I got offered a job on a reality TV show for Hunan Satellite TV through my Chinese blog today, and turned it down. I’m the only Chinese-speaking foreigner I know who’s been in China for more than 5 minutes and not been on TV, and I figure that I may as well maintain my indie cred until I can find something worth doing. Most roles for white foreigners on TV fall into the categories of either “evil imperialist (British),” “happy-go-lucky airhead without a care in the world (American),” or “look, it can talk (Dashan & friends),” and, you know, balls to that noise.
Still, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think about it for a couple of minutes. I suspect that it’s getting near time for me to change jobs anyway.
I find that most foreigners living in China need to get out and go home a minimum of once a year if they’re going to stay sane. I’ve got a two-week vacation back home coming up in late September, and I am looking forward to it like you wouldn’t believe. Part of the reason is simply that it’s been about a year since I was home and I’m due for a break, but mostly it’s that I’m fraying under my jobs. I write a weekly column in Chinese for the 珠海特区报 Zhuhai News. I enjoy doing it and the column seems to be popular enough, but it’s getting harder and harder to find safe topics that I can get 1500 characters out of week after week.
Then there’s my main job, at [REDACTED], where I spend my day reading through news about environmental pollution, graft, illegal land seizures, coal mine collapses, misreported flooding casualties, police brutality, an unending stream of cruelty and idiocy, the kind of stuff that makes you want to turn in your membership card for the human race. I read and translate these things every day, and little bits of them break off and accrete, soul toxins. I used to joke that you could tell that I’d learned my Chinese on the Mainland because I could never remember how to say “election.” Since starting this job, I’ve picked up plenty of new vocabulary items instead. Asset rip-off. Petitioners. Self-immolation. Machetes.
Then there’s freelance translation, where I convert gobshite documents from Chinese to English for pay that can only be described as “insulting.” And that’s when I get paid: Luichi Holdings owes me somewhere in the neighborhood of RMB 28,000, and has since May. The really funny part is that the gobshite documents of theirs that I translated repeated, on the order of about once per paragraph, that their upcoming e-commerce website “seeks to construct an e-commerce platform based around mutual trust and impeccable business ethics.”
So I haven’t posted lately, because whatever I have to say will come out sounding either like TalkTalkChina or The Peking Duck. Not that they’re bad sites; it’s just that the positions have already been filled. And I haven’t posted because I haven’t been doing anything. I haven’t done anything in a while – just work, and a small bit of travel over the break. I recently read Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones and realized that not doing anything, more than anything else, is why I’ve been in such a funk for the past few months. Time to quit whining and get doing.
Last night I got out of work late — around 9:30 – and walked over to Steak and Eggs, around the corner from my office. Steak and Eggs imitates – with some degree of success, down to the selection of pies – an American-style diner, and the food is cheap and pretty good. I had just ordered the pork chops with mashed potatoes – in Chinese; Steak and Eggs’ authenticity doesn’t extend to the waitstaff – and sat down for a moment of quiet moping when the owner’s wife, a matronly Chinese woman in her late 50s, sat down at the table across the way and struck up a conversation.
She asked what I was doing in Beijing, and then why I wasn’t working as a reporter myself. I told her that I didn’t think I had the constitution for it.
– What did I want to do, then?
— Don’t know. Do a Master’s here, maybe. Probably in literature, maybe in linguistics.
– And how was I planning to make money with that?
— Don’t know. Maybe end up teaching. Hard to say. I’m not really good at anything.
– Well, you’re young, hon. You’ve got time. [“Hon” I translate freely. She had that tone of voice.]
And then I realized that I was sitting in a late-night diner halfway around the world getting advice on my life in my second language from a Chinese schoolmarm and remembered that it really is a neat thing to be living at the start of the 21st century, in the capital of the most populous country on earth, and that I’m pretty sure that I actually love it. Even if I do need this vacation.