Cracking China

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

Author: Rod MacKenzie
Published by: Knowledge Thirst Media
ISBN: 978-062-45-107-9
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

Some might call South African-born author Rod MacKenzie foolish, others would think him extremely brave.
In Portsmouth, England, he closed his eyes on the train home and “suddenly got an image of red lanterns and… teaching Chinese children English. “‘Go to China,’ something said inside me.”

China just as confusing as SA
Cracking China, published by Knowledge Thirst Media, is MacKenzie’s rich and beautifully written account of the outcome of this decision and should be mandatory reading for all South African teachers who may be temporarily fed up with their jobs.

That’s because while we may all be aware that China is the fastest-growing global economic powerhouse, few of us will know how exactly how confusing it is to arrive in such a vast country shaped by a multitude of ancient cultural mores. In Shaoxing beyond Shanghai (“We were not prepared for the monotony of cheap buildings just slapped together… concrete buildings that line the highway for kilometre after kilometre”), MacKenzie was immediately thrown by the Chinese approach to the teaching of English at Da Shu Xia College:

For the Chinese teacher all the students would often stand up and bow as he entered the class. He would… start drilling the pronunciation of words. “Document!” He would cry. “Document!” The class thundered back. “Signature!” “Signature!” My students all came up with their own English names, as their real names were deemed impossible for foreigners to pronounce. I had names like Ice Sucker, Sin and Christ; Hitler, Osama and Monkey…”

Ingenuity and endurance
After gaining experience at various institutions, three years later, MacKenzie took up a post at Peija Primary, in the Putuo district of Shanghai (procuring teaching contracts at Chinese schools is a complex and often dodgy process, ‘facilitated’ by work agencies). It was here that his experience caught up with his innate ability (“Relationship building is essential to teaching,” he observes.

“The lessons should be part of an interaction that includes confidence building, self-esteem development and a host of other life skills, including learning to value personal integrity and learning to take responsibility and initiative.”) After yet more bureaucratic battles, at this school, MacKenzie rejoiced: “I was now free to teach the children the way I wanted to! I was bursting with ideas!”

Learning to adapt
MacKenzie’s obvious ingenuity (teaching his young Chinese students how to create English limericks about mythical animals is one example of his classroom success) was matched by his enduring patience. Supported (except for one unavoidable period) by his wife – affectionately nicknamed ‘The Chook’ – he navigated his way through months of cultural shock, surviving traffic that would make any hardened Joburg taxi driver pale, and all manner of peculiar foods, (“A duck appeared with his feet and solemn head cooked in the meal… followed by raw pig’s brains…”).

He recognised his own cultural baggage as he witnessed day after day, on the chaos of the streets, black-market activities and kickback systems and struggled to understand why it was impossible to find a pair of sandals that didn’t fall apart after a week, or a decent tin opener in any of the thousands of tiny can-filled stores tucked into every nook and cranny. Perhaps his greatest struggle was the fact that he simply stuck out like a sore thumb, describing himself as the size of a “retired rugby prop”.

On one occasion, he lost his temper: “‘Get your bloody hands off me!’ I bellowed at a man on the Lu Xun Road. The bodies of the Han Chinese are generally hairless and… some… could not resist stroking my arms.” Later, he was able to muster a more peaceful response: “I chose Lingering Gardens for a quiet afternoon of sketching… within minutes, to my annoyance, a crowd of Chinese people gathered around… I had forgotten that they would want to share my privacy… from time to time I heard murmured comments like ‘ta cuole’ (it’s wrong) and felt my ego bristle.”

China is China
Such incidents did not prevent MacKenzie from forming meaningful friendships with a number of Chinese people, or from appreciating the inherent ‘unknowable-ness’ of this ancient culture:

Lit candles in the intense summer, in winter the trailing willow branches are snuffed out, their smoke and shadows burning in the canals… here the women bang their laundry against the huge steps that descend to the ancient canals… the glimmer in ancient Chinese eyes: shadows among tree roots or the dark in river water that ripples behind oars and hands; then the disturbance becomes still again, unreadable. “Why on earth is this happening?” A foreigner will howl at some frustration caused by the Chinese.“Because China is China,” is the only meaningful response.

Every year, about two million Chinese youth graduate but cannot f ind sustainable jobs. They are called ‘the ant tribe’. To learn more, watch the documentary Education, education at

Category: Autumn 2013, Book Reviews

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