Thursday, 28 December 2017


There's a Chinese phrase:  (archaic usage) :  置喙 zhìhuì / "to-place beak" / "to stick one's beak into something" = to interfere / interrupt

Interestingly, the Italian phrase is exactly the same:  non metterci becco / "not put beak"!

Update, 311217:  My friend Valerio says his Peruvian friend Ari says the Spanish have the same phrase:  meter el pico / "put the beak".

Maybe the link between the Italian and Spanish is the fact that they're both Romance languages.

Romance | rə(ʊ)ˈmans, ˈrəʊmans | 
adjective: relating to or denoting the group of Indo-European languages descended from Latin, principally French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Occitan, and Romanian: the Romance languages. 

[mass noun] the Romance languages considered as a group. 

ORIGIN: Middle English (originally denoting the vernacular language of France as opposed to Latin): from Old French romanz, based on Latin Romanicus ‘Roman’.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Babies (Singapore)

An ex-student, Petra, gave birth a few months back, and has been posting updates on Facebook, one of which said she gets peed on and is covered in vomit.

This reminds me of what happened on one of the post-natal trips I made with my mother, who was a private midwife.

The term “private” needs to be clarified here:  in those days (1950s and 1960s), women who were illiterate did not want to go to hospital to have their babies delivered because they couldn’t speak English (the official working language of the time in British colonial Singapore).  They also preferred to be at home, so that they could be cared for by family members, usually the older children.  These women mostly lived on coconut and rubber plantations, and some would have 12 to 16 children.

My mother’s post-natal visit routine:  bathe the baby, clean the area around the tied-up umbilical cord, bundle the baby up in clean swaddling cloth, check the baby over (take body temperature, etc.), then leave it lying on the bed and go and attend to the mother who’d be sitting in a chair (a change from lying in bed).  

It was after my mother left the all-clean, all-nice-smelling baby on the bed and went over to the mother that I, aged six, would sneak up to the bed, open the swaddling cloth at the bottom, pull out the baby’s feet and kiss them.

If I was spotted by the mother, she’d ask, “Would you like to take it home with you?”  I’d look at my mother eagerly, as if to say, “Can I?  Can I?”

On one of these occasions, however, I opened the swaddling cloth to find the baby had just defecated.  Not realising what had happened, the baby’s mother asked the usual question, “Would you like to take it home with you?”  I reeled back in horror, “No!”  She asked, “Why not?”  The six-year-old me said, “I only want one that doesn’t poo.”

(Singapore late-1950s)

A most unusual Chinese ingredient (London)

Went to a small reunion dinner the other night at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.  Going through the menu, I came across a dish that had, for one of its ingredients, “dry winds meat”.

Some 15 years ago, I’d gone for a Chinese meal with Pam and Jackie.  Pam was totally baffled by one of the ingredients and asked, “What is ‘minced wind’?!?”.  My eyes moved on to the next line:  ah, if she’d read on, she would’ve seen that it was “minced wind dried meat”.

Note:  Wind-dried meat (风干肉 / 風乾肉 fēng gān ròu / “wind dry meat”), in Chinese cooking, is meat that’s marinaded, then left to dry in the wind, suspended from a hook, just like cured meat such as sausages in the West.


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

A very special old lady (Johor Bahru, Malaysia)

A Malaysian ex-student has just shared on her Facebook wall The Straits Times’s video on Robert Kuok, whose recent Robert Kuok: A Memoir has already sold out only one day after publication.

I remember Robert Kuok's mother very well — she was my (maternal) aunt's Buddhist master who lived in Johor Bahru.

She'd always bring a huge bag of oats from their flour mill in Kuala Lumpur when she came to visit us.  Nobody else in the family particularly liked Western-diet ingredients like oats and milk, so I'd have all the oats to myself!

She also brought me a table lamp and a book about the tulips in Keukenhof Gardens from Holland after she went to visit her eldest son, Philip Kuok, when he was ambassador there. It was all very exotic for a teenager!

The old lady (whom we called Ah Por ["grandma"]) had :

* a maid (an unmarried woman with no relatives to whom she'd offered shelter);

* a driver called Ahmad (who'd make one trip a day to the market, and now and then to the temple the old lady had built somewhere outside Johor Bahru in the countryside, spending the rest of the time cleaning and polishing the car, a Morris Minor).  The Kuok brothers bought the old lady an Audi (I think) for her birthday one year, but she went on using her Morris Minor;

* a parrot called Benjamin with a vicious beak -- he'd only allow the old lady to touch him; she'd call him Benji as she scratched his neck and he'd bend his head;

* a pair of dogs (Morning and Evening, one born in the morning and one in the evening); 


* a cat called 珠小姐 zhū xiǎojiě / Miss Pearl, who lived in a bird-house contraption at the bottom of the garden, atop a pole, high above the ground, so that Miss Pearl had to walk this long, long, long wooden ramp to get to it at night.

