Wednesday, 26 November 2008

My Little Corner of the World

Amongst all Phyl's (my mother's) hundreds of copies of sheet music was a song called My Little Corner of the World. She hardly ever played it so I can't remember much about it other than the fact that it contained some dreadful lyrics...I always kneeeeew I'd meetsomeonelike yeeew being among them - which was probably the reason it was rarely played. In any case, its not the song - merely it's title which has stayed with me for so long.

Because, though I knew I never wanted the picket fence/McMansion stereotype life (and divorced one husband to prove it), I was always confident that I would indeed find a corner of the world and finally stay put there.

It seems like each place I've ever lived in was never it. It seemed that, wherever I was, I was only there temporarily. As a kid changing schools was so much part and parcel of the school experience that I went almost immediately from being The New Girl to being an Old Girl continuously throughout my educational career. That's just how school was.

Of course, boarding-school when the time came, was always temporary as everyone just lived marking time till they could go home from the moment they arrived. But I remember one rather sickening period when I was absolutely convinced that I had no home, nor parents either.

My parents had moved to a country I had never heard of to which I was to fly for the next school holidays. Well my father had disappeared into the ether first, and, at the time of my leaving our last home at the end of those holidays, no confirmation of his arrival had been given. Actually, once I lived there I could think of a hundred reasons for this not to have happened - ranging from his secretary having a new boyfriend to the lines having been accidentally cut by someone digging a hole. (Both true at various times).

But at the time I was not even sure Papua New Guinea even existed so had no idea of island time. Or life. But, what happened after my mother followed my father out in the great unknown - and subsequently into dead silence - was that I panicked and roused a dozing nun to come and help me find the place they were ostensibly going on the huge convent globe.

We found Papua New Guinea at last (in a completely different place to where either of us were looking for it) but of this city called Boroko, supposedly the capital city, we found no trace at all. I was definitely an orphan.

Later, I discovered that Boroko was merely a suburb of the capital city, Port Moresy (seems impossible now that I had gone 14 years into my life without ever encountering it before) and that Phyl and Gee were fine and excitedly kitting out the new apartment which would be home until we found a house.

So I first went to PNG to a temporary place I'd never seen...and then my parents moved into a place I didn't see until the next holidays. I was probably the only 15 year old kid in the world who had no idea what her own home even looked like. But that was just temporary.

After that, everywhere I've ever been has been "just until...." Just until I finish Uni; just until my father gets better; just until I'm sick of it;just until I've had this baby; just until I manage to escape from this homicidal maniac; just until I get my head sorted.

I now find myself in another just until period and it has dawned upon me that this just until has no noun or dependent verb clause. Just until.....what?

My job here has definitely passed its use-by date. Oh, not that I wouldn't stay if offered a consultancy job with appropriate fees and my own accommodation downtown. But in the absence of a fairy godmother pausing in her pumpkin- to- palace work to conjure that one up, my time here is coming to an end. What the hell am I gonna do now?

I know this is not an unusual question. It strikes most of us, with vary degrees of urgency, anything from once a day to once in a lifetime. But, hey, I really MEAN it. What the hell am I going to do? As Lewis Carroll put it "But answer came there none."

Now this is not one of those existential meanderings into the deeper mysteries of life and our purpose in the universe. (Though I can toss one of those off every so often when prompted enough). Instead I find myself with two positions which are unceasingly chasing themselves around in my head:Am I irresponsible and immature?
Or am I a carefree spirit who lives up to her ideas?

Because it's probably all very well, if not de rigeur, to go gadding around the world, living in places most people aren't gonna get to go to even if they stayed home on Saturday nights and saved for year, when you are young and unattached. But, once you hit mid-thirties it becomes brave. By the forties it becomes sort of enviable but with a touch of sniffiness about it. But after that, I am beginning to fear, it is considered decidedly eccentric. Thus attracting such less-desirable judgements as silly bugger, crazy woman and the ever-popular off-with-the-fairies tag, just in case you thought you had a shred of credibility left.

I have come, since my last trip to the UK, to acknowledge that there is something a little unusual about a woman of my age, with two fully-grown sons, having no fixed abode. And not having a bank account. The two are mutually dependent: you can't get a bank account if you don't have a place, country, address of residence.

