Saturday, 18 November 2017

Students’ versions are much more fun: 2 (London)


One of the ways I teach students to parse a long and/or grammatically-complex sentence in Chinese is to get them to pull out what I call “the skeleton”: just the main message, without the subordinates / extra information (the when / where / how / etc.).  I call it “the telegram principle”: if you don’t have enough money for the extras, then just convey the minimal essentials.  This way, once the key message is in place, they can see how the rest (subordinates) slot in.

I was explaining this to Stanislav, my 14-year-old student, saying, “Pretend you’re sending a telegram, and you don’t have enough money for the whole message.  As a telegram is charged by the word, just go for the skeleton message.”

He said: “Couldn’t you just join the words together, so that you just pay for one word?”


(London, 2017)

Photographic memory: 7 (London)


Two pub ex-colleagues (Fanny and Eloise) who’ve moved back to France came over to do a short course in English in mid-September.  We arranged to meet up for a meal and drinks at the new branch where I now work.  At one point, a regular customer walked past our table to go to the loo, with a pained look on his face, so I asked him what was wrong.  He said he’d just fallen from his bicycle and landed on his arm, so I said, “When you come back from the loo, I’ll fix it for you.”

Fanny said, “Oh, my sister-in-law is also into massage.  She’d love to meet you.”  Unfortunately, she lives in France, in the Toulouse area.  I asked, “Whereabouts is it?”  She said the name, but I didn’t catch all of the French, so I asked her to write it out.  When I saw “Saint-Antonin Noble Val”, a bell rang in my head.  

Only a couple of months ago, I’d watched a DVD called The Hundred Yard Journey, featuring Helen Mirren as a Michelin-starred restaurant owner in a small French village, who then had an Indian family moving into the village and setting up an Indian restaurant opposite her.  The film did not mention the name of the village, but it looked a bit like the big house on the outskirts of the French farm village, bought over by someone who then turned it into a restaurant and partying venue.  I googled the film, and found that the village was Saint-Antonin Noble Val.  Just that once, and it stuck in my brain screen.  What a small world.


(London, 2017)

Photographic memory: 6 (London)


When student Ed discovered my birthday is in October, he said, “Oh, my mother’s birthday is in October, too.”  It turned out to be the end of October — mine’s at the beginning.  

The following October, I said to Ed, “Say Happy Birthday to your mother for me.”  He said, “Wow.  What kind of teacher remembers even the student’s MOTHER’s birthday!”


(London, 2012)

Photographic memory: 5 (Prague)


Hattie (now deceased) was going to Prague with her German friend, Irmtraud, over the Easter long weekend.  Irmtraud was staying with her Czech boyfriend, and he had arranged for his British friend, Steve, to put Hattie up.  I then decided to tag along last minute, and Steve was happy about me sharing Hattie’s room.  

The Czech boyfriend came to the airport to pick us up in his car.  This was around midnight, as Hattie caught the last plane in (I’d arrived in the morning, and spent the day at the airport, revising for my Linguistics exams), so it was all dark when we arrived at Steve’s block of flats.  Across the street were two big wheelie (rubbish) bins.  The Czech boyfriend pointed at them and said to us, “There, that’s your accommodation for your stay!”

Two nights later, Hattie and I got tickets for the opera.  After the post-opera meal, we took a taxi back to Steve’s.  Steve’s residential area is made up of parallel streets off the main road from the airport, with another road at the other end of those streets, running parallel to the main road.  The taxi driver had said he knew our street, but had turned off the main road a street too early.  So, he got to the end of that (wrong) street, up the parallel road, and turned into our street, this time heading towards the main road.  As soon as he got to our block, I saw the two wheelie bins, and said to him, “That’s it, that’s our block.”  

I’d only seen those bins once before, on the night we arrived at midnight from the airport.  We’d approached the block of flats from the main road then, but they’d somehow just stuck in my brain screen, so that I could even identify them from the other side.


(Prague 1993)

Sibling rivalry (Worldwide)


Growing up in Singapore as a child from the Teochew (Cháozhōu 潮州, S.E.China) dialect group, I’d hear derogatory / pejorative remarks made about other dialect groups.  The Cantonese (S.E.China) put too much oil and salt in their cooking.  The Hokkiens (from Fújiàn 福建 Province, S.E.China) are uncouth — they apparently have the biggest range and the most vulgar of swear words and phrases, so vulgar I didn’t dare listen, never mind repeat.  The Hainanese (from Hainan Island, S.E.China) were called “white stomachs”, which is a kind of sea fish: it has a white underbelly and floats in the water upside down, white underbelly facing up, thus making it very easy for fishermen to spot and catch them, hence stupid.  Similarly, there were jokes / comments about the Malays and the Indians.

When I went to work in Taipei, I heard similarly critical comments about three regions (there must be others):  people from Anhui Province (further north of S.E.Chia, inland westwards from Shanghai) are fierce;  people from Sichuan Province (S.W.China) and Hunan Province (central China) are fiery (because of the hot food they consume) and can outdo anyone in a row.

Coming to London, I came across jokes about (and labels for) the Irish and the Scots, sometimes about northern English people.

When I started going out with a Swiss man, I heard that the Swiss have jokes about the Austrians, and the French have jokes about the Belgians.

It then dawned on me that it’s geographical proximity (and therefore familiarity) that decides who the targets of disparagement would be.  

The Chinese community in Singapore in the 1960s consisted mainly of Hokkiens (the biggest group at the time), the Cantonese, the Teochews, the Hainanese and the Hakkas.  It’s not a coincidence, I think, that they’re all from S.E.China.  There were no derogatory remarks about people from Anhui, Sichuan or Hunan, because we didn’t have them in Singapore at the time.

Ditto the English jokes/comments about the Irish and the Scots.  Ditto the Swiss and French ones.  They’re all neighbours, or close enough.  I have a feeling there’ll be Scandinavian ones about each other. 

I call this “sibling rivalry”.  

It can also be applied to people from the same sex:  in my experience, women tend to be more competitive with (and often, catty about) other women, and men with men, rather than across the sexual divide.


An example from my personal experience: when I started my relationship with the Swiss man, I told a good friend, Bernhard, about it, adding, “And he’s a German speaker, too!”  Bernhard, who’s German, said, “That’s what he thinks.”

Friday, 6 October 2017

Photographic memory: 4 (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: 3 (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)