Friday, 28 December 2012

How to make friends with a pair of army boots (Australia)

The notification about the 1972 R.I. (Raffles Institution) class reunion, thirty years after we left as 18-year-olds, had come rather late, so I didn’t have time to pack properly for Australia, my next stop after the reunion in Singapore.  I was lucky to be able to scramble a ticket at all to Kuala Lumpur, the nearest destination to Singapore, given that it was the weekend of the World Cup Final (in Japan and Korea).  So it was that when I booked myself to go on two hiking trips—Tasmania and Ayrs Rock—I had to resort to my host in Sydney, Wilson, an ex-R.I. schoolmate, for some sturdier footwear than gym shoes.  With two pairs of thick socks, I managed to convert his ex-National Service boots into walking shoes.

The transportation for the Ayrs Rock tour, named Ayrs Rock Unleashed (it was the “unleashed” bit that caught my eye), was a 14-seater mini-bus.  Two members of the group were from Israel, who totally blanked me on the first day.  When we were cooking dinner at the camping site, one of them suddenly asked me, a trifle nervously, “Why are you wearing Israeli army boots?”  I said, “Oh, these are on loan from a Singapore friend—they were his army boots.  The Singapore army was trained by the Israeli army.”  

His facial expression softened considerably, and he went on to inform me that there were labels on the inside, in two different colours, one blue and one brown, signifying something I don’t remember now.  He then looked inside my boots, and found they did, indeed, have a label in one of the two colours, which proved to him that they were kosher.  

If I’d been quick-witted enough, I could’ve told him, “Because I was trained by the Israeli army!” which might’ve scared the sh*t out of him, as payback for treating me as persona non grata.

(Australia, 2002)

Watching a British film in Switzerland

Whenever it was the Gentle Giant’s turn to come over to London, I’d take him to places and/or events that they didn’t have in Zürich, one of which was the NFT (National Film Theatre) to see non-mainstream films from all over the world.  When it was next my turn to go over to Zürich, he told me he’d just discovered they did have a sort of equivalent to our NFT, which was about to be shut down, so we went off to experience it before the opportunity was lost for good.  

The film was a 1988 British one, called Distant Voices, Still Lives, about a working class family in 1940s Liverpool.  There were French and German subtitles for the Swiss audience.  I had difficulty understanding the Liverpudlian accent, so we ended up with the bizarre situation of me, an English-speaker, watching a film in English but needing a Swiss to read the German subtitles and translate them back to English for me!

(1988/9, Zürich, Switzerland)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A helpful word of advice (Bangkok, Thailand)

My Cambodian friend’s father was a rich and successful businessman who was well-known in Cambodia during his time.  One day back in the late 60s or early 70s, he was waiting in the departure lounge at the airport in Bangkok for a flight back to Cambodia when another passenger, also Cambodian, struck up a conversation with him.  He asked my friend’s father if he was Cambodian, to which came the answer “yes”.  After a bit of small talk to break the ice, during which they’d got on well conversationally, the man then asked my friend’s father if he’d heard of the very rich and successful Cambodian businessman called So-and-So, which was my friend’s father himself.  My friend’s father replied with a simple “yes”, not wanting to identify himself out of modesty.  The fellow Cambodian then said, “Well, let me give you a word of advice:  don’t ever do business with this man!  He’s absolutely ruthless and heartless!”

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Oops (London)

Last week, my Cambodian friend invited me round to her place for lunch sometime this week, as she’d brought back from her holiday there some dried fish for me and would like to show me how to cook it.  (I know this is really just an excuse to fatten me up.  She gets me over to her place once every few months ostensibly for lunch, which invariably stretches to include a late afternoon sweet snack, then extends to early dinner, before I’m allowed to waddle back to north London.)

On Saturday, I tried tentatively to move it forward from Tuesday to Monday, in an attempt to fit in my constantly-fluid appointments (which get cancelled or moved last minute quite a bit), sending her an email to ask how she’d be placed for Monday instead.  Got no reply by mid-day Sunday, after which I went off air.

A text arrived on Monday, an hour after lunch time, asking if I was all right, saying she’d cooked lots of food but no appearance on my part.  I texted back saying I’d not heard back, so I gave up on Monday, and couldn’t now make Tuesday after all.

Her email which arrived next reduced me to hysterical tears and had me in absolute stitches:

I checked my email on Saturday morning and I did not check my emails again until 10pm on Sunday as I was very busy getting my place ready for the carpet fitters. 

Just as well you were not here today as it was extremely noisy with the carpet fitters banging away all day long.  

My reply:

This reduced me to absolute tears and had me in stitches!!  Did you not know that the vulgar slang for "bang" is:  “an act of sexual intercourse”.  Hahahahahahahahaha, I'm still laughing hysterically nine hours after reading this!!

(London 2012)

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Punning (London)

See Update of 051112 in blog entry: Born to pun

How to make the victim apologise (London)

I trod on someone’s foot in a crowd, and instinctively cried out, “Ouch!”, feeling for the other person.  Upon hearing “ouch!”, he  also responded instinctively by immediately apologising, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” even though it was his foot that had been trodden on.

