This is chapter 33 of my Tibet memoir in which I make friends with a Chinese guy who’s English was not only self-taught but it was a lot better than many native speakers.
One of Sir Woo’s visitors stood out from the others. Not only was he taller than the rest but he was quiet and thoughtful and showed genuine interest in what I was teaching:
– How do you do? he said in perfect BBC English. My name is Je Yang, I am a friend of Sir Woo and I too am from Shanghai.
– Hi there, my name’s Rupert.
– Glad to meet you.
– Where did you learn such good English? I presume you went to private school and university in the UK. Or Hong Kong?
– Not at all. I taught myself.
– What do you mean? You didn’t go to an English school? You must have had a great English teacher. I’ve never met a Chinese person who speaks English as well as you. How did you do it?
– Like I said, I taught myself. I’ve never had an English teacher. I’ve never been anywhere except Shanghai, where I am from, and here, where I work. I did used to listen to the radio and that helped with the pronunciation.
Even in Britain it’s unusual to meet someone who speaks English so well. Most Brits have an accent that indicates their class or their region, and however well foreigners master our language – and some know it better than we do – I don’t remember ever meeting anyone who spoke it as fluently as Je Yang. He had been to the technical university in Shanghai and worked as an engineer at the Tibet Electric Company (no, they didn’t need an English teacher) and said that getting a job here meant that he got a better salary so it was a good opportunity to save money. He wore old fashioned sunglasses when outside and when he took them off I could see that he had gentle eyes. He looked rather shy at first but he was full of ideas and concepts that he wouldn’t have dreamed of mentioning to the rowdy mob outside Sir Woo’s place.
When someone is eager to learn the results can be electric. That was the case with Je Yang. We would meet often and talk for hours. They weren’t lessons – there was no lesson plan, curriculum or text books – and I didn’t charge him; they were more like wide ranging conversations. I was hungry to learn about China and he wanted to improve his knowledge of English peculiarities. I would think back through my life, searching out all the weird and wonderful expressions that I had squirreled away in my memory, and we would discuss them. I had heard a lot of sayings over the years and I would squirrel them away in my memory. He was delighted with the phrase Bob’s your uncle! and especially my story about Sheila, the secretary at Canongate Publishing who would say Mary’s your aunt! as a refrain.
Only now were all these expressions coming out and I was amazed at how many I knew. I had a glimpse into the massive warehouse of information stored away in my memory – information that I’m not aware of and barely use. What made it particularly interesting was that I wasn’t quite sure if my explanation of each expression was the correct one, so we would debate it, look it up in his dictionary and sometimes accost British or American travellers for their view on whatever expression we were debating that day.
Just when I was starting to form the impression that Je Yang was something of an innocent, he told me he had a private business interest. Private business? In Communist China? Isn’t that illegal? He shrugged off the suggestion and told me about his friend in the Government Unit that had access to a bus that had been forgotten about. The bus driver didn’t have to report to anyone, didn’t have to do a particular run and basically worked for himself. He had made a deal with Je Yang that involved running foreign tourists from Lhasa to the Nepalese border, stopping off at important Tibetan monasteries on the way. He explained that the bus wasn’t exactly new but they were able to undercut the official tour operators, and so the travellers were getting a good deal. The tourists could, of course, get the local bus but that was a two day marathon to the border and if you wanted to visit a monastery en route you had to get off the bus and chance your luck hitching through the wilderness. It seemed that Je Yang’s bus made everyone happy.
But Je Yang had a problem. He told me that dealing with these foreigners made him unhappy and nervous, especially the French who were always complaining. He said the Americans could also be very difficult.
Some days later I found myself sitting with Je Yang on a hotel balcony outside the Travellers’ Co-op, waiting for the thirty people who had signed up for the next bus trip to come and buy their tickets. I was terrified; I had never dealt with so many strangers before and my hands were shaking. This is more scary than teaching I thought. Je Yang was right, the travellers were tough, pushy and suspicious – and his attitude of meek servitude only encouraged them. Most of them had travelled through India or China to get here (the consensus was that it was much harder to travel through China). They were hard-bitten and experienced and all of them had been ripped off at least once. I could understand their reluctance to hand over a hundred yuan to a pair like us. Two weeks later we were doing the same thing and before long I had got the knack of it. I realised that however rude and tough I tried to be, nobody seemed to mind. It reminded me of a quote from Napoleon, who apparently said: If the King is a nice man the reign is a failure.
