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Poverty, empty hands, little smiles

Wooosshh! I upended the large bin and hundreds of colourful Lego-like blocks and bally-shaped thingies scattered across the floor in front of the delighted Chinese four-year-olds that I am currently teaching. The floor was now a rainbow that had come crashing and splintering down from the heavens. “Pick up the green,” I roared, “the green, the green!” holding up one of the green thingummies for reinforcement. The grinning rug-rats scrabbled around on the floor in hysterics, grabbing at the green toys and sometimes fighting for possession of them, squealing with rage. Yet all they were being asked to do was drop the green toys back into the bin. They perhaps, at their age, were unable to realise the toys did not actually belong to them.

Well then, what does belong to us, if anything?

The human desire for possessiveness sets in very early, it seems. Staring at my clutching, greedy four-year-olds, I wondered how different children at this age might be in other cultures and class statuses. Are they all, generally speaking, so possessive at this age? Where they still often like to put objects into their mouths? Once all the “greens” were binned, many of the kids snatched up as many of the remaining blocks and balls as they could find, regardless of colour, waiting for the next command to come from me. Some of them still squabbled for possession, control. Their mirroring of the very human need to be in control, to only feel happy when we have “enough” possessions I found quite sobering. Their petulance and sudden mood changes, depending on what they had in their tiny hands, reminded me too much of me … what some readers may think is too much of a favourite topic in my blogs of late.

Right now I am restlessly drumming my fingers over a fairly good job teaching in a college back in my beloved Suzhou, as I am really not happy with neighbouring, drab Kunshan. Currently we live almost in a slum, I am embarrassed to say. We discovered we don’t have hot water in our grimy kitchen and never will. The sink is made of tiles, cracked and dirty. Our new company promises free accommodation, yes, but they certainly make sure they don’t spend much on us in this regard. Some of the nearby shops are filthy …

I catch myself in mid-moan, stare down at the Lego toys I am clutching in my hands, or rather, the ones I do not have in my hands. We may have taken a big step down (in my perception) in our current standard of living and our overall package, as we had to move fast to at least find jobs for now. But hey, we still have running water, a tiny but usable flush toilet, a washing machine. I forgot to mention that there are at least shops nearby, which is convenient, including a wonderful fruit shop from which I often buy fresh honeydew melon for breakfast on workdays. Forgot to mention the little Chinese restaurant nearby where the manageress and her husband, parents of two, were delighted to see a foreigner eating in their restaurant (a delicious mixture of scrambled eggs, tomato and lightly fried eggplant being a favourite). Her name is Libby and she has been most helpful. In China there are what we call “wet markets”, shichang, rows of stalls in a huge shed or building run by farming-type folk (I am told they are farmers but how can that be when they spend long days every day selling veggies and are therefore unable to attend to their crops) where the produce is often guaranteed to be fresh and at a third of the price in supermarkets. She escorted me all the way to one of these places. It was wonderful to stand there in the stores and as I spoke Chinese to the hawker, Libby translated what I said … into Chinese. Libby displayed that wonderful idiosyncrasy of some Chinese: they know I can speak the language to a reasonable extent, but still see the need to helpfully translate my Mandarin … erm … into Mandarin …

Now I stare down at my hands again. They are empty, completely empty, slightly curved into little smiles. For a moment I have felt happy, almost deeply happy, a person who has stood under a waterfall with arms outstretched, drinking in that impossibly ancient fluid and its gasping cold.


On Seth Godin

But okay, I am still hoping we can get back to Suzhou. Which means maybe doing a runner from our current, rather iffy company. I have been warned by colleagues here that this company is not forgiving, and will attempt to blacklist us, make our lives unpleasant. I don’t see how they can cancel our visas, as our previous company in Suzhou issued us with visas that expire only in the middle of next year. But as the truisms go: nothing risked, nothing gained. If you don’t try you cannot fail, but nor can you succeed.

In closing, I often follow Seth Godin’s pithy blogs, and this one stood out today:


A tattoo is basically forever.

You should think pretty hard before you get one, because it’s largely an irreversible decision.

“Just about every choice you make with your project and your career, though, doesn’t last forever. And the benefit of taking a risk is significantly higher than it is with a tattoo. A landing page, a pricing move, a bit of copy — they don’t last much more than a day, never mind a lifetime. Higher benefits, lower risk, what are you waiting for?

So go ahead and act as if your decisions are temporary. Because they are. Be bold, make mistakes, learn a lesson and fix what doesn’t work. No sweat, no need to hyperventilate.

I am not sure if I entirely agree that the results of decisions only have “temporary” reverberations throughout one’s life, but I found what Seth had to say encouraging, even comforting.


  • CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @