Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Communicating in a foreign language (Taiwan)

When I first went to Taiwan, I discovered that they had a whole range of accents we didn’t have in Singapore, so I spent a lot of my verbal interactions with the locals asking them to repeat things.  That was tiresome for both me and the other party, so I gave up on that after a while and came up with what I thought was a clever solution:  just nod and smile as the other party rattled on, saying every now and then, “是吗 (shì ma / Is that so)?”  This way, I wouldn’t need to keep interrupting the conversation, and it was good practice at learning to join the dots rather than needing to understand every single word, which is not always possible in real life anyway, even if one was at an advanced level in the language.  It worked very well, until one day I got a puzzled look from the speaker.  It turned out the speaker had just asked me a question, and I was still going, “是吗 (shì ma / Is that so)?”

(Taiwan 1974)

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing (France)

I have certainly discovered how true this saying isfor me, anyway, in my knowledge of the French language.  

When my knowledge of French was practically at zero level (being limited to bonjour and merci), I was quite safe, as the visitors to the farm would leave me alone, my oriental looks warning them that I might not be able to speak their language at all.  As I have now visited a dozen times or so since 1996, they think I can speak their language, as indeed I should, so they try to engage me in conversation, when actually I can only speak about three more words (I blush as I write this).  
The village idiot, as he’s nicknamed, comes for coffee twice a day from his neighbouring farm, as he gets so much warmth and kindness here.  If Serge and Jeanette are not around for him to chat with, he will corner me and ply me with all sorts of questions, some of which I sort of understand but can’t answer in French, and most of which I don’t understand at all.  Trying to fob him off by smiling and saying oui does not work, as he’ll persist and pursue the point with a “hmm?” and wait with raised eyebrows in anticipation of an answer.  Three days ago, he even asked me why the cats are being locked up; at least, I was able to say, “Veterinaire.”
Serge will ask me in the morning if I’d slept wellsomething Jeanette asks me every morning, so I know it well.  Answering oui merci will elicit high praise from him that my French has come a long way now (see blog entry Matter over mind in reverse?).  
On Sunday night, dining at Monsieur Minou’s (see also blog entry Minou), there was a clip of a rugby game on the TV news.  Serge turned round and said to me something to the effect of, “Can you imagine a whole bunch of men running around chasing a ball?!?  It’s only a ball, after all, for goodness sake!”  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, indeed.  Serge has promoted my French to the level of understanding comments on rugby, based on my marginally bigger vocabulary.  They might start seeking my opinion on French politics next!

“Not good student” (London, UK)

When Alex first cancelled a lesson by email, which he did in pinyin (Chinese written in romanised script)something I encourage my students to do rather than in English as at least they get to practise their Chinese, if not the writing of the script as wellhe signed off as bù hǎo de xuésheng (“not good student”). 

The second time he cancelled a lesson, he signed off as hěn bù hǎo de xuésheng (“very not good student”). 

The third time, it was fēicháng bù hǎo de xuésheng (“extremely not good student”). 

The fourth time, tài bù hǎo de xuésheng (“excessively not good student”). 

The fifth time, zuì bù hǎo de xuésheng (“most not good student”).

The first time I had to cancel, I did it by text/SMS.  A few minutes later, my phone rang, and it was Alex, who asked, “wéi, shì búshì wo bù hǎo de lǎoshī (hello, is this my not good teacher)?”  

(London 2004)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

You know you're getting old when…: 1

  • ...people start offering you seats, or help you with your luggage, on the bus
  • ...people (in/from S.E.Asia) start addressing you as “Aunty” (a term of respect for anyone female who’s of the older generation but not a relative)
  • ...the manager of a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown uses her initiative and approaches you about their 15% discount for OAPs (old-aged pensioners)
  • ...people start assuming you have a Freedom Pass (free travel on public transport for OAPs)
  • strike up conversations with strangers much more readily than before, especially at bus-stops or on the buswhen once you used to feel sorry for people who did that, feeling that they were so lonely that they’d talk to anyone just to ease the loneliness

Language usage: oblique reference

In the English language, there is a particular style of referring to oneself in the third person (e.g., “Come and let Aunty take a look at you”), when speaking to the younger generation, especially young children.  

One does it in Chinese too, but the younger generation also uses it when addressing seniors (in status/age), as it’s a bit too direct to refer to the senior as nǐ 你 (“you”), even nín 您 (respectful “you”) in some cases.  So, when greeting the teacher, one could say, “老师,您好 (lǎoshī, nín hǎo*)”, but one also says, “老师好 (lǎoshī hǎo)”, using the lǎoshī to replace the nín.

My ex-tutor Mr T’ung got home from work one day and found that he’d forgotten his house key, so he rang the bell.  His son asked, in English, from the other side of the door, “Who is it?”  Mr T’ung said, “我 (wǒ, I/me).”  His son opened the door and instead of saying, “爸爸好 (bàba hǎo)”, said, “我好 (wǒ hǎo).”

The standard, common way of greeting people is “nǐ hǎo (‘you good’)”, which works for all levels of formality and status of the other party, from “How do you do” to “Hello” to “Hi”.

