Reading Material – Beijing, China

Reading Material
Beijing, China

In a country like China, where everyone seems to either want to learn English or to improve whatever English they already know, there are a wide range of money-making opportunities available to driven, proactive native English speaker. Unfortunately, I don’t really know anything about that sort of person, being only the last of those three things. Happily however, it turns out that plenty of job opportunities also exist for the lazier, can’t-be-bothered native English speaker, which actually suits me much better.

I got my first “hey, that guy knows English!” job after only about a month in-country. I found out about it through one of those friend-of-a-friend deals, AKA “I know someone who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors” syndrome. In this case, it was from a cousin of a friend of my wife’s coworker. Or something like that at least, I never really got the relationship straight. And really, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that a local school–I forget the name, but it had “Beijing” and “English” in the title, so that should give you a good idea of what it was all about–wanted to pay me to read words into a microphone, the idea being that their students could later listen to me pronounce said words in my flawless, native English.

And the thing was, they really wanted to pay me: five-hundred yuan per hour, which at the then current exchange rate translated into a little more than sixty US dollars for every hour of work. Let me repeat that: sixty dollars an hour. A dollar a minute. Not only is that a lot of money for reading into a microphone, it’s a lot of money in general. And to make it even better, I wasn’t even in the US; I was in Beijing, a place where the average monthly income was about two-hundred and fifty US dollars. Or, to put it into more understandable language, a place where a twenty-two ounce bottle of beer could be picked up for less than a buck. Obviously, I had hit the jackpot. I immediately emailed my wife’s coworker’s friend’s cousin or whoever and said that yes, certainly I would be happy, delighted, and quite possibly even thrilled to come and record some English words for the school and how long did she think it would take and, oh, by the way, not that I really care at all about money at all–despite the fact that I am, by definition, a capitalist pig–but did I hear it paid five-hundred yuan an hour?

Turns out, it did pay that well and would take at least three hours and possibly more to do everything, depending on how fast I read. Deciding at that very moment to work as slowly as possible, I agreed to come in at nine a.m. that Saturday to read whatever the hell they wanted me to: the collected adventures of Dick and Jane; Danielle Steel’s complete oeuvre; or even Chairman Mao’s little red book, although his little black book would probably be more interesting. But really, for sixty bucks an hour, who the hell cared?

Saturday came and I managed to find the place on time, despite the fact that my cab driver seemed to have only a slightly better idea than I did of where we were actually going. When I reached the lobby, I called my designated contact, Mr. Wu, who, despite being some sort of underboss at an English language school, could barely speak a word of said language. (I’m guessing his Latin, specifically any knowledge of the phrase caveat emptor, was less than stellar as well.) After a short conversation in a combination of pidgin English and pidgin Chinese (Pinglese?) that would likely have made a linguist flee in terror, I was met in the lobby by Tracy, who was apparently the best English speaker in the company, or at least the best one that they could force to come into work on a Saturday morning.

Tracy showed me into the school’s offices, where I was treated to my mandatory Lost in Translation moment: you listen to someone speak for a significant length of time, and whatever he or she said is then translated by a second person into an impossibly short sentence given how long the first person talked. In this case, I sat at a table across from Mr. Wu, who proceeded to ramble on for several minutes straight in Chinese, all the while smiling and waving his hands around expansively like he was practicing his Tai Chi while talking to me. Then again, maybe he was just half-Italian–Marco Polo did spend some time in China, remember.

When he stopped, he turned to Tracy, who in turn turned to me and translated: “He said read list. When you come to end of the letter, please pause for a second.”

And that was it, that was all she said.

“That’s all?” I asked, sure that it wasn’t.

As she thought about it, her face sucked inward like she had just bit into a nice, fresh lemon. It was not a good look for her. When her face returned to normal, she smiled and nodded her head. “Yes!”

So much for me being sure. That being settled, I then proceeded to sign a contract that was entirely in Chinese, deciding as soon as the undecipherable text was slid in front of me that the benefits (sixty dollars an hour) outweighed the risks, namely putting my barely legible signature onto a legal document that I not only did not, but actually could not, read. Naturally, I did have a moment of doubt before signing–item three point two point one point seven: if you do not complete your job to our satisfaction, you will be driven out to a field, shot, and your family will be charged for the cost of the gas, the labor, and the bullet–but since I figured that there was probably nothing worse in the text than several different ways that they could screw me out of whatever money they owed me at the end, I signed anyway.

