So I’m sitting here listening to the Manic Street Preachers, and suddenly I’m reminded of standing in the dole queue in Porirua when over the PA system comes the song I just heard:

And if you tolerate this,

Then your children will be next

It must’ve been mid-winter 1999, and it was about that time my first chance at a job in China came. I wasn’t in a mood to tolerate the dole queue, and hearing that song as I was waiting for the latest barely competent bureaucrat reinforced my mood, and so when a firm offer came through…. Well, it took some wrangling, but I got to China, and getting on that plane felt amazingly good.

On the one hand, it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. I always had itchy feet, always longed to get out and explore the world, and not just as a dumbarse tourist, but long term, in depth. Blame my mother for that, she was the one who taught me to read, supplied me with books, then, as I remember it, borrowed the first picture dictionaries of other languages (French and German, naturally) I had ever seen from the Te Awamutu library.

It took some years from that first exposure to languages other than New Zealand English and the tiny little bit of Maori kids of my generation were taught in primary school to high school when I got my first chance to study French and German properly and formally, but I don’t think I need to say that my best high school teachers, by a very long shot, were my language teachers. My English teachers were amongst the worst. Bloody hell they were pathetic- and not just pathetic teachers, but…. well, I won’t go risking lawsuits. Let’s just say that of all my high school teachers, those who taught English and Physics (except for the teacher who retired at the end of my first term of fifth form- he was awesome- but definitely his successor) did the exact opposite of “inspiring respect”. And not just respect for them as teachers, but… yeah, calm down. No law suits. Whereas my high school French and German teachers were all just awesome people. Great teachers, and great people. I loved them, and, I suppose the results are obvious.

I would go so far as to say that the only bright spots of my high school years were: The few biology trips that took us out, way out, especially the trip to Mana Island; French and German classes; and leaving. No offence intended to my French, German or Biology teachers in that ‘leaving’ remark.

Yeah, my Biology teachers weren’t as awesome as my French and German teachers, but they were bloody good, and they’ve left a deep imprint on my personality and interests.

I suppose it needs to be pointed out that second hand National Geographics can not be sold. Nobody, apart from myself, wants them. But the nature of my parents’ job meant I had easy and free access to a huge stack of second hand National Geographics and collected and read them almost religiously. At the height of my National Geographic collection phase I had issues dating from the late 19th century all the way up to modern times, and I loved them. It didn’t matter how old, outdated, or even blatantly racist (standards change over time- I’m not making any real accusations) they may have been, those magazines were a portal to a whole wide world beyond the shores of my little island.

And so in 1999, having graduated but having precious little luck in getting a job, there I was standing in the queue in the WINZ office in Porirua, listening to the Manic Street Preachers telling me there’s no way I can tolerate this situation because if I do, my own kids will be the next victims, and I’m the first to agree. In fact, I find the whole situation utterly ridiculous: There I am, intelligent, educated and competent, and yet having to beg the State for a basic living allowance.

And then a chance to teach English in China comes along. I see this ad in the newspaper and immediately fire off an application. It took some time for a reply to come back- indeed, I’d forgotten I’d even applied for the job when they phoned up asking if I was available for an interview, they took that long about processing things. But there it was: An opportunity, and I was not going to give this up. I aced the interview, but had to do a couple of deals to get the plane ticket to China, but it all worked out, and…

And while this was going on, people were telling me, “Oh, you’re so lucky to get the chance to go to China!” Right, I saw the ad, I applied, they offered me the job, I seized the opportunity. If that’s what you call ‘lucky’, so be it.

And then I made the mistake of heading back to New Zealand after three years in China. I corrected that mistake as quickly as I could. New Zealand does not value linguistically minded people, does not value the kind of skills and experience people like myself have to offer. And New Zealand suffers for it, but having got rid of or sidelined people like myself, doesn’t realise the damage done. I mean, why the hell do you think Kiwis have such a poor reputation for their ability to do business? Because those who run New Zealand are too dumb to realise the value of linguistic and cultural skills, that’s why.

Anyways, back in the middle of 1999, I was in the dole queue listening to the Manic Street Preachers remind me of what I already knew all too well, and just about to leap at a chance to put my skills and training to good use. I’m glad I heeded the warning, and I’m glad I grabbed that opportunity.

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