Tuesday, January 18, 2011

China memoir pulses with charm and pathos

Cracking China: A memoir of our first three years in China by Rod Mackenzie
Knowledge Thirst Media, R195

There's no surer way of knowing you've arrived in a foreign country and culture than to be greeted with the words that it's 11am, so it's time for lunch. Lunch? Yes lunch. It's just the beginning of the many differences that will confront and assault the sense of normality of Rod Mackenzie and his wife, known affectionately as the Chook.

They've arrived in China to teach English. All the way from South Africa to rain-soaked England, where a so-called career as a used car salesman doesn't pan out as expected. Next stop Shaoxing, China.

With his shaved head and larger-than-average girth, Mackenzie stands out like a sore thumb and is soon compared with pictures of Buddha. No matter. His infectious, bubbling personality soon wins over his high school students, who start to learn, not by rote, as has been the norm, but by laughter, fun and games.

First lesson for Mackenzie, memorising the names of his pupils, who have all given each other English names, which are rather prosaic and reveal the vast gaps that open up between languages.

There's Fish, Star, Ice Sucker - who got the name because "ice is nice to lick in summer" - and a female student who calls herself Boy, simply because she likes boys; then there's Sunshine, Answer, WC, Pig-pig and Twin A and B.

Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes. One day a TV crew arrives to shoot footage of the English teacher at work. Walking up to Fish, Mackenzie asks in front of the cameras, "How are you today, Fish?"

Mackenzie writes: "Fish was so mesmerised by the TV crew that he lost the precious bit of English he knew. His jaw wavered uncertainly. His friends translated my question for him, a phatic question he would have learned in his first English lessons at school four years ago... Bill, my next victim, fared far worse... he took one look at us, mouth agape, and ran away."

There are other vexations brought on by living in a foreign culture. When Mackenzie and his wife use what they think is a vase to put flowers in, the guffawing reactions of their Chinese friends enlighten them. They've been using Chinese versions of chamber pots.

And then there's the night they cook for their friends and wonder why they are eyeing the food with visible fear. "What was wrong with baked potatoes and a simple omelette? It was the same as a bowl of fish heads being repugnant to me while everyone else held the decapitated delicacies between their chopsticks and sucked and chewed on them until even the forlorn, round fish eyes disappeared into their mouths."

But there's pathos between the humour, and when Mackenzie and his wife pass cages of dogs, they try not to think what their final destination might be.

And through it all, Mackenzie, also an accomplished published poet, captures the strangeness of life in China through verse.

Cracking China pulses with charm and with Mackenzie's obvious love for the country that eventually cracks open for him. Read it for a foreigner's glimpse of a land that captivates, frustrates and delights, and, as always, fascinates.

Published in Pretoria News, July 5 2010 and The Star Tonight July 1 2010

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