When I did, Mr. Wu shook my hand and disappeared out the door, presumably having better things to with this Saturday than continue talking to someone who didn’t understand a word he said. Tracy then walked me to the room where the actual recording would take place: a small five-by-five square with a desk, a single lamp in the corner, and a window that overlooked a busy arterial, with all the squealing of brakes, gunning of engines, and honking of horns that a window seat implies. So much for a soundproof room. A decrepit monitor and computer combination sat on one corner of the desk. The PC was attached to a high-tech sound mixer–as a member of the Star Wars generation, anything with more dials, switches, and flashing lights than a Death Star control panel is automatically awarded the appellation “high-tech”–that probably cost five times as much as the computer itself.

At this point, a third person–who I will henceforth call IT Guy, since I never actually got his name–came in. He walked up to me and proceeded to reach across my body in order to pull a microphone out of one of the desk drawers, politeness not being big in China: with 1.3 billion people, you really just can’t afford to be nice to people you don’t know. Unfortunately, deodorant is also not big in China, something that I was able to confirm yet again during the “reach over me” phase of the microphone procuring operation. Luckily (a word I’m not really happy about using here), my time in Beijing had accustomed me to all manner of random, unpleasant smells, and I recovered quickly.

Producing a black cable from one of the boxes in the room, IT Guy hooked up the mike, opened some sort of recording program, and tested the sound level with the Chinese equivalent of “hey” a few times. Apparently satisfied, he clicked the Record button, which I knew only because it actually said RECORD on it in big red letters. Then he opened up a Microsoft Excel file, pointed at it, and said, “Read.”

I looked at the spreadsheet. It was a single column of words. At the top of the first column was the letter A. Beneath it was a list of words that–go figure–began with that same letter.


He nodded. “Read.”

I looked at Tracy, who was watching the proceedings from the doorway. She shook her head and told me to read. IT Guy gestured to the microphone and said “read” again, like maybe I hadn’t understood the first three times they said it. Which would have been odd, since I was the native English speaker and if I couldn’t understand the word read they were in serious trouble. Although I would still be quite a bit richer by the time they figured it out, so it really didn’t matter. Not to me, anyway.

That being the case, I followed their instructions and said, “A.”

I paused for a second and then read the first word, although I don’t actually remember what it was as I was much more concerned with how many words there were, and therefore how much money I would be making, in total. But since I had no way to figure that out with Tracy and IT Guy watching me, I continued on, reading and pausing, reading and pausing exactly as I had been instructed. After about a minute of this, Tracy and IT Guy were apparently satisfied that I knew what I was doing–he can read!–so they left, banging the door shut behind them. Why bother to be quiet, after all? It’s not like I was recording anything.

And then they were gone. That was it. No other instruction other than “read,” which–based on the amount of times I had been told to do so–was clearly the most important thing. That in itself wasn’t surprising, reading being the point of the entire exercise after all, but there were other things I wondered about. Like, for example, what I should do if I had to go the bathroom. Or if I made a mistake reading something, which I was bound to do at some point. Or where I should go when I was finished for the day. Deciding that neither Tracy or IT Guy knew English well enough to actually answer any of those questions, I decided to follow the time-tested strategy of males everywhere and simply ignore them in the same way we have learned to ignore a variety of other unanswerable questions, including sticky wickets such as Does this make me look fat?, Do you think that girl over there is pretty?, Where were you last night? etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

That being taken care of, I stopped reading. The most important thing, after all, was not those pesky questions that I had already forgotten about (see the previous paragraph) or even the words that I was currently supposed to be speaking aloud; rather, it was how many words I would be actually be reading. I grabbed the mouse and scrolled down. And down. And down. The scroll bar on the side of the screen, the little box that lets you know close to the end of document you are, didn’t appear to move at all. I scrolled faster and faster as the column showed no sign of ending, until eventually the screen turned into a blur of unrecognizable lines and shapes. But always that first column was just a bit darker than the rest, filled, as it was, with words–thousands and thousands of them, apparently. Eventually, I got the end, to the literal last word. I don’t remember what it was, and really, it didn’t matter. What did matter the number next to that word: 1-3-5-1-4. Let me repeat that: 13,514. Meaning that to get to the end of the spreadsheet, I had to read 13,500 or so more words.