(London 1977)

How to say “spaghetti” in Chinese (London)

When I was teaching evening classes in Chinese for adults, the first beginners’ lesson covered self introductions, which included saying which country one came from.  This was easy, thus boosting the students’ confidence, because a lot of country names in Chinese sound like the original.  I told the students that the Chinese versions of foreign names (personal or geographical) are usually stretched-out versions of the original, e.g., Yìn-dù-ní-xī-yà for Indonesia, Luó-mǎ-ní-yà for Romania, Mǎ-lái-xī-yà for Malaysia.  I said that even if they had not learned it, they just had to utter the foreign version with every syllable enunciated, slowly and with emphasis, and it’d be very similar to how it’d be in Chinese.

For the next lesson, we moved on to food and drink, amongst which were chǎo fàn (fried rice), chǎo miàn (fried noodleswhat used to be rendered as chow mien in recipe books and on menus in Chinese restaurants and takeaways), and miàn tiáo (“wheat-flour strings” / noodles).  I wanted to start teaching the students how the Chinese language deals with foreign concepts, using “spaghetti” as an example.  As they’d learned the Chinese version of Italy (Yìdàlì) in Lesson One, I asked them, “So, what is spaghetti in Chinese?”, expecting them to put Yìdàlì and miàn tiáo together to form “Italian noodles”.  

In unison, the whole class replied, slowly and with emphasis, “SPA-GHE-TTI !!”

(London 1985)

Friday, 9 November 2012

Students' version of Chinese (London)

(See also blog entry: Let me show you my…)

In my experience of teaching Chinese, which spans more than a quarter of a century in mainstream education23 of which were spent teaching mature students doing evening classesstudents are practically always mortified when they make mistakes.  It didn’t matter (to themselves) that they were diplomat trainees (Oxford graduate Peter would draw, in the days long before emoticons came into currency, a cross face against his uphill struggle at a translation).  Or the holder of a PhD in geology.  Or an MOD Russian-English translator.  Or a polyglot (English/French/Spanish) at a notary public firm.  Or an IP (Intellectual Property) specialist lawyer.  The list goes on.  However eminent their professional (and personal) achievements might’ve been, learning Chinese (and the attendant outcome of making embarrassing mistakes) seems to turn them into shrinking violets.

What these (self-)Doubting Thomases don’t realise is how much of an eternal source of mirth they are to the teacher with a kooky sense of humour.

Example 1Before I went into mainstream teaching of Chinese, I was invited to teach a 10-week course at SACU (Society for Anglo Chinese Understanding) for people who’d booked a 3-week tour in China.  When it ended, one of the students Ceri wanted extra lessons.  

I thought it might be useful for her to find out the names of things she’d seesay, in the market placeor to find out from a local who could speak a bit of English what the Chinese version of certain things/phrases were.   This way, she could learn more, and interact with the locals, when she was actually there.  

Where she could point at the item in question, she could say, “How does one say this/that in Chinese?”  Where she had an English word in mind, she could say, “How does one say XYZ in Chinese?”

The Chinese format for this is either: “This/That, Chinese, how to say?”;  or: “Foreign word, Chinese, how to say?”

As they’d been taught Huánghé (“Yellow River”), and mǎ (“horse”) in their drills of the four tones (mā má mǎ mà), I decided to throw in an exercise as well in how Chinese versions of foreign concepts are put together (cf. blog entry: How to say spaghettiin Chinese).  

The example I had in mind was “hippopotamus” which is “river horse” in Chinese.  So, I asked her to translate, “Hippopotamus, zhōngwén, zěnme shuō?” following the format of “Foreign word, Chinese, how to say?”

She looked quite puzzled but, like the good student she was, obediently started to give the translation, very hesitantly, quite sure the teacher had gone mad, “How … does … a … hippopotamus … speak … Chinese??!?”

Example 2:  Denis sent in some homeworka translation of Chinese sentences into English.  His version said: “He only got up after the elephants got up.”  Maybe the sentence was about a lazy zoo keeper who liked a lie-in, but the source text was a mainland Chinese publication, whichin my experiencegenerally didn’t get to that plane of wackiness.  The original sentence turned out to be: 大家起床了以后他才起床.  The student had mis-read 大家 (dàjiā / “big family” / everyone) as 大象 (dàxiàng / “big elephant”).  Sixteen years on, the recollection still produces a chuckleand will for another 16 years to come, if my memory is still intact by then.  A much more interesting and memorable perspective than the grain production articles that a particular teacher tried to foist on her students at different places where she put students of Chinese through the mill (sorry, couldn’t resist the punand the meow).

Example 3:  Sixteen years on, and a much younger student, Daniel, aged 28 (versus Denis’s then 50), but the same hilarious, if a bit macabre, outcome nonetheless.  Last week, I was doing a Listening Comprehension piece with Daniel.  The section involved said, “I’m the switchboard operator.  With so many employees, I sometimes have to take over 1,000 calls a day.  Some of the callers even want to leave messages.”  The Chinese for “to leave a message” is 留言 liúyán / “leave-behind spoken-words”.  Daniel, as with lots of student beforeand undoubtedly afterhim, didn’t distinguish the tones so clearly, and ended up hearing yán (言 / “spoken-word”) as yǎn (眼 / “eyes”).  So Daniel’s version has these callers wanting to leave their eyes behind!  Infinitely more interesting!

PS: haha, talk about hilarious outcomes!  I was typing too fast, so “tones” came out as “toes”——“didn’t distinguish the toes so clearly”.  It’s getting surreal, this!  These linguistic misses are really catching!

