Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yes China

Yes China: An English Teacher's Love-Hate Relationship with a Foreign Country by Clark Nielsen is a book by an American from Utah who taught English in China for a couple years. The book is half stories from Clark's ESL classes and half stories of life in China from a foreigner's perspective/Clark's life history.

The thing I liked most about Clark's book is the brutal honesty he shares with the reader, particularly in regards to his own life. Clark writes about a bevy of things that are incredibly personal and often embarrassing - his bladder control problems, his dating history going back to high school, and having a dream one evening about making out with one of his ESL students.

The honesty in the book isn't only limited to these more juvenile sorts of topics, though. Clark also delves into many more serious issues from his life.

The most interesting aspects of Clark's book to me were his thoughts on growing up Mormon and then, as a young adult, formally breaking with the church. I don't know many Mormons personally and only have a cursory knowledge of the religion (a lot of which came from this great PBS: Frontline documentary). But I am aware that breaking from the church is a huge decision that affects a young Mormon's life tremendously.

I really liked the following passage from page 91:
Mormon boys are expected to "serve a mission" when they turn nineteen, the church's way of guilting people into paying for the chance to preach the gospel in another part of the world. The boys don't get to pick where they will live for two years. They are called. Sometimes, they are called to foreign countries like Thailand or Brazil. Other times, they wind up in Twin Falls, Idaho. Man, if I had turned in my application to be a missionary, and I got sent to a nearby US state, I would have been pissed.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. In every Mormon community, people like to ask high school seniors when they'll be going on their missions. As people started asking me this, I had a revelation. I didn't understand Mormon theology. All this time, I'd only been agreeing with what everyone else said, going along with the group so I'd fit in. I decided I had better know for sure if this was true before I gave up two years of my life. So I did what my teachers always told us to do if we ever needed proof of the gospel. I read the Book of Mormon, prayed about it every day, and removed all sin from my life. You had better believe it was hard, but I did it, because I wanted the truth more than anything.

But nothing happened...

Hey, wait a minute! I followed all of the steps! I did exactly what they told me to do! I kept this up for months, but I never received any kind of spiritual confirmation, no warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart to tell me it was true. In a last act of desperation, I hiked up a mountain, knelt down to pray, and begged God to give me an answer. When I came down that mountain, I had my answer. God didn't respond to prayers, and Mormonism wasn't for me.
Clark has a lot to say about Mormons and Mormonism. The teaching organization he went to China with was based out of Provo, Utah. While not officially a Mormon organization, Clark was surrounded by Mormons much of his time in China. His perspective of being around Mormons after having fallen from the church is fascinating stuff.

I liked a lot of Clark's anecdotes from teaching English as well. I've read about teaching English in China in a couple other books - The Last Days of Old Beijing (a book I will post a review on here at some point) and Iron and Silk - but considering how many books on China by foreigners are out there, it's a somewhat under-represented topic.

Clark does a good job bringing to light many of the absurdities that every ESL teacher finds in China. He also highlights well the progress he made, things he learned, and some regrets he had from his time in the classroom.

I particularly liked this passage from page 177 about administering the exam he gave his students at the end of a year of teaching:
I made it through the list of students with a few minutes to spare, so I stood at the back of the class and watched Shaun the Sheep with the students, noting to myself every time they laughed at something and realizing I would be hearing those same laughs at those same times in the next eighteen classes.

But as we watched the movie, more realizations started piling into my mind. It would have been nice of them to knock instead of barging in like that. I'd been at this school for two semesters - a year - and now it was over. And yet there were a lot of kids in this room I never got to know. Like the twins. Like... all of them. There were so many students who came up today to answer my questions that I didn't even recognize. Who are you? You are in this class? Why didn't you ever raise your hand? Why didn't you ever say anything to me?

To be honest, I didn't make much of an effort to get to know them, either. Outside of class, I always hid in my apartment or went downtown instead of hanging out with the kids on the basketball court. Oh, I had tried to play with them before, but it was too aggravating. As soon as I stepped outside, every student in the proximity started screaming, "Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!" and swarmed around me to touch my beard and yank on my shirt and yell Chinese at me and wave their jump ropes in my face. I didn't like putting up with that and found these situations void of any meaningful teacher/student relationship. Now, I really wished things had been different. I wished we could have played together on the playground, played tag together, played Red Rover together, just done something together.
These regrets of Clark's are pretty sad. It seems he never really related with a lot of his students.

Thankfully, this was never really the case for me. I feel like I generally developed good relationships with my students during my time in China. Sure, there were kids that I never really connected with, but on the whole, I got to know the kids I taught on an individual basis.

For all of the problems that the school I taught at in China had, I think that the set up - not having more than 18 kids or adults in a two hour class and having much more training that Clark ever received - made my teaching experiences much richer than his. I never had anything similar to some aspects of teaching that Clark describes in the book - trying to get a classroom of 60 rowdy kids settled down or not having any idea that the kid I was testing in front of me had been in my class all year. Reading Clark's teaching stories made me reflect back on my teaching experiences more positively than I did before.

