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…

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 ^_^

The early____doesn’t wait in line for five hours like a twit!

Arriving like the proverbial early bird, I officially enrolled as a student of Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), last Thursday. Dumping my documents unceremoniously onto the desk, I bade the drudgeon sign me up on pain of death! At least, the much cooler, Shakespearian aristocrat (/Roy from the IT crowd) version of me would have done so. Regular-me just asked politely. After the mild awkwardness of deciding whether or not there would actually be conversation between two perfect strangers who will never see each other again-and coming to the correct conclusion, no there would not-I left to find my recently acquired catholic theologian cum missionary friend. Oh, what a refreshing start!

Nestled in a corner of Russel Square, a stone’s throw from the neoclassical colonnades of the British Museum (大英博物馆), SOAS is a part of the University of London that includes University College London and Birkbeck College in the same campus complex. Like Imperial College, SOAS was founded to advance the interests of the British Empire. The areas of special research interest are covered in the name so I won’t reiterate. However, it is interesting to juxtapose the two institutions, because, as I said, both were founded for very similar end goals. Imperial specialises in the natural sciences and engineering, it is situated in one of the wealthiest boroughs in London, and from personal experience, has a largely conservative student-body. SOAS, by comparison, is widely billed as, to quote a friend, “weed central,” with a studentship comprised of lefty anti-establishment types. First impressions seem to confirm this. I never saw as much “activism” in all my four years at Imperial, and I’ve only been here a week. Polite notices next to the lifts remind people not to judge people taking the lift up one floor, there are many disabilities that don’t come with a wheel chair; emails on protests and good deeds are sent round weekly, I already have multiple emails about the situation in Calais, the movement to protect the Uni’s cleaners and other kinds of action; posters in the student union remind us that silence is not consent; and so on etc. It’s a real breath of fresh air actually. It feels like a “proper university,” the kind depicted in sitcoms and American Pie, I’m starting to wish I’d been here from the very start. (My traumatic experience at the hands of a Communist at fresher’s fayre notwithstanding.)

After rendezvousing in the entrance hall, the Anglo-German alliance launched a brunch-time raid on the library. Once again I was very impressed with the quality of the facilities, many of which were near new and in good nick. The library is a cube that sits in the middle of the main building, it’s a wonderful design, the stacks are arranged on terraces that surround a central square, this allows a good amount of natural light to penetrate from the skylights to the ground floor, it’s a wonderful place to be even without the books. The BOOKS! Books on every place you’ve heard of, and that’s probably just the ground floor, the other 5 floors cover everywhere else. Knowing the kind of person I am, I’ve not taken any books out yet, my course is known to be intense so I’ll probably have little free time to use and abuse the library as much as my raging passions would like. If I’m good from the start, I won’t end up snowed under with reading later on. That’s my best laid plan.

Following a long stint in the library, we made our way to the small room in which the China and Inner Asia department postgrad meeting would take place. I got a good look at my likely classmates for the very first time. It was a good mix of people, old and young, thick and thin. As expected, they were predominantly White and East Asian, the only other black person was a very hip-hop b-boy (sic) styled girl who seemed to be American. Kind of looked like my polar opposite, but very pretty nevertheless. The meeting was called to order by Michel Hoxx in a (I would soon learn) characteristically charming yet soft spoken way.  The department staff then gave their speeches and introduced their classes. Not much was new to me, having been over the website with a fine toothed comb. However, the Taiwan studies guy really impressed me. He’s quite a character really, with a pudding basin hair-cut, large spectacles, and a twitchy rapid way of speaking, he’s the the embodiment of the stereotypical academic. Although I have no real interest in Taiwan, he really made me want to take some of the courses and see what all the fuss is about. After the talks were over my friend and I went for a pint to replenish our strength.

At 4pm we met the rest of our course-mates in Michel’s office; we chatted over fresh fruit, tea, and cakes. Just my luck, out of 6 people, 5 are male. There’s only one girl on my course and she has a boyfriend. Great. Still, ulterior motives aside, everyone was really nice. Michel was very amiable and quite charming in fact. I have a very good feeling about this (预感非常好). I’m slightly intimidated by peoples’ credentials: 2 years in China, 4 years in China, 3 years  Chinese Studies BA etc. Still, I’m determined to catch up with them no matter what it takes. I’m going to check out all the high level language courses and see if I can sit in and audit a class to supplement the reading seminar I’ll be taking. Class starts tomorrow. Wish me luck! 晚安~

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

This post represents the first step in my thousand mile journey to learn Chinese, grow up, conquer my personal demons, and one day reach that elusive paradise known as a well paying job. All documented in this here blog!

