Regarde les Chinois complète sa tournée de Beijing avec cette sixième et dernière entrevue. Née à Hong Kong, grandie en Californie méridionale, et définitivement une New-Yorkaise dans son coeur, Fiona réside aujourd’hui à Beijing, où elle travaille et maintient Quirky Beijing dans ses temps libres. C’était mon dernier soir à Beijing, après deux semaines passées dans la ville, et Fiona a bien voulu répondre à mes questions, malgré le rhume récent qui l’a tût pour les deux derniers jours. Nous avons parlé de ses jours comme enseignante d’anglais langue seconde entre 2006-07, de ce qu’elle pense de la vie d’expatrié en Chine, et de Beijing et de son côté inusité.
Regarde les Chinois completes its tour of Beijing with this sixth and last interview. Born in Hong Kong, grown up in Southern California, and definitely a New Yorker at heart, Fiona now lives in Beijing, where she works and runs Quirky Beijing on her free time. It was my last night in Beijing, after two weeks spent in the city, and Fiona answered my questions despite nursing a recent cold that totally silenced her for the past two days. We talked about her days as an English second-language teacher in 2006-07, what she thinks about expat life in China, and Beijing and its quirkier side.
Comme les Chinois: So, you’ve been living in Beijing for two years? How do you like the city?
Fiona: Um, actually, I’ve only been living here for nine months. I’ve lived in China over two years now.
CLC: Um, right. So, you started off as an English teacher in Changchun?
Yeah, and then we came to Beijing. But I can’t say I particularly like Beijing. (laughs)
CLC: How come?
Too big, too smoggy. Um… I like smaller places! (laughs) Inconvenient too…
CLC: But you come from New York, I mean, lived in New York before coming to China. It’s funny for you to say this.
是 (shi, or just “Yes/Correct/Sure” – as Fiona occasionally inserts simple Chinese words in her speech… or did she mean “Sure”?), but it was more convenient to get around, and shockingly the traffic was better in New York, because you can always the subway. You also take the subway here too, but it’s really crowded, it’s not a pleasant experience, and as you pointed out too, the interchanges don’t make any sense. (laughs)
CLC: Hey, so you are the founder of this blog called Quirky Beijing. Tell me about the blog.
Well, the tagline for Quirky Beijing is “finding the …”. What’s the tagline again? (laughs) “finding the gently offbeat in a decidedly uncute city”. It came about because I was really looking for a few things. You know, a more, kind of, indie, twee sensibility, which I wasn’t really finding here in Beijing or in English-language blogs in general. Most of the English-language blogs about China tend to be about politics, or the kind of English teacher adventures in China, so I was kind of beyond both of them… And I also wanted something that would make me, that would enable me to look for things that I liked about Beijing.
CLC: And did you find that? … What did you find?
Um, well, some of the things that I found were mostly – most of them were things that I see every day. Like street food, kinda like funny things that I see on the street. Um, I think a lot about the subway, because I spend most of my time on the subway. So, it’s a big part of my life. And some of the things that I’ve… I also did a lot of posts which are the most popular ones. So, about funny-looking pastries or cute pastries in Beijing, this is the most popular part of my blog. I’m not really sure why, but I guess that there’s more people who like funny-looking pastries than I thought.
CLC: Um, tell me about your work.
Well, I work for Immersion Guides, which is… I do marketing for them. and they’re an English-language guidebook publishing company here. Um, and we do the Insider’s Guide to Beijing, which is this big kinda tome to everything in Beijing. And also, the Taxi Guide, this little Taxi Guide that you tuck in into your pocket, and some more unusual one, like the excursion guide, for day trips around, and also the Mandarin Phrasebook, which has a lot of funny Chinese phrases that you don’t really learn in class. Things like how to say “Dude, that’s a great song”, or how to pick up at an art gallery, like, by impressing them with your knowledge of post-impressionism, but saying all of this in Chinese! (laughs)
CLC: Hey, do you mind if we talk about how original your way of teaching was? B/c I used to read your Livejournal blog, and where you always posted about how you find original ways to teach English to your students…
Yeah, it was mostly because I had to. We were given very little in the way of materials, and the materials that we were given were very repetitive. They were created by a British company, but they still managed to suck. And, um, they were very, extremely repetitive in my opinion. Students got really bored and once I got to know them more, then I just thought of other things that would make them more engaging and that I was more excited about. If the teacher’s not excited about teaching the lesson, then it really comes out.
CLC: Like what? Like what did you do?
