Crossing the Street in China: Poker.

I have two “This is China” stories for you, and one lame joke. Here’s the first story of me going just a little out of my way, and the bizarrely typical consequences. It’s about playing cards.

Story. I like this definition of a gentleman: a man who will go out of his way for others. I try to meet it. (I’m not exactly acing the course, but if it’s a pass/fail, I think I might get the credit. Fingers crossed.) I often don’t, though. The little English corner¹ I started at my college a month ago is a test case: I don’t contractually have to do it, it’s a useful service to my students, but it also allows me to continue seeing some of my fave freshman students, kids that I’ve been working with in Oral English class since last fall. I like them and they like me. It’s not exactly sacrificial for me to be with them, but it’s time I don’t need to spend.

¹ I’d never heard of EC until just before we set out for Dalian, China in 2009. Chinese people gather to hear and practise speaking English. It’s a sweet, earnest custom. Foreigners are valued and surrounded, and for us, it can be an ego intoxicant. Practically, what it often means is that the Chinese are off the speaking hook, and mostly listen or ask the questions everybody already knows. “What country are you from?” “Do you like China?”

This week, a few newbies came, too, as soon as their morning class was over. Some finished off hasty lunches. We learned “Over the Rainbow”, did a getting-to-know-you walk ’n’ talk, and then the young vets taught the new kids how to play Whist. I’m not really a big card-player, but my bridge-loving mother taught us bid whist as a lead-up game when we were kids. (I almost remember the rules.) Most important, here, is that there’s so much good English vocabulary and idiom: trump, following suit, deal, bidding, tricks, reneging, lead, shuffling the deck, diamonds (they’re called ‘squares’ in Chinese, while clubs are known as ‘flowers’), and keeping your cards close to the vest/chest. I wish I’d started sooner, as the students love it and I just laugh and cajole and play Language Cop and threaten dire, non-existant consequences if they lapse into Mandarin.

A senior administrator poked her head in. She’s the Party Secretary for our college; I’m still not terribly clear on what she does, or the nature of the complicated relationship she must have with the Dean, vice-Deans and other academic and administrative functionaries. (My wife, the former professional dancer, had her first who is this person? experience when she was helping to choreograph a faculty dance number for a “Christmas show”, and was overruled in truly head-scratching ways. She was a little upset. I think the phrase dragon lady might have been muttered.) In any case, Party Lady was not smiling. She spoke to one of the three tables playing, though not to me. (Her English isn’t strong.) I guessed she might be concerned about the 1:30 class coming next, but we always rearrange our tables and leave on time. She didn’t seem interested in talking to me, so I smiled and ignored her.

Is this a royal flush? A "straight"? I don't know poker, but this is something good.

Is this a royal flush? A “straight”? I don’t know poker, but this is something good.

When I ran upstairs to take some of my previous class’s work to the 5th-floor foreign teachers’ office, Mr. Wang had That Look on his face as he came in. W is a young guy in the international affairs office, somebody I’ve played some basketball with; he has some English, and I could tell right away that he’d been delegated to talk with me. He wasn’t holding his nose, but he was wearing a sickly smile

“Hi, Jay, I think you have English corner, yeah, it’s good, maybe not play poker.”

“What? We don’t play poker. It’s just a little game, no gambling. It’s just a chance for the kids to practise speaking English and learn some good vocabulary.” I knew where this was going, but I was incredulous. I shouldn’t have been. I’ve lived here for five years. Incredulity and stubbornness are a poor mix for brain function.

“Yes, I understand, but maybe poker, it’s not good, maybe you do another activity, with paper things.”

“It’s not poker…” I just walked, and he tried to mollify me with pats on the back. He’s seen me get all mule-headed on a basketball court. He’s heard me ask Why?!

So: in a college with inflated tuition, where modestly paid teachers and administrators drive conspicuously large and shiny vehicles with high-status logos on the grills, where hip-grinding dances are part of the student “Christmas show” (with the Party Lady Seal of Approval), where students going abroad are charged a 6000-yuan “visa advice” fee for which no advice is provided, well, you get the picture: the foreigner is introducing corrupt practices to our students. Card playing? In a classroom? Is this the kind of education we want our young accountants and economists to have?

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m stubborn enough that I just wanted to say, “Sorry, gang. The administration doesn’t like what I’m doing, so we’re done.” Of course, the kids suffer, and there’s no bloody question of them taking some kind of protest action. (Ha! You know that the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre happened on June 4, but most of our students have no idea, and wouldn’t want to think about it, much less talk, if they did.) I have a few days to decide whether to meekly comply with the “suggestion”, rudely ignore it, or even more rudely post notices about the administrative trampling of my little Corner — more posters than I ever used to advertise it.

Well, that doesn’t sound very gentlemanly! Still, sometimes it doesn’t pay to go out of your way.

Comment (1)

  1. Michael Freeman

    Gentlemanly!?! Playing cards with kids?! Give your head a shake you, you rogue, you!
    I have absolutely no concept of life in China, but I have imagined that certain straightforwards here would be seen as somehow sideways there.
    My grandfather did not allow cards in his house, for any reason. He did not allow dancing of any kind. Every house member and guest knew of specific bed-times for everyone, or leaving times for guests, and anything to do with the kitchen was the realm of women.
    He definitely had his ways. All stemmed from his definition of upright, gentlemanly, proper behaviour. He was king and ruler in his own world, as he interpreted that he should be from his traditional cultural upbringing, meshed with strict Baptist mores. And it confused the crap outta me.
    The hand you show is the second highest hand in poker — a royal flush — only matched or surpassed by the same five cards in “squares” (diamonds). That is only in some interpretations. Most will say that a royal flush is a royal flush.
    For comparison, I have at least a dozen decks of cards for use in the class, for various games, none of which are poker. But bidding games such as bridge and Hoss and Whist are not poker.
    The real point that I am trying to make, I guess, is that there are those that look from the outside and have no real idea what good teaching strategy is. If the student is interested and motivated, isn’t that enough to meet the bar? The single-minded obsession to call Whist poker, and the unwillingness to look at rules of play of both games in determining that there is a difference, is not unique to China, much to my chagrin.
    Maybe use cribbage next time you get the chance.

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