Future posts will catalogue many aspects of my life, and musings on whatever issues happen to be troubling me at the present time. Hopefully it will act as a cheap therapy/venting session for me, as well as an interesting pass-time for readers.

One of my first confessions, is that I never finish anything I haven’t paid an egregious amount of money for. As such this blog, for which I have paid precisely zero pounds sterling, is already in jeopardy. My secret hope is that, should I manage to persevere for long enough, I will accrue a small community of readers who will force me to keep typing. My life is at a turning point, I hope the proceeding years will give me enough intellectual and spiritual stimulation to continue writing without internet groupies dogging my heels, but whatever works works!

For those of you terrified of the foreign and strange, it’s worth noting that I’m currently studying Chinese (as mentioned in the opening, dopey), so posts like the following may be frequent:


I’m joking, it was a goat!

OK, crass digressions aside. To give you a more in depth introduction to who I am and where I’m coming from, I’ll explain a little below.

I’m about to graduate from university in the UK. I studied biology for three years, and even managed to get myself an internship at the Natural History Museum London. Needless to say this was something of a dream come true. I regret not taking more pictures and sneaking after people to enter restricted areas just for the thrill. Unfortunately a mixture of anxiety and depression brought that little dream to a premature end. Right now, I’m preparing to start a masters in Chinese studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Biology to Chinese. Natural science to humanities. Yes, it’s quite a jump and I’m scared witless (but not all the time, thankfully). I got the bug a while back and haven’t been able to shake it. I’ll tell the story of my journey to Chinese in a later post. For now all I can say is that it’s my greatest passion and my deepest pain. As a young buck whose experiences are limited, I can only assume this is something like love. Drawing on my extensive study of romcoms, I determined to pursue this passion despite the set backs, mood swings and dramatic breakups. In perhaps 2 years, I managed to bungle my way to language proficiency that’s good enough to scrape through the requirements for a masters course. In this time I learned that Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages in the world and that many people, both in China and abroad, will consider me some sort of prodigy. At the same time I discovered that there are thousands of non-natives whose Chinese is light years ahead of mine. As a bit of a pessimist and low-self-esteemer I can say that I love bumping into the former, but as a perfectionist I know that the latter group is the only one that will help me improve.

Right now I’m in limbo, the masters course starts in two weeks and most of my other friends are busy with work or their theses. I’m really excited about starting the next stage in my life, and I plan to make the most of every penny I’ve spent to make contacts and learn as much as I can (All right, my parents are paying but I’ll pay them back, promise). In the mean time, I’m attempting to claw my way back into the habit of waking before noon. I’ve seen mixed results so far…

(Hopefully I’ll keep the clichéd Chinese idioms to a minimum, but there’s a reason Chinese textbooks always start with the title of this post!)


Born to be remarkable

強者我朋友 @Ching-Chih Lu 討論關於多元入學的一些迷思。



PS: 如果你上過我的經濟學原理,你應該知道這就是受教育如何增加薪水的兩種經濟理論之一:「認證標籤(Signal)」。


By Ching-Chih Lu


備審資料不用美輪美奐,基本的 Microsoft Office 或是 Open Office 就可以做出夠好的東西來,後者不用錢就可以下載。現在都改成檔案上傳,就是為了不讓學生及家長浪費成本。找顧問公司更是沒有必要的事情,他們真的有辦法幫每一位學生量身打造備審資料嗎?如果沒有辦法的話,那一定會有許多制式的套件。




以前還會聽說一些要做公益服務、要練才藝的神話。如果申請台大醫科的學生都學測滿級分學校表現無懈可擊,那也許多做點公益活動、多會幾樣樂器才藝會有點幫助。我是不知道台大醫學系有沒有那麼競爭,不過從台大電機開始就確定沒有那麼誇張了。我自己在社會組排名還算蠻前面的科系任教,參與大學推甄口試的經驗是問學生「有沒有閱讀習慣」就可以篩掉絕大部分的考生了。現在這年頭有電腦有網路就可以看到很多國外的網站,不需要家裡訂英文報紙也不需要學校或社區圖書館有這些資源,自己電腦打開就可以看免費的紐約時報跟經濟學人 (免費能看到的文章有限制,不過也沒有什麼高中生有那個美國時間看那麼多的)。過去的經驗是從來沒有人嘗試過。



CCLu 的原文連結:

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