My routine in Lhasa had changed completely. Most lunchtimes I was teaching at the Chinese Hospital – doing more eating than teaching – and evenings were taken up with Sir Woo. I was still staying at Joga’s place but it was almost impossible to relax there. Many times I wanted to stretch out on my bed for a few minutes but there were always a couple of burly warriors on it, cheerfully insisting I drink another cup of chang. At weekends I would climb onto Joga’s flat roof and read novels by Henry Miller, whose description of decadent Americans in Paris in the 1930s seemed to resonate with the life I was currently living.
Perhaps it was due to the altitude, or the fact that I hadn’t worked for so long, but I felt continuously exhausted. Often I would go to the Cheese Factory and stretch out on Frenchy’s bed for a few minutes. They had finally got their own room, which had become a wasteland of half-eaten food and all sorts of rubbish. The cold was really settling in with a vengeance and their borrowed paraffin heater was in constant use – not that it made any difference as the cold air leaked in through the windows, the ceiling and the thick stone walls. There was nobody on the Cheese Factory terrace anymore, everyone was inside trying to keep warm – many of them crowding into Diane and Frenchy’s room in the vain hope that a large number of bodies would result in warmth. They were all eager to know what it was like staying with Tibetans but I didn’t tell them much; I didn’t have much to tell, and I certainly didn’t invite any of them round in case they tried to muscle in on my space.
Diane and Frenchy both seemed obsessed with health matters. She was convinced that AIDS was a major epidemic that would end up destroying everyone. She said that if you slept with one person it could bring you into contact with over a thousand people, a claim that didn’t make much sense to me. My view was that the media had distorted the risks of AIDS, as they had done with herpes before that, but she dismissed me as an ignoramus and shut me up by quoting statistics. Frenchy was more concerned with hepatitis, an illness that was much closer to hand, in fact just next door four people had it. We called the next room the Hep Ward and noticed that everyone who went to stay in it seemed to catch it – not that this stopped the never-ending stream of travellers looking for a cheap bed. Jake, an English guy we had known for months, was now called the Yellow Man. Italian Paola, who had sad eyes and long black hair, claimed to have been cured by Tibetan medicine.
– Bullshit, cried Frenchy. Hepatitis doesn’t have a cure. Everyone knows that. Paola’s bullshitting herself. With hep you just stop eating oil and alcohol and sit and wait. That’s all you can do.
Larry, another American with an opinion, said he’d heard that a lot of people had been cured of hepatitis and other illnesses at the Tibetan Medicine Hospital. He said that Tibetan medicine is an ancient tradition that seems to get really good results. I didn’t pay much attention to these discussions and Frenchy dismissed it out of hand – he dismissed Tibetan medicine as alternative, and said all alternative medicine was hocus-pocus. I would make the occasional provocative remark to try and keep the discussion going.
Paola was different from the Cheese Factory crowd in that she didn’t hang around in the rooms all day, moaning and groaning. She was intrigued by Tibetan religious culture and seemed to know a lot about it, although she rarely spoke. Her favourite spot was right in front of the Jokhang, the main Tibetan temple in the centre of the old town, where she would spend hours talking to people in fluent Mandarin. As a relaxing contrast to my other activities, I was spending more and more time at the Barkhor, walking the network of streets that surrounded the temple, as the pilgrims did. It was a good place to have conversations; you could walk and talk. One evening I was walking past the front of the Jokhang with Frenchy and we saw Paola, who turned to me dreamily and offered us a sliver of dried cheese – white cheese that had been hardened to rock and then cut into little slivers, probably with a cleaver considering how hard the stuff was. I had seen this stuff before but never tried it so I took one, thanked her, popped it in my mouth and tried to get some taste out of it. We walked on and Frenchy hissed into my ear:
– You idiot. She’s had hep! I laughed off his suggestion and thought how sad it must be to go through life with this kind of hypochondria.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.