My first thought was that this was going to take a lot longer than three hours. My second thought was ka-ching!, or whatever other onomatopoeia you prefer to use to approximate the sound of a cash register sliding open. I was, after all, getting paid sixty dollars an hour to do this. Ignoring the fact that the recording was going to have a lot of dead space starting immediately after Tracy and IT Guy closed the door, I opened the calculator on the computer and did some quick math. I figured, best case scenario, I could read maybe one word every two seconds. That meant I would be doing this for at least seven hours, which I would try to make eight with the addition of frequent pauses. Having satisfied myself that what had started as three-hour job would now end up netting me around five hundred dollars, I went back to the top of the spreadsheet and started reading through the list, being careful to not go too fast.

Ten minutes and a few hundred words later, I realized that the job was not going to be quite as easy as I had thought. Not that it was hard, of course. Hard was the people I had passed on the taxi ride to the office, people whose job appeared to consist of moving chunks of rubble away from a building site using wheelbarrows which were roughly equal in size to those funny little European cars that only seem to be purchased by exceptionally tall people, if the movies and TV are any guide to such things. So when I say it was hard, I don’t mean that it was hard hard: it just wasn’t as laughably simple as I had originally assumed it would be.

The problem was actually the reading itself, which surprised me. After all, as an English major who had worked as both a writer and an editor, I sort of considered reading to be a strong point of mine. And I still do, although reading out loud is apparently not. And it wasn’t just that I wasn’t used to talking so much, that after only a few minutes my mouth was already so dry I felt like I could spit sand, although that didn’t exactly help. The thing was that reading down the list, pronouncing word after word after word as carefully as possible, quickly became tiring.

It sounds stupid, I know, but it’s true. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. First, get a dictionary, preferably a collegiate one–the kind you give as a high school graduation present to the neighbor’s kid or a niece or nephew you don’t like that much. Why a collegiate dictionary? Because of the word selection. It’s got some hard words, words that you haven’t seen before and have no idea how to pronounce, but not too many. Unlike, say, an unabridged dictionary, which–besides being insanely heavy and, as a result, great for propping open doors or flattening slightly curled papers–not only has too many words you’ve never seen in your life, but has words that you’d swear were completely made up if they weren’t there for you to read in black and white. You know, words like imbauba, psittaceous, and zymurgy, all of which actually do mean something in the English language, although I still have no idea what.

Anyway, now that you have a suitable dictionary, open it up to the first word–A, I’m guessing–and start reading. When you come to a word you don’t know, don’t stop to look at the pronunciation key or the definition, just read it and keep going. After all, I didn’t have the luxury of such things: I had nothing more than the word on a screen with no hints whatsoever about how to say it. And that’s it, it’s that simple. For the full effect, continue to do this for at least an hour, preferably two or three. However, since most of you are probably not being paid sixty dollars an hour while doing this, I would say that you could probably stop after five minutes and still get some idea of what I’m talking about.

Done yet? Good. See, I told you it was hard, or harder than you might have thought. The difficulty is that after a few minutes you drift off and start thinking about other things: the way your nose itches; what you’re going to eat for lunch; how you can be hungry already when you ate breakfast a few hours ago; why the hell you’re halfway across the world reading words into a microphone for a bunch of Chinese students you’ll never meet instead of sitting at home watching the NFL playoffs, which are actually on TV even in Beijing, and things of that nature.

That last item was actually what I was thinking about when I ran into the first of many problems that I would discover as the morning wore on: word strings. What, you are likely asking, are word strings? It’s a phrase I made up on the spot–hence the you not knowing what it means–to describe a series of similar sounding words that have a single word with a completely different pronunciation buried in their midst, a word that’s just waiting for you to stumble over it like the dictionary equivalent of an antipersonnel mine. But, you know, without all the blood and pain and death that accompany the real thing. (Sixty dollars an hour isn’t that much, after all. I mean, it’s not landmine-type money, that’s for sure.)