Example 4: A beginner student doing one-to-one lessons with me back in the late 80s was taught in Lesson 1 that one way of softening the tone of voice in Chinese is to reduplicate the utterance, e.g., 谢谢 xièxie (“thank thank” / thank you) would often be 谢谢,谢谢 (thank you, thank you); 请坐 qǐng zuò (“request sit” / please sit) would become 请坐,请坐 (sit down, sit down).  Monosyllabic utterances might even be said three times, e.g., 来 lái (“come” / come on) would become 来来来 (come, come, come) when, say, urging the guest to eat more food or have another drink.  

The following lesson, I taught him another way of softening the tone of voice, which is to add the suggestion particle 吧 ba to a statement so that it doesn’t sound like a command, e.g., 再来一杯 zài lái yì bēi (“further come a cup-of/glass-of” / have another one) would become 再来一杯吧 (do have another one).  

A week on, I was trying to revise material already learned, so I went over the polite exchanges used in socialising situations, one of which was to urge the other party to have another glass of alcohol, a typical hospitality scenario at Chinese parties.  The student said, 再来一杯 zài lái yì bēi, which was correct.  I then said, “How about softening the tone of voice?”  expecting him to just add the suggestion particle 吧 to the end of it.  What I got was, “再再再来来来一一一杯杯杯!”

(London, late 1980s / 2012)

Monday, 20 August 2012

Village idiot No.2 (France)

I asked the daughter at the farm house in what way the village idiot is considered one (see blog entry The village idiot) and in what way does his speech not make sense.  She said he’d say things like, “Fire, forest,” and the listener will have to provide the link.  I immediately said, “Then I’m your village idiot No.2, because that’s the kind of communication I’m capable of in French!”

(France 2012)

Linguistic prodigy (France / Singapore)

I asked a visitor to the farm house, “Cafe, monsieur?” and he said, in French, “Ah, you can speak French!”  Rather like the Chinese saying to anyone who can say 你好 (nǐ hǎo/”you good”/hello), “Your Chinese is really good!”

This puts me in mind of an instance in Singapore in the sixties when the British had a military presence there.  An English woman and her 3-year-old daughter were on a local bus, which was a rare occasion, and the little girl was very chatty, as is the wont of her age group.  A Singaporean passenger sitting behind her said to her friend, “Wow!  So young and already she speaks such fluent English!”

(France/Singapore, 2012/1960s)

Sunday, 22 July 2012

To all appearances (London)

At our first lunch at this Indian restaurant featured in the blog entry Elephant’s Trunk, one of the dishes Jenny and I chose was chargrilled chicken drumsticks.  I love the bony bits, so I asked her to cut off all the meat for herself and leave me with the bones.  As I tucked in happily to what Jenny transferred onto my plate, it suddenly occurred to me that we must make a very British colonial picture:  Jenny, the white memsahib, keeping all the meat to herself and feeding this oriental servant only the bones.
(London 1983)

Elephant’s trunk (London)

When I was working on the Channel 4 TV documentary series about China, The Heart of the Dragon, back in the early 80s, my Australian colleague Jenny and I had lunch one day at the newly-opened Indian restaurant round the corner, and found they had some unusual dishes.  We told the other colleagues about it, mentioning—vegetarians, look away now—”sheep’s brain” as one of the exotic offerings.  
The following week, everyone from the office wanted to go and try out this place.  After arrival, we were sitting down when Annie caught sight of one of the items on a menu placed upright on the table, and cried out, “ELEPHANT’S TRUNK!!!”  
It turned out to be the cocktail menu.
See also: To all appearances
(London 1983)

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Madeleine in Madrid (Spain)

Madeleine had got up to Grade 3 Spanish but felt she still couldn’t speak the language properly, so she thought a stint at the Amnesty office in Madrid might help.  She and I were both regular volunteers at Amnesty, and they have an office in Madrid.  Not being confident enough about travelling on her own, she asked if I’d like to go along, to which I readily agreed.

The trip was doomed right from the start, with me being late for the flight, first time ever.  We had to catch the next one some six or seven hours later, which got us into Madrid central well after the Amnesty people had knocked off work.  I’d been tasked with getting the air tickets, and Madeleine the accommodation, through the Madrid office.  She had failed to note down the details of where we had been booked into, relying instead on our arriving on time in Madrid and being taken to the hotel by the Amnesty colleagues.  So, at 9pm and in an alien city, we had to find somewhere for the night, wandering around, looking for signs and asking in our very limited Spanish all likely candidates.

The next morning, we set off for the Amnesty office along the long Gran Via.  Madeleine espied a sign in a restaurant window advertising a Madrid speciality and decided she wanted it, there and then.  I tried to put her off, saying we should be trying to get to the Amnesty office first, as we needed to go to our hotel before we lost our pre-booked room.  Besides, we were going to be in Madrid for ten days, so there was plenty of time to sample this speciality, which must be available at lots of other places anyway, but she was adamant about trying it at that very establishment and right then.  In the face of all this determination, I had to cave in.  

The restaurant had a revolving door and a normal door.  The latter was too narrow for Madeleine’s wheel chair to go through, so I had to go in and persuade the staff to dismantle the revolving door which, luckily, they most obligingly did, bless them.  

Within a few minutes of sitting down and consulting the menu, Madeleine pronounced she’d gone off the idea of trying out the Madrid speciality and ordered spag bol instead.  All that work dismantling a whole revolving door, for us to get in, and then again to get out, just to have spag bol in the end.  
(Madrid, 1992)
NB:  For those readers who need help over “spag bol”, it’s short for “spaghetti bolognese”, because it has become a common (as in “everyday”) dish to the extent of British people treating it as a standard easy-to-cook-yet-exotic meal.

