Not long ago I got into an argument with an East Asian international student. Now those of you who know me will know that I’m not really an argumentative person, for the most part I avoid confrontation wherever it arises, and even if people are rude or distasteful I will humour them for the sake of social harmony. But seeing as this girl was a recent acquaintance, and also quite singularly annoying, I let my usual guard down and decided to give her a piece of my mind.

What on earth caused such a crumbling of my usually affable demeanour, you might ask? Well, in the course of one of her usual griping monologues about the inconvenience of living in my country and city – regular complaints included; accusing us of a failed multiculturalism; overly expensive luxury food (hint: it’s luxury for a reason); and having crappy building standards; among other things – she decided to leave me with this gem: “I’m so glad I’m not a f***ing English native who can only speak English.” Now, this accusation is far from new. But her added arrogance was the straw that broke the camel’s back.*

We here are very used to being told that our language skills are appalling compared to the rest of Europe – let alone the rest of the world. It is something we glumly accept with a sputtering of self-deprecating comments while seeking to turn the conversation elsewhere. For the sake of argument I will leave this accusation unchallenged in statistical terms although I do wonder if it is not one of those pieces of common knowledge that is actually just common ignorance. At any rate, it is clear to most people on this planet that native English speakers are born with a natural advantage, two successive world super powers have been English speaking, to the point where it is the de facto international language of business, and science. A British tourist can travel from one side of the globe to the other, passing through countless countries and, assuming she has even a modicum of money, never truly fear the language barrier at all.

Where even millions of well off Europeans are learning English to bolster their international career options, native English speakers are secure in the knowledge that any international institution worth its salt will have an office or branch in their home country; some may even require a sort of neo-imperialist mid-level bureaucrat to be dispatched to some far flung outpost of their business empire where they, as a white person with a western salary, will instantly jump up several social classes with next to no effort at all. This is all true and it is by various degrees unfair and even subtly racist or oppressive depending on the context. Be that as it may, the girl’s comment was, in my humble opinion, dripping with class privilege and the fallacy of individual merit (I forget what this is properly called but I shall elaborate on it below).

That is to say, that this girl, who has studied at a university for her bachelors, lived in Shanghai, toured the USA, and is now doing a masters at a top ten university in London – the fees for which are probably on the order of tens of thousands of pounds a year for tuition alone – was doing the verbal equivalent of spitting on poor people less fortunate than herself. Almost all of this due the happy accident of her birth. And when I challenged her on it she had the temerity to say that her German adviser and some other international elitists had the same opinion so it’s not just her. Oh, well that’s alright then isn’t it!

The simple fact of the matter is, most skills that people develop in life are either forced on them in their youth, or acquired through acute economic necessity. If you’re an itinerant salesperson in the hinterlands of China you probably do speak 3 or 4 dialects purely out of economic necessity, by a similar mechanism, if you are a Taiwanese student your English is probably pretty damn good because you’ve been forced to learn it at school for about a decade**. If you’re a regular middle-class American kid your chances of going to Yale, or MIT, is orders of magnitude higher than that of an Afghanistani kid of even slightly higher comparable social class. If you went to an East Asian school your maths is probably better than the world average because your school system spends about twice as much time on it and starts significantly earlier, forcing high level algebra down children’s throats when their western counterparts are still working on integers and fractions. At the end of it such people will have better maths skills, and a higher relative skill in a foreign language, does this mean they are somehow better people than the feckless English natives who were never forced into such scenarios and have never been faced with the need to learn six or seven dialects to avoid starvation? Is the American kid who gets into MIT that much better than his Afghani counterpart? Not a bit of it!

As someone, who knows just how difficult it can be to learn a language to any appreciable level of fluency (granted I’ve chosen a particularly difficult one in Chinese), I’m under no illusions as to just how much time, effort and, yes, hard cash, it takes to become good at a foreign language under your own steam. Frankly, the British natives would be nothing but workaholic martyrs if they went about learning languages the way others in less privileged positions do, simply for the sake of being as “bilingual” as other communities are.

If we were to take the same view as this girl, we would be scoffing at malnourished peasants from the third world for being too stupid to go to university: if only they’d put the effort in, 40% of us go to university, glad we’re not like those f***ing [developing country name] natives. Never mind the fact that they have to work all day to get water and food. And we would be rightly given a thorough telling off for it afterwards too. (Hyperbole, guys, I’m not pretending our struggles are as serious as theirs).