For the past two years I have given this as my address. After all, its where I'm living, isn't it? But when my contract is over where do I get them to book me a ticket to? There is no family home, no white-haired mother waiting by the fire with her knitting, no life-long friends, no family that has met me or the boys more than once or twice, nor any town with an old apple tree where I carved my initials.

Not even a trace, it seems, of my little corner of the world.

So is it time I settled down, bought a dog, shut up the cows and started to carve one for myself?

Should I claim a country/town/place and put down roots, and make friends and make sure my pension cheque is going to get delivered when the time comes? Should I start learning about income tax and super-annuation, and Getting Seriously Down to Work to Ensure my Future? Do I owe it to my boys to establish a home base? Am I - once again - scarring them for life.(Both of them ought to look like the Phantoms of the bloody Opera by now, with the amount of scarring I've bestowed upon them already). Should I have a verandah and learn to knit for the grandchildren that will one day (but please not too soon) be crying piteously for their Gran? Should I grow organic vegetables and brew herbal teas and become one with the earth?

Or, should I rejoice in the fact that I am at last free to make my own decisions? Should I continue to trust in the world and its inexplicable way of working things out? Should I go with my gut? Or acknowledge that my gut is actually situated these days up in my head. Which tells me that I am just not ready, gimme a break and anyway I might just fall under a bus tomorrow and all the questions would become moot anyway?

And finally...the one that just about clinches it for me, every time: if I don't see all the little corners of the world, how am I ever going to find out which one is mine?

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Raising the Bar?

Its the Annual English Speaking Awards time on CCTV9 and this year there were two things that struck me:

1. Chinese English is becoming American English and
2. The standard is abysmal.

Now I don't want the first point to cast me as a sour grapes English speaker bemoaning the fact that USA-English is spreading round the globe like a noxious weed, but rather to wonder at the absence of Chinese-English? Just as I would hate reason number two to sound as though I'm calling Chinese students thick. So I'd better explain quickly - only bear with me, as I'm still feeling my way around this one.

I have spent most of my life in countries where English is not the first language. As well as having travelled round a great deal . But in every one of those countries, those who represented Academia and Media spoke fluent, grammatically-correct English. Depending on the harshness or strength of their local accent not all were as easy to understand as others. However, their use of grammar, syntax and inflection was perfectly understood. It was only one's familiarity with the local accent which might hinder understanding at times.

Most of these countries are small countries where one would have thought that the opportunities of finding a vast reserve of people who spoke near-perfect English was correspondingly small. Yet there never seemed to be a shortage of people who could converse fluently.

One would assume then, that China, with a correspondingly larger population (well, an astronomically larger population actually) would have a correspondingly vast supply of fluent English language speaker. But we haven't. Not even enough, it seems, to guarantee that certain newscasts, general interest, travel and other programme from CCTV9, the one and only English station to broadcast in that language both internally and externally, would need subtitles for the English to be understood at all.

Now why is that? Are the Chinese people, who have produced many writers and philosophers and scholars in their own history, less clever than, say, the Islanders of Papua New Guinea; some of whom have never even worn shoes?

Of course they're not.

Is their ability with language minimal?

Not at all, even if language ability were proven to be a racial trait it would not apply to Chinese people, many of whom speak multiple languages.

Do they not get taught early enough or learn for long enough?

Every school teaches all students for twelve years to speak English, starting at around the age of 5. (Yet I have never discovered a taxi-driver who understands even such basics as "Stop", "Left" or "Right").

The only other explanation left is: - aren't they taught properly? And the answer to that - at least in my little corner of the world, is a resounding..No, they are not.

The other unique contributory factor is, I consider, that there is absolutely no Standard English bench mark by which to teach or to examine or test on.

Throughout their school years English is taught by Chinese teachers whose English is, often, unrecognisable. I have given seminars to Chinese English teachers in which I have had to discard my entire presentation and ad-lib it because no-one in the room could understand me. Most students, after the first, enthusiastic year of learning "Hellohowareyou?" "I'mfinethanksandyou", lose interest and consider English classes a chance to skive off. Just as generations of English kids used to do when French was a compulsory subject in English schools.

So who can blame them? They are never going to travel to an English-speaking country. All the latest movies hit the theatres ahead of the West with sub-titles or dubbed dialogue. They've never met an English-speaking person in their life. What do they need English for?

Even the majority of those who graduate into University Foreign Language Programmes fall far short of even the basics needed to be able to understand native English at a Primary School level, let alone at the levels of their peers in other countries.

