Ni shuo zhongwen ma?


I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that people pay (often lots of) money to sit in a class and practise speaking foreign languages. Everyone on earth already has at least one language at their disposal and it’s not too hard to track down someone who wants to learn that language and in return will help you as your try your hardest to make yourself understood in their language. It’s just a case of tracking down that someone, which these days, what with the gumtree and whatnot, is not a very difficult task at all.

Of course occasionally you may, especially if you’re a woman, meet people with ulterior motives, or who are actually just really boring, or who laugh pitilessly every time you try and put a sentence together – or in the case of Mandarin Chinese, look at you with such puzzlement that you’d think you’d just told them there was something wrong with the Communist Party, whereas in fact you were simply trying to let them know that you come from Sheffield and you prefer broccoli to spinach. But on the whole it’s preferable to and a lot more effective than, say, paying €50 a month to some unscrupulous bastards who will continue fleecing your bank account long after the school has gone bankrupt and the teacher has fucked off back to London in poverty, or, if you’re Brazilian, will stick you in a tiny classroom on Oxford Street with eighteen of your compatriots so you end up speaking less English than you would back home.

Now I come to think of it, language teachers spend so much time trying to make their students pretend that they are not actually in a classroom at all that it really makes you question the point of being there in the first place.

Whateva. After I’d put an ad on the gumtree for people to practise my own rudimentary polygoticism with, I exchanged a couple of emails with someone who said they could help me with my Chinese, which would be nice, although somebody helping me with my Chinese is a bit like teaching my great-great German grandmother to speak Brazilian Portuguese, because my Chinese is hen bu hao. I was a bit busy at the time what with holidays, work and the problems on the Hammersmith & City Line to deal with, so I didn’t reply for ages, but when I did I realised that he must have been a very interesting guy to talk to, because he happened to mention that he had come to Britain to study in 1967.

Now obviously 1967 was the Summer of Love in the West, but in China, if anything I’ve ever read about that era is true, gangs of young people in uniforms roamed around the country kicking people to death simply because they had been known to wear glasses from time to time. Jung Chang, the writer of ‘Wild Swans’ and ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ was only allowed to leave in 1978 after extensive political preparation. Whoever this guy was, it was fairly clear that his eyesight, not to mention his devotion to the Party, must have impressed the Red Guards a hell of a lot in order to be allowed to escape the fate that befell millions of his contemporaries; sent away from the cities to harvest stones in the backwoods of absolutely nowhere for the greater glory of the Great Helmsman.

He must have had some experiences along the way which caused him to at least question Party rule. One of the guys I live with is I think quite typical of more recent generations of overseas Chinese in that he doesn’t particularly want to live in China but doesn’t think the Party is doing a bad job and sees Mao as generally one of the good guys. I haven’t met anyone who dissents from this point of view, or at least if I have they’ve had no good reason to tell me about it – although I did once have a short conversation with Harry Wu about teddy bears, and I mentioned my first shameful encounter with a Chinese political dissident here. I would really like to have the opportunity to meet some Chinese people who are explicitly not happy about how their country is run, and am wondering how to go about it.

I don’t want to just march up to the protestors outside the Chinese Embassy and offer my services to the Falun Gong, which seems to be the most prominent organised political opposition outside China. I have no great wish to set myself on fire in Tiananmen Square. But I guess if I can’t make contact with Chinese dissidents in London, then where can I? Does anyone have Wei Jingsheng’s email address?

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