thefilthycomma #42

This year’s trip to China was a little like Men in Black: shorter than one might expect, but packed with incident. There were the usual strange little vignettes that stay embedded in the mind like burrs in a sock: the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch advertising Dunlop tires via an exchange of eloquent glances with someone I think we were supposed to infer was his butler; the comment from Chinese friends and colleagues that my new husband ‘look like Brunel’ (because of his sideburns, rather than his propensity to wear a stovepipe hat); snippets of conversation, overheard or relayed later (my colleague K, giving interview feedback to an un-named Chinese student: You speak extremely slowly. Chinese student: I … disagree). Of course there were also the wonderful hotel malapropisms, urging me to leave my ‘privates’ in the smaller of the two laundry bags, ‘get off with other passengers’ in the lift and switch the lights and air conditioning in my room off at night (not like at home, where I recklessly leave both on until 3am), so that the hotel can ‘use power wisely’.

Looking through my reports on the individual students, I am struck by how some of them spring into sharp focus immediately, while others have already faded into the background, never to be recalled. Here is a sentence from my report on a student called Jack: ‘this was the only student whose name I never managed to get right, because he is so quiet (I want to describe him as ‘anonymous’ because that is almost literally true). Even now, I would only be able to pick him out of the group by a process of elimination, by which I mean lining up all the students and naming the other twenty-seven first.’1 People who haven’t visited China sometimes comment that it must be difficult to tell the students apart because they all have the same hair colour, the same eye colour and a small number of haircuts arbitrarily divided between them2. I find these similarities cause the differences in facial features, voices, body language and other mannerisms to stand out more. Moreover, everyone having black or brown eyes isn’t the same as everyone having the same black or brown eyes. This year I met a student called Chengxi with the most extraordinary bloom to the irises of her eyes. It was almost pale blue in colour and formed a sort of ghostly corona around the pupil. Similarly, a student last year named Terry stands out for having unusually curly hair (curly for a Chinese, that is), with a noticeable sprinkling of thick white strands, which he told me were caused by pollution. Jack notwithstanding, I rarely have trouble remembering the students’ names or telling them apart, even this year when we had students called Lavender (who reminded me of a girl from two years ago called Sunny) and Ruby (who reminded me very strongly of a student from last year called Lavender). Those that stand out in the mind most clearly, however, are the strong students, and the unusual students.

The students do presentations about their subject area on the final day, for which I arrange them into groups. The presentation can take any form they like, last no more than five minutes, and describe why their subject or subjects are relevant, useful and important. One group decided to create a diagram, filling a six-foot-long whiteboard in such a way as to show what contribution each of them would make (once qualified) to building and maintaining a new town. Lavender (town planner) drew two maps, one showing empty, riverine countryside, and the other plans for houses, shops, public buildings, roads and bridges. Ann (architect) drew a beautifully-realised architect’s diagram of a public library, in perfect perspective and without a ruler. Pauline (civil engineer) sketched Golden Gate Bridge (instantly recognisable and also without help from anything with a straight edge) as a symbolic gesture (‘it mean I do this sort of thing’, she explained). Finally, Rain (who, wonderfully, wants to be an environmental engineer, which is why I allowed her to keep her name just as it is) drew a diagram of the chemical reactions involved in cleaning the river water to make it drinkable. Better than all of that (and, of course, the real object of the exercise), they had enjoyed animated discussion of exactly where the dividing lines lay between their different disciplines; I overheard Pauline saying to Ann (with some heat, which I guess is why she switched to English), ‘Engineer do bridge! Architect do building!’ When I asked the girls whether they would like to live in the town they had designed, they all said yes immediately3. Lavender explained that the whole idea behind the design of the town was community. The banks of the river running through the town were to be divided into allotments; the river was to be filled with carp to keep the water clean, and the fish were to be fed by the people who lived nearby, creating a sense of ownership and civic pride (a phrase she learned during the week and was delighted to say back to me). Moreover, they had built in tourist attractions, one of which was Ann’s library, and a large park to encourage people to mingle with their fellow citizens as well as those from outside. I hope I don’t need to point out that this is somewhat different from the last few thousand years of Chinese foreign and domestic policy.

