Friday, 6 October 2017

Photographic memory: 3 (Caracas, Venezuela)


We took a bus from the Caracas airport into town as it’s a lot cheaper, then a taxi from the bus terminus to our hotel.  Three days later, we were going to the airport to try and catch the first flight out to a jungle resort past the Angel Falls.  It was 3:30am, so we were lucky that a taxi came along within five minutes.  The taxi driver said he knew how to get to the airport bus terminus.  A few minutes later, however, he said he didn’t after all.  He might've been only half feigning ignorance in the hope that he could take us all the way to the airport, given that we were tourists, therefore wouldn't be expected to know the way. Unfortunately for him, I remembered the taxi ride from the terminus to our hotel three days before, so I directed him there.  He certainly took revenge by driving off with our big note without giving us the change.


(Caracas, Venezuela,1986)

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Photographic memory: 2 (UK)


I was touring the Isle of Man with some English friends on Easter Sunday in March 1978 when we drove past a shop that sold something I’d been looking for.  It was shut and we were returning to Liverpool the next day, when it’d still be shut (those were the days when everything shut at 4pm on Saturday and all day Sunday — public holidays are treated as Sunday).  The shopfront had its telephone number displayed, but we didn’t have any pen and paper to write it down.  I gazed at the number, imprinted it onto my brain screen, then when we got back to the house and could get hold of pen and paper, closed my eyes to call up the number on my brain screen and wrote it down. 


(UK 1978)

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Photographic memory: 1 (Singapore)


I’d always had a photographic memory.  

As a child, I’d go with my mother on her post-natal visits as a private midwife, just for the car ride.  

One day, a man whose wife was going into labour turned up while my mother was out on her rounds and I happened to have opted out.  My mother’s cousin had dropped by, so we jumped into his car and I directed him along the route my mother would’ve taken.  We found her at the second place, so she was able to dash off to deliver the baby before resuming her visits. 

My nephew Kaikai shares the same ability.  My brother and his wife would drop him off (aged two or three) at his maternal grandma’s place before going to work.  He used to hate this and would cry as soon as they approached the grandma’s block of flats, so one day they decided to try a different approach to the block.  Now, Singapore’s high rise blocks, especially those within the same estate, all pretty much look alike, yet Kaikai knew they were driving him to his grandma’s and started crying, even though it was from a different direction this time.


(Singapore, 1960s / 1980s)

Friday, 15 September 2017

Students' versions are much more fun: 1 (London)


My style of teaching is to challenge the student as much as possible, e.g., make them work out the meaning of a compound or phrase by breaking it down to the individual components and arriving at the final meaning that way.

One of those phrases is 可有可无 kě yǒu kě wú / “can have can not-have”, which the Mac dictionary gives as “be as well without it as with it” and another, online dictionary gives as “it doesn’t matter whether one has it or not”, i.e., one can take it or leave it, it’s dispensable.

When I asked David M what he thought it meant and when it might be used, he said, “Perhaps, say, used by a greengrocer, replying to your asking if they have any apples: ‘可有可无。Maybe we have, maybe we don’t.’”  

I collapsed in fits of laughter.  What a perverse greengrocer, being so cagey about whether they might have apples or not!  

(David is a mature student, not a teenager whose general knowledge of life might be a bit more limited and whose imagination might run a bit wilder than adults’.)


(London 2017)

Saturday, 12 August 2017

All-rounder training (Singapore / UK)


When I’d passed my Highway Code test at age 17 and booked a driving test date, my mother came up with a plan:  that I should learn to drive for free by chauffeuring her on her post-natal-care rounds, which were necessary anyway.  When I was good enough at on-road driving, we’d then pay for a professional instructor to teach me test techniques such as parking, reversing into a minor road, uphill climb, etc., which would only be a handful of lessons, thus saving a lot of money.  (This is advice I now dole out to young people wanting to learn to drive.)

For the first trip out on the road, I was wearing sandals.  To get a better feel of the pedals (it was a manual-drive car, automatics being a little way off yet), I shed them.  My mother said, “No, don’t do that.  You should learn to drive with whatever footwear you’ve got on, be it platform shoes, high-heeled shoes, clogs, sandals, flip flops or gym shoes.  This way, you’ll learn to adjust the pressure you apply on the pedals accordingly, so that it becomes intuitive and you don’t have to think about it.”

This reminds me of something my brother said in 1999 when I was helping out my sister-in-law at the canteen she was running at a 24-hour factory.  His comment was, “Westerners have this amazing array of knives, big and small, with practically each one dedicated to a particular function.  The Chinese just have the one — the meat cleaver — which can be for hacking a whole chicken to smaller pieces, for mincing pork, for peeling a potato, or for cutting ginger into small thin slices or strips.”  Same principle:  it's the control over the way the hand holds the cleaver and applies the pressure.

I’ve since applied this to my teaching of text analysis.  Students are often deliberately not given the context, or are just given the middle paragraph of a piece, or even only the second half of a sentence.  This way, they’re forced to rely purely on, say, their knowledge of Chinese grammar to do the parsing:  e.g., how do you know it is a Verb here rather than a Noun (e.g., 发展 fāzhǎn is both a Verb [to develop] and a Noun [development]).  

And of course, what I’ve called “Guessology skills” (“Guessology” is my coinage from the 1980s): the logic of one version versus another (whether it makes sense there), etc., without resorting to any assistance from their knowledge of the subject matter in hand.  Which is very likely to be the case in real life when they have to read or listen to a piece in Chinese that might have no universal equivalent.

It works very well, because my students approach their texts using their knowledge of grammar (they can all do grammatical justifications in their sleep, so frequently-drilled they are) rather than just hit-or-miss, unsubstantiated guessing, relying on the teacher to confirm that they’re right.


(Singapore early '70s & 1999; UK)

History repeating itself (UK / China)


I was doing a Skype lesson with Ed in Shanghai.  He’d chosen an article which was an interview with an American CNN journalist who had covered the 4th June 1989 Tian’anmen Square Incident.  

At one point in the interview, the journalist was talking about the difficulties they’d encountered broadcasting live.  The Chinese government had clamped down on live satellite broadcasts the day after Gorbachev left, so they had to do them via the telephone.  The video tapes had to be smuggled out of Beijing to Hong Kong or Tokyo, to be broadcast from there, thus incurring a lapse in real time of a few hours.

It was when we were reading this bit of the article that the sound quality on Skype started to experience trouble, so I suggested that we use FaceTime.  The sound quality was good on FaceTime but there was no dialogue box for me to send the text over for Ed to read and translate.  We resorted to me sending the text to the dialogue box on Skype for Ed to read, but using FaceTime for the verbal element of the lesson.  Then Skype wasn’t transmitting the text I’d inputted into the dialogue box, so I had to use FaceBook Messenger for that.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were experiencing the same thing as the CNN journalist back in 1989, having to use different modes to send material out.

Spooky or what?


(UK / China, 2017)

Clever parenting (UK)


In the ‘70s, home students doing university courses could get a government grant which covered their fees and all living expenses.

Ben, two years below me at SOAS, was living at his parents’.  His mother told him he’d have to pay for his room and board, since he got the money for it from the government.  He thought at the time that his mother was a bit heartless, but paid up all the same.

Four years later, when he graduated, the mother handed him a bank account passbook.  She’d been depositing the money over the years on his behalf.


(UK, late 1970s)