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)