Monday, 9 July 2012

We don't sing anymore (China)

On the 1988 film shoot in China, going from Shanghai all the way to Pakistan, we came upon Fengyang in Anhui Province, famous for its Flower Drum Song.  The motorcyclist was to be filmed going to the market to get a watermelon, and I was tasked to stay behind to guard the motorbike, a BMW which was still a novelty at the time in China.

I’d been commandeered earlier that day to abandon my position in the mini bus and ride with the motorcyclist so that he could ply me with questions about things he saw en route that took his interest, without having to resort to the cumbersome walkie-talkie communication method. 

A huge crowd, of practically all men, very soon gathered around the motorbike, and they were not shy about fingering the bike.  I tried to put them off as politely as possible, with things like, in Chinese, “Please don’t touch the bike because there are no spare parts to be found in China for this bike if you break anything.”  To no avail.  They did seem surprised that I could speak Chinese and asked me how it was that I knew how to speak Chinese.  I suddenly realised they couldn’t see my face as my head was encased in the tinted crash helmet I was still wearing, so they thought I was a Westerner as the motorcyclist and the crew were all white.  My answer was a non-committal, “Well, learn!”

That then gave me an idea for distracting them from the BMW, by asking them, in Chinese, about their town.  “This is the world famous Fengyang, is it not?  The Fengyang of the world famous Flower Drum Song?”  Yes, that’s right, they replied, attention diverted from the bike, rather pleased that this “foreigner” had heard of their town and their traditional folk song.  I continued, still in Chinese, “I remember learning the song.  How does it go now?  Speak about Fengyang, talk about Fengyang.  Now I can’t remember what’s next.  Can you help me out and finish it off for me?”

A young man in his mid-20s said, “Oh, we don’t sing anymore.”  Why not, I asked.  The young man said, “We have money now.”  What has having money got to do with singing, I asked.  He replied, “当然啦!没钱唱歌,有钱睡觉!(“Of course!  No money, sing.  Have money, sleep!”)”  

(China 1988)

Friday, 6 July 2012

The smell (London)

I used to go on day-long rambles at the weekend, stopping at a country pub for lunch about halfway through, before finishing the walk and returning to London.  Lunch could be early or late as it depended on how far into the ramble the pub was, and as I don’t eat breakfast, I had to pack a snack for my blood sugar level problem.  

Boiled chick peas are one of my favourite snacks, as they are delicious, nutritious, cheap, and easy to make.  I’d soak the dried ones (never fancied the pre-cooked tinned type for some reason) the night before, cook them in the pressure cooker with a pinch of sea salt the next morning for 3–5 minutes (letting the valve reach the red level), switch off and let the residual heat finish off the cooking process while I got into my walking gear (which is both ecological and efficient time management), pop them into a plastic box and leave the house with them still warm (no time to let them cool down).

On one such occasion, I found myself seated, on the Tube train, opposite an oldish man (in his late 60s/early 70s??) who had all the visual makings of a tramp:  shabby clothes, unkempt appearance and, to top it off, flies undone.  I caught a whiff of hydrogen sulphide, and thought, “He’s let off a smelly fart in a public and enclosed area.  How disgusting.”  

When I got to my destination and disembarked, he remained on the train, to my relief.  As I walked along the platform towards the exit, the odour was still discernible and right behind me.  To my horror, I realised that it was emanating from my rucksack, the source being the boiled chick peas that I’d packed, still warm, in the plastic container!

(London, 1997)

Friday, 25 May 2012

Bird-watching (Philippines)

An ex-student went to the Philippines and hired a guide to take him up to the mountains where he could do some bird-watching, arranging to leave the following day.  The next morning, the guide turned up at the appointed time with a few mates and a dog.  My student protested but was told they’d come along for the fun of the trip, had brought their own food, and he was not being charged extra.
The group strolled along, chatting and laughing, so my student marched off ahead to try and get them to walk faster, worried that they might not reach the spot in time to put up the tents before sundown.
A few hours into the journey, my student, by now way ahead of the group, heard a loud bang.  He turned round and saw the dog lying dead on the ground.  As the area was known for guerrilla activities, the guide had brought along a hand grenade, which fell out of his rucksack at one point and was promptly gobbled up by the dog.
The Filipino group had barbecued dog for dinner that night.
(Philippines, 1994)

Freudian slip? (China/London)

Documentary-filming tends to take the following forms: (a) film in sync(hronisation), with picture and sound lined up; (b) take mute shots (picture only, no sound); (c) record sounds off-camera, to be used as background fillers (for mute shots).
On one of the film shoots for an episode in the Heart of the Dragon, the crew was filming in the home of a  woman in Nanjing accused of burgling her neighbours’ flats.  The TV had been left on while the filming was taking place, which included interviewing the woman and her husband (done in sync).  Then the cameraman went off to do mute shots, while the sound recordist went off to do his off-camera recording.
Back in London, the film editor (who didn’t know any Chinese at all) managed to match the wrong sounds and images.  Throughout the time the film crew was in the flat, two TV programmes were running:  one was an American cowboy film, the other was a wildlife documentary about butterflies.  The editor chose the image from the cowboy film because she thought it was so interesting that they should be showing spaghetti westerns on Chinese TV (this was 1983), but it was a mute shot, so she had to go and get some sounds for it.  Unfortunately, she chose the off-camera recording from the caterpillar scene in the butterfly documentary.  (And I was not consulted on this.)  So, what went out on Channel Four was:  a shot of the Chinese TV screen with a couple of American cowboys riding off into the horizon, and the sound track saying, “这些毛虫 zhè xiē máochóng / these hairy worms.”    So the editor had inadvertently aired on public media what the Chinese think of Westerners??
(China / London, 1983)

