Yang Smith, a.k.a. Mr. Smith, from Yangshuo in Guangxi Province, China. 37 years old. The name Smith is, of course, not his Chinese name. It was recommended by a foreign customer who said this was a strong name. The sign in his travel agency says, "Need help? Just ask Mr. Smith!"

The melodious click-clack of Mahjong tiles echo through the alleys and hutongs of every city, town and village in China. This ancient game is played by everyone, all the time and almost always for money. Peering over the shoulders of these fast-paced players, our eyes can hardly keep track of the shuffling of tiles, let alone the rules and strategies. We decided that we needed to learn this addicting game and signed up for a lesson with Mr. Smith. He was kind enough to chat with us until 1 am after the lesson and answer most of our questions (we forgot to ask him every single one).

1. What is your occupation? Why?

I am a manager for a travel agency and a teacher. Tourists come to Yangshuo and want to take lessons. I teach them.

I used to teach Chinese language. But then I met my wife and she said I made very little money, so I got a new job at a coal mine. This was a very good job (big grin). I was an engineer (he tried to explain this -- in short, his 8 man team was responsible for determining where to drill next). I worked at the factory for two years and became an assistant manager. The company grew and soon there were 200 people working there. This company was owned by the government. I liked the job very much, but I got very dirty. I worked underground two times each week and my face turned black. I was about to join the Party (Chinese Communist Party) so I could get more promotions but then the land had too much water in it and not enough coal. And soon it shut down. So I came to Yangshuo and became a teacher again for two years. I enjoyed this very much. But again not enough money, maybe 300 yuan per month (less than US $40). So now I am manager at this travel agency. I make a fair living.

(Mr. Smith teaches calligraphy, mahjong, Chinese language and culture and cooking. He also books tours, buses and trains for tourists. We kept him and his wife up late and the next morning as I groggily walked down to his office to book bus tickets -- he was already in the middle of a calligraphy lesson, supposedly after playing ping pong that morning too.)

2. Tell me about your family? Married?

I have two boys. They are 12 and 10. (Nigel mentions the one child law and asks Mr. Smith to explain how he can have two kids). My older boy had problems with his stomach when he was born. So I had another child. I did not pay a fine. I worked for the government and have good connections from my job at the coal factory. It is no problem for me to have two children. Three children, that would be a problem.

I have been married for 12 years. (Do you have a good marriage?) Of course! (We later learned that the woman peeking her head in was his wife.) My wife was a music performer. I was a music teacher. We became friends.

3. What is your favorite food and why?

Funan food! That is where I'm from. When I came to Yangshuo, I couldn't eat the food here. My favorite dish is called hangsho lu. This is stir-fried meat, pork. Spicy. There are so many kinds of food in China.

4. Why are you here? (teaching this class)

We didn't ask him this specifically but he was there teaching the class and obliging us by staying afterwards while we interrogated him. And by Chinese standards, he was making excellent money, so a few extra hours with us was not a problem. The four of us paid him 160 yuan total (US $20) for a two hour lesson. This is more than more than a great many Chinese make in a week.

5. Where did you learn your English? Why did you learn it?

I learned it in school. For speaking, I learned it from you, tourists.

6. What do you do for fun?

I don't understand. (I clarify by using the word hobby.) Oh! I like Chinese culture (he teaches this too, of course, and points at the photos on the wall). I do calligraphy. And you know this long Chinese instrument with strings? Erhu. I play this. (Most of his hobbies have been turned into lessons -- Chinese pragmatism at its best.)


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