Anyway, here’s an example of a word string. Try to read this series of words correctly. And if you do–I’m sure many of you will somehow manage–imagine trying to read said list of words correctly after three consecutive hours of reading from a dictionary while thinking about something or even anything else. Here are the words:

  • Celibacy
  • Celibate
  • Celebrate
  • Celebration
  • Cell
  • Cellist
  • Cellular
  • Cement

I know, there’s all those S sounds in a row and then, from out of nowhere, the CH in cellist sucker-punches you in the back of the head, which, let’s face it, is just like a cellist. Well, probably it is; I don’t actually know any cellists. And I guess with their sucker-punching tendencies that’s a good thing, although now that I’ve pissed them off en masse I’ll probably have to start watching my back. Which won’t work, since while I’m looking behind me they’ll sucker punch me from the front, sneaky bastards that they are, but I still have to try. But regardless of the pugilistic nature of cellists, my immediate problem was that I had pronounced the word with an S instead of a CH, potentially damning untold numbers of innocent Chinese students to look like fools whenever they went to or even tried to discuss the symphony in English.

And now that I had made a mistake, I had no idea what to do. A few possibilities flashed through my head, all of which were discarded as quickly as they arrived, like a notice from your local charity agency that they’ll be collecting soon in your area. Get up, find IT Guy, and try to communicate to him what I’d done? No, because even if I managed to get my point across, if I had to track him down every time I made a mistake I would look like an idiot, which is not something I’m fond of. Try to rewind the recording program and rerecord the incorrect bits and bytes? No chance: the potential for screwing everything up was way too high. In all probability, I’d end up accidentally deleting everything I’d already done and be forced to redo it, probably for free, which was definitely not an option. Read the word again? Possibly, but I envisioned them playing the recording in front of a classroom or even over the Internet as is–I was a native English speaker after all, so why bother double-checking my work?–thereby causing untold confusion for the trusting students trying to follow along on their word list with little to no idea of what the words actually meant.

Obviously, none of those solutions would work, so I did the only thing that I could do and, really, the only sensible thing. (Sensible here meaning the choice that was easiest for me personally, everyone else be damned. Because really, if that’s not the definition of sensible, then what the hell is?) To wit, I decided to pretend that nothing had happened, that no mistake had been made, and kept reading, starting with cellular–with an S, natch. Did that mean I wasn’t doing my job correctly, that I was letting down the kind, oh so very kind, people who were giving me sixty dollars an hour to read through a shortish dictionary? Possibly to probably, with the answer being more toward the latter. Much more. But then again, since I would in all likelihood have my money and be long gone by the time anyone figured out that something was wrong, I decided I just didn’t care all that much. Problem solved.

That issue taken care of, I went on with my reading. At least, I went on until I came to the next sticking point: lack of context. That is, for example, how would you say the word B-O-W? Like something you use to shoot arrows, or like something you do before royalty or even the front part of a ship which, confusingly, may be named after royalty? And what about E-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-E? Or B-A-S-S? When you first come to a word like that, there’s no way to know what word it’s supposed to be–you have to guess. The good part about this is that you can’t be wrong: sure, each word has two different pronunciations, but both are correct. The bad part is you don’t know how the word is going to be presented to the class, and–therefore–how the unsuspecting Chinese students will use, or try to use, the word in the future as they attempt to make their way in the cruel, unforgiving English-speaking world. (If you don’t believe the English-speaking world is cruel, I have four words for you: bough, cough, though, and through. Welcome to the US, bitch.)

Luckily, having previously established that I didn’t really care during the sellist incident, I was able to solve this little conundrum quite easily: I tossed out whatever pronunciation came into my head first and went with that. So in the examples above, I ended up with something Robin Hood uses because, in general, Robin Hood’s cool (as long as he’s not played by Kevin Costner); something that’s complicated rather than something that’s fancy for the second, since the way I pronounce them the former has one less syllable than the latter and, as I have previously mentioned, I’m lazy; and the third like an instrument instead of a sea-dwelling creature because, let’s face it, guitars are just cooler than fish. Way cooler. And sure, it gets confusing if the guitar player is in a band called fish (although not spelled that way), but I conveniently ignored that entire possibility.

Needless to say, I read on, ever on.

