Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Twenty Three – A novel approach
By Chris Clancy
Off we went again. On a professional level, this semester would be the most complete and rewarding one of my time at ZUEL. I knew my courses were airtight. I could tweak them here and there but, basically, after seven semesters, this was as good as it was going to get.
It had taken me long enough - nearly twice as long as it would take to set up a new course in the UK - but at last I felt I was on top of the thing.
The end of the semester would mark four years at ZUEL.
I was aware it was unusual for foreigners to be employed at the same place in China for more than three years – four was very unusual. Why this is I'm not sure. Maybe, if you stay too long, you may get to know where the skeletons are buried?
I just don't know.
Throughout the semester I was waiting for the telephone call. The one to tell me my services were no longer required.
In the end it never came.
When the semester finished I was offered another twelve month contract. I signed it but knew at the time it was probably a mistake.
Towards the end of the semester I noticed students had started borrowing presentations from other groups in the previous semester. Even though I had made changes to try and stop this happening, they could easily cope with them.
The same problem was rearing its ugly head again.
This time around there was a solution; write new case study presentations. Unfortunately, in my heart of hearts, I knew I just didn't have the energy or enthusiasm to go through all that again.
My time at ZUEL was up and it was time to move on. Time to get out while the going was good. Leave on a high.
Problem was … I didn't have a plan B.
During the semester I had spent time looking for other jobs – there was no shortage of vacancies – but nothing that ever really jumped out at me. So there I was - settling into a rut. A very comfortable rut it must be said – but still a rut.
Many people say the worst thing about being in a rut is that time drags. Having spent more time in ruts than I care to think about, I know this is not true. It's the opposite in fact. You know you're really in a rut when you turn around and wonder, not where the weeks or months have gone, but where the years have gone?
If not much happens there's no high's or low's, nothing to slow things down, nothing much to look back on.
Time actually flies – it just doesn't seem like it. And that's how it was for my last two years at ZUEL. Repetition. More of the same. More of more.
If I was entering a sort of dormant period, then Thiti seemed to be on the ascent.
After two years she could now speak the language. She had made lots of friends, especially amongst my female students. Different groups would turn up at different times at our apartment each week. They had a rule whereby Thiti would speak Chinese and they would speak English.
They managed to stick to this most of the time. The result was far better than any course either side had ever paid for.
Whenever a group arrived I would say hello and then head for my workroom. I wasn't needed. I was surplus to requirements. They would literally talk for hours. At infrequent intervals I would emerge to make a cup of coffee, or have a snack, or smoke a cigarette on the large balcony.
Once they'd really got into it my comings and goings went un-noticed.
Their conversations were strictly "girl" stuff. Occasionally I picked up a few snippets of what was being discussed.
The variety, range, depth and content – not to mention the interest and emotion which went into it - was truly amazing … families, friends, teachers, studying, exams and money … food, cooking, eating, drinking, furniture, curtains, cleaning, perfumes, hairstyles, make-up, jewellery, shampoos, books, magazines, music, movies, soaps, actors, actresses, singers, dancers, hospitals, doctors, nurses, specialists, operations, healthy living, cosmetic surgery, diets, liposuction, face lifts, botox, body hair, cellulite and money again … medicines, pills, shopping, prices, products, jobs, careers, beliefs, superstitions, the occult, magic, ghosts, mediums, palmistry, lucky numbers, unlucky nembers, colours, holidays, the weather and more on money … scratches, bruises, aches, period pains, childbirth, varicose veins, dyspepsia, diarrhea, constipation … and on and on it went.
Rather different from when men get together – we usually confine ourselves to work, sport, politics and dirty jokes.
Thiti spent the Summer of 2009 trying to get a job teaching. Her first attempt was with one of the large long-established international schools. It didn't take long to realize the poison had been laid down for her before she even had her interview.
She did manage to get one assignment teaching primary school kids. However, the behaviour of the other teachers, both Chinese and foreign, made it clear she wasn't welcome.
One of her student friends gave her the name of a Chinese guy called Walter.
He started his working life in the public sector, but after a few years decided to strike out on his own. He opened a language school and specialized in the Cambridge Business English Certificate (BEC).
This qualification is aimed at students who want to go straight to work in China after graduation, rather than study abroad.
When we met Walter he had been running his business for about twelve years and had become very rich in the process. Basically, he had cornered the Wuhan market for this qualification – he was Mr. BEC in Wuhan.
The most memorable thing about Walter was his extensive use of what he called "mind maps". My understanding of the term was to do with "brainstorming" – maybe lasting just a minute or so - throw a word or phrase out and then write down the first things that came to mind. His version was different; incredibly detailed diagrams which seemed to fall somewhere between flowcharts and critical path analysis.
He said he'd used them right from the start to plan and chart every aspect of his business. He said with this approach he missed nothing and could plan for virtually anything.
His courses were also planned and delivered using mind maps.
