You know what they always say: when in Beijing, go to a bookshop. A statement so beloved and clichéd it has its own range of tea-towels. In any event, I’m not one to mess with international law, so upon arrival in Beijing, fresh off the train, I made it my business to find such a bookshop, and went trekking through the shopping district by night.
And what a bookshop did I find. The Wangfujing Bookstore is absolutely massive. I’m sure in China it’s probably considered a sad megalith of commercialism, reviled by vast swathes of book lovers: but I didn’t have that much time in Beijing, so I was glad to find all the books you could shake a stick at in the one spot, over five floors of booky wonder.
One of the first things I noticed was that fiction book covers were very different from those we’re used to in Europe. They featured hardly any pictures. Rows and rows of white spines, which barely differed from each other, ate up shelf space as far as the eye could see. It seems in China that one really doesn’t judge a book by its cover.
In the travel section, I looked up some books on Ireland, to see what they were saying about us. This would have been a much more profitable investigation had I been able to read a word of Chinese, but still, it’s the thought that counts.
I then made my way to the textbook section, which is where I noticed the second thing, which was also the thing which left the greatest impression on me. It concerned some ideas about how women speak English.
Just take a look at this terrible photograph I took of a university-level textbook for students of the English language. Now, I may be out of the educational loop nowadays, but I’m not sure what value this exercise is attempting to provide in terms of linguistic abilities.
Quite apart from being highly amused trying to answer any of Question 1, I got a real laugh from imagining a classroom of earnest Chinese students sitting around, discussing Question 2.
Except perhaps not the women, who at this point have presumably learned to shut up – a lesson learned early on in the course (no doubt in a module called “English For Girls 101: Shhhhh!”)
Later in the same book, they used a piece from an American linguistics professor for reading practice. Deborah Tannen is best known for her studies on gender differences in communication style. I’m not entirely sure that she foresaw questions derived from her work such as “At home, who talks more, the husband or the wife?” – but who knows? Perhaps the Chinese have better insight into American linguistics professors than I do.
But when it all boils down to it, is there any difference between the Chinese learning English with the aid of such bonkers teaching aids, and the hours and hours I spent in school learning to write to French campsites, asking for an electrical connection to the caravan I would never stay in?
Probably not. And after all, as long as it results in the command of another language, husbands should be allowed to make all the important public announcements they like, while their wives talk the hind legs off domestic donkeys.
Still, it was refreshing to get into a lift the following day, and find a product of English study in China – the most charming notice I had ever encountered in any lift anywhere in the world:
And you know what? I did not frolic, or spit, or meddle with the lonely button. Neither did I allow myself to use the telephone to cry for help, no matter how much I wanted to.
I simply looked to my husband, mentioned something trivial, and watched with pride as he ignored me completely before striding forth to use his manly man’s voice to speech out loud in a public place.
Who says travel doesn’t broaden the mind?