidate from a broken home, but the story is not entirely unfamiliar. Usually it is a case of both parents working. Grandparents always step in, keen to give the child a ‘bright future’ in the China that is so much more promising than the one they recall.
“My grandfather was very kind, he showed me how to fish and told me how the trees change in the different seasons. He often made me fried noodles when my grandmother was out…”
She pauses, seeking appropriate lexis. I have to focus on this as there is a difference between a pause which leads to appropriate lexis and one which leads to error. At the same time I picture her as a child, holding the hand of an elderly but fit Chinese man, old enough to have endured some of the harshest moments in Chinese history but bearing it all with a smile. The girl looks up at him, awed by his strength.
“However.” A vector of contempt crosses her features. “My grandmother hated me.”
Negativity is rare in young Chinese students. An upbeat, positive attitude is maintained at all times. I am never sure whether this attests to a cheerful pragmatism or simple denial. I signal to her to continue.
“She hated me because I am not a boy.”
A poisonous mist thickens in front of me. I remain calm and professional, allowing her to empty out, compose herself.
“Can you believe that? You? A foreigner?”
If the candidate asks a question, answer it and quickly move on. I offer a look which I hope communicates empathy, even incredulity.
Such sudden revelations are fairly common in speaking tests. Perhaps the candidates speak more freely to us because we are foreigners, social convention inhibiting them when talking to their peers. The rare negativity surfaces like fine mould on a painting, visible only when the viewer is close up. Then again, it could all be an illusion, an oscar-winning performance designed to tug my heartstrings: the test is a journey, they are lost in a dream of arriving.
“My grandfather was kind to me and argued with my grandmother about me.” Pause. She lowers her head a minute, then suddenly straightens up. “When I have a child I will love it some much…” Good use of referencing. “I will always tell my child how much I love her or him.”
The stopwatch beeps again. I turn the page and move on to section 3. The Examiner should create questions based on topic headings and attempt to provoke a discussion. This is where the expert reciters and memorisers come unstuck.
“Let’s talk about how people keep objects and pictures to remind them of their childhood. Do you keep photos to remind you of the past?”
“Yes, I have much pictures of my grandfather, but no pictures of my grandmother.”
“How do you feel when you look at those pictures now?”
“Happy and sad. Both feelings. Happy when I look at pictures of my grandfather and remember the happiness times.” [Common noun-adjective confusion.] “My grandmother is still alive. I don’t talk to her. I no have any pictures of her.”
Though my questions are designed to elicit a general answer and encourage her to engage in abstract thinking, she is determined to keep it personal. When I ask her if she considers it important for a country to be aware of its own history she tenses as her own vehemence overwhelms her.
“If I have a child I will never leave it, I will always tell it I love it so much!”
The stopwatch beeps.
“Thank you very much. The test is over.”
“Thank you,” she says, standing up and moving quickly to the door like a reluctant witness for the prosecution.
After she has gone I make my assessment, the rubric a tabulation of linguistic sins. It occurs to me that she gave no indication as to why she was taking the test. Most will slip it into the interview at some point, citing study in Australia, the US and the UK. They chant the names of these countries like mantras or brands, words with self-evident meanings. Perhaps she forgot to mention it.
The second candidate was not, as I assumed, smiling in the photo. His jutting teeth have bestowed on him a permanent rictus of a toothy smile, which makes it difficult to gauge his emotional state. He is wearing the standard dress of young male Chinese students: polo shirt, baggy sports pants, trainers, accompanied by geeky black-framed spectacles. The acne suggests his body is at war with itself. Perhaps it is.
“Could you tell me your name, please.”
He does a double-take. “Mobile phone?”
This does not bode well.
“Dai Wei. I from Shanghai, I local people.”
“I see. What subject are you studying?”
A pause, a squint. He has latched on to ‘subject’ and ‘studying’. “Finance. This year I go study in the UK.”
I speculate briefly about the bribes, the favours called-in and the doctored grades that have brought him to this room.
“Is photography popular in your country?”
I repeat the question. He peers back at me uncomprehendingly.
“Let’s talk about the internet.”
I abandon the topic and scan the list for something to inspire him. “I’d like to talk to you about hobbies.”
His face collapses. I sense I am in the presence of a ‘little Emperor’, a by-product of the One Child Policy, recipient of excessive care and attention from his grateful parents, a young man who has never known struggle or conflict and who expects life to be this way always. He probably arrived here in a car bought for him by his parents after having bribed the Driving Test Examiner.
When no response is forthcoming I turn the page.
“Now, I want you to look at this topic…”
He stares at the small yellow pad as though he expects it to magically fill with notes without any input from himself. The two minutes allotted to him seem to expand and fill the silence. Finally, the stopwatch beeps.
“OK, when you’re ready.”
In the three minutes that follow he stares above my head and mouths a few sentences to himself. Then he tests them out, an arsenal of stock phrases all students are taught at high school.
“With the development of science and technology… a double-edged sword… every coin has two sides… and so on…”
The third part follows the same pattern. He gives me no rateable language but the few words that he has uttered mean that I cannot give him zero, though he is not far off.
“Thank you very much. The test is over.”
He sighs, slumps forward and drags his hands though his fluffy black hair. “I so ashamed.”
I offer a silent, conciliatory wave. He pads out of the room with his head lowered, unable to look at me. Though I feel sorry for him, I know there may be consequences. I imagine his parents, their lives revolutionised in a generation, from one room to an apartment, from subsistence farmer to urban businessman. This will be their first inkling that not everything can be bought. They may even complain, ask for a reassessment, allege bias against Chinese people. And so it goes.
