Wise travellers say that someone who spends a week or so in China quickly gains a good overview of the entire place and its people; those who spend a month there begin to have their doubts; and those who spend a year or more in this vast country realise that the place is quite beyond comprehension.
I spent just eight months there in two tranches and still have moments of complete understanding – very, very brief moments. Part of the puzzle is that the country is both old and new: an ancient society with a history that predates that of the West, yet a youthful society which traces its roots to the social revolution of Mao Zedong and the financial redirection of Deng Xiaoping - the latter blossoming into the establishment of the first McDonald’s in Beijing in 1991.
I feel a little involved in China’s history, just a little. Happenstance found me taking a post as a teacher in the remote city of Yan’an where Mao’s Long March ended and the revolution began. No one outside of China is likely to have heard of Yan’an, but, to the majority of Chinese, it is the equivalent of Mecca to the Muslims.
That visit left me with a big heap of notes, blogs and emails written whilst teaching and travelling. It also gave me the urge to write more and, after many false starts, it resulted in the novel Shaken by China which I have recently launched on Amazon’s Kindle and Smashwords as an eBook.
Though Shaken by China is a work of fiction it does rest heavily on my time spent in Yan’an. It is not by any means an attempt to encapsulate China – not at all. But it does, I hope, convey a tangential view of the Republic through the experiences of a young teacher. It allowed me to explore the culture a little: a culture that surprised me in its loyalty to family on the one hand; its degree of corruption on the other; and a culture which to the innocent traveller seems quite open yet is capable of cover-ups on a massive scale.
I am inclined to bring all of my notes together into a book entitled something like “101 reasons not to teach in China”, but I could also entitle it 101 reasons to do so. My recollections of those two periods are sharp and deep. The high point of the second visit was a brief return to Yan’an to marvel at the changes which had taken place in just four years. The low was the abysmal conditions in which the majority of people still live.
Highs and lows aside it all amounted to a great experience which I owe to Margaret, the real teacher of the pair of us.