How to do business (Turkey)

Edwin Blanton’s FB post (“The fact that you can’t sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means we have already redefined marriage”) reminds me of something that happened to an ex-colleague from the film company in London.  
Back in the 70s, Andy and his then-girlfriend went to Turkey on holiday.  A local man approached him and offered one camel for his blonde girlfriend.  Andy was furious and told him, in no uncertain terms, to go away. 
The next day, the man approached Andy again and upped his offer to two camels.  He’d misinterpreted Andy’s outrage as indignation at the initial offer of one camel being too low.
(Turkey, 1970s)

Monday, 14 May 2012

The village idiot (France)

The village idiot, as he is commonly referred to behind his back, comes round to the farmhouse twice a day for coffee—morning and afternoon—and helps himself if no-one’s home, drinks his coffee in solitude and leaves.  With someone around, he’ll try to conduct a conversation.  I’ve heard the mistress of the house  say, at regular intervals, monosyllables such as “Who?” and “Where?”, which are really just to keep the conversation going, since neither she nor anyone else, for that matter, understands most of his utterances, as they don’t make sense, I’m told.
Such has been his routine for nobody knows how long, perhaps as a welcome escape from his Cinderella existence at his brother’s up the road where neither the brother nor sister-in-law speaks to him.  They don’t even leave him food when they go away, I heard.  They claim state benefits for his condition but he’s somehow not considered too stupid to work in their kitchen garden as unpaid (and sometimes unfed) labour.
The seven-year-old grandson on our farm, who visits during school holidays, openly dodged him one day, when the village idiot went up to him to shake his hand in greeting, dismissing him with a loud “AU REVOIR, MONSIEUR!”  I delivered a lecture afterwards, translated by his mother, about needing to be extra nice to people like that—even more so given that he’s in his mid-seventies—as they need as much love as they can get, if not more than most people, and this one has not been getting any, it seems.  I asked the boy how he would feel if his grandfather (a year younger) were treated in that way by some other boy.  The next day, the boy’s mother proudly announced that my admonition had taken effect, as he’d been polite to the village idiot on his morning visit.
To go with his coffee, I try and give the village idiot whatever titbits I have bought for the house, as it must be a rare commodity in his life.
Summer last year, he turned up around lunchtime when we had company, so we put another plate on the table and invited him to join the party.  He thoroughly enjoyed himself, beaming from ear to ear, with all these people to sit, eat and talk with.
Village idiot he might be, he still has enough social manners to bring with him for his coffee visits a little present from his vegetable patch, often a freshly dug-up lettuce or, in the autumn, some apples (which are often not particularly edible).  Occasionally it’s something incomprehensible like a plum tree cutting, which was what he brought last week.
The dogs on the farm have the routine practice of barking at cars and people not from the family, so one always knows whether it’s a visitor approaching the farmhouse or a family member.  (I’m accepted as family, for they don’t bark at me.)  For some reason, whichever generation the dogs might be (and I have outlived three generations of them since my first visit in 1996), although the village idiot has been coming every single day, rain or shine, twice a day, the dogs still bark at him every time, without fail.  The daughter says maybe even the dogs sense that something’s not quite right about him.
On one of my visits a couple of years back, my attention was drawn to a photo opportunity with the mother going round the farm, trailed by Dino the scruffy dog (featured in a couple of my other blogs: Dino the dirty dog, Aptly-named dog) and the runaway hen (featured in The loner hen) behind him.  I got my camera ready, the daughter whipped open the door, and there was the village idiot who happened to be passing by the kitchen door just as I pressed the shutter.  As soon as he spotted the camera, he spread out his arms in a “ta-ra” Broadway-musical pose and a big grin.  As if that instantaneous and instinctive response wasn’t remarkable enough, he then said, with one hand placed on his hip in a cocky fashion, “Now show that photo to your boyfriend!”  With such a sense of humour and wit, I’m not so sure he's that much of an idiot after all.
PS:  I’m told by a French student that there’s a village idiot in every place around France.
(France, May 2012)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

German versus Chinese

A polyglot student once said this:  German is an easy language but not simple, while Chinese is a simple language but not easy.

With all the conjugations and other grammatical complications, German is a complex language, hence not simple.  However, once one has mastered all the rules, it is an easy language because it is consistent and one knows exactly what to apply under what circumstances.

Chinese is a simple language but not easy.  Chinese is simple in the sense that it lacks conjugations, declensions and tenses, but very difficult precisely because of this free-flow, fluid form.  (Not to mention its characters and tones.)

(London, 1986)

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Chinese tones and English vowels

It had always baffled me why so many Western students of Chinese simply cannot tell the difference between Chinese tones (just to name one aspect of the Chinese language), which makes them come up with the totally wrong interpretation of the message.  
I have now thought of the English equivalent for non-English speakers:  the English long vowel and short vowel, which a lot of speakers of Chinese and some, if not all, European languages just cannot distinguish.

--> People will say “sheeps”, and get corrected (“no s for plural sheep”), when it is “ships” they meant to say.

--> One French girl was losing at a croquet game in a posh-neighbourhood garden in Surrey, and protested loudly, “You can’t!  You can’t!!”  Except that she uttered the short vowel version of (the British pronunciation of) “can’t”, thus rendering it into a four-letter swear word.