So I sat listening to those contestants to-night, each one the best supposedly, that the country can offer, no-one gaining a score lower than 94 where, on a Standard English bench mark, they probably would have scored in the low seventies. I analysed their speeches, their words, their understanding. But if was, actually, one of the journalists reading out a news story that gave me the clue as to why these English-speakers are just so damn bad: apart from the grammatical and pronunciation errs, no-one has ever taught them the rhythms and the stresses of the English language.

In a way, the situation is analogous to a contemporary scholar learning Mesopotamian or any other dead language: - we've never heard it so we don't know what it sounds like. Though we can read and translate it, would anyone from Ancient Mesopotamia understand a word we said? The English of the majority of Chinese students is learnt from someone who, themselves, has never heard the language spoken. They know that English is not a tonal language like Chinese, where the same combination of sounds stressed in four different ways, have four separate meaning.

So they have no idea of the sounds of English. The rhythm of the words that carry along our feelings, the tones which clarify our meanings, the cadences, the light and shade, the very sound of the language.

In every other place I have ever been where English is taught, people are at least familiar with the language. They've heard it around themselves, or on the radio, or blaring incomprehensibly through radio stations or, at the very least, from their English teacher at school. But millions of Chinese people have never even seen a foreigner, let alone heard one speak. Or laugh, or cry.

My students are often amazed to learn that I very often haven't a clue what a colleague from the deep South of America has said. Or that people from America can't understand people from various places in Britain very well . Or that English-speakers from South Africa speak English in a way that leaves some Australians baffled, or that people brought up in India are often incomprehensible to their relatives in England. They don't know that there are different ways to speak English, they have no idea why some words are stressed and some aren't, nor that tone of voice can carry meaning irrespective of the content of the words being spoken. They don't see the need for a standard because they don't realise that a standard is necessary. They have no idea that there is a correct way and an incorrect way to pronounce vowels or diphthongs, the building blocks of language. They are incapable of telling an educated voice from an uneducated voice or distinguishing good English from bad.

Look, I don't care if the bench-mark is Standard English, British English or American English. But there has to be some notch one can carve into the wall when someone has said something correctly. Whether Chinese English teachers are trained by CD or by qualified Native-English teachers is immaterial: but the person who records those CD's must be speaking English which is not idiosyncratic, and the Native-English speakers must speak English of a certain level to which all students must aspire.

As the national average is far below the level acceptable in foreign (i.e. English-speaking) Universities, those who want to work or study overseas are ill prepared. There was a recent article on OLO by Christina Ho, herself Chinese, but working in Australia, who highlights the plight of many Chinese immigrants to Australia. Though coming from highly qualified backgrounds many were working menial jobs, she pointed out. Consequently many women, for the first time in their lives found themselves unable to work. Their English, for which many have gained high marks at a school or University in China, is insufficient often to get them through a job interview, let alone into a job.

Chinese students, sometimes whose understanding goes little further than a few basic greetings, are incapable of following a lecture in their foreign universities, nor can they easily make friends with native English speakers. Many of them return home but, even those who manage to make it through, return with their spoken English little improved as they spent all their time with other Chinese students being thus marginalised in campus life. Mainly, however, they come back with very little understanding of the country in which they have been living, minimal travel experience, none of the contacts they were going to find, and a memory of a truly miserable time in their lives. Many hopes are dashed during this ordeal.

Every country has a local accent when speaking English, which identifies them: - the French with their rolling rrrrrs, the Germans with their guttural fricatives, and the Jamaicans with their round vowels. They have been taught a standard way of pronunciation which, combined with their own language, is unique. So far, there is no definitive accent which can be pegged as Chinese English.

One of the other reasons for this is the mushroom-like Language schools which have sprung up all over the country. These exist not only for those older people who did not learn English in school, or the businessperson who never was good at English in school but now finds a need for it, and the hapless students bound for foreign Universities. These are the main originators for all those "If you can speak English you can teach in China...." advertisements.

Consequently back-backers, retirees, travellers, those escaping home for the first time, as well as some genuinely, dedicated and wonderful teachers, flock to China from a variety of destinations. Two friends from Calcutta will start up a school and hire a couple from South America, a Filipino girl, someone from Ireland and a Swede. They will all then start conducting English classes despite the fact that they have difficulty understanding each other in the staffroom after work. To students who have never heard the English language spoken, this variety of accents it confusing...Will the real English please stand up?