International Women’s Day (Taiwan)

The Chinese way of referring to dates is in this order: year month day.  For well-known events, the convention is to shorten it to just the numbers for the month and the day, with people being expected to know which year it’d happened, e.g., the Tian’anmen Square incidentwhich took place on 4th June 1989, in Chinese 一九八九年六月四号 (yìjiǔbājiǔnián liùyuè sìhào/“1989 year 6 month 4 day”)would be referred to as liù sì (“6 4”).

International Women’s Day is 8th March, so the Chinese would call it 三八妇女节 (sān bā fùnǚjié / “3 8 women festival”).

In Taiwan, there’s an equivalent for the English expression “the lights are on but nobody’s home” (to describe someone who’s not entirely with it), which is 三八 (sān bā / “3 8”).  If you were to do or say something your friends consider daft, they’ll say you’re sān bā.  

During my two years in Taiwan, men would ask me on 8th March, in Chinese, “今天是不是三八妇女节?(jīntiān shì búshì sān bā fùnǚjié / “today is not-is 3 8 women festival”)”  And every time, I’d answer “是 / It is”, which they’d immediately pounce upon with, “So you’re saying that there is a festival for daft women then?!?”  The parsing for their version would be 三八妇女 sān bā fùnǚ (daft women) as one cluster and 节 jié (festival) as one cluster, instead of 三八 sān bā (March 8) as one cluster and 妇女节fùnǚjié (women's festival) as one.  The Chinese sense of humour just loves such word play and catching people out.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Terrifying road signs (UK)

In my second year in London, I was invited to the home of an English chap.  His youngest brother was at Eton, the world famous school, so he suggested we go and see it.  On the way from Taplow, I was greeted by some rather frightening signs signalling the villages we were approaching: Burnham (which sounds just like “burn’em”), Cookham (which sounds just like “cook’em”), then Eton (which sounds just like “eaten”).
Note:  For those unfamiliar with the quirky inconsistent English pronunciation, especially of place names, Burnham is not pronounced “burn ham”, nor Cookham “cook ham”.  And for those unfamiliar with shortened versions, burn’em = burn them, and cook’em = cook them.

Friday, 25 November 2011

What language do you think and dream in?

Not sure of the figures (ha, pun! -- to come), but a Chinese friend once observed that no matter how fluent one might be in a foreign language, one always reverts to one's original language when needing to involve numbers aloud (e.g., doing mental sums).  

My mobile was given to me by a Chinese friend who was upgrading (and wanted me to be on call to help her with interpreting in emergencies), so my first acquaintance with the phone number was in Chinese.  Since then, whenever people ask me for my phone number, I'll say it in Chinese first (and convert it into English if the listener can't understand Chinese).  It's like a tune in my head.

I often ask people what language they dream in.  I think it's a sign of one's mastery of a foreign language if one starts thinking and dreaming in that language.  What happens when one's a polyglot, I wonder?  Multi-lingual thoughts and dreams?  I know that Singaporeans do that in their everyday life, mixing English, Chinese and Malay in the same sentence.  An ex-student, Philip, who's been relocated to Singapore, says he can barely understand what the locals say because of this element, for one thing.  Ordering a coffee is such a linguistic minefield that he ends up just taking whatever they give him, poor man (but it makes me chuckle, imagining his total bafflement just trying to get a coffee).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Language acquisition and language loss (Estonia, Sweden, Germany, UK)

A friend’s aunt was born in Estonia, brought up in Sweden, then moved to Germany before finally settling in England.  So, her language acquisition was in the order of: (1) Estonian; (2) Swedish; (3) German; (4) English.  In her later years, as her Alzheimer’s started to get a grip on her, she’d first lose her English, so my friend had to converse with his aunt in German.  Then she’d start to lose her German, so my friend resorted to using Swedish.  In the end, my friend had to start learning Estonian when her Swedish started to disappear as well.  So the “last in, first out” principle applies not just to employment and redundancy, but to language loss as well.

Update 251111:  The penny's just dropped.  People say Alzheimer sufferers can remember things that happened way back but not what they did a few minutes ago.  This language loss case is the same pattern.

Update 041211:  I spoke my dialect until the age of six when I then went to school and started acquiring higher level language usage (e.g., abstract concept vocabulary and expressions of ideas and thoughts) in English and Mandarin, so my level of dialect is something like that of a ten-year-old.  Should Alzheimer's hit me, will I end up with just my dialect (as that was the first language I acquired), and therefore communicating like a ten-year-old??  Eek.

Monday, 21 November 2011

American chivalry (USA)

A Singapore (Chinese) colleague at Conoco (now ConocoPhillips), Jimmy, was sent to our American office for a short training course.
On his first day lunching out with his American colleagues, he was happily tucking into his food when suddenly all his male colleagues stood up.  Jimmy looked up mid-fork to see a woman approaching their table.  It was the American code of behaviour for men which was (and still is) alien to Singapore men.  Jimmy was embarrassed about his (self-perceived) lack of manners, and determined to be more vigilant.
So vigilant was he thereafter that every time he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a woman approaching, he’d immediately stop eating and stand up, but his colleagues would carry on eating.  It would turn out to be only a complete stranger passing by his table.  Poor man never had a moment’s peaceful dining during the rest of his time there.  Something to be said, then, for the supposed lack of chivalry among Singapore men?
(America, 1974/5)

A for Apple, B for ... (Japan)

I was in Tokyo the summer of 1993.  My practicewherever I go and whenever possibleis to watch the local TV programmes, as it gives one a good indication of the local culture, say, their taste or sense of humour (e.g., through their entertainment programmes).
One such day-time entertainment programme was a general knowledge quiz with young (aged 20s) celebrities for participants.  There were three teams—each a pair of male/female combination—and the quiz master had four envelopes, marked A, B, C, and D.
The quiz master approached the first pair, who chose envelope A.  It was opened, and the question inside was put to the pair, who gave their answer.
The quiz master approached the second pair, who chose envelope C.  It was opened, and the question inside was put to the pair, who gave their answer.
The quiz master then approached the third pair, with two envelopes left for them to choose from.  The male celebrity, speaking in Japanese, chose B, with B uttered in English.  Then he decided to embellish (or show off his English) by putting up two fingers in a Winston Churchill gesture and saying in English: “B for Bictory!”
(Tokyo 1993)

Steve Jobs's last words

I know this is not a proper blog per se, but I've just read it on and it's given me goose pimples, so I want to put it down somewhere before I forget:

“Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow” said Steven Paul Jobs on his final breaths just hours before his death on October 5th. This information was disclosed as part of the eulogy his sister, Mona Simpson delivered for his October 16 Memorial, and was published by the New York Times.
Simpson reports to the world that Steve died peacefully, surrounded by his family:
“Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
With all of the vast public reactions to the passing of Jobs, it should be of no surprise the amount of attention and questions these final words have posed worldwide. Known to be highly religious in the Buddhist faith, and also with Jobs once describing death as “very likely the single best invention of life”, it is all the more comprehensible how blissful his passing was. But does this mean that his final “oh wow’s” signify an entering into the afterlife?  Or was it perhaps just an enlightenment to the magnitude of death? Or maybe even an enlightenment of how beautiful life was?
My response to the person who posted this on his FB wall:
QUOTE Spooky. This is giving me goose pimples! I instantly thought (from this incomplete text of yours) he must've seen something. Then the full text on says he looked past them [his family] over their shoulders. Definitely something to do with the other side. Spooky. UNQUOTE

Friday, 18 November 2011

The French way of dining (France)

To the Oriental diner in a Western setting, it’s often the fancy cutlery layout formation that throws them: the endless tiers of course-related cutlery hierarchy, which item of cutlery to use when and with which course.  My advice, as an interpreter to visiting Chinese delegations, has always been:  just watch what your hosts or fellow (Western) diners do, and follow suit.  Can’t go wrong.
Right, no problem there then when you’re ensconced in a French farm house.  After all, they have just a simple set-up of: knife on the right, fork on the left.  Simple not just in terms of what [tool] is for what [function], but also in terms of what to expect:  a one-course meal.  WRONG.  The courses keep coming and coming and coming.  Even an everyday family meal will easily have 4 courses, if not more: soup, meat, vegetables, salad, dessert.  Sometimes some meat-based (e.g., home-made pâté) course as well, after the soup and before the main meat course.  Because they are each served in succession rather than together, you don’t see what’s coming next and how many more, and there’s no hierarchical cutlery layout to give you a visual inkling.  

I still get caught out after visiting over a 16-year period.  To me, a meat course is practically always the main course, so I’d have a second helping when they do and when they offer it to me.  Then I’d discover that  it’s only the hors d’œuvre course(s), by which time I’ll have had a double helping of soup and a double helping of hors d’œuvre.  And there are still the main meat course, the vegetables, the salad, and the dessert to come!  And don’t forget, all of this, except for the dessert (unless it’s cheese), is eaten with the ubiquitous and filling pain.

(France 1996-present)

Falling asleep on the right bus at the wrong time (London)

The person whose lapse of attention to his black bag on his Tube journey inspired the blog entry “At the Lost and Found Office” didn’t always travel on the Tube [London underground].  The reason is the Tube stops running after midnight (12.30am from a Central London station), and the chap responsible for my Kafka-esque exchange at the Lost and Found Office often found himself inveigled into late-night drinking and dining forays.  More specifically: going to the pub late afternoon, staying until closing time (11pm), then going to some late-night drinking place (where eye-watering charges are levied on drinks, even non-alcoholic or small ones, as it’s the “drinking company” that they’re paying for, solicited or otherwise), and after that to Chinatown for some very-late-night chow.  After such a bender, one had the choice of going home in a taxi (and perhaps rue one’s folly the next morning, on top of one’s hangover, as post-midnight surcharges are applicable on top of everything else).  Or take the night bus—which was what our “At the Lost and Found Office” protagonist owner-of-black-bag did.  More than once.
Just like Satoshi in the “Falling asleep on the wrong line at the wrong time” blog entry, Kerry would cave in to the sleep demon on the Plumstead-bound No.53 bus and wake up finding he’d missed his stop.  On one occasion, he woke up to find the bus had stopped moving altogether—it was sitting in the depot, the time was about 530am, and the cleaners were hosing it down, getting it ready for the new day's journeys!  Just as well it wasn’t a Scotland-bound bus.

(London late-1990s)

The mandate of Heaven (London)

I worked on a 12-part TV documentary series on China in the early 80s which went out weekly from January 1984 on the then-new Channel Four.  It was part of a series of series: a ten-parter called The Russians; a ten-parter called The Arabs; we managed to negotiate a 12-parter because we shot more material than originally anticipated.  We then had to change our title from The Chinese to The Heart of The Dragon because a Canadian six-parter with our original name aired a few months into our two-year project.  
Each 54-minute episode (with a commercial break) was based on a theme and named accordingly, e.g., Eating, Working, Living, Discovering.  The first was Remembering, an introduction to the history of China, with the first half focusing on pre-1949 China, and the second on post-1949 China.  In the pre-1949 half, the commentary said emperors in imperial China were believed to have been given the mandate of Heaven to rule.
A few weeks before the first episode was to be aired, we invited journalists to view the video copy in our office so that they could write up previews.  One of them rang me after her viewing, and said, “I’ve just viewed your pre-broadcast fine cut, and need to fill in a bit of detail.  Your narrative mentioned that in imperial China, people accepted emperors as their rulers because they believed emperors had the right to rule over them by dint of their having been given the mandate of Heaven.  I wonder if you could let me have a photocopy of that mandate?”
(London, 1984)

The homing cat (London)

(Also see: "The homing pigeon that won't go home", in the August series.)

A friend, Daniel, bought a house in north London from a lady who then moved a few streets away.  Her cata pale stripey tom that looks like a discoloured zebrarefuses to accept that they have now moved and keeps coming back to his old home, blatantly lying around in the patio area just outside the kitchen, in the covered patio at the bottom of the garden, or just about anywhere he cares to occupy proprietorially, as if it was still his territory.  If he was shooed away, he’d move only just out of striking distance, e.g., from the kitchen patio area to the back patio.  If Daniel kept up the chasing, he’d move out of the garden only as far as just the other side of the back fence, then sit on the roof of that garden's shed, and vociferously and plaintively rail at him about the injustice of being ousted from what he perceives to be his rightful turf.  He’d easily out-meow youcat food manufacturers should cash in on his energy levels and approach his mistress about getting him to star in their adverts for their products.  

I was witness, on one occasion, to Daniel chasing him out of the back patio area and his fully answering back from the top of the neighbour's garden shed.
Daniel:  Go home!
Cat:      M-E-O-W.
Daniel:  Go home.  This is not your home anymore!
Cat:       M-E-E-O-O-W-W-W.
And it went on and on and on.  Even after Daniel gave up arguing, he (the cat, not Daniel) still didn’t let up, carrying on his one-party verbal war like a grumpy old man muttering loudly.
The cat’s name?  Believe it or not: Homer.
(London, Summer 2011)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The absent-minded professor (London)

The first story (which took place a few decades ago) was told at Professor Angus Charles Graham’s memorial service by another professor.  
It was Graham’s turn to look after baby Dawn and he went to a local library, being the bookish person he was.  He then remembered that his sister-in-law lived nearby, so he dropped in on her to say hello.  After they’d got the salutations out of the way and were nicely settling down to their cuppa and cake, she asked what he was doing in the area.  He cried out, “Dawn!!  Oh, Dawn!!  I’ve forgotten about Dawn!” and rushed off back to the library, where Dawn was still in her pram, fast asleep and quite unaware of her temporary abandonment.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, had he not popped in to see his sister-in-law, he’d gone all the way home without Dawn and not even noticed until Mrs. Graham asked about the baby’s whereabouts.  

In 1980/81, a student a couple of years below me, Ben, reported turning up for an appointment with him, knocking on his office door repeatedly without any response.  Then, as he was about to turn away, Ben heard some rustling behind the door, so he knocked again, loudly this time, and heard a startled grunt from the other side.  When Ben opened the door, he was greeted with the sight of a room completely fogged-up and Professor Graham a dim apparition in the midst of it.  The great man himself looked rather surprised by Ben’s presence and asked him what he wanted.  He’d completely forgotten about the appointment, and had been sitting there, working on some article on classical Chinese grammar or philosophy, or some translation of ancient Chinese poetry, happily puffing away at his pipe in total oblivion of the outside world and time.

(London, early 1980s)

Update 021211:  My beloved and inspirational supervisor, Dr. Paul Mulligan Thompson (deceased), told me this anecdote about Professor Angus Charles Graham.  The elbows of his jumper had worn through, so his wife sewed two patches on.  When he next put on his jumper, he did remember that there were two holes in the elbows--but didn't notice the new elbow patches--and turned the jumper round, so that the patches were now on top.  And he wore two new holes in the elbows, leaving the patches quite intact.

(London, late 1970s)


Monday, 14 November 2011

The absent-minded academic (Japan)

This story came, during my undergraduate days, from Satoshi who’s now world-famous in his own right as a children’s book illustrator [google him if you’re interested], but for his little Hollywood star of fame in my personal life, see my blog entry Falling asleep on the wrong line at the wrong time (inspired by my nephew Ching Kai talking about his falling asleep on Singapore’s Circle Line).  If the details in my account here don’t exactly match Satoshi’s own memory of the version he transmitted to me back in 1979/1980, please put it down to my own age-related fuzzy memory rather than my taking any poetic-licence-fuelled liberties.  If Satoshi or anyone else who has a direct interest in the historical accuracy of this blog wants to put me right (to defend the uncle’s honour, say), I’d be very happy to amend the details.
Before he got married and set up home on his own, Satoshi’s paternal uncle lived with his older brother and sister-in-law, which is fairly standard Oriental practice.  

There were already early indications of his absent-minded-professor leanings when he’d leave the house on a rainy day with an umbrella and fail to return with it—his sister-in-law was constantly having to buy a new one.  Then, he went through a phase of leaving the house without one and coming back with one—for a while, the sister-in-law had enough to open a shop!
After he joined Hiroshima University, he was one day walking across the campus green (surrounded on all sides by university departmental blocks) when he suddenly stopped a student walking nearby and asked, “Did you see where I've just come from?”  The student: “Yes, sir, you've just come from the canteen block.”  Satoshi’s uncle: “Ah, so I’ve had my lunch then.”  (Couldn’t resist a language play here: without the comma, it’d be the Japanese “ah so” [= sort of “oh yes?” in English].  In speech, one wouldn’t hear punctuation marks, so it’d work in the original and the translation version.)
After he got married and set up family, he was driving home one evening when, somewhere in the residential estate where he lived, he suddenly couldn't recall what number his house was.  A teenager was walking on the pavement, so he pulled up alongside her, wound down his passenger window, and said, “Good evening.  My name’s Kitamura.  I’m a professor at the University of Hiroshima.  I live around here but I’ve forgotten what my house number is.  Might you know?”  The girl said, “Yes, you live at No.xx.”  Satoshi’s uncle said, “Ah, you know me then?”  The girl said, “Yes, I’m your daughter.”
(Japan, 1960s-1970s)

(If you think I’ve made up the above, read my Professor Angus Charles Graham stories in The absent-minded professor.)

Professor Cold Feet (London / Japan)

(This blog is inspired by Valerio, professor of mathematics in New Orleans.  I'd commented on a photo of his, taken at his wife Natalie's exhibition, in which he was sporting a bow tie, saying he looked so smart.  His response was that the tie was crooked and the shirt probably had a few holes somewhere.)

As an undergraduate student, I used to go and do my prepping in the Japanese Reading Room because it was quieter, and I could spread out my notes and have all the reference books to myself.  One day, I found a chap in there—in sandals, sans socks, in spite of the fact that it was early spring.  He turned out to be a Leeds University Ph.D. student of Buddhist history who was down in London to use our library because we had the best Oriental collection.  After seeing him a few more times, I plucked up courage to ask him if he didn’t feel cold, going about without socks.  His answer was, “Oh no, I even go sockless in winter!”  So I gave him the nickname of Cold Feet.
Fast forward six or seven years and I was back at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) as staff working on two Chinese computer research projects.  One day, when the lift that bore me arrived on the third floor, the first sight that greeted me as the doors opened were two sandal-clad, sockless feet in front of the Japanese Department notice board.  I instinctively cried out, “Cold Feet!”  The body that went with the feet turned round immediately, and it was indeed the Leeds University Buddhist history student from those earlier days.  He recognised his moniker!
After he'd graduated from Leeds, he’d got a job in a Japanese university.  A few years later, they offered him a professorship.  His response was: he would accept it only on the condition that they allowed him to continue going around in sandals, minus socks.  He told them he was even prepared to wear a jacket and put on a tie for the above-table façade at meetings, but there was no way he was going to confine his feet in shoes and socks—not even for a professorship.

(London 1978/9 and 1986/7)

Monday, 31 October 2011

At the Lost Property Office (London)

Received a printed post card from the Lost Property Office on Baker Street (world famous for Sherlock Holmes), telling me they might have something that belonged to me.  Funny, I didn’t remember losing anything.  I duly went along and this is the (politely-conducted) conversation that ensued:
Me:     Hi.  You’ve sent me a post card saying you have an item that belongs to me. 
LPO:   What have you lost?
Me:     I don’t know.  I didn’t know I’d lost anything until I got this card from you.
LPO:   We can’t hand over the item unless you can tell us what it is.
Me:     But, like I said, I didn’t know I’d lost anything until I received this notification from you, so I can’t tell you what I don’t know I might’ve lost.
LPO:   But we can’t just give it to you.  We need you to identify it.
Me:     Well, I can’t identify something I never knew I’d lost.
LPO:   (Looking at her records and trying to be helpful)  Maybe you can tell us roughly what category it might be.
Me:     I can’t.  I have absolutely no idea what it might be.
LPO:  (Trying to get rid of the item)  OK.  Did you lose, perhaps say, a bag?
Me:    No, not to my knowledge.
LPO:  A black bag??
Me:    I have a black bag at home which I don’t use.  I use this blue rucksack.  What makes you think it’s mine anyway?  How did you come to be writing to me about it?
LPO:  Because your name and address are inside, on a gas bill.
Me:    (Seriously worried now)  I’ve lost a gas bill and I didn’t even know about it?!?  Can you show me the gas bill.  I can’t believe I’ve lost a gas bill without knowing it.
LPO:  (Looking in the bag.)  Ah, I see that it’s not your gas bill, but your name and address are hand-written on the gas bill.
Me:    This is even more worrying now. Whose gas bill is it?  Why would my name and address be on it?  Where did you find the bag anyway?
LPO:  It was found on the Tube.
Me:    I don’t use the Tube.
LPO:  Can you tell us what might be in the bag, just to identify the contents?
Me:    I don’t know.  I’m a teacher, so I’d normally carry books, dictionaries and students’ homework in my bag.
LPO:  Aha!  Now we’re getting somewhere.  What kind of books?
Me:    I’m a Chinese teacher, so it’d be Chinese books.
LPO:  Japanese?
Me:    Well, I do know some Japanese, but I wouldn’t be carrying a Japanese book around.

LPO:  (Went off to consult her line manager, maybe to see if she could let me off on a linguistic technicality here.  Japanese, Chinese--they're all the same, aren't they??)

(Line Manager then entered the fray)
LM:   Can you tell us why you’ve got men’s clothing in your bag?

This is getting more and more bizarre!!

Me: I have no idea!  (I was now seriously getting freaked out.)  (Then a quick flash.)  Ah, wait a minute.  Is the name on the gas bill Kerry M…? He’s a student of mine, and has been learning Japanese.  

They went through the contents and found that it was indeed Kerry’s gas bill.  He was an electrical engineer who worked on construction sites, which would explain the men’s work clothes.  Mystery solved.  Phew!  One of the most surrealistic conversations I'd ever been drawn into, I can tell you.
(More to come on his bus journeys, in another blog.)
(London, 2004)

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Brain-washed (Czech Republic / Switzerland / London)

Jana and I were walking around the open air market in Pelhrimov looking at the goods on display and commenting on them.  Suddenly she said to me, "I was just thinking to myself, 'Oh, these people are speaking Czech!  They're from the Czech Republic!'  Then I realise that I AM in the Czech Republic.  It's just that I've been speaking English to you the last few hours."
This reminds me of the late 80s when I used to commute to Zürich to visit the Gentle Giant.  We might sometimes go to student-populated areas as he was working at the university at the time.  After one of these weekend trips, I went directly from the airport to the University of London, where I was working at the time.  There were students dotted around the front entrance steps of the college, chatting.  I thought, “That’s not German.  I wonder what language it is?”  Although I didn’t, and still don’t, speak German, my brain had got so used to hearing German sounds that I couldn’t process English when I heard it!
(Czech Republic, August 2010 / Switzerland/London, 1987-9)

Go ask the computer (London/USA)

Email from me to Valerio:  Haha, LinkedIn has just told me, “Valerio is now connected to Natalie”. The ironies of this techno stuff, informing me some three decades after you got married.
Email from Valerio’s wife, Natalie:  We might need to be reminded of these things by a computer. Who knows, Valerio and I may be suffering with dementia by now.
(London/New Orleans, July 2011)

Trick or treat? (France)

Colette’s seven-year-old nephew Yann sat there at the table with two-thirds of his lunch untouched.  I pointed out that he was wasting foodto no avail.  Then I remembered that we’d played marbles before lunch and had had lots of laughs, so I asked him if he’d like to play more marbles after lunch.  He nodded eagerly, eyes lighting up.  I said, “Well, you’ll need to eat up your lunch first.”  The next thing was he’d finished his food with gusto.  Trouble was: I then forgot about the marbles.  So what was meant to be “treat” turned out to be “trick”!  It worked though.
(France, September 2011)

Friday, 28 October 2011

A teacher can run but cannot hide (London)

My most avid reader and moral supporter, Valerio, has inspired this title with his comment on my blog “Never off duty”.
How right Valerio is.  I was waiting for a bus around 11pm one warm summer’s evening last year when an apparition suddenly leapt out from behind me on the pavement, stood in front of me and said, with a big smile, “老师,你好,我是 Brenda! / Hello, Teacher, I am Brenda!”  It was a Taiwanese ex-student who’d done my MA Bilingual Translation course back in 1998(??), and I hadn’t seen her since, which makes 12 years.  Yet she recognised me, in the dark, from behind!
A few months after that, I was on the bus home from St Paul’s, seated upstairs just in front of the top of the steps, therefore had my back turned to the steps.  As the bus moved away from the next stop, I heard my name called out by someone who’d come upstairs.  It was another ex-student, David, who’d also recognised me from behind.
Indeed, Valerio, a teacher can run but cannot hide.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Inexplicable (and unforgivable) rudeness (London)

I was waiting for a bus on Oxford Street, standing about 3 feet away from the bus shelter, along with lots of other people (it was Saturday and the place was absolutely heaving).  One of two Arabic-speaking girls (early 20s?), in headscarves (colourful, not black), suddenly turned to a white woman (in her 60s, eating snacks out of a plastic bag) and asked: "When is the bus coming?"  I thought they were together, all 3 of them, since the young woman asked the older one.  Then I heard the white woman say, "If I knew the answer, I'd be up there with God, not standing here on this pavement, would I?"  Not very nice, but some people do resort to a bit of sarcasm.  Then the white woman added, "YOU STUPID WOMAN!"  I saw the young woman move away from her as if she'd been slapped, and she looked so hurt, and puzzled too, so I went up to her and said, pointing at the GPS display panel, "You can have a look at the display panel up on the shelter.  It tells you which bus is coming and when."  A few seconds later, I felt something more had to be done, so I went over to the bus shelter, where the young woman was still smarting, and said to her, "I feel so sorry for you.  Poor you.  That was most unnecessary.  She didn't have to be so horrible to you."  She asked me, "Is she your friend?  Are you with her?"  I said, "No."  I should've added, "My friends don't behave like that, and even if she had been a friend, she wouldn't be my friend anymore."  The young woman said to me, "You are so kind.  Thank you for being so kind."  Sad, isn't it, that kindness is not assumed to be standard behaviour?  Like our being surprised these days when people are polite and say thank you, when it should be the norm.
(London, February 2010)

Ten dollar, ten dollar (Taiwan)

Peter the British geologist was working on the rig offshore from Kaohsiung (south-west coast of Taiwan), and came back to Taipei with this comment: “I know the Chinese are well-known for being gamblers, but this radio operator on the rig was doing it all the time, placing bets with every radio call!”  
What did the radio operator say, I asked.  Pete said, “Oh, his English isn’t very good.  He was saying Ten Dollar, Ten Dollar.”  
It didn’t make sense that a (Taiwanese-)Chinese radio operator in Taiwan should be placing bets in English.  I later worked out that the operator must’ve said the Chinese equivalent of radio-speak in English (roger, for “message received and understood”), which is: 听到了 tīngdào le / "have heard".

(Taiwan, 1976)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Communications: non sequiturs (London)

I was telling a visitor from China on Sunday, when we got to Big Ben, about the one occasion another woman and I were waiting for a bus, with her standing in front of me.  The bus stop was at the southern end of Westminster Bridge, and Big Ben was at the northern end.  Our bus was coming from north of the river, which meant that we were facing north, so Big Ben was in front of us--but not too high up as it was at the other end of the bridge, not directly above us.  After a while, when the bus failed to show up, the woman turned round to me and asked, “What’s the time, please?”  
My visitor’s immediate response to this story was, “Is she local?”  Huh???  What’s that got to do with not seeing a structure directly ahead of you that’s 96.3m/316ft/16 storeys in height??!
Is this a cultural perspective to communications, I wonder?  I’d love to hear what theories people can offer for this path of illogical connection in communications.  Or is my brain missing a link for bridging that jump?

(London, October 2011)

Monday, 24 October 2011

Long time no see (London)

An ex-student Geoff, who’d inspired one of my teaching practices, dropped out of my Chinese classes when he moved to Cambridge but remained in touch over the years, arranging to meet up in a pub for a few jars whenever he came down to London.  For one of these visits, he’d appointed The Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit as the venue as they had good beer and not far from where he was attending a conference, and gave me plenty of notice.  That, in fact, became the problem as, come the day, I completely forgot about it--I always get sucked into the computer once I start working on it.  The next day, I received an email from him, with the simple message: “好久没见 hǎo jiǔ méi jiàn / long time no see!”  He’d sat in the pub over three pints of beer, waiting for me to put in an appearance.  He might’ve dropped out of Chinese classes but he certainly still knew how to use whatever he’d learned to good effect, even in irony!
(UK, late 1990s)

Falling asleep on the wrong line at the wrong time (London)

It was meant to be a straightforward get-together between two old friends meeting up for a few pints.  
Satoshi and I had our few pints near my film company office at Warren Street (Zone 1, central London), and stayed until closing time before going our separate ways: I northwards to Highbury on the Victoria line and he westwards to Notting Hill on the Central line--about seven(?) stops away.  For him, one stop south on the Victoria line, then a change of trains at Oxford Circus to the west-bound Central line train.  Whereupon he promptly fell asleep.  
When he next opened his eyes, the train had gone past his stop, so he staggered off the train, crossed over to the other platform and boarded the next east-bound train that came along.  And instantly dozed off again.  
The next time he woke up, the train was no longer underground.  (For those who don’t know the London underground routes, the Central line goes as far east as Essex, which is not in London--and London is huge in terms of distances...)  When he got to the exit, the station staff was locking up, so it was obviously the last train.  He had no idea where he was, nor which direction London was, and wandered around trying to find some sign of human life.  As it happened, a bit later, a car came along with three young people who were going in the direction of London and they kindly got him to a mini-cab place en route where he could get a cab back to London.  
He finished off the story with, “And don’t ask me how much the taxi fare came to!”  (It was Essex and past midnight, so it must’ve been eye-watering.)  He added, “I won't be able to afford going out for a drink with you again for a while.”
(London, 1983)

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The bus that goes nowhere (Taiwan)

Simon, an English friend a year above me at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), went to Taipei and found there was a No. 0 bus.  He immediately thought, "A bus that goes nowhere!"  It turned out to be a circular route: a clockwise one and an anti-clockwise one.  We did call it 0 南 (líng nán / “zero south”) and 0 北 (líng běi / “zero north”) though, so Simon had a point.

(Taipei, 1981)

Friday, 21 October 2011

Matter over mind in reverse? (France)

About twelve days before my departure on 03 October, Serge and Jeanette started discussing at the dinner table locking up the dogsand further away from the farm house as wellin readiness for the arrival of old friends Simon and Mauricette, so that they (Simon and Mauricette, not the dogs) wouldn't be disturbed by the nocturnal growling (from the dogs, not Simon and Mauricette).  I chipped in with, "But if they're locked up, they'll be barking, which will still disturb Simon and Mauricette."  Serge immediately commented that my French was now good enough for me to understand things and to communicate my opinions as well.  (Between you and me, he didn't notice that a lot of what I said was pidgin French and gesturing / miming.  He understood my message, so he took it to be French...)  (See the other, related blog entry: Matter over mind)

(France, September 2011)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Sopa minuta (Peru)

We were on the point of leaving a little cafe in Nazca after our so-so meal when we spotted someone eating an interesting-looking Singapore Laksa-type dish (something noodle-like in a bright orange red soup base), so we asked him for the name for future reference.  He told us it was sopa minuta.  Felt quite pleased with ourselves for having done a clever thing like that as we had always been too shy about asking and ended up not being to order a dish we’d liked on sight on a previous occasion, and looked forward to trying it out for ourselves at the next town.  Once there, we duly ordered a sopa minuta.  What arrived was an anaemic-looking dish: white without the noodle stuff.  We told the waiter he’d brought us the wrong order, and that we’d ordered sopa minuta.  He said, yes, this is sopa minuta.  It turned out that “sopa minuta” (literally "soup minute"?) only meant something like “soup of the day”.

(Peru, 1986)

Purrfect pals (France)

For some reason, the cats on the farm are not assigned any names (and have never been, I think).  The dogs are called Patou, Fleurie, Mizou, and so on (Dino doesn’t count as he came already named Dino by his previous, now deceased, owner--see blog entry Dino the dirty dog), but the cats are all just addressed as Mimi (see blog entry Minou), even when spoken to directly and singly.
The frisky one (little black cat) will totally disrupt your reading or journal-writing, endlessly nudging your fingers, hands and any other part of your body that he can mark you with.  By “mark”, I mean mainly scent but he also leaves scratch marks when he jumps on or all over you, and (playful but painful) bite marks when he suddenly takes a fancy to your finger.  
As soon as the one with tiger stripes spots you (haha! play on stripes and spots), he will instantly claim your lap--or even chest if you’re sitting a bit reclined (as in a sun-lounger)--and go to sleep, freezing you in the one pose until your legs go numb.  If you move him to de-numb your legs, he’ll immediately climb back on.  If you’ve got something on your lap (e.g., dry haricot bean pods to shell), Tiger (my name for him) will sit on the bit of sun-lounger beside or behind you, basically staying close throughout even though you’re too busy to stroke or cuddle him.  If you leave the sun-lounger, so will he, which proves that he’s not there for the sun-lounger but for your company.  One feels honoured to be adopted by cats in this way, as the Gentle Giant used to say.  (He also called them “whores”, though, sucking up to anyone who will dish out the stroking and cuddling.)
Mummy Cat--as I call the variegated one with successive broods, poor old girl--will try to get to your face, for her to nuzzle, by climbing up your leg--or arm, if you bend down, say, to pull up some weeds--with her front legs.  Sweet, if rather painful.  She has this lovely touch of putting her paws on your shoulders, one on each side, then wrapping them round your neck in a big hug while she nuzzles your chin or cheek.  If you’re standing at a table, she’ll jump onto the table to try and reach you from that level.  If you stand back, she’ll try and reach out, sometimes to the point of nearly falling off the table herself, in which case she’ll even keep three legs on the table and just use one to try and climb up your arm in her eagerness to get to your face for that nuzzle.  Affectionate or demanding?  I find it touching.
Practically all the cats are highly responsive and interactive, though in different ways.  Each looks different (in colour combinations and patterns) and each has his/her own very individualistic mannerisms and way of communicating with you.  As I got to know each one, I found myself saying to them in turn every day--often more than once a day, “I wish I could take you back to London with me.”  I can see why Serge and Jeanette have them around, even though it means extra work and cost, because they fill one’s life with so much affection. 
The beige one (and mother of the black frisky one--they are both the same size and I’d mistaken them to be siblings) was the first to “adopt” me by greeting me from under the bushy climber by the front door before I’d even spotted her having a kip there.  After the first few days of my arrival, she took to sleeping in my bed, then in my open suitcase among my clothes, and finally on it when I shut the lid.  She’d get to my room by climbing up the ground floor shutters and then the stretch of wall between the shutters on the two storeys, thus endangering her nine lives.  The black canvas material of the suitcase was liberally covered with her pale hairs by my last day, but when Mauricette (who was visiting for a week with her husband Simon) offered to brush them off, I said no, I wanted to keep it as it was--as a souvenir, to keep the memory of these purrfect pals alive and fresh.
(France, September/October 2011)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Completely free-range now (France)

I found a new development on the French farm on my visit this year: it has gone even more free-range.  
When I first spotted the chickens wandering around the ex-kitchen garden next to their corralled area late afternoon on my first day, I was rather alarmed and reported this to Jeanette, who reassured me that it was legit and intentional.  
Another thing I noticed--on my arrival at the farm house, in fact, because I nearly tripped over her--was there was a dog lying down calmly on the floor of the living/dining room in front of the stove.  I say calmly because she didn’t even bother to try and shift out of the way, as most dogs would do if they were sleeping in the path of passing feet.  (This turned out to be Mizou--see Eats shoots and leaves.)
Finally, the cats, which used to be banned from the house as well, bar one (see Minou).  This year there’re about a dozen of them--after the first ten, I gave up counting as I only have ten fingers--five of which are kittens a few months old (under a year, I’d say, although I’m bad at telling age--see Minou).  
Not only have they increased in number, they have also increased in temerity--jumping in through any open windows (two in the living/dining room, one in [deceased] Grandma Meimei’s old bedroom, one in the master bedroom upstairs which was assigned to me for my month-long stay) and helping themselves to any soft surface for kipping on, including my lap--which has the added advantage of being warm as well.  Make the mistake of having eye contact with them, even if accidental, and they’ll make a bee line for you, leaping straight onto your lap without even asking for permission first.  They also help themselves freely to the shop-bought dry cat food--straight out of the bag.
(For more on the cats, see Purrfect pals.)

(France, September/October 2011)