--> One French woman said she had a farm wedding, with a tractor loaded with hay and her beloved grandmother’s “sh*t” on the hay.  She’d meant the long vowel version.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Marvin's culinary challenge (London, UK)

During a lesson for final year students Marvin and Jo, I was running through the vocabulary related to the topic we were covering, giving examples to show how the compounds could be used in sentences.  One of them was “pre-heat”, and the example I gave involved food.  Marvin immediately challenged it, “Does one pre-heat food?  Surely, one just goes straight into the cooking stage.”  Jo felt that one can pre-heat food.  I asked Marvin, “Can you cook?”  He went bright red, thus ending the challenge.  A walkover.  (Though I’ll still need to go and check the culinary usage of the word “pre-heat”…)
(London, 2009/10)

Update 310312:  Marvin's just posed a new challenge:  that I've failed to set the record right on his original challenge.  I have since checked with Alex*, who does cook, and he says one only pre-heats ovens, not food, which was what Marvin had pointed out at the first challenge.  Marvin:  I did not say I was right; I only asked you if you cooked and you dropped the challenge because you were too busy blushing…  (hee hee)

*Alex of other blog entry fame: Memory loss (posted 21 Aug 2011), Not good student (posted 21 December 2011).

Have a happy... (London, UK)

Dawn, a retired schoolteacher and a student of mine, had dealings with Chinese artists, helping them organise their exhibitions and sell their paintings.  John, Dawn's husband, had always been dead set against her learning Chinese and devoting so much of her time to it.

Two of these Chinese artists, a married couple, were over at her house one day.  Upon learning that it was John’s birthday, the Chinese husband decided to make a birthday card for him, painting something on the spot and adding, in English, the message, “Have a happy.”  The wife pointed out that it was ungrammatical, as the sentence was incomplete.  As John was born in the year of the rooster, the chap added one word to make the sentence complete: “Have a happy cock.”  

(Those readers who don't understand the funny side to the amended birthday message:  look up "cock" in the dictionary, where you'll find it under the vulgar slang version.)
(London 1999)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The old man in Chinatown (London, UK)

Being very early for a job interview in Chinatown, I was walking around to kill time when I spotted an old Chinese man with a white stick heading up a ramp which ended in a vertical drop.  So I went over and asked him in my best Cantonese where he was going, to which he replied, in Cantonese, that he was going to XYZ Chinese supermarket.  It was in the opposite direction, I told him, and he happily allowed himself to be herded away from that ramp by the elbow.  
We reached the edge of the kerb, which I hadn’t anticipated, so I instinctively called out in English, “Mind the kerb!”  The old man stopped abruptly as if I’d slapped him in the face, and said, in Cantonese, “啊,你係鬼婆! (Oh, you’re a Westerner!—literally: You are devil old-woman)”  He then yanked his elbow out of my grasp, as if I was an untouchable or too disgusting for him to come into contact with.  I said, once again in Cantonese, “No, I’m not a devil old-woman.  I’m from Singapore.  It’s just that I’m a Teochew [dialect] speaker, so my Cantonese is not very good.”
He visibly relaxed and once again allowed me to steer him by the elbow for the onward journey towards XYZ supermarket.  He asked if I was a student, to which I said, “No, I’m a teacher.”  He stopped in mid-track, and clapped his hands like an excited child, beaming from ear to ear: “啊,你係老師!(Ah, you are a teacher!)”
(London, late 1990s)

The story of the stone (UK)

The Gentle Giant had picked up a stone on a beach in north Wales that looked just like a small potato (the size of a new potato/plum) and given it to me, as I was an avid stone collector.  I’d fool people with it, just holding it out to them in my palm, and they’d think it was a new potato.  This gave Colette—the inveterate party-organiser and prankster—an idea for one of her away-weekends in Dorset.
For these away-weekends, a select group of six people (the cottage was not big enough for more), including Colette, would head off to the village on Friday after work, arriving around 10pm, leaving people an hour at the local pub before returning for a late meal.  There’d be an appointed/voluntary cook and an assistant, who were Colette and me on this occasion.
Colette had planned the meal so that the potato stone could play its role: a roast with three vegs and new potatoes.  I’d even taken the trouble to hand-pick every single new potato at the greengrocer’s to match my potato stone in size and shade of colour.
The target of this practical joke was poor Pavel, who’d been the victim of previous pranks because his mind tended to be on loftier matters, making him an easy prey, poor man.  He was also a good sport, so it was safe to pick on him.
When Pavel came back from the pub with the others, Colette made a point of asking him to keep an eye on the new potatoes that were on the boil, reminding him more than once to make sure they were properly cooked.  He said, “Don’t worry.  I’ve done this before.”
Finally, we began our meal, and I was sat next to Pavel, with Crispin on Pavel’s right.  The food was dished out, and everyone started to tuck in.  Pavel was engaged in an earnest conversation with Crispin about something, so his head was turned towards Crispin, which was perfect as this allowed me to slip the potato stone among his new potatoes.  Colette then started to comment loudly about the boiled potatoes, saying, “These are a bit hard, aren’t they?!?  Maybe they’re not cooked enough!”  Pavel, who’d been given the task of looking after the boiling of the potatoes, immediately said, “I did keep my eye on them, and I did prick them with a fork!”  Then his fork hit the potato stone.  It wouldn’t go in.  He tried again.  No dice.  By now, Colette and I were spluttering over our food, falling about in our chairs.  The penny dropped.  Pavel said, “You b…..ds!”
The potato stone was removed from Pavel’s plate, and the eating continued.  So did the intense conversation between him and Crispin, which allowed me to smuggle my stone back onto his plate when it came to second helpings.  Once again, unnoticed, until his fork told him he’d been targeted yet again.  “You b…..ds!”
Poor Pavel seemed to have been dogged by stones, for Colette had played a stone trick on him on another outing a year before that.  That away-weekend group had gone on a cliff walk along the Dorset coast near Weymouth, which entailed some very long, arduous uphill climbs.  Pavel had a rucksack on his back, and was once again engaged in some intense conversation with someone.  (In hindsight, I now suspect Colette had arranged these intense chats to distract him from her carrying out the deed, although she is a master of impromptu tricks too.)  Colette, walking behind him, would sneak a stone into his rucksack at regular intervals, saying after quite a handful of stones had found their way into his rucksack, “Come on, Pavel, you are slacking!  Get a move on!”
The poor man’s such good value for pranks.