Who now decides when English is good enough to receive a diploma for? Does it matter if the candidate confuses verb/adjective positioning (What's verb/adjective positioning?) Does it matter if they always say "s" for "th" 'cos that sounds kinda cute. Is anyone gonna care if they have absolutely no concept of the when to use the word "the?". Is it really important, in the great scheme of things if they use verbs as adjectives and adjectives for verbs? And if everything is said in a flat, uninflected monotone does that really matter as long as they got the vocabulary right?

Well, yeah. It does. Or it damn-well should be. China is trying to shake the image it has in many places as being the land of the second-rate: second-rate toys, clothing, milk powder. Isn't it cause for shame if they remain second rate English speakers?

There is much talk at the moment here - as in other countries around the world - of educational reform. It is needed in many areas. If there are to be any areas of change in the educational system then the way English is taught and understood is a major area in which some new thinking is absolutely necessary. Personally, I don't see the reason for English to be compulsory for so long. If it were an optional, or even compulsory only for the initial years, or in High School, then I suggest that those who did learn would be those who were at least prepared to stay awake for the duration of a class or refrain from making calls or playing games on their phones.

But if English is going to be taught at all, at least let it be real English. The standard English that is taught all over the world seems so far to have worked just fine elsewhere. Let our standards be high - why is there an assumption that it is harder for Chinese people than, say, people from Indonesia, or Finland. Why do we not insist upon and expect a criteria? The whole programme, concept and methodology of English language teaching needs seriously to be addressed if China really is going to take its place in the global community on equal terms with others.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Dirty Old Men

When I was a kid my mother told me never to put any money in my mouth because Dirty Old Men had been handling it. I had no particular idea in my mind of who or what these Dirty Old Men who went around handling money all day looked like or actually did.

Neither, it seemed did my father who, one day, finally asked the question.
"Oh George," she laughed in a-we're-all-grown-ups-here kind of way. " You know what I mean. You brought one here once."

She went back to reading her letter. My father, who was not in the habit of dragging ancient money-handling parties in off the street, looked astounded.
"What the hell....?"
"Oh, George, you know you did."
Two sentences beginning with "George". My mother was flustered. When she began to get terribly busy plumping up cushions and aligning newspapers I also knew that she considered my father was being disingenuous and forcing her to look daft. As if the fact that he had brought one home one evening wasn't burned across his consciousness until his dying day! He must, though objectively he couldn't be held responsible, subjectively have been beating himself up about introducing the snail-trail of nastiness into the Innocent garden of the Family Home ever since! And she was being made to look as though SHE was making a big deal out of it.

My father then said "Pet, I..."
So phew, that was all right then. "Pet" meant amused (I didn't learn the word "patronising" until a long time afterwards).
"George!" Whoops. Three strikes and you're out, George. Now she's angry. "That.. that.. man!" Oh yeah! The slight stutter. She is furious. He knows EXACTLY who she means!

"What man?"
"The man with the...the...doo-dah"

It was pretty much downhill from there - my father genuinely having no idea what on earth she was talking about, and my mother genuinely feeling he was being deliberately obtuse until at last, goaded, she would hiss:

"Of course you know.The one with the new thing - oh what WAS the bloody thing called? You know perfectly well, its a...a.."
Light would begin to dawn and my father would hazard "infra-red, night sighted telescopic lens for Military armaments?"
"Yes! she would crow, vindicated "That doo-dah!"

Because of all the convolutions of ever having to sit through conversations like these when querying some of my mother's more bizarre statements I, though puzzled, had learned not to enquire.

In the final instance my mother's explanation that some mild mannered business man doubled as a Dirty Old Man could be stated thus: Because when she went into the guest lav. straight after him the hand-towel was unused. This meant he hadn't washed his hands. Which in turn explained why he was a dirty old man:Because there he'd just been, fiddling with his willie and the child had just been about to put that coin straight in her mouth!