I local people.”
IF ONLY ALL MEN WERE LIKE KEN.”
At tea break we gather in the Supervisor’s room and dump our packs on the table. Nursing instant coffee in plastic cups, we engage in what almost passes for conversation, but it is actually more like we are soliloquising.
“I said, ‘What do you do at the weekend?’ He said, ‘I like to play with my friend. Sometimes I play with myself’. Jesus.”
“And I’m pointing at her ID card but her English is crap and she thinks I’m pointing at her breasts and the more I point the more she jerks back and it just gets worse…”
“So, if all he says is his name and the name of his hometown I still have to give him one, right?”
Break over, we drift back to our testing rooms. Candidates are already waiting for us, sitting on hard chairs in the corridor, all iPhones, nervous smiles and colourful backpacks.
The tomboy girl/effeminate boy breezes in ahead of me. She is wearing jeans and Convex baseball boots. On his/her T shirt is printed a phrase: IF ONLY ALL MEN WERE LIKE KEN. I am no wiser about her gender yet: a poor candidate, male or female, may have no idea of the meaning of the words on the t-shirt.
Cropped, tinted, carefully unkempt. Cheeky grin.
Family name first, then given name. This combination is neutral. Still no wiser.
“I am a student.” Stress-timed, perfect enunciation. No accent.
“What subject are you studying?”
Pleased with the question s/he lets out a slight laugh and says, “Well, I was studying Computer Science but I found it so excruciatingly boring that I switched to English Literature. Of course, it’s no picnic but at least I am studying something in which I am actually interested.”
Idiomatic language. Complex sentences. Chunking. In my mind the rubric dials dance crazily.
“Are names important in your culture?”
“In Chinese culture, most definitely. Usually parents or grandparents try to find a name that reflects their hopes for the child. Many names mean Luck or Success. My grandfather chose my name, unfortunately.”
Unusual choice of word. I let it go. “Would you ever change your name?”
“Of course! However, it is forbidden to do so. I am surprised you didn’t pick up on this at the start.”
The statement throws me. I offer a baffled look.
“Pan Ten! Like the shampoo?”
I smile at this little joke.
“Now, I want you to look at this topic…”
Describe a historical figure you admire.
He/she fills the page with notes, writing at great speed. When the stopwatch beeps s/he pushes the notepad to one side.
“I suppose you expect me to talk about Chairman Mao, well, I can tell you I have no intention of doing so, though I am sure most candidates do. My grandfather was imprisoned by Mao twice, simply for being rich. He was a banker, you see, but that’s not all he did. His pride and joy was the little school he set up to attract poorer students and give them a free education. Does that sound like a crime to you? Of course, my father should have fled to Taiwan like so many people did, but there was too much at stake. He had five banks to run, after all. Then, of course, there is the Cultural Revolution, another of Mao’s hare-brained ideas. Do you know, it takes up just two sentences in school history books? We still don’t know how many people died at that time!”
If the candidate is off-topic you should still rate the language.
He/she stops short, breathless, then glances around. “I’m sorry. I got carried away. Sorry.”
The stopwatch beeps. “Thank you.”
We move on to the Discussion section. This time he/she stays clear of politics.
“What kind of qualities does a good leader need?”
“Steve Jobs has the qualities of a leader but it seems that being a leader does not mean you have to be a nice person. Nonetheless, he was a brilliant man who made people go beyond their abilities. This has to be seen as a quality required of a great leader. Of course, if he had been Chinese he wouldn’t have had a chance. Innovation doesn’t count for much in this country, though they like talking about it. I often imagine a Chinese Steve Jobs, full of ideas, then coming up against the might of a state-owned industry – ”
The stopwatch beeps. “Thank you very much. The test is over.”
I switch off the recorder and close the Test book. At first s/he shows no sign of leaving. S/he stares at something on the desk, huddled up as though cold, rocking back and forth.
“I assume you’re going to study abroad?”
“What?” Something prods him/her to sit up straight.
“Are you going abroad to study?”
“Of course! Actually, I’ve been offered a place at Queen Mary College, London. I’m very excited.”
“And then what?”
“Return to China, I suppose.” Her/his face takes on a very serious expression. “This is still a developing country. It’s my duty to help the motherland become strong.”
S/he leaves the words dangling between us, his/her features betraying nothing. I have no idea whether he/she is parodying this familiar statement of intent in order to make me laugh or sincerely outlining a plan using the only vocabulary available. In the end it is not my concern. I am here to rate the language, nothing more. I open the door to signal that the test is over. She pauses at the doorway.
“Nice to meet you,” s/he says, extending a hand.
“Nice to meet you too,” I say, grasping it.
I sit down to make my assessment.
Examiner packs checked in, we evacuate the building and rush to the campus gate like refugees. No-one knows why we rush but we do, away from it. From what? A close encounter with the people we live among, whose world we know less about the longer we stay here? There are days when it feels interestingly different, others when it feels like living in a cartoon: exciting but overwhelming, enervating. Having been here four years I may make this my last.
Right now I am standing at the kerb, waiting to cross. It is rush hour, the traffic is heavy, so many dreams of arriving all jostling for space. The lights are red but cars speed past. The old jokes come back to me: traffic lights exist only to add colour to the drab surroundings, zebra crossings exist to make us think of zebras (‘because animals are our friends’). I sneak in behind a girl as the lights turns green, a personal superstition telling me that I won’t be killed if I am behind her.
On the other side I erase the day from memory. Negotiating space with the ease of a local, I hurry towards the Metro, oblivious to everything around me, lost in my own dream of arriving.
Photo header image by Kervin Tran