Awix in Exile: How to Get Ahead in Business through Fraudulent Advertising

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A message in a bottle
Awix in Exile

How to Get Ahead in Business through Fraudulent Advertising

The English have a lamentably well-deserved reputation for being reluctant to take the time to learn the languages of other nations; I was once accused of being from a 'snob country' by an eleven-year-old Italian boy. Certainly the 'speaking slowly and clearly in English is comprehensible to everyone' notion is well-embedded in the cultural psyche, and one almost gets the sense that the rest of the world has given in and is making allowances.

This even extends to the habit of some visitors taking what I suppose we must call a personal exonym – they may be Xiaoya or Zhiqiang at home, but on holiday in the UK they instantly become Louisa or Dave, at least when talking to English people. The factors informing some of these decisions can be obscure and produce eccentric results: on one occasion I found myself teaching a class of summer school students which included three teenage girls going by Dora, Laura and Nora, who naturally insisted on sitting together. Another lad proudly told me I could call him Isfahan – when I enquired as to why he had the same name as a city in Iran, he looked blank and just said it was a character in World of Warcraft. Looking back, it was probably a bit tactless to keep calling him 'Warcraft guy' for the next two weeks, but he took it fairly well.

One guy whose choice of outside-name suited him quite well was a chap going by Ace. I met him while I was academic director of a summer school at a crumbling old university campus not far outside London: close enough to be in underground zone 8, aka the realm of the democratic deficit (served by London Transport, but not able to cast a vote electing the mayor of that great city). We had a lot of Chinese kids that summer, and Ace came along as a representative of the agency who had sent them to us, to see how it was all going. He was a young, rangy guy who seemed to seethe with energy and enthusiasm; I guess that's what it takes to get ahead in China these days.

Naturally, whenever any of these agent's reps turned up, standing orders were to do everything in our power to send them away with a good impression. So we showed Ace around, let him take pictures of the facilities, delicately steered him away from the rooms which had rats nesting in the overhead ducts, and generally made nice. He took lots of photos, though not of us (thankfully).

'Okay, great!' shouted Ace at the end of one of these tours. His fingers twitched where they gripped his camera. 'Now can I take some pictures of lessons?!?'

My colleague and I exchanged slightly concerned glances. 'Take pictures?' we said.

'Yeah, of our kids having lessons with all the foreign kids. It's what the parents are really interested in seeing, it's very important.'

'Excuse us a moment.'

My colleague and I withdrew. I was in charge of the academic side, he looked after the money. The main thing we had in common was that we both felt our own job was the most important one; the main difference was that he was wrong about this and I was right.

'We can't let him take photos of lessons without getting permission from all the kids' parents,' I said. 'Data Protection Act and all that stuff.'

'I completely take your point, but it's really important this guy goes away happy, with everything he needs. Couldn't we…'

I waited a reasonable period of time. 'Couldn't we what?'

'Well, can't you think of something?'

'All right, leave it with me.'

My approach in this kind of situation, where there doesn't seem to be a reasonable solution, is to come up with an unreasonable solution: something so ridiculous and silly that no sane person would entertain the notion. This I pitch to whoever is involved, earnestly and with a straight face, making it absolutely clear that my desire to help is sincere. Usually the party is mollified enough by your obvious efforts that the situation resolves itself fairly amicably.

So I went back to Ace. 'Thanks for waiting. So – the problem is, that under British law you need the permission of parents to take the photographs of children like this.'

'Well, I have permission from all the Chinese parents!'

'Yeah, but we don't have permission from all the Italian and Spanish and Russian parents…'

'Oh, sanguinary hades!' cried Ace unprintably, clearly wondering what kind of authoritarian nightmare the British legal system was.

'You can take photos of just the Chinese kids?'

'No, they need to be mixing with foreigners.' He was looking distinctly surly now.

'Okay then. So – here's my idea. We do a kind of pretend lesson, after the proper ones have finished, just so you can take photos.'

'I don't understand, how does this help?'

'Well, we get some of the younger-looking activity leaders, dress them up, and they pretend to be students from other countries. Because they're all over 18 they can give their own permission.'

As some of our activity leaders had quite heavy beards I thought this was a deeply stupid idea, but making the pitch was what counted. The face of Ace, however, was lighting up.

'Brilliant! Does this mean I can take video as well?'

'Er – I can't think of a reason why not,' I said, fervently wishing this was not the case.

'When can we do it?'

So it was I found myself addressing a small meeting of the activity leaders our company theoretically employed to supervise football matches, lead walking tours, and keep order at the disco; many of them looked young, and now a lot of them were looking slightly baffled, too.

'…so you just basically have to come up with a character you're going to play,' I said.

'Can I not just play myself?'

'No, Gary, because 22-year-old guys from Harlow don't attend English-language summer schools as students. Anyone have any ideas?'

'I want to be called Vladimir and come from Stalingrad.'

'Okay, but it's called Volgograd now. Anyone else?'

'Can I be a Kalahari bushman?'

'I think that might be a stretch for you, Rhys. How about someone from Slovenia instead?'

'I want to be Wamugunda from Kenya.'

'We don't have any Kenyan students, Carl.'

'They don't know that in China, do they?'

'Fair point.'

In the end everyone was sorted out with a cover identity and, where necessary, had been issued with shaving kit. The next question was that of who could possibly be trusted to oversee what promised to be the biggest travesty of a lesson in the history of language teaching. It needed to be someone with few professional scruples, a deep sense of their own absurdity, and the ability to keep a straight face under the most trying conditions. Naturally I selected myself for the job.

The next problem was that Ace was in charge of choosing the seven or eight most tractable Chinese kids to appear in the video. He chose the youngest ones they'd shipped over, who were all eleven and twelve and very much on the small side. Mixing them in with disguised activity leaders who were all in at least their late teens produced a rather more mixed class than we usually aimed for. It was also the case that the Chinese kids didn't actually understand why the people who a few hours earlier had been refereeing the hide and seek were now in dubious fancy-dress and pretending to be in a lesson with them. They sat there in a kind of nervous rictus as everyone else took their places. I was pleased to see our guys had really entered into the spirit of this ridiculous undertaking, although Vladimir from Volgograd had been dissuaded from turning up in a fur hat (it was August, after all).

To my practiced professional eye it was about as authentic as one of those historic Japanese castles with its own lift, but Ace was delighted as he swooped about with his various cameras and filmed what was going on. I decided to at least make it look good.

'All right! I'm going to draw an animal on the board! Hands up when you know what it is!' Out came the marker pen.

Hands soon shot up, all from the non-Chinese contingent of the class. The Chinese kids just sat there, terrified and paralytic.

'Okay! Wamugunda?'

'Is it…' furrowed brow, very hammy cogitation '… a froog?'

'Not quite! Vladimir?'

'Ees a to-add!'

Incredibly, Ace still seemed quite happy. We ended up with Frog, Anteater, Koala and Elephant written on the board, and then I decide to move on to the next thing. Accidentally-on-purpose I left the initial letters of the animal names on the board when I wiped the rest of it off, mainly because – well, if you can't have a bit of fun at a time like this, when can you? I had various other ideas up my sleeve to fill up the lesson but Ace suddenly declared he had everything he needed. I would have been quite happy to carry on, as I was rather enjoying myself, but it would have been hard to justify.

So the Chinese kids fled back to their accommodation, Ace strolled off happily with his publicity material, Vladimir, Wamugunda and Serafina reverted to being Phil, Carl and Liz, and I found myself increasingly saddled with a reputation as a man who could be relied upon to produce a small miracle whenever the company required it. Gratifying though it was, it did feel like it might be time for a change of gear, career-wise.

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