They'd go wandering off down umpteen different paths before they were finished
( "What do you mean, fiddling, exactly?"
"Well, touching it. Fishing it of his trousers and waving it about."
"Do you mean urinating?"
"Of course I mean urinating! What else on earth could I possibly mean? "
"Waving it about?"
She'd be a little sheepish now, realising that might have been a slight guilding of the lily.
"Well..." grudgingly. Then, with a twitching of the lips "You knew what I meant."
"But why should touching his penis in a strictly legitimate and necessary way make him a dirty old man?"
"Oh George!" my mother was one of the last of the breed of women who could, when the occasion presented itself, flounce. She would flounce now "you know perfectly well what I mean."and drift out of the room.

All things considered my idea of exactly what a Dirty Old Man was, or looked like, remained odd for quite some time after that, until I found out for myself.

This was the sort of thing that happened to me again and again in my childhood. Not having other siblings and moving continually meant these strange gaps and inane nonsense convo's got me into a lot of....(I wanted to say "pickles" because talking about her brings back those speech patterns. But we don't say "pickle" anymore in that sense and I'm damned if I can think of another word that carries the same meaning exactly. Saying "trouble" sounds like very un-British hyperbole. After all, I'm here, aren't I?)

Well, let's just say it led me into an interesting life. And lets further state, just for the record, that I am at last beginning to acknowledge the fact that my home-life wasn't, strictly-speaking, exactly The Norm. Nor were either of my parents.

But what I am starting to do is to connect the dots. Is this the kind of wisdom they talk about age supposedly bringing? If so, does this in turn mean I am getting old: not externally - that's a bloody given - but internally?

Does there actually come a time in all our lives when we start to see the pattern? The wonderfully intricate, crazily executed, inexorably entwined with those of other people, pattern of our lives? Is that what age gives in return for all the embarrassment and sadness - the realisation that all the bits that seemed so random and inexplicable now fit seamlessly together?

Or - and for all the aforementioned reasons, I am definitely not sure about this at all - or, bloody hell, is all that stuff supposed to come in your mid-twenties and am I actually a late bloomer?

But at least I never put money in my mouth.

Friday, 21 November 2008

The Great Realisation That We are A Mob of Sooks.

So I was in England for the whole of the Olympics. At the risk of shocking people: it didn't really matter. I find the Olympics rather a huge bore. Actually, the last time I was in a country where the Olympics were being held I unknowingly scheduled a party for the famous Closing Night Shenanigans , and couldn't understand why all my friends, usually quite gregarious types, kept wandering over to ask when we could turn the telly on.

I truly am dedicated to fraternity, sorority, peace throughout the world, Understanding Between Nations...all of those noble Olympic goals. I just don't want to stay strapped down in front of a tele watching sweaty people with hairy armpits and steely determination, in order to prove it.

However the Olympics couldn't help but be in the forefront of my thoughts this year and so, a couple of times, I plonked down to watch various chat-shows, or General Interest-type programmes to get the British slant on it all.

I was astounded. There I was, in the land of loony dog-lovers, gentle old parties who actually nod at you when you pass(I mean c'mon: when was the last time you actually nodded at someone?), helpful women in museums and interesting travellers on trains. And it appeared that they were all united in their feelings towards China: like their ancestors of yore (a town in East Anglia)they metaphorically spat in the dirt, narrowed their eyes and were prepared to swallow any old cobblers about them queer-folks down-along. Albeit that down-along these days is slightly further away than the approximately ten miles that constituted exotic furr'en parts in the days of aforesaid Yore. (Which was the County Seat in those days).

Or so I assumed by the plethora of China Experts or Wo/man On The Spot shows which proliferated. Every one of which was, in the vernacular, dissin' China. Or, if you prefer, pissing all over China. It caused me to see yet another angle in all this Good China/Bad China speculation that appears to have - not too long after the day of The Yellow Peril - gripped the West.

Oh, there's nothing original about this conclusion; its been voiced, in various contexts and constructs, in umpteen places. But it sank in while I was in England and then was hammered home when I caught up on all the chat-shows, satire spots and comedy gigs etc. that the media had run during the same period back in Oz.

While I said this conclusion wasn't completely original, I would like to think that my take on it is a small thing but mine own. I have therefore named it "The Great Realisation That We Are A Great Mob of Sooks." Kind of rolls off the tongue.