(Johor Bahru, Malaysia, 1960s)

Phone calls (London)

I dislike phone calls — making one and taking one.  

Emailing or texting allows the receiver to read the message at his/her convenience or when his/her mood dictates, and reply as and when s/he wishes.  

A phone call demands the receiver to interact even when s/he is not ready:  not in the mood to socialise or even just talk;  an inconvenient moment — in the loo, walking on the road or getting on/off the bus, being in a public place and therefore having the conversation overheard, etc..  

My old friend Valerio suggested that one could just ignore the call.  My secretarial training, however, had taught me never to let the phone go unanswered for more than two rings, so I find it difficult not to answer the phone.  Especially in the old days, on a landline phone, when you cannot see the number of the caller.

A friend who used to work at Amnesty said, “When you pick up your office phone, you’re all professional and polite as you announce your number.  When you pick up your home phone, your tone of voice as you announce your number implies, ‘And now go away!’ ”

A student, Julia, said when I rang her and she picked up the phone, I always sounded disappointed that I hadn’t got her answering machine.

(London 1980s)

Judging by appearance: 2 (Singapore)

I was in Singapore in 1993, after a 14-year gap, so one of my classmates, Seok Leng, rang around and got a group to have dinner with me.  Ex-classmate Jong Long invited me to go round the corner to his new Europa pub, then offered me a lift home (to my sister's), but said he had to go to his other pub first en route to sort out a problem.  At this second place, I was left sitting on my own, waiting for the lift home.  Jong Long told his barman to serve me whatever I wanted.  I asked for a pint of Guinness.  As I sat there drinking it — a woman on her own, drinking alcohol — a local man kept looking at me, probably thinking I was a prostitute, touting for business.  He approached me a few minutes later, tentatively starting a conversation: was I from Singapore, to start with.  After a few more questions, I let drop that I was the boss's friend, just waiting for him to sort out his business.  He moved away pretty quickly!

(Singapore 1993)

Judging by appearance: 1 (London)

I arrived in the Wood Green library last Friday and spotted a lighter sitting under the chair of a man in his 30s.  Normally, I’d draw attention to it, “Is this your lighter?” (or whatever the item is).  This time, however, I wasn’t sure I particularly liked the look* of this man, so I left it.  (*He looked a bit too streetwise for my liking.)

A few minutes later, he fell asleep, so the doorman came over to wake him up.  A few more minutes later, I saw him chatting amicably to the doorman, so obviously he didn’t hold it against the doorman (for not allowing him to doze off).  My opinion of him went up a bit.

As I was trying to plug in my computer, he immediately offered to do it, as it is a bit awkward with the socket under the table — one has to go on one’s knees and stick one’s head under the table to do it.  I felt ashamed of my initial unfair judgement of him.

This episode reminds me of something a student, Julia, once told me.  She’d seen a young woman in a tight dress, and probably garish make-up, and didn’t like the look of her, thinking, “What a tart!”  A few minutes later, an old lady nearby was struggling with her bags.  The “tart” immediately went to help her.  Julia felt so bad about pre-judging her.

I told these two stories during a lesson with Alex last Friday — I often use my own experiences as teaching material, which is what one would do in real life: talking about what one has come across.

Alex had his story to add.  He once went to the John Lewis sportswear department, wanting to buy some specialist squash sportswear.  Along came a female sales assistant, asking if she could help.  Alex took one look at her — female, in Muslim gear (nearly fully covered) — and thought, “Oh yeah, what would she know about specialist squash sportswear?”  When he said he was looking for specialist squash sportswear, she then launched into a whole series of options: Option A is this and that, Option B is this and that, Option C is this and that.  Alex said he, too, had learned a lesson from that.

This puts me in mind of another story.  One of my students told me in the 80s she was in the Russell Square area late one evening (around 1030pm) when she saw two lost German tourists trying to get help from an old man who looked a bit like a tramp.  My student heard the old man speak English in a posh accent.  When the tourists struggled a bit with their English, the “tramp” switched to fluent German!

Read also blog entry The smell, which is another Judging by appearance.

(London 1980s—2017)