I asked to look at one for the speaking part of BEC. Like the others he'd shown me, there were all sorts of colour-coded lines and loops, boxes and circles and arrows and all the rest of it.
I asked a question.
"How much English do the students actually speak in class?"
"None usually," he replied, "neither do I."
There was a slight pause as I stared back at him. I may have blinked a couple of times.
"Sooo… ," I said, picking my words carefully, "you teach them Oral English in Chinese?"
"No", he replied, " I teach them how to learn to speak English – not how to actually speak it!"
This was certainly a novel approach.
As far as I could understand his reasoning, any real learning which took place was done outside the classroom – when the students were studying and practicing by themselves. The purpose of his classes was to teach them the most efficient and effective way of doing it – not to try doing it in the classroom – by itself an impossibility anyway.
"What's your retention rate like?"
"The same as other schools - but at least my dropouts go away with something useful."
"What happens once you've finished with the mind map?"
"Conventional textbook teaching, but following mind maps."
"Do you do the teaching?"
"No, I employ teachers. My boredom threshold can't take it anymore."
Thiti started doing some hours for him but encountered the same problems with his staff as she had with those at the international school. It wasn't just the nonsense from ZUEL but also a mindset that Thai women were not "good" women. The biggest laugh here was that Thiti came from a very good family.
If push came to shove she could've bought most of them ten times over.
After a few months it fizzled out. Not even Walter could counter the lack of co-operation and antipathy she had to deal with. First and last he was a businessman and she had to go. Like other self-made men I had met in my life, in the end, money always came first.
Thiti went on to try other things to get work. Walter stayed in touch and was always there if we needed any advice.
Occasionally, he would ring and ask me to introduce a new course of some kind, do some testing, give a talk, some interviewing - whatever. I never asked for money because this is not the way such things are done in China. Whenever he asked me to do anything there had to be a meeting. Whoever was involved would be there. These were rarely necessary but were held anyway – and always went on for far too long.
And then there would be more meetings.
Working with Walter was the extent of any first hand business experience I had in China. From this, and what I learned second-hand, my perception was the process usually operated through a network of invisible signals and complex relationships – which may or may not lead to something. If you don't know how to work your way through it - or understand that cash is revolving at every stage – you're in for a new type of business experience.
Deals are not made quickly – you are never dealing with just one person – and the whole thing can fall apart at the drop of a hat.
As an example, Walter told me about a deal he'd been working on. It took six meetings, over a period of weeks, to set the thing up. Shortly before it was due to start he received a telephone call to say the deal was off. The caller, who knew nothing about the deal, was simply delivering a message.
Instead of being furious he was quite matter-of-fact or ho-hum about it.
For what it's worth, I'd be reluctant to do business in China unless I had a native Chinese person as an advisor – someone I knew and trusted – and someone who had extensive experience of doing business both in China and the West.
Walter only ever paid me once – and not that generously either. But I wasn't that bothered. I learned a bit more about China than I otherwise would have, and anyway, he was the only employer in Wuhan who gave Thiti a chance.
He wasn't afraid to step out of line. He had his own means.
At Christmas the same students, more or less, turned up to decorate the place. Sean and Co. stayed with us for a few days. Wu spent most of his time tearing around the apartment.
We stayed put for the 2010 Spring Festival.
While I busied myself reading and writing, Thiti decided her best option, workwise, was to start a small business of her own. My only input was to suggest doing something which she really enjoyed. She took me at my word. Since she loved cooking this was the obvious choice.
I'm sorry I said anything. There was no shortage of people selling food in Wuhan.
She accepted this but said she'd find something different. After much experimentation she came up with her masterpiece – a jumbo size spring roll - Thai style.
I hope I never see one of those things again.
All I remember for about two months was her spring roll operation.
It quickly took over the kitchen, spread to the dining area and then into the lounge. There were pots, pans and utensils of all kinds, everywhere, along with bottles of oil, a collection of spices, packets of pastry, freshly diced vegetables, noodles, prawns and shredded pork, beef and chicken.
There were six types of spring roll. She roped her "groupies" in to help her. They sorted themselves into a production line of sorts and then talked and talked and talked as they worked.
It wasn't long before I became heartily sick of the whole thing. It didn't lose money but it didn't make any either. The materials cost was covered but not the hours and hours spent making the damned things.
It only came to an end when my daughter, Mary, said she would be coming to see us in May. She was going to stay for two weeks. This gave me the opportunity to call a halt to things.
In the end I think even Thiti was grateful for an excuse to stop. It took a weekend to close down the operation and clean the place up. It was so nice to be able to walk from one place to another without having to step over things.
But, mercifully, once it finished I knew it would never start up again.
For Mary's first week, while I was busy doing what I was doing, Thiti gave her the grand tour of Wuhan. For the second week I managed to set three days apart. There was somewhere special I wanted to take her.
A place I wanted to show her and a favour I wanted to ask.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.