(For those not up with Aussie vernacular: the word "sook" denotes a namby-pamby, timorous beastie; a vaguely unpleasant type who would probably rat on the neighbours as soon as look at you. Thought that last bit might not actually be part of the translation I certainly was firmly conscious of these connotations when I christened the concept. )

Because when all's said and done, we are like a mob of kids in many ways. (Or would that mean instead, that there is no such thing as rising above the level attained in childhood in some areas for our species? That's kind of when we peak?) For Instance: - we spend our entire childhood aware of deadly menace in our environs: whether it be the monster under the bed, the bears in the cracks in the pavement or, sadly quite common, over-affectionate Uncle Bob/Daddy/Auntie Tammy?

Once we grow up, therefore, and find logical explanations for our world and our fears, or else turn to fundamentalist religions - or else grow bigger than Uncle Bob/Daddy/Auntie Tammy - we have become so used to that feeling of menace around us that it seems quite normal. It is normal in our society to fear something. So fundamentalists use The Devil and the rest of the world chooses China.

I am harking back once again now, to the Lhasa Riots coverage around the world and what an enormous effect that incident had here in China. Many Chinese newspapers and popular web sites/blogs ran the apologies made by foreign media. The confessions and unravelling of wrong-doing were all over the place here. It seemed that the explanations were all accepted, the wrongs righted, the public overseas as aware of the public here of the culpability of some publications and we all lurched on to the next crisis.

But no. Once arrive in England and it seems like all the man (woman?) hours wasted on exposing the (silly me, I almost typed "frauds"1), the dissecting, the discussions, the protests, the blog wars here in China, were our own private bunfight. I doubt now whether, in the West, those apologies and retractions were ever featured in anything but a paragraph buried somewhere very boring where nobody goes, like in the classified advertisements for government employees. Because, if they were made aware of the story of the coverage of Lhasa, then the population at large is, well...a bit simple.

If they knew that, about 5 months earlier, a completely admitted hatchet job had been done on China by the world's media, surely it might occur to some viewers that maybe, just maybe, the coverage they were currently getting might be just a tad, well, predictable?

There they all were - stock characters: the disaffected homeowners, the angry citizens being rude to foreign journalists, the terrified "source" unfolding tales of desperate deeds and stolen body-parts. We were being brought this stuff by the same old crew we were familiar with - after all, they are the Person on the Spot in any news-foment around the world....jetting into cities, learning about them in the local bar with the local bore, and coming to us all concerned and more in sorrow than anger a couple of days later, revealing to us yet another "typical" Chinese with a horrific tale to tell.

Did it not occur to anybody that out of 1.6 billion people there might be just one who could give a giggly smile from behind her Mickey Mouse sunglasses and tell us that life in China is pretty cool thank you very much and no, I'm not a communist or the recipient of a forced abortion. And yes, I can get the BBC and porn on my internet , thanks?

Did nobody the length and breadth of the British Isles or the Wide Sunburned Land not think for a moment "Christ, they're a gloomy lot. And when are we going to see some tits and bum?" Anchor people kept sycophantically asking "And can we possibly have the views of the Man...(sheepish cough, leery grin) or should that be WOE-man in the street, please Cliff/Andrea/Randy?" or "And what do the real people of China think, Cliff/Andrea/Randy?" and "So what about the ordinary people of China, the real people?" as if that amorphous Beijing we're always hearing about, had, with fiendish oriental cunning, posted plastic facsimiles around the television studios to give recorded, CCP approved recordings. But this was the cue, of course, for Cliff or Andrea or who-bloody-ever would wheel out someone who lost 5 kids in Tiannemen Square, spent 20 years in a labour camp, and had had 8 fingers removed by a machine in an over-crowded sweatshop.

I'd been watching a steady diet of these things and doing various deconstructions, critical examinations, and deep philosophical streams of thought. I'd brushed through Hobbes and Locke and various latter-day scholars in order to get to the root of this continued need for everyone to show, see and feel the very worst of what China had to offer when, finally, all the bits clicked into place and the Great Realisation dawned upon me: We are a Mob of Sooks.

It felt so good to huddle safely in our beds after a goodnight kiss, a decade of the rosary, an MP3 (or even a transistor back in the day), or a locked door had reduced the monster to ineffectual powerlessness outside our charmed, familiar world. We had it under control. We were invincible. Until tomorrow night.

So, while we have accepted fear as a normal part of our human state, we have also learnt how good and cosy it feels when someone keeps the monsters at bay for us. Mmmmm. Lucky us, eh? We may perpetuate mindless fears throughout the natural course of our lives but hell's teeth we know how to feel good about it.