Although I enjoyed reading several of Clark's stories and thoughts from teaching English, those sections started to drag for me by the end of the book. The setup of the book is one chapter on teaching and then one chapter on life in China/Clark's personal life, the whole way through. I don't think there were enough good teaching stories to warrant half of the book. A third of the book devoted to ESL would've been better by me. By the time I got to the last few chapters on teaching, I was really worn out reading about his classroom and just skimmed those sections.

I have two more criticisms of Clark's book. Both are on display in one passage, a discussion of foreigner-to-foreigner relations from page 121:
Despite this, we at least had a common ground in teaching, which was why I always got along with other foreign teachers but not foreign businessmen. Foreign businessmen led very different lives. They took taxis everywhere. They ate at expensive restaurants. They liked to woo married Chinese women. (This doesn't go for all businessmen, but it does happen a lot. And for God's sake, please don't take that personally! I lost a good friend, because I unknowingly insulted her husband by posting that statement on my blog. You didn't realize half of the content in this book was available on the Internet for free, did you? Sucker.)
Clark is, obviously from this passage, also a fellow China blogger. Finding out half-way through the book that what I was reading was more of a collection of blog entries than of a cohesive narrative explained a lot to me. For as honest as Clark was in the book and for all of the aspects of the book I liked, I felt as though the book never really got going with a full head of steam or moved in a linear direction.

Clark came and went from China on a couple different stints. He switched cities and worked at different schools. He taught adults some times and he taught kids at other times. Through all of these changes, where he was or any other contextual information at any given time was never very clear to me. I never detected an over-arching feel or arc to the book.

The book did feel as though it was a collection of articles strung together in a somewhat random order. And this quote above tells the reader that that is pretty much the case.

The bolded sentence from above is also an example of my biggest problem with Yes China: Clark's self-referential dialog with the reader that goes on throughout the entire book.

Here are a few other examples of this author-reader dialog that I'm talking about:
Now take that knowledge and... no, no, no, don't put it in the microwave. Take that knowledge and apply it to China.

I'm not writing a Yes Mexico book, though, so let's get back to China.

Between you and me (and that creepy guy looking over your shoulder), it was the latter.
This shtick never did anything for me. If I'm feeling generous, I'd say that this attempted humor was distracting. If I'm feeling less charitable, I'd say that it was quite irritating. Clark is a good writer. I just wish he'd not tried so hard in so many places to be funny. Such attempts felt very forced.

Overall, I liked Yes China and would recommend it to someone who wants an account of what it's like being an ESL teacher in China. It's a good effort from a talented young author. I'll definitely be interested to see what Clark writes next.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why China Will Never Rule the World

Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in Two Chinas by Troy Parfitt is a well-written, informative, and sometimes convincing book about China. Parfitt effortlessly strings together tales about his travels littering it with history and anecdotes that were new to me. There's no doubt that Parfitt is a well-read writer.

Saying all of that, Why China Will Never Rule the World is one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read.

Whatever positives can be found in the book are more than offset by the hostility and one-sidedness Paritt shows towards China. Parfitt doesn't get close to a nuanced view of China even once in his book. Parfitt hates traveling and living in China, shows a real disdain for Chinese people, and loathes everything about the country's culture and history. Written without the slightest hint of balance, Parfitt's book reads like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story, two of the most unenjoyable books I've encountered.

After struggling through Parfitt's 400-page diatribe, I give Why China Will Never Rule the World a resounding two thumbs down and cannot recommend avoiding it highly enough.

8/20/2011 - Edit: I've realized in the past week that I'm not big into writing overwhelmingly negative reviews of other people's work, like the one I wrote about this book. Writing such a stinging review was a first for me. Parfitt and I ended up leaving each other a string of comments questioning and criticizing what the other had written. We were speaking over each other and were getting nowhere.

I just don't have the stomach for this kind of stuff in my free time and have never wanted this blog to be a venue for bitter and divisive arguments. There's enough of that already on the internet. This blog is something I do for enjoyment and regret that it got as sour as it did.

I stand by what I initially wrote in my review. At the same time, I began to feel that initial post and the comments Troy and I left for each other made both of us look bad. I've decided getting into a drag-out war with someone over a book in which I have no stake in is not a good use of my time or energy. I can't believe how much time I've spent going back over this book, one I didn't enjoy, to argue with the author.

I will leave the lede to this post summing up my thoughts to the book, but have deleted the rest of the post and all comments. Comments are closed.

8/20/2011 - Second Edit: Troy wrote this comment as I was writing the "edit" above. I will publish what he wrote here:
Mark and I have come to the conclusion that we hold different truths about the nature of this book and think it best not to continue debating it. So, in the spirit of the China debate, Canada-US relations, world peace, and so on, we're going to stop trading comments. Life's too short, and all that jazz. I'd like to thank him again for reading my book, and am sorry he didn't like it. It is tough in places, I admit. Thanks again, Mark.