Finally, their town contained only one building taller than two storeys (the pentagonal clock tower of Ann’s library). I found this quite startling, as all the students come from vast Chinese cities of millions of people living in high-rise buildings. ‘Why have you done that?’ I asked, directing the question to all of them since it seemed to have been a joint decision. The answer was that this would ‘allow people to see right across town’, in the hope that they would get to know each other. The clock tower was to have a clock on each side ‘so people not need wear watch, but can watch library’ (the accidental pun made them all giggle, in that charming, childlike Chinese way, behind an upheld hand, but with the smile poking out either side). Rain added, ‘Yes. If people go up the library tower, they can see people in the town. And also, they can wave!’ She waved cheerily. ‘Like this!’ ‘It sounds like a very friendly place’, I said. Lavender responded that another reason for keeping the buildings low to the ground was to make it easier for drivers and tourists to find their way, and the street-lighting more efficient. ‘We want to use power wisely,’ she told me, ‘like it says on the power unit in the hotel.’


There were several other students that struck me as both strong and unusual this year. When you consider that they come from a country where uniformity is almost always considered a good thing, it becomes all the more impressive to meet students that have no intention of being uniform. As usual (and as I have written before: see Open the Box), the Embarrassing Questions Box proved a useful tool for encouraging students to think about broader cultural issues. One question read: ‘Which is more important to British man? Real love, or sex?’ Having agreed that it depended on the man in question, later on that day I asked the boys to vote on which they thought was most important in a relationship. Intriguingly, real love and sex received the same number of votes each, with one abstention. I noticed particularly that none of the boys (except Daniel, the student who abstained) had any trouble deciding which they preferred. Daniel was strikingly reminiscent of Oddjob, minus the lethal hat, plus glasses and a T-shirt declaring vegetarianism to be the way forward. He explained to me very seriously that although he wasn’t vegetarian, he liked the T-shirt because the pictures of vegetables were arranged in neat rows, ‘like vegetable patch grow on my chest’ (this in turn made me wonder whether the girls had got the idea for their riverbank allotments from Daniel’s T-shirt, or whether the idea had arrived by some other route). Daniel is a large, soft-spoken boy, cautious of expressing an opinion he hasn’t had time to think through. I asked him why he abstained, and he replied, ‘I need to try both options before I decide’. I said, ‘With the same girl?’ He said, ‘Ideally, yes’.

Another student stopped me as I wandered around the room with the Box in search of questions, and said that he had been thinking about the purpose of the Box and its symbolic power (‘what Box mean’). He said, ‘the Box know everything. If we don’t know something, we should ask the Box. He is very wise.’ He thought for a moment, his face screwed up. ‘Also, perhaps it is a she-Box. I am not sure. But the Box knows everything, so it must know if it is a he or a she.’ I put the Box on his desk. ‘Do you remember me explaining earlier in the week that knowledge is power?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Yes. Box powerful.’ The Box, as I described in an earlier post (see Open the Box), is nothing more than a cardboard container, previously home to reams of paper, and with (on this occasion) ‘Embarrassing Box’ scrawled across it. It doesn’t look very powerful, but of course he was right: like any deceptively simple, well-designed item, the Box is powerful.

3 That all four girls were happy to live in the town they had designed reminded me that I, the creator of the Box, am obliged to answer the questions that are put into it. It also recalled a conversation had I overheard as we were removing our baggage from the overhead lockers in preparation for leaving the ’plane in Shanghai:

Stubbly American (rueful): Hell is a place where everyone who designed a shoddy product has to use it.
Scottish guy (laughing): I agree. Like the bastard that invented the ironing board.
Stubbly American (lifting down his case from the overheard rack): Right! Ironing boards, man! Or this piece-of-shit case I have to use!
Scottish guy (sympathetic): Did you design it yourself?
Stubbly American (hangs head): Yes.

© David Scoins 2017