Mystery writer Gene (E. C.) Ayres gets an offer he cannot refuse: to come and live, work, and teach inside the People's Republic of China, at a state university. Things are not what they seem...
The Official Gene (E. C.) Ayres Website
Based on his exploits and adventures teaching spoken English in the People’s Republic of China, Gene Ayres takes the travel adventure to a new realm and new dimension interwoven with social, political and environmental observations and satire, as well as serious local and global issues. In China he married one of the locals and became one, while at the same time knowing that, not being Chinese, he would never fit in. Taking raw freshman students right out of military boot camp, he taught them to think for themselves, and be their own person: a radical concept in China, but rapidly catching on. In short, he became Jack Black in School of Rock, except at a Chinese state university instead of private prep school.
Ayres was present and involved when his host city Harbin made global news with a major benzene spill in the city’s only water supply, the Songhua River. He was present during the Anti-Japanese riots, and in attendance at three Governor’s Banquet’s for “Foreign Experts,” one of which he had become. Ayres found himself apologizing for Hollywood stereotyping of China, and for the inexplicable nature of American humor and politics: often intermixed. He was panned for showing “Farenheit 911” and applauded for showing “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming!” He tried to teach classic song lyrics like “Sounds of Silence” only to discover his students already knew them all. In his travels in China Ayres rode in busses so crowded even a pickpocket would have his arms pinned. He rode trains for which the “Sleeper Class” was steerage, and rode in steerage in overnight ferry boats so crowded you could not walk the aisles. He found a city park planted with marijuana in Shandong Province, and the best seafood restaurant in the world with no kitchen in Sanya. He climbed mountains, swam rivers, ate silkworms and solved a mystery (his forthcoming mystery Black Dragon River). In short, he walked the walk, and talked the talk. And now, in Billion to One, he presents a look at and insights into a China rarely seen or understood.
I learned quickly that the Chinese had an excellent sense of humor. It was just that in Freshman class 2, it remained in its embryo stage. At least when it came to communications between cultures. This culture was 5000 years old. But for much of that time there were Mongols or Japanese busy burning villages and raping women, British and Portuguese looting treasures, and Red Guards shooting people’s grandparents for smiling the wrong way. This, in fact, happened to my wife's family when she was five for the double offense of not only being the wrong class—landlords—but also educated: in other words, 'elite' in an era the Chinese still can't work up much laughter about.
As an example, Chinese comedy, the kind you could watch on CCTV, tended to resemble a 1950s Jackie Gleason Show. Typically it was the beleaguered working man and nagging wife routine, or vice versa: a couple of rubes from the countryside taking on Beijing or Shanghai for the first time, eyes wide shut. Shang hai, by the way, meant, among other things, 'big pain.' Pain humor, of course, was always popular anywhere, such as all those Jackie Chan movies, wherein an amusing slap on the ear would lead to a hilarious kick in the groin.
Which brings me to Freshman English, Class 2, Harbin University of Commerce. The week before, a friend had sent me an email with Steven Wright's latest takes on life in our universe. Or, at least his. He's a physicist/humorist, kind of a nerd Mark Twain, prone to such wisdom as: “Always borrow money from pessimists, they don't expect to get it back.” Some of his musings tend towards the quantum side, such as “I woke up one day and all my stuff had been stolen, and replaced by exact duplicates!”
So, going where no man had dared go before, at least on my campus, I took my Steven Wright collection to class the next day and tried them out on some of my always eager, ready-to-learn Chinese freshmen.
Now I know what it's like to bomb big time at the Comedy Club. Try—just try—to imagine telling thirty one quite excellent jokes to an audience that remains rapt, yet puzzled, and stares at you unblinkingly en masse in absolute dead silence through the whole routine.
I tried to explain. I had to explain. Let me explain! It went sort of like this. “OK, you all know the saying, 'the early bird gets the worm,' right?” Except, well, they didn't. I needed to start from scratch, and explain what an 'early bird' was. No problem with 'worm,' they all had electronic dictionaries. But where’s the joke? (The joke, for the record, was this: The early bird gets the worm, but it's the second mouse that gets the cheese.)
I explained that an 'early bird' was one who rises early, “in order to be first in line, to be ahead of the pack, ahead of the game.” I thought they could relate to this, lines being a major part of life in China. Wrong again (about the relating, not about the lines). “What is 'pack'?” Alice wanted to know. And what game? They got the 'rises early' part, all of them having been forced that very morning to get up at dawn to go out running for a mile or two, before breakfast. This was their dorm leader's idea of keeping them fit, I supposed, and while not completely without merit, it did smack more than a little of militarism, of which they'd already gotten a fair dose at the beginning of the fall term. So small wonder they didn't find it particularly amusing. Plus, I had to explain all those other idioms. Eventually we were able to move on to the worm part. Here in the dry, dusty cold northern steppes of what once was eastern Mongolia (before it became Manchuria, before it became Heilongjiang Province, and so on) I guess worms were hard to come by, early bird or not. Presumably, the birds around here, those few that had survived, didn't eat worms. The southern students nodded though when I explained that, at least where I grew up in New Jersey in the U.S. of A., worms were bird food. They had worms down south in Guangdong Province, of course. Just not for breakfast (at least not any more).
Now for the mouse part. There was a popular Chinese song that went: I love you like a mouse loves rice. No mention of cheese. In fact, cheese was introduced to China only recently, courtesy of Pizza Hut (and it was very expensive, and not all that good, which was odd, considering that other dairy products were ubiquitous here and the yogurt was the best I'd ever tasted—melamine or no). Anyway, they soon got the mouse-rice-cheese equation straight. On to the 'second mouse' part. This required some graphics, so I drew a picture (thank Buddha I can draw) of a mouse trap. “Ah!” exclaimed Cantisse, glancing up from her laptop where she’d been busy watching music videos. “A mouse catcher!” Right. On which a pile of rice just didn't provide the same impact, visually speaking, but they went with the cheese after a while, and from there quickly grasped the implications of the second mouse getting the goodies, at the expense of poor Mouse Number One. Several chuckles and a snicker or two rippled around the room. Success at last, although Alice was still wondering where the bird fit in. But by now the early bird was long gone, and there's nothing like dissecting a comedy routine word by word, laying all the parts out on the operating table, and then explaining their meaning, if you really want to fall on your face.
Never one to give up, however, I bravely soldiered on, these being former soldiers. “OK,” I said. “How about this one: ‘42.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot.’” I looked hopefully around the room. This was a business university, after all. Surely statistics meant something! Not a snicker to be heard. Not a smile to be seen: only the usual, always disconcerting collective blank stare. I silently cursed Steven Wright. He should be here to take this abuse, it was his damn joke! Several female students expressed consternation regarding the term “made up.” Didn’t this have something to do with cosmetics? Several others had problems with “on the spot.” What spot? You mean, like a blemish? And ‘on’ it how? And isn’t ‘made up’ supposed to be ‘made up of’ something? And made up of what? And what does this have to do with statistics, and most damaging of all, what’s so funny anyway? They were probably fully accustomed to statistics being made up on the spot. Here in China, statistics had probably always been made up on the spot. Or at least in a back room. In fact, at that very moment, there were students and professors in offices all over campus busy making up statistics for the upcoming five year Ministry of Education evaluation that doomed each university in China to a new position on the all-important ranking hierarchy. (See Chapter 27, The Mother-in-Law From Hell). Was that a joke?