Sally Fitzpatrick reviews The English Class by Ouyang Yu
The English Class
by Ouyang Yu
Transit Lounge, 2010
Reviewed by SALLY FITZPATRICK
Having resisted colonial forays for millennia, China is ironically westernizing itself, a cultural revolution with arguably as much impact as that of the Great Proletarian Revolution. Even the poorest Chinese peasant, willing to dismiss the intense beauty embodied in the Chinese language, may believe the English language has the power to transform their life. This belief in the transformative power of English is the driving ambition, and perhaps the flaw, in the heart of Jing, the hapless, truck-driver protagonist of Ouyang Yu’s recent novel, The English Class.
Although Jing’s aspiration leads to his downfall, his character provides an ingenious vehicle for Yu’s endless curiosity with both the Chinese and English languages. Yu’s prolific output, to the order of an average of two books per year for the last twenty years, speaks of a man whose fascination with language acts like adrenalin in his blood. In The English Class, as he explores the idiosyncrasies of language, Yu ploughs the cultural wealth hidden within the fields of the two languages, fertilizing, cross-pollinating and producing a delightful linguistic hybrid.
The effervescent energy of this novel, and the charm of its innocent protagonist, compel interest throughout the entire four hundred pages. Reminiscent of the picaresque hero Don Quixote, the hapless truck-driver, Jing, tilts at the windmill of the English language as he bounds around in the Unique, his rattling, truck-without- breaks. More aptly perhaps, Jing resembles Sun Wu Kong, the famous Monkey King, hero of the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, who lampoons the phantasmagorical world of Chinese Buddhist and Taoist belief.
Like Sun Wu Kong, Jing also takes a journey to the West, albeit a West that is now located south, in Australia, where he believes he can rise above the material world, if only he can master the English language. “I can read and speak some English, whereas they can only read and speak Chinese,” Jing thinks about his workmates at the truck depot. “All I ever wanted to do is move away from people, from them, from a life bound by materialism into a life of metaphysics. Truck driving is all about moving goods from one place to another. I want to do something like thought driving, moving thoughts from one place to another.” (115)
Yu brings the flavour of the truck depot to life in precisely rendered characters, such as the fastidious Canton, who “just sits there, his left leg thrown over his right while his right knee constantly jerks up and down as he makes a sucking noise through his big-holed nostrils.” (15) The dialogue makes for effortless reading, humouring the reader as it seamlessly segues the two languages. Gu, the story-teller workmate,scoffs at the aloof Jing: “You think people who go to universities are smart? Goupi! Dog fart nonsense. The xiao bailian, small white face, doesn’t even know how to change a tyre properly and he’s learning ying ge la xi, Englishit!” Mundane English expressions permeate with new meanings and with comedy as Jing attempts to memorize one hundred English words every day at the wheel of his truck. “He knew what egg stood for but what was egg on? . . . he could hardly make any sense of it.” (22)
When he enters University in Wuhan, Jing obsessively unpicks phrases and expressions, as if at a sub-syllabic level, some kind of power will be released, like splitting the atom, which will finally provide the desired transcendence. Investigating the many ways the ideas of yin and yang pervade the Chinese language, for instance, Jing notices that yin, female, is both more prolific than yang, and always bad:
. . . yin wind, yin shadows, yin cold, yin darkness, yin privacy, yin conspiracy, yin danger, yin soul, yin clouds, yin thief, yin world . . . Are there other cultures out there that are only concerned with the yang as opposed to the yin? Is English as bad? Jing could only remember an English word, history, which seemed to suggest that it was a man’s story, not a woman’s. His memory became blurred as sleep pervaded his senses. He thought he fell off a cliff into the pond behind the hill. (155)
Yu balances dark consequences, the barest foreshadowing of the blurring to come, with whimsical touches that keep the text light and delightful.
While Jing idolizes English, a realistic undercurrent flows through the text. This tension between the ideal and the real is the source of the humour that pervades the novel. Yu satirizes Australian society, holding up a mirror that reflects an undeniable cultural poverty in the suburbs. The new English teacher at Wuhan University, the Australian Dr Wagner, muses to himself:
Already he was faced with a class of young people whose aspirations travelled far beyond the borders of China, whose motivation was like nothing he had ever seen in a comparatively dreary Australian suburb, and whose learning skills were amazingly intuitive, coupled with a respect for their teacher that few of his peers could experience in Australia. (240)
Yu’s prose is vibrant with his original and creative English, which he tints with the colours of Chinese literary tradition:
The falling sun would set the lake waters ablaze with fire throwing down a long wide shaft of myriad colours and hues. The air was scented with wild flowers mixed with the smell of raw fish, and memories of the recently dead . . . in the distance was the university hidden among dense foliage with the roofs of its buildings half visible, most conspicuously a column of black smoke twisting every other way above the old library at the top of Luojia Hill. It took Jing quite some time to work out that the smoke was formed by millions of mosquitoes flying together towards the sky. (159)
Here we see the classic antithesis that enlivens Chinese language and poetry, with its surprising juxtaposition of fish and flowers, smoke and mosquitoes. The writer’s prose style resonates at the same time, with alliterative English. Yu revives and rejuvenates language, with his use of archaic expressions, perhaps unearthed as a result of the Chinese government’s exclusive use of romantic era texts for its English curriculum:
“A penny for your thoughts, E Jing, you are in a brown study again!”
“No,” Jing said. “I’m actually in a green study.” He said this as his hand swept the air in an arc that included the tree-lined bank encircling the lake and greenish hills beyond. (236)
Even Yu’s use of words, such as ‘greenish’, maybe considered vague by a native English writer, provide subtlety and charm, while contextualising the received language of the protagonist and the narrator.
The third and final part of the text leaps forward twenty years to a suburban garden in Melbourne where Jing struggles to align his dreams with reality. Here, the narrative also becomes blurred and sometimes hard to follow, as the voice changes between characters, locations and time frames. Even so, Yu maintains humour in the bleakest of situations. As Jing becomes unhinged, he is diagnosed as suffering from:
. . . cultural disorientation and bilinguistic confusion . . . exhibiting such symptoms as a difficulty in switching back into a ‘foreign’ culture after living in his ‘mother’ culture for a brief time; a constant need to assert the superiority of his former culture over the present culture in public while unreasonably denouncing his former culture in private; and a perennial sense of victimization that he did not enjoy full rights as his other fellow citizens did because of his ‘wrong’ skin colour, his wrong shape of eyes and his wrong gait. (365)
Crash landing in the wasteland of the West, the windmill is destroyed and Jing’s identity disintegrates under the impact. Instead of the hoped for transcendence, Jing finds alienation in the face of cringing racism. Ultimately, however, there is a strange surrender to ockerism and the ordinary, which suggests Jing may yet revive himself.
While the Chinese and much of the Asian block scramble to learn English, Australia remains aloof, providing the merest tokens of Asian language education to their young, and failing to provide the means for a meaningful cultural exchange. The English Class is a work that shows the rich cultural potential of language contained within Australia’s immigrant population, a potential for which our previous Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, aka Lù Kèwén or é™¸å…‹æ–‡, was openly aware. Australia could embrace its place in the East, become better acquainted with its neighbours, and even learn from their ancient philosophies and languages. ‘Easternization’ is a foreign concept, and as yet, an uncoined word. Ironically, spell-check corrects it to ‘westernization’. Let the easternization of Australia begin! Meanwhile, we can look forward to more from the writer of the adventures of Jing.
SALLY FITZPATRICK is completing a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. She is currently writing a memoir about her time following the footsteps of her daughter in China.