Friday, 20 December 2013


A lot of people don’t know why “chop-chop” means “Quick, quick!”.  It took me a while to work it out:  in Mandarin, “quick” is kuài 快, which sounds the same as the 筷 kuài  in 筷子 kuàizi / chopsticks.

I have a friend who… (Taiwan)

I’d found an en suite double room to rent in a 3-bedroom flat.  The son of the old couple (in their 60s) was away at national service, coming home only on the occasional weekend, and the daughter was studying in America, they told me.

One day, I was accompanying my landlady to the market down the road when she said to me, “I have a friend whose daughter has married a foreigner.”  I knew at once she was talking about her own daughter, but decided to go along with it.  (I’m quite good at acting and looking stupid.)  She continued, “My friend is afraid to let people know.”  Why, I asked.  “Because they’ll look down on her.”  I said, “Well, you tell your friend not to be afraid.  There’s no guarantee that a Chinese man will make a good husband.  Besides, if her friends are that kind of people, then they’re not worth being friends with.”  I could feel a palpable relief on her part.

A few weeks later, she came to me with a wad of airmail envelopes, all pre-addressed, saying, “These are from my daughter in America.  I cannot write English, so she sends these, pre-addressed, for me to send off my letters to her.  Can you check if it’s correct?”  I thought, “Surely her daughter ought to know her own address?  Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to tell if an American address was correct or not, America being such a big country and addresses being so specific.”  

I took a look all the same, just to keep her happy.  Everything was correctly spelt as far as I could see, but I noticed that the surname was not right.  Let’s say her name was Wang Mei Ling (Wang being the surname):  the name on the envelope was Mei Ling Simmons.  I said to my landlady, “Everything looks OK, but the surname on the envelope is not Wang but Simmons.”  My landlady said, “Oh, she’s a lodger with a family surnamed Simmons, so I guess she’s used their name to make it easier for the postman.”  

Very odd logic, changing one’s surname (which is ultra-important to the Chinese identity, even more so than one’s personal name) in case the postman got confused.  I then realised why she was showing me the envelopes:  after my open-minded and sympathetic response to her story about “her friend” whose daughter had married a foreigner, this was her way of letting me know her daughter had married an American.

(Taiwan, 1975)

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Child’s logic (London)

I started babysitting Ella (now at the ripe old age of 13) when she was a two-month-old bundle.  That was easy because once she was fed, I could just leave her sleeping on the sofa in the basement living room and go up to the ground floor to do the dishes (voluntarily).  When she was a toddler, however, I couldn’t leave her, in case she woke up and tried to get off the sofa and fall over.

When she was two, she started to object to being left with me (or perhaps it was just not wanting her parents to leave her) and cry loudly.  My countermove was to get down to her level and cry loudly back at her, with exaggerated facial contortions, which would flummox her and stem the tears immediately.

At three, Ella was ready for games, one of which was Hide and Seek.  We confined the game to the basement living room, which was the size of two double bedrooms, with a ping pong table, two huge sofas, and a bathroom off it, so there were quite a few nooks and crannies.  

At one point, I went for the duvet on one of the sofas, as it was big and fluffy enough to hide my shape.  Ella took a while but eventually found me.  Then it was her turn to hide.  I sat there on the duvet on the sofa, waiting for her to go away and find a hiding place.  She said to me, “Can you go on the other sofa?  I want to hide under that duvet.”

When it was her turn again to hide, she caught sight of the three large transparent plastic boxes by the staircase, filled to the brim with her toys.  As she started to take out the toys from one of the boxes, she said to me, “Wait, wait, wait.  I’m emptying the box so that I can hide in it.”

(London, 2000–3)

How not to make tea (Taipei, Taiwan)

I didn’t drink tea or coffee at home until I went to work in Taiwan, aged 21, preferring milk (made from milk powder), home-made herbal tea (from fig leaves, among other things), home-grown-lime juice, Coke floats (Coca-Cola and ice cream).  Coffee and tea were for grown-ups.  