Like grammar is a good example of a thing that I was miserable at. I was miserable at grammar, and I was never good at teaching it, I wanna just say it right now. (laughs) And so, if I could get across the grammar point without actually going into the real fine technical details, like (by) making it more fun, so that my students would still get it, and not involve me having to, you know, describe what a gerund did, whatever, then that was much better. Then, actually, breaking it down, explaining it what it meant technically… So, because most native English speakers wouldn’t know what the difference between a gerund or like a past participle, things like that…
CLC: Well, how did you make it fun?
We do a lot of exercises. Once, we did personals, um, they had to write personals described who they were looking for. I actually did a lot of dating-related exercises, just because I liked them. Because I am more romantic, so I want to do that too. Also because, actually, my students too. It was a subject that really engaged them, so we did…
CLC: Well, they were teenagers…
Yeah, they were mentally teenagers. So, we did personals, which was like, you wrote down who, what kind of person you were looking for to date, and this would be given to somebody else in the classroom, and that person had to help you find somebody else in the class, find like the perfect match for this person. Um, and we did speed dating. That was really fun too. Just similar, but you had to interview people. (coughs)
CLC: Did it create any real-life quid pro quo?
Um, yeah actually! There were a lot of couples that ended up in my classes, but I don’t think I had anything to do with it! The thing is that these kids spend their entire days, like, with each other. They lived together, they had classes together, and so it’s kinda natural. There was one student, sort of the big story that came out of my last year there. There were these two students, Bob and Chloe. Bob was like this really sweet, kind of short, chubby kid. Chloe was like this really pretty (girl) – her English was great too. And there was a big joke for most of the, like, entire year and a half that I was there, that Bob really fancied Chloe! But Chloe wouldn’t have anything to do with him… So, it was just this big joke!
And well it became a true story, toward the end of the year, toward the end of my last couple of months there. I was like, “woaw, really?”, texted all my students, and it’s like, “did you hear about this? is this true?” and they all said yes. (laughs) So it’s a big 八卦 (bat-gwa), which is news gossip! (Editor: a term that means a lot of other things too)
CLC: It’s kinda like expat life… They’re always together, the expats, it’s kind of incestuous… In my two weeks experience here in Beijing, this word always comes up (laughs), “incestuous”, tell me about it!
Um, well, judging from both my experience in both Changchun and Beijing, yes, probably expat life is very incestuous. In Changchun, it was literally… there were just like a couple of hundred foreigners out there, maybe a thousand at most. That was segregated between German engineers and their families, and this sort of teaching crowd? So, you could imagine it was a very small circle – you see the same people all the time, hung out with the same people all the time.
CLC: Yet Beijing is a much bigger city.
Yeah, Beijing is a much bigger city, but the same thing happens. I mean, there are sometimes… this is something that is true for almost anybody, all the sort of English-speaking expats. I can’t say for, let’s say the Korean or the Japanese ones, because these are the actually bigger groups here. But the circles don’t really cross. We’re all here for different reasons and about the English-speaking ones, there are people who’ve come to our events, seen on the street, or go to other events that I am also at. I mean, I’ve seen them before a million times. I’ve no idea who they are, or sometimes I know who they are, because of Facebook!
I mean, Facebook, which is huge in China, amongst expats, is this way we can sort of stalk people in the circles in Beijing. Especially, there are people that I’ve seen on Facebook, before I’ve actually met them, still haven’t met. I’m like, oh I know that is, just because I’ve seen them and they’re also on Facebook.
CLC: Hey, how’s it to be Chinese-looking in China, yet being American?
It’s both good and bad. I mean, I really enjoy passing… I mean, until I open my mouth, of course. Then, also, it really kind of frustrates me sometimes, because, you know, there is definitely a difference… Like, sometimes, you can definitely see where an obvious-looking foreigner gets better treatment, than somebody who isn’t. So, that can be really frustrating. On the other hand, then, I can just console myself the knowledge that just being treated like a Chinese person, which means is to be treated like shit.
Um, so, you know, I think like the biggest incident that happened once… where like, I was really angry and I know that this never would’ve happened if I’ve been White, was when my friend and I, we were on a train, moving some things over on the luggage rack. And this Chinese guy starts screaming at me, actually pulled my sweater from my waist – so he was actually physically confrontational. Unluckily for him, I just start screaming back at him and I know that if I’ve been White, this never would’ve happened. It’s like a really ridiculous thing to say, but it really makes me angry when things like that happen.
I mean, the only two times… You know I’ve lived in all these different cities. I lived in New York, in what was considered a dangerous part of New York, you know, there were shootings just outside of my apartment, but I’ve never been physically threatened. And in China, it happened twice where I’ve almost gotten into a fight.
CLC: Hey, are you exhausted about the Olympics?
Yes, I can’t wait for them to be over! And then we can all get back to our real lives, you know. (laughs – Editor’s note: they’re looking forward to them, actually, like anyone else!)
CLC: Ok, thank you Fiona.