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 / 1970s / 1980s)

Friday, 15 September 2017

Student’s versions are much more fun (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)

Monday, 17 July 2017

The term "comrade" in Chinese

This blog is inspired by, as usual, Valerio, my most avid follower and good friend, after a conversation about my other blog entry "My spouse":

The term "comrade" in Chinese is 同志 tóngzhì / "same aspiration", and was widely used as a term of address between mainland Chinese people post-1949.  It is a unisex term, which is egalitarian as well as convenient.

One would use it as a generic title, addressing Mr. Li / Miss Li as 李同志 Lǐ tóngzhì / Comrade Li.  Mrs. Li would be addressed by her maiden name, e.g., Comrade Wang, rather than as Mrs. Li.

If one needed to catch the attention of a stranger in the street -- to ask for directions, say -- then just tóngzhì in the same way one would say "Sir" / "Madam" in English.  

In the 80s, with Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and a more capitalistic lifestyle (even if officially China was, and is, still a socialist* country), the term "comrade" with its political connotations started to lose its appeal and currency.  

A few more years down the road, it re-emerged, this time for referring to gay people, e.g., 他是个同志 He is gay.  One can see the logic of this.  The Chinese language can be quite flexible and creative, too, not just rigidly fixed in its wide use of proverbs and set phrases.

Note: Wikipedia says this was adopted as a formal term of address after Hong Kong film-maker Edward Lam's 1989 Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival:

QUOTE The Festival is screened annually each September, and in Chinese is known as the Hong Kong Tongzhi Film Festival, with both the title and the resurrection of the word Tongzhi (Chinese同志pinyintóngzhì), which translates into English as Comrades, the idea of one of its first organisers, Edward Lam (林奕華).  UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

QUOTE 1989年随香港人林奕华的同性恋电影节香港同志电影节」的出现,渐渐演变为社會對同性戀群體的代称及該社群之間的正式稱呼。UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

*They call it 有中国特色的社会主义:
QUOTE Socialism with Chinese characteristics, meaning socialism adapted to Chinese conditions, is the official ideology of the Communist Party of China (CPC), claimed to be based upon scientific socialism. ... The CPC argues that socialism is compatible with these economic policies. UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)





Sunday, 25 June 2017

Free burglar lookout service (London / Lisbon)


As I approached Table 46, wondering if I should collect the half-empty bottles of beer, four customers (one woman) at Table 45 said, “They’ve just gone outside for a smoke.”  I said to them, “Do you know what you are?  You’re the Neighbourhood Watch.”  They really liked that, and laughed, turning it over aloud: “Neighbour Watch.  That’s a good way of calling it.”

Reminds me of when an ex-colleague at The Heart of the Dragon, our picture editor Douglas Tunstell*, moved from Malaga to Lisbon in the late 80s.  He wrote, saying, “We’ve moved into our new home.  We don’t need to worry about burglars, as just across the narrow road is another block of flats, with old ladies sitting at their windows all day long, looking out at the goings-on in the street.”

I’ve certainly seen similar scenes in Turkey, Spain, and Greece.  Perhaps a common feature throughout the Mediterranean countries?


(London 2017 / Lisbon late 1980s)

*https://www.nfb.ca/film/women_on_the_march/

Women on the March

 | 58 min

This feature film in two parts is an exploration of the women’s suffrage movement. Spearheaded by women like Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, the Suffragettes realized they would have to become radical and militant if the movement was going to be effective. There followed many demonstrations, and imprisonments until the women’s vote was finally granted, in 1918 (Britain) and 1919 (Canada, except Quebec.)