Story Recommend

If you like reading short stories, or if you like reading fiction about China, I’ve got a short story recommendation for you. **Warning, there is some strong language and adult themes in the story.**

I came across this story, “Learning the Western Alphabet” by Hilary Jenkins, while randomly searching writing websites. I began to read it somewhat sceptically, because I tend to do that. But I was surprised. It is a very good story about a British ESL teacher in China in the 1980s and the relationship that develops between him and his Chinese “minder.” Many of the things discussed in the story are no longer true but I recognized many cultural traits and behaviors from my own time in China. Anyone who travels to China brings with them their notions of what China and the Chinese must be like. Their 5000 years of history, their Confucian ideals, their distrust of foreigners. What many people forget is that modern China is very much influenced by that 5000 years of history and Confucianism, but also by the tragic reality of the past 100 years –  war, revolution, famine, poverty, crazed leaders. There is a history behind every “strange behavior” the foreigner sees.

This story touches on this idea, showing what a college “unit” was like in the 80s, with their party leaders, quotas, criticisms, work units, and special meetings. Again, these kinds of things are fading fast in the new China. One sentence in the story especially caught my attention:

During a campaign to lessen cultural pollution, “The loudspeaker outside the guest house is to be turned up particularly loud.”

From our hotel at the airport, we could regularly hear a voice over a loudspeaker coming from the neighboring village. At first we joked about how it was our daily dose of CCP propaganda. Later I think we sort of got used to it and forgot about it. Now that I look back I think that it may have just been the village leaders announcing meetings or some such thing, but it realistically could have been propaganda of some kind.

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2 Responses to “Story Recommend”

  1. davidbdale Says:

    Thank you for the recommendation. You’re right. The story is filled with fascinating details. Makes you wonder which mundane details of our own culture would seem fascinating to travelers from such a different place.

  2. global gal Says:

    Believe me, MANY of our mundane details are interesting! Working as an ESL teacher in China, my students all wanted to know just those kinds of things. (What kind of house did I live in? What kind of shops does my hometown have? etc.)

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