Chinese tea was consumed during meals out at restaurants, which we didn’t frequent much—most Singaporeans would eat at roadside stalls in my days, as they’re less formal, more atmospheric, and less expensive.  Milky tea* could be had at roadside stalls, generally manned by Malays or Indians.  (*A common local form is teh tarik, which means “tea pull” in Malay, with the tea poured into the glass from a great height, with the two pulled apart as the pouring is done, hence “tea pull”—this is an art in itself, much like the wine version in Spain.)

Coffee-making in my house was covered by the servant, whose first chore upon getting up was to make a pot of it for my mother to dip into throughout the day to keep her going after having stayed up half the night delivering babies, or dashing in and out in between patients on post-natal visits.

As the Personal Secretary to the Chief Geologist in Conoco Taiwan, I took it upon myself to look after the two geologists as well, although I didn’t have to.

I discovered that the office kitchen had a jar of instant lemon tea in the form of crystals.  Just spoon some of the stuff into a cup/mug, add hot water, and Bob’s your uncle.  I thought:  I could impress the Australian geologist as the American geologist drank coffee.

The first time:
Me:  Tea, Mr Simpson?
Mr Simpson:  (with alacrity)  Oh YES PLEASE!

Off I went to the kitchen, spooned out what I thought was the right amount for that size mug, and served it up.

An hour or so later, I went back.
Me:  Another cup of tea, Mr Simpson?
Mr Simpson:  (Silence.  Then, hesitantly) Um, no, not just yet, thank you.

OK, it’d only been over an hour, maybe he wasn’t quite ready for a second mug of tea.

I waited another hour, then tried again.
Me:  Another tea, Mr Simpson?
Mr Simpson:  Er, no, I think I’m fine, thank you.

I did notice there was no “for now” after “I’m fine”.  I went back again later.
Me:  Tea, Mr Simpson?
Mr Simpson:  No, thank you, I’m OK.

By now, the message was very clear he didn’t want another mug of tea.

I later mentioned the incident to his Glaswegian then-wife, Avril.  She asked me to show her how I’d made the tea, and when I did, she gasped and said, “You’ve made the tea three times the strength!  No wonder he didn’t want any more for the rest of the day!”  

My secretarial training had taught me how to do shorthand (110wpm), typing (55wpm on a manual typewriter) and filing, screen telephone calls and visitors, do summaries and reports, but not the simple task of making tea!

(Taipei, Taiwan, 1975)

How to use chopsticks — the cheat’s way (Singapore)

S.E.Asian Chinese tend to eat off plates (not bowls), and with fork and spoon (not chopsticks), which is, in my opinion, the best combination:  one can use the fork for pushing the meat / veg / rice onto the spoon, or for spearing morsels of food; the spoon can also be used for scooping up, and transporting, gravy and soup.  Unless the rice is the sticky variety (like Japanese rice) which would allow one to grab a ball of it in one’s chopsticks, one would have to bring the bowl up to the mouth and shovel in the rice, which is most inelegant in my school of upbringing, so the fork-and-spoon method gets round this problem.

I grew up on the fork-and-spoon way of eating, so I was hopeless at handling chopsticks as a child — still am as a grown-up, actually...  

When using chopsticks to pick up the food from the dishes in the middle of the table, the palm of the hand should be facing down.  En route to one’s mouth, the hand would be turned upside down (with the palm facing up) to deliver the food into the mouth.  My inept control of the chopsticks would tend to result in the food falling off as I turned the hand.

Also, I was never properly taught to clasp the chopsticks correctly (with the fingers positioned for gripping and controlling the moving of the chopsticks, to bring them together and to pull them apart), which meant that when I did somehow manage to grab—with my chopsticks—the food off the dishes in the middle of the table, any little twitch of my fingers halfway between the middle of the table and my mouth would result in the chopsticks being twitched askew, sending the food flying off.  

A lot of my sittings at the dining table as a child would end up with more food on the table than in my mouth.

I then came up with this strategy:  (i) hold a Chinese soup spoon in one hand and the chopsticks in the other hand; (ii) use the chopsticks to shovel the food onto the spoon; (iii) bring the spoon up to the mouth; (iv) use the chopsticks to shovel the food into the mouth.  This would give the unobservant onlooker the impression that I was actually using the chopsticks to handle my food.

I still use this trick today, more for an elegant eating style really, but it also means more food ends up in my