Episode 6 of Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution, Series 2 of our ‘‘The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News‘ podcast
An English Lesson in Beijing opens up a barely credible story of betrayed students
Series 2 of our podcast The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories takes place over 30 minutes or so on the morning of December 25th 1984, in Beijing.
For best results, start from Episode 1 – The Staircase
In Episode 5, we discover what Calum and Robert’s learned from their first proper conversation with Chinese people.
Next: Episode 6: The Bus Stop
If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
Betrayed is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.
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S3, Episode 5: Clock and Elvis
‘Clock and Elvis literally didn’t know the meaning of Christmas’, Calum said, ‘and they’re post-grads’.
Clock Wang and Elvis Li were two of the sparkier students Calum and Robert had met the week before.
Despite being Dutch, Wim had somehow wangled himself a gig teaching English to mature students at the Institute of Coal Mining. Being lumped together as Outside Country People, had its benefits.
For a laugh, Wim had asked if any of the new lot from Edinburgh University fancied being guest lecturers.
Robert and Calum had grabbed the opportunity, as talking to Chinese students was proving to be much harder than they’d imagined.
Wim had explained there was no money in it for them, but he’d promised it would be a fun and interesting experience. And so it had turned out.
On the way to the Coal Mining Institute, Wim had explained to Calum and Robert why they were finding it so hard to meet Chinese students.
‘It’s nothing to do with you’, he said. ‘I’ve had no problem making Chinese friends, even when my Chinese was as shit as yours’.
By now they knew that Wim wasn’t being rude, just Dutch. And, anyway, they knew their Chinese had a long way to go before they could converse as fluently as Wim and his fellow Dutch post-grads could.
And it was reassuring to learn they weren’t to blame for their isolation from the Chinese students.
From the moment they’d been housed in the designated Foreign Student dorm, it had been clear that though they might share a campus with the Chinese students, in practical terms they inhabited parallel universes.
The dormitories, even their canteens, were segregated. To enter the Foreign Students dorm, Chinese students had to register with a hatchet-faced guard at the front desk, who seemed to see his job as that of prison guard rather than cross-cultural facilitator. Maybe it was.
There was no official interdiction on foreigners going into Chinese dorms, but without any Chinese friends to invite you in, they were effectively off-limits. Entering uninvited would have felt touristy and disrespectful, and there was zero possibility of slipping in unnoticed.
Even at the Foreign Languages University, Western-looking foreigners were an exotic species.
Their Japanese and South Korean dorm-mates could get away with it if they dressed down, but big noses turned out to be a real giveaway. The students might not gather in 5-deep crowds, as happened if you stopped for even a minute on a busy public street, but on campus there was still no such thing as an unobtrusive laowai.
Some of the old hands, like Wim, had developed friendships with Chinese students, who’d smuggled their foreign friends into their dorms for drinking parties.
Wim had told them the dorms used by the Chinese students were built to exactly the same design as the foreign ones, but instead of the single bed the laowai had to themselves, each room contained 8 bunk beds.
‘When I first came here three years, ago, it was twelve to a room’, Wim had told them, before sweet-talking the guard at the entrance to the Coal Mining Institute into letting his guests in.
The guard looked confused, and having no reason to say no, just waved them through.
Wim guided Calum and Robert through the cold, bare corridors leading to his classroom.
‘In the Chinese dorm – No hot water, ever. Intermittent cold water.’ he told them. Wim, who was an adventurous eater, had said he wouldn’t give the food from the Chinese student’s canteen to his dog. And this was one of China’s top universities in the national capital.
Calum and Robert looked at each other, each deciding not to ever make any further complaints, even to each other, about the cracked windows, rationed hot water, intermittent power and limited canteen menu at the Foreign Students dorm.
No wonder some of the Chinese students sometimes muttered some of those less complimentary terms for foreigner, big nose and foreign devils, when they passed.
‘So you see it’s not personal’, Wim had continued, on the way up the staircase to the classroom where 30 coal mining engineers awaited them.
‘You see, there’s a power struggle taking place at the highest levels of Chinese government, and you’re just feeling the distant ripples’.
This was the kind of talk that made Calum and Robert feel really naive. Deng Xiaoping and his fellow-reformers had still not completely wrested control of this billion-strong nation from the remnant Cultural Revolution die-hards, Wim had explained, and had to throw them the odd bone.