The final problem that I found was an interesting one: words that were not, in point of fact, actually words. You know, “words” like morous, which could be either morose spelled particularly poorly, the opposite of amorous, or not a word at all. Probably the first, but I didn’t care enough to guess so I just went with the word as spelled. Most cases were a bit clearer though, or unclear if you like. Say, for instance, cercist, which seems like it should mean something but doesn’t, or prikilothermis, which is such nonsense that if it’s not somewhere in the poem “Jabberwocky,” it should be. Again and again I pronounced these and other nonexistent words however I damn well pleased–the pronunciation of non-existent words being quite simple, really–and kept progressing toward the end of the list. This might seem particularly bad of me, but I was being paid to read the words, not to fix or edit them. I mean, for a hundred bucks an hour I might have changed the words, but for sixty? As if.

Of course, it wasn’t all sitting in place reading for hours on end, mispronouncing word after word after word and not doing anything about it. Well technically I guess it was, but what I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t completely terrible and all that, and not only because of the hundreds of dollars I was making, although that didn’t hurt. Money, I’ve noticed, tends to make most things better, the same way putting a half- to fully-naked female model next to pretty much anything makes it seem more desirable. Particularly if that other thing is another half- to fully-naked female model, although it works for cars, cigarettes, clothes, alcohol, and pretty much anything else, too. Just, you know, not as well.

What kept it from being a total bore was that it was actually fun–well, funny–from time-to-time. The principal reason for this was unfortunately paired words: two words that weren’t funny on their own, but became funny by virtue of following each other in the list. Like, say, Virgin and Virile. You should probably keep those two words apart, if possible. At least, you should keep them apart if you want the definition for the first to continue to be applicable, if you know what I mean. And I really hope you do, because it’s not that subtle.

Other good word pairs included:

  • Orgasm followed by Orgy. Funny how those two go together, isn’t it?
  • Pesky followed by Pervert. They do tend to be, don’t they?
  • Queen followed by Queer. Sometimes, at least.
  • Ream followed by Rear. See above.

And my personal favorite, given the circumstances:

  • Chinese followed by Chink. I couldn’t believe it either, if it helps.

A second source of amusement was the steady stream of words that, while correct, are rarely to never used in day-to-day conversation, nice fifty-cent word like lachrymose (given to tears or weeping, tending to cause tears), or kerfuffle (disturbance or fuss). Imagine, if you will, a typical Chinese student, one who has studied English in average, run-of-the-mill schools for most of his or her life. He or she might be able to say something like this: “That fight caused quite a fuss, and over something so pointless! I don’t cry very often, but I might have if your sweet voice hadn’t calmed me.”

That’s all well and good as is, but it’s missing something, that certain je ne sais quoi that’s needed to really wow native English speakers such as you and I. Luckily, Chinese students who were fortunate enough to go the school I was currently working for wouldn’t have this problem. No, they’d be able to communicate the same thing, but with style: “That imbroglio caused quite a kerfuffle, and over something so jejune! I am not lachrymose, but I might have cried if your mellifluous voice hadn’t assuaged me.”

Now that, I think we can all agree, is some serious fucking English. What–you don’t think it’s better? Well, how awkward. And, I might add, how gauche of you to say so. Which, not coincidentally, is something else the fortunate Chinese student described above would be able to say–correctly, even!–courtesy of yours truly. Quite an accomplishment, I know.

In the end, I had to go to the school’s offices three times, for a grand total of seven hours–I couldn’t manage to go slow enough to stretch if out any farther, no matter how hard I tried–to get through all thirteen-thousand and whatever words and collect my four-hundred-plus dollars of semi-easy money. And, for the record, they never said anything about my pronunciation. Or my mispronunciation, as the case may be. I’m guessing they never even bothered to listen to the tapes, they probably just played them in front of the class or streamed them over the Internet without editing them at all. I assume that someone will eventually notice the–let’s face it–many, many problems (if indeed someone hasn’t already), but I’ll probably never find out about. And in any case, it doesn’t matter, because the money has all been spent. Turns out, papa needed not only a brand new bag (fake Prada–I was in China, after all), but also a nice, custom-tailored suit. Quel dommage.

And that, as they say, is pretty much that. But if you ever meet a Chinese person who studied English in Beijing in 2005 or so, and they tell you about the wonderful sellist they saw in concert; about how the sellist took a bo at the end of the performance; how they went out afterward and had a lovely dinner featuring Chilean sea base, think of me and try not to laugh.

Or at least, try not to laugh too hard.

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