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China, humour

China 20: English lesson

Copyright, Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

February 28

Wake up this morning to fertile land. High mountains and mist and a river, and terraced fields. We go through many tunnels cut through mountains. It must be bitterly cold outside. There is a huge ice floe in the river, snow on the mountains and I’ve seen two frozen waterfalls. Still, it’s not brown. It’s like the Scottish highlands. The scenery gets even better as we go on. Those paintings of mountain peaks that you seen hanging on the walls of Chinese restaurants in Britain don’t look so far-fetched now.

The food situation is pretty bad. We have some packet noodles, but it’s not enough and the food in the restaurant car is disgusting. Flimsy polystyrene boxes of cold rice and I suppose something that looks like chopped up salami, but isn’t. And when we finish, the guards just open the train window and chuck the lot on to the tracks. Box after box flying into the perfect scenery.

I’d love an orange. Don’t know why that popped into my head. But now it has, I can’t get rid of the idea.

The children in the carriage are lovely. One toddler, with eyes like sloes, who looks more Indian than Chinese, keeps getting dumped on Cheryl’s bunk. Another child is sleeping above me and squeals with delight when I waggle my fingers. Then she grabs my hands, just like a kitten. But she’s strong – she almost pulls me up off my bunk.

As the night draws on we are visited by four men who want to practise their English. They are all in the blue Mao suits nearly everyone wears here, if you’re not a member of the People’s Liberation Army, and they are holding their caps in their hands.

Actually only one of them understands English, and then only if I write it down and let him have a good think about it. He reads it out loud; he’s very proud of his reading skills. He and Elspeth read a page from his Teach Yourself English book (A Day At the Seaside) – he very correct, and Elspeth in broad Scouse, while Cheryl and I stuff hankies in our mouths to try to keep a straight face. That’s a point. We’ve run out of bog paper and the girls are threatening to use my diary, but we compromise by using the souvenir envelopes of Shanghai that we pinched from the hotel in Xian.

Anyway, back to Mr Earnest – he’s determined to improve his English so he does his best, while the others sit and listen and nod and chat about us in Chinese. I write on his paper, ‘What do you do?’

His lips move slowly, wordlessly over the sentence. Then he has a huddled conference with his mates. Back comes the answer, ‘I study economics.’

‘What did you do before that?’ I write.

He mutters to himself. ‘I was cadre.’

So I decide to plunge in. Cheryl and Elspeth, as politics graduates, could tell me the answer to this in a second, and I know myself that it means a communist party worker, but I’m determined to get it from the horse’s mouth.

‘What is a cadre?’ I write. ‘I’ve never met one before.’

Much astonishment from the men.

‘We don’t have them in England.’

More astonishment.

Now it’s his turn to ask a question.

‘Do you have peasants in England?’


Of course, to them, it’s a perfectly normal question; under the Chinese system you have people who work the land and people who work in towns. Having spent all my life in a country where communists are thought of as either rather silly and slightly dangerous, or plainly eccentric, I’m just getting used to the fact that I’m now in a country where people talk about Marx and Mao in the same way westerners talk about Winston Churchill or JFK. It can be very surprising at times.

Back to the question of what a cadre does, though. I’m beginning to get writer’s cramp. No answer. The men talk among themselves and we wonder if this is a rebuff, Chinese style.

‘Why don’t you answer my question?’ I scribble.

Then after another party conference, comes the answer. ‘A cadre looks after the people.’

‘What people in particular, how many and in what way?’ comes my spiffy rejoinder. This is a facer for them. ‘In particular’ and ‘in what way’ seem to give them the most trouble. Back to the conference.

Then, ‘A cadre is a very important person. He responsible for many people. Sometimes hundreds.’

‘How many people were you responsible for?’

He looks round at his mates. ‘Three.’

Everyone laughs, including him.

‘What, these three?’ I ask. ‘Are you all cadres, and you take it in turn?’

His second in command seems to understand this and all the others have a good laugh. But he’s not very happy about this loss of dignity, and when Cheryl teases him, saying, ‘Are you in charge tomorrow?’ he answers gravely, ‘Tomorrow I study economics.’

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


15 thoughts on “China 20: English lesson

  1. Awesome. I wanna be a cadre. Oh wait, I am a cadre…

    Posted by naptimethoughts | March 7, 2015, 1:45 am
  2. Great story–and interesting. I guess it’s fortunate everyone had a sense of humor. 🙂
    I imagine China now is a bit different.

    Posted by merrildsmith | March 5, 2015, 11:03 pm
  3. Wow, you really like to tweak the tiger’s tail don’t you.You could have been straight out of the window after th cold rice.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | March 5, 2015, 10:13 pm
  4. Peasant, pheasant, pleasant… no wonder he needed a jolly dictionary…

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | March 5, 2015, 6:46 pm
  5. I’m curious–would you tackle this trip now, thirty years later? You obviously needed/need a sense of humor. I don’t know how you could handle the food–I couldn’t.

    Posted by Vivra Beene | March 5, 2015, 4:18 pm
    • Yes, maybe, if it was still possible. But China is so different; I googled the singing sands and it’s a really jazzy tourist destination now, and they charge you to go there. As for the food, it’s amazing what you can eat if you are hungry. And it was ok most of the time.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 5, 2015, 5:34 pm
    • Vivra, I looked all over your blog and couldn’t see where the follow button is. Is it so obvious that I just can’t see it?

      Posted by elainecanham | March 5, 2015, 6:51 pm
  6. These are the best parts: communicating and exchanging thoughts with the people. Awesome. 😛

    Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | March 5, 2015, 2:30 pm
  7. “I’d love an orange. Don’t know why that popped into my head. But now it has, I can’t get rid of the idea.”

    Perhaps your diet while there lacked sufficient Vitamin C?

    Interesting conversation with the “cadre” and his companions giving you some insight on the culture under Mao.

    Posted by lbwoodgate | March 5, 2015, 12:22 pm
    • Yes, I think we were in need of some vitamin C, and it was really interesting, seeing what other people thought of as completely normal

      Posted by elainecanham | March 5, 2015, 12:32 pm

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