That’s when Wim had taught them a new phrase, ‘jingshen wuran’, or ‘spiritual pollution’. This, he explained, was the name of the political campaign that was code for Don’t Trust Anything Foreign. That had only just started before they arrived in September.
Robert rolled the phrase around his mouth as if tasting a fine wine, and tried it out.
‘Stop whinging about the pork and cabbage on the canteen menu, you capitalist running dog,’ he said to Calum. ‘You’re polluting my spirit – spare me your big nose contagion!’.
As Wim had introduced them to the rows of Chinese coal miners, Calum and Robert suddenly realised how unusual it was, even after three months, to have this chance to practise their classroom Chinese with real Chinese people.
Sure, they’d exchange words with the red-faced serving staff at the canteen, haggle with the peasants selling vegetables by the roadside, or try to attract the attention of the shop assistants slumped on the glass counters at the Number Five Department Store.
But these had been the limits of their everyday interactions with ordinary Chinese people, and now they had a name to explain why – Jīngshén wūrǎn
That was why so few students were prepared to risk being seen talking to a foreigner in public.
By now, Wim had finished his introductions, and everyone was now looking expectantly at the guest lecturers.
Calum and Robert launched into their halting self-introductions. Their Chinese was improving rapidly, but Calum, Robert and their other second-year classmates were still limited by their childish capacity to express themselves.
They had rapidly switched to English, as this was, after all what they were supposed to be there for.
Watching as Wim intervened every now and then to explain something, Calum and Robert were once again in awe of his command of the language.
But they also know that even fluent speakers like Wim faced what they called ‘performing monkey syndrome’. These educated coal engineers weren’t too bad, but most Chinese were so dumbstruck at actually encountering a flesh-and-blood laowai, they barely registered the noises coming from their mouths.
Those that did eventually engage in conversation were usually more interested in asking questions, usually about how much things cost, than engaging in what Calum and Robert considered ‘normal’ conversation.
They’d already endured hundreds of questionnaires about the price of everything from cabbage to university fees, and the novelty had long evaporated.
The class was pretty unresponsive in general, but Clock and Elvis had stood out: they were engaged, funny, observant, quick to learn and happy to raise their hands when no one else did.
Which is why chatting to Clock and Elvis after the lesson was over, had been such fun.
The classroom environment provided protection from accusations of spiritual pollution, but Clock and Elvis didn’t seem too bothered by such things anyway.
They’d quickly got past the performing monkey stage, and between Calum and Robert’s still-kindergarten Chinese, and Clock and Elvis’s book-learned English, they’d actually managed to have something akin to a normal conversation.
Clock and Elvis had asked them about coal mining in England. Robert had attempted to relay the ongoing struggle between Mrs. Thatcher and the Miners, and immediately regretted it.
As soon as he’d embarked on it, he’d realised he lacked almost all the necessary vocabulary. Looking up ‘trade union’ in a Chinese dictionary turned out to only confuse matters further, as they had very different functions in Britain and The People’s Republic of China.
Calum’s patient explanation of the difference between England, Scotland and Great Britain, on the other hand, was quite fluent by now. He duly deployed it when Elvis asked him if there was any coal mining in his part of England.
Calum delivered his usual meticulous delineation of the distinctions between ‘Yingguo’, ‘Sugelan’, and ‘Buliedian’, which as usual was received with comprehensive incomprehension.
At least they thought they’d managed to get to the bottom of Clock and Elvis’s English names.
Clock had simply looked up the English word for his Chinese name in the dictionary. He was cheerfully unconcerned at their diplomatic attempts to explain that that Clock was ‘not a common name in English’.
Elvis’s name had been the whim of a previous foreign tutor, who’d assigned the entire class English names. Calum and Robert reckoned they knew who it must have been, when Elvis introduced his classmates, Muddy and Blind Lemon.
After these pleasantries, their conversation had gone deeply weird.
As they approached the bus stop, still in lockstep, Calum and Robert tried to reconstruct the conversation, and compare their understandings of what the two Chinese students had said.
The bus stop was a red-painted pole, with a few bus numbers and their destinations hand-written on a square of bare plywood.
In Episode 6, The Bus Stop, we get to the crux of the story.