It's like we are all continually yearning for our blankies. We are a mob of sooks. Just as we cannot conceive of life without that particular piece of old blanket, so many of us cannot conceive of life without our good ole mate fear. Its primal we tell each other sagely. A means of self-protection that ensured the continuation of the race. Its why we spent decades instructions young people to Be Prepared. We need that fear in order to be human. Besides, if we got rid of it, we'd get rid of that nice, glowing feeling we get when we are isolated in our little charmed circle. When we're in control.

But the thing is, no matter how some sections of our shared society might rattle their sabres and rail against modern, wishy-washy, greens, lefties, feminists, New Age people, Gay Rights, or those who eat quiche, its undeniable that the world is changing. (In deference to the sabre-rattlers, I substituted the word evolving with the word changing. Even though I personally feel that, in this instance, the two are synonymous).

The Berlin Wall came down, the Africans are all too diseased or hungry to rise up against the White Man, Communism let go of Czechoslovakia, Russia smelted the Iron Curtain, a black person is going to be the leader of America...who is there left to fear? Well, there's always one third of the entire world. There's China.

To be fair, I do see that there might be a couple of holes in the argument for my latest thesis. Perhaps a psychologist or sociologist or a philosopher may have been able to argue it with a tad more finesse and polysyllables. But at the moment I am at a loss to to explain why the hydra-headed Public at Large sucks in a depressing and unvarying diet of palpably biased commentating on the subject of China without a murmur of - well, not protest, exactly, but at least the demand to know if anyone at all in China is just a normal person like you or me or the couple next door.

I was also, for a long time, a little stymied as to why "Experts" on China think they are being daringly original to uncover yet another riot or malfeasance, and whether it ever occurs to them that, inside a country that contains one third of the entire world's people, you'd be hard pressed NOT to find an individual or group or movement that was not fed up with the status quo. I mean, when we read the World News, all the stuff they are reporting from all over the world comes from only one other third because the last third represents the people who are comatose from hunger and neglect and illness. They only count in the News stakes when taken as a whole, not individually; because they're too busy dying slow deaths to do any plotting or rioting or in any way worthy of the Late Bulletin. Sheesh! Compared to all the lunatic fringes, revolutionaries, mercenaries, criminal organisations, corporations, serial killers and cult followers represented by the other third of the world, China is a haven of sweetness and light.

But I realised of course, that it actually is within the interests of the "expert" journalist brigade to keep parading the interchangeable stories about Abominations and Human Rights Violations in front of us. Firstly of course, a respected journalist would look like a bit of a pouf if they recorded a story about typists from some provincial city or the funny men in the lift, or their riotous night out at one of the clubs where they learned to say "What's yer name, where'y from an' what yer on?" in Mandarin. I mean, with everyone else digging up hidden criminals and underground movements, you'd feel a bit of a tool handing in a story about two jolly business-men from Wunan you met in a lift, wouldn't you? Especially if they had never been beaten, could access regular web-sties from their computers, and were Buddhists.

So, in order not to feel like a nob, and, more importantly, in order to make sure that Cliff, Andrea and Randy keep getting sent swanning off to furr'n parts on company expense accounts (and in some cases, because they actually know squat about China - last week they had to bone up on Afghanistan), the real people of China, in all their complexity, diversity, continue to be represented by anyone who can make a Westerner reach for their blankie and say a decade of the rosary.

We've got to hang on to the old familiar fear-feeling because to lose it would argue against our ancient origins. We'd lose our edge without it. So, with a shrinking field around us of people to be scared of, its rather convenient to hang on to China. There isn't likely, any time soon, to be a huge uprising in which Beijing, with tears in its collective eyes, flings wide the prison doors, decks itself in flowers and begs America to show it the way to democracy, christian values and apple pie.

Cliff & co. (who are currently praying for a juicy little uprising in The Bermudas) are probably all employed by Murdoch anyway, so they know from all the recent memos exactly how those wily Chinese need to be reported. Besides, no-one wants to look the dickhead, do they? "Real people" indeed!

Ah well, those of us in China can just join Cliff and Co. in trying to summon up that Bermudan coup. Maybe the new government there will make VooDoo the national religion, enforced by by an unlimited stay in G'tmo. Then everyone can stop using China as the blankie and get themselves really, gut-churningly frightened of the Bahamans instead. And then maybe people would listen to what the real Chinese people have to say.