(UK, late 90s)

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Born to pun (London, UK)

This morning, Emily and I touched upon the subject of punctuation in Chinese.  I said it is a borrowing from Western conventions, and that classical Chinese texts did not have any punctuation at all.  She was greatly surprised and said, "What?!  No commas?"  Nope, I said.  "No semi-colons?"  No.  "No colons?"  I said, "No punctuation full stop," then realised what I'd just said!

(London, 2012)

Update120312:  Tiffany, my serious rival as Queen of Recycling, said she had a whole box of perfectly good envelopes which some company had thrown out because they'd done the labels wrongly, and would I like to have them?  Yes, I'll pick them up on Saturday, I said.  Unfortunately she also gave me a lot of other things, as she's moving out of London, so I had to leave the envelopes behind, as well as a huge bag of clothes Mrs Sun had given me for Congo.  On Sunday, Tiffany sent an email asking if she should deliver the envelopes to me on Monday and if she could ring up a charity to collect the clothes as they're too heavy for me to lug home.  I replied about the clothes but forgot about the envelopes, so had to send another email, saying without thinking, "Sorry I forgot to address the issue of the envelopes in my earlier email," then realised I'd done another pun.  They're just tripping off my tongue these days!  (^_^)

Update 051112:  I started working part-time in a pub on Saturday, and a group of Russians asked me, after sitting down, if they could play chess in the pub.  Without thinking, I said to them, “I’ll check,” then winked at them as I realised what I’d done.  (They smiled, but I’m not sure if their English was up to the level of punning.)  Not that one is allowed to be so familiar with the customers anyway, but if my brain had been sharper, I should’ve said, “I’ll check, mate.”

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Virtuous cycle (London, UK)

What is it that makes one place so different from another in ambience and vibes?

At Place X, one hears people talking about scholarly matters all the time: research ideas or just language issues for the fun of it.  Inadvertent eye contact with people—total strangers, at that practically always nets one a smile, even a "hello".  Even the canteen staff are pleasant and helpful, some of whom are openly friendly and jokey.

When one is treated in such a kind and civilised way, one automatically reciprocates—and passes it on to the next person, which in turn makes that recipient respond amiably.  And so on.

At Place Y, I was ill eight times in eight consecutive months.  Message loud and clear, wouldn't you say?

(London 2012)

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Conflicting instructions (France)

Serge and Jeanette were going into Mirande to get some work gear for Serge, so I tagged along for the ride, the sightseeing and the people-watching.  It also happened to be Market Day, so we went over to have a look.

Walking along the pavement in front of Serge, I found it littered with dogs' droppings, so I asked him to step off the pavement and walk along the little street, which he obediently did.

Then, along came a car, crawling patiently behind him, which he couldn't hear as he didn't have his hearing aid on.  Since he was blocking the way, Jeanette then ordered him back onto the pavement.  

Poor man shook his head and said, "C'est compliqué!"

(France 2012)

Monday, 27 February 2012

Pandemonium in the classroom (Singapore)

One of the classes I was given to teach as a 19-year-old temporary teacher was a mixed class of 14-year-olds, and the subject was PE (Physical Education).  The weather in Singapore means that sports activities generally take place early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so this class’s PE was at 530pm, the last session in their timetable before the flag-lowering ceremony at 6pm.

I turned up one day to find that World War Three had broken out:  most of the boys were fencing with each other using foot-long rulers, tossing rubber erasers at each other, using rubber bands to catapult some other form of missiles (balls of paper, e.g.), chasing each other round the classroom.

My immediate response, from my Induction (as one would call it these days), was to go straight to the Deputy Headmaster’s Office and fetch the Deputy Headmaster, Mr Wee.  

Mr Wee might’ve been a LITTLE chap even more vertically challenged than I, but he had a BIG cane.  And a very assertive manner, too, indeed, when it came to dealing with miscreant students, even those bigger in size than himself—which was not difficult.  (Those were the days when authority was respected.  I don’t know what it’s like today.)

The guilty parties who’d started the pandemonium were identified by their peers (for I wasn't there at the outset) and marched off to Mr Wee’s office.