Relative privilege cuts both ways and is no less indefensible when it comes from a foreign elite and is directed at poor working class whites than it is the other way around. We need to stop kicking downwards  in the vain attempt to inflate our own egos. Everyone suffers and everyone works hard chipping away at the coalface of life, the difference is some people have pickaxes, some have mechanical diggers, and sadly, some have toothpicks.


*Granted her deep contempt for the British working class may be an accident of language, swearing at an inappropriate moment and unwittingly conveying something she didn’t intend to, textual communication is fraught with such misunderstandings, but I stand by my interpretation given the context of her other messages in the past.

**Funnily enough, after writing this article I came across this gem:
It seems that even the girls basic claims of broad scale English proficiency in Taiwan were greatly exaggerated.


The Snowdrop Door

File:Canal Regent Londres.jpgPhoto: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 & GFDL

As you wend your way along the towpath of Regent’s Canal, north of the ever bustling rail terminals of Kings Cross and St. Pancras stations, past the crumbling stonework of Victorian storehouses and the trendy modern flats housing bankers, and yuppies that pay their rent through Air BnB, past the students sunning themselves and drinking cheap lager on the roofs of their narrow boats. As you pass all this you may lose yourself in the glorious cosmopolitan triumph of 21st century London, a vast conurbation built on silt and clay and marshes, then on Roman ruins, Anglo Saxon ruins, and later out of the blood and gold of the millions subjugated by the forces of the greatest maritime empire the world has ever seen. As you wander along in reverie, you may pass a door. In springtime, it is a door surrounded by delicate white snowdrop flowers, rank upon rank of brilliant alabaster and emerald guardians. Like the many thousands who pass it every day you may not realise the door’s significance. And that is as it should be…

Quotes – A Cruel Hand

A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt.

-Fredrick Douglass, in a statement on behalf of delegates to the National Colored Convention held in Rochester, New York, in July 1853



——弗雷德里克·道格拉斯,在各位全国有色人大会的声明, 1853年七月,纽约,罗切斯特。

Translation of Yang Jiang’s Cadre School Diaries – Notes on Leave Taking – P6






With Deyi hefting and shouldering other people’s luggage, Ayuan and I helped Mocun carry his small number of bags and squeezed into line to get on to the platform and from there onto the train. We found a compartment to settle him in and then the three of us got off to watch quietly until the train moved off.

I remember once seeing travellers departing for an international voyage, they were boarding a small paddle steamer that was to ferry them out to a much larger vessel. Those seeing them off were casting multicoloured streamers over the small ship. As it moved away from the dock and towards it’s larger counterpart, the colourful streamers snapped one after another as the people on the bank waved and cheered. Some of the well-wishers shed tears as they waved, and it seemed as if the snap snap snap of the streamers rang out in sympathy with the pain and sorrow of those left behind. If you could see the parting sorrow of the advance party on the train and their relatives waiting below, it most certainly would not be colourful, and it would not snap so readily.¹

Mocun came to the carriage door and bid us return,  no need to wait. We locked gazes from afar, but there was nothing we could say to each other now. I thought to myself, we three should return and rest easy, if only to avoid the possibility that when the train finally pulled away he would see the worry in our eyes as we watched him departing alone. We respected his wishes and did not wait for the train to go, we left early. I looked back many times, the train hadn’t moved and the platform was still packed to bursting point. We returned home in silence; Ayuan and Deyi followed and then went back to their respective factories. Like working in the same school but in different departments, they laboured at separate factories.²

¹This paragraph is quite descriptive and emotive, I purposely moved further away from a direct translation so as to better capture it’s emotional impact.
²This seems to be a metaphorical allusion to the similarities between the children and their parents. Their working in separate factories is being compared to the parents working in the same institution but in different areas.


Translation of Yang Jiang’s Cadre School Diaries – Notes on Leave Taking – P5




To experience suffering, is to temper oneself: apart from preparing for this ordeal, is there anything else one can do? If the clothes you prepare are too old they may wear out, but if they are too tough they may be difficult to clean. I hadn’t sewn in many years, but on a whim I used my sewing machine to fashion a felt covering from some dirt resistant materials- it would last a long time before needing to be washed. I used it to patch a pair of trousers, the seat ended up like a globe, with lines of latitude and longitude going this way and that, it was thick as a turtle shell to boot. Mocun really liked it! He said it was brilliant, better than carrying a seat around with him and he could sit down wherever he pleased. He told me not to work so hard on my preparations, I could wait till I had followed him down to look after him properly. As far as reuniting our family, we would have to wait some time for Ayuan and Deyi to settle in the country and look after us in our retirement, as is customary.

In the blink of an eye it was the 11th, the day the advance party would be setting out. Myself, Ayuan, and Deyi went along to see him off. Mocun didn’t have much luggage, and found a little corner to rest in while he waited to board the train. In the waiting room there was a great hustle and bustle, people were coming and going this way and that. The leader of the advance party was so busy he was being run off his feet, not to mention the fact that he had too much luggage and was regretting being born with too few pairs of hands. Deyi put down his load and hastened to assist those who were overburdened. Seeing him ardently exerting himself on behalf of others, Mocun and I could not help but praise the customs of the new society, and we simultaneously comforted each other, saying: “Deyi is gentle and honest, as long as Ayuan has him by her side, we can rest easy.”


Translation of Yang Jiang’s Cadre School Diaries – Notes on Leave Taking – P4




We arrived at the small food shop we had agreed upon and ordered the speediest dish of clay pot chicken chunks – it was all bones. I ladled some clear broth onto the half eaten bowl of chicken but I still couldn’t get it down.

There was just one week to purchase supplies but Mocun was only given leave for the last two days.  In the end I had to cut class for a few days so I could stay home and pack his things. This leave taking was being called, “everything but the kitchen sink”——it was uprooting the entire home to be sent down, like receiving orders to go and never return. Things we didn’t use, clothes we never wore, precious books and notes; all of them had to be taken, the luggage was piled up into a great heap. At the time, our daughter, Ayuan, and our son-in-law, Deyi, were working in factories, so we couldn’t call them to help out. On their day off they came to assist with the luggage, and they even copied what others were doing and used thick ropes to tie it up ever so tight, in case it should fall and break or be crushed on the road. Unfortunately the protection those thick ropes afforded stopped at the bulky iron and wooden trunks; in terms of torment, those metal and wooden trunks simply could not match the resilience of human flesh.

Translation of Yang Jiang’s Cadre School Diaries – Notes on Leave Taking – P3



We squeezed onto the bus and he finally said to me: “I’m leaving on the 11th. I’m in the advance party.” Despite the fact that I was expecting to leave each and every day, when I heard this news it was like catching a thunderclap over my head. In a few days it would be Mocun’s sixtieth birthday, we had already arranged everything: when the day arrived we would both sit down to eat a meal of “longevity noodles” to celebrate. We were afraid his seventieth birthday would not arrive for us. But now we were going to miss it by a few days. He would be going down to the cadre school.

“Why do you have to go first?”
“Because I have you. Other people have to take their families, or make arrangements for them to stay here; I can leave that all to you.”

The cadre school was at Luoshan, Henan province, their entire department was leaving on November 17th.

Translation of Yang Jiang’s Cadre School Diaries – Notes on Leave Taking – P2



Every day the two us would queue up to get food at our respective work units’canteens. In total the queuing wasted half an hour; going back home to cook was also a waste of time and we’d be late back to work besides. Later, the Worker’s Army Propaganda Brigade loosened their hold on us and we would often meet at a cafe at midday. The food was substandard and the service was slow, but a couple waiting together could have a good chat. On 3rd November that year I was waiting at the bus stop just outside the school’s main gate. I saw Mocun slip out from the milling crowd. He walked over to me and stood by my side, he said to me in hushed tones,“I have big news to tell you, in a moment.” I looked at his face but I couldn’t guess what his big news was.

Translation of Yang Jiang’s Cadre School Diaries – Notes on Leave Taking P1



The Chinese Academy of Social Science used to be the Chinese Academy of Science, Philosophy of Social Science Department. We simply called it “the Department.” My husband and I were both members of the Department. Mocun was in the Literature Division, I was in the Foreign Languages Division.


In 1969, the intellectuals of the department were receiving “re-education” by the “Workers and Liberation Army propaganda team.”


Firstly, all the staff were “concentrated” (by being made) to live in the offices, six, seven to 9 or ten per room. Early each morning we would exercise, and then all three units would separate into classes for study before and after lunch, as well as after dinner.


After some time, the old and infirm were allowed to return home, and study time gradually decreased to just two units, in the morning and afternoon.


The two of us moved back home, but it seemed that our days living together were numbered. Soon we would be sent down to the cadre school. The location of the cadre school was gradually becoming clearer through the gossip around us, the length of our stay, however, could only be guessed. All we could do was wait.

好久不见 Long time no see

As you may have noticed I’ve done exactly what I said I’d do. I’ve posted a sum total of 3 articles in something like 6 months. Typical!


Oh well, hopefully after I’ve finished dying from all the essays and exams I’ll have something more interesting to report.

回头见 ^_^