In the meantime, I told the rest of the class to start packing up, which they should’ve done before I arrived to take them out for their PE lesson.  Then I made them stand up, holding their school bags on their heads, and proceeded to tell them about what they’d missed out on: “I had come today with all sorts of new games for you to play, which you’d expressed an interest in last week, thinking we were going to have such fun.  I had expected you to be all packed and eager to go out to the fields after having been cooped up in the classroom for half a day.  Instead you were misbehaving, so obviously you were not that interested in these new games.  It’s no loss to me because I can always spend the time marking homework.  It’s your loss because you're missing out on the fun.”  

Then I sat down and started marking homework silently, all the way until the bell rang for the flag-lowering ceremony.  All this while, the students just stood there with their school bags balanced on their heads.

The following week, I turned up in class to find the students all packed and raring to go out for their PE lesson.  No trouble ever again after that.
(Also read blog entry The disruptive student.)
(Singapore 1973)

The disruptive student (Singapore)

I was 19, teaching a class of 14-year-olds English Language as a temporary teacher waiting for my A-level results from the University of Cambridge.  

As if that was not daunting enough in itself, one of the students was a cocky, arrogant boy who took the mickey out of every teacher and out of  everything the teacher said.  Whatever you said, he’d either parrot it in a funny voice (which made the class laugh), or make some kind of smart-alec remark (which made the class laugh).  Most unnerving for any teacher, never mind one who was only five years older than he and inexperienced in teaching mainstream to boot.

After a number of these disruptive wisecracks, I decided to send him out of the classroom, to stand in the corridor.  I don’t know what it’s like in Singapore these days but luckily in those days students were at least a little respectful of authority, so he accepted the exile.

I carried on with the class, and said things which the students found entertaining, so they laughed a lot.  He couldn't resist sticking his head into the classroom again and again to see what the fun was all about.  I told him, “You have forfeited the right to being a member of the class with your disruptive behaviour, so you have also forfeited your right to any enjoyment that comes with the lesson.  You cannot participate in the fun.  If you wish to, you’ll have to promise you won’t be disruptive and I’ll let you back in.”  Silence from him, obviously refusing to compromise.

This went on for a few more times, and eventually he caved in and promised to behave, as the class seemed to be having such fun which he was missing out on.  I let him back in, after which he freely enjoyed the laughs his peers had with my teaching and never again disrupted the class.

No caning, no scolding, just a few words.  

I wonder where he is now, and how he's turned out in society.

(Singapore 1973)

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Donating blood (London, UK)

I’d gone along to the blood donation centre near the university to give blood before the evening’s class.  They had trouble finding a vein in my left arm, and after many attempts, went for the right arm, with almost the same results.  Eventually, they found a weak vein there, and decided to give it a go.  Even then, they only managed to collect three-quarters of a bag before the time limit was up.

As soon as I got to the class, I narrated this incident in Chinese as listening comprehension.  At the end of the story, I said to the students, still in Chinese, “So, I have no blood.”  One of the students, Pam, piped up, also in Chinese, “No heart.” 

One can always tell the students who’d been with me longest [and made regular after-class trips to the pub too] from their cheeky repartees.

(London 2007)

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Fashion statement (London)

Was late this morning for the homeless people breakfast run voluntary work I'm doing, so got dressed in the dark.  (You can see what's coming next, can't you?)  Had applied talcum powder [accidentally] liberally inside my pyjama top last night so I'd go to bed smelling nice.  Went in to central London on the bus this morning, did the breakfast run (7-9am), then walked over to Russell Square, and nobody anywhere gave me a second look at any time in spite of the fact that it was rush hour.  Then, when I got to SOAS, I saw in the mirror I had white eyebrows (as I’d pulled my pyjama top off over my head)!  Either people are just so polite in London or anything goes. Or both.  

Years ago, a girlfriend Jeanne-Marie (now OBE, no less, I discovered yesterday) gave me a straight black skirt with an open pleat.  Being a rare skirt-donner, I assumed the pleat was to be worn at the front, as it’d open when one sat down and crossed one’s legs.  I went around for months with that arrangement, then saw on the Tube one day a woman wearing exactly the same kind of skirt, but her pleat was worn at the back!  If people had given me funny looks (like they would in China), I’d have realised immediately I was wearing the skirt the wrong way round.  But, in London, one can do all sorts of outrageous things and nobody would bat an eyelid (at people’s white eyebrows, say).  “Fashion statement” works so well as an excuse for careless/hurried or ignorant dressing!

(London 2012)

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Cheeky sign (London)

Was on the bus going into central London today when I saw a sandwich shop with this name:  BREAKOUT.

Across the road is London's Pentonville Prison.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Learning Chinese: how to focus little boys’ minds (London)

Sean was always playing his computer games or watching cartoons on the television when I arrived to give him his Chinese lesson.  After all, he was only eleven, and it was 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning.  

One of the tasks was writing Chinese characters—either in the form of dictation or copying from a text.  (He’d started learning his Chinese in Hong Kong, and I’d been asked not to change the format as he’d be going back there.)  While he was putting his Chinese characters together, his eyes would constantly dart to the clock on the wall, willing it to move faster, making mistake after mistake in the process.  

After yet another batch of wrongly-written characters, I decided to try injecting some motivation: “Sean, if you make any more mistakes, I’ll stay another hour.  Would you like that?”  Magically, no mistakes after that!  (See also blog entry Trick or treat?)

I tried the same with Ben (another Sunday 9am Chinese lesson case) when he was ten and having difficulty focusing.  To my question, “Would you like me to stay another hour?” Ben’s answer was, “No.”  Then, he added, “Not that I’m asking you to leave, though.”  Sweet.  And what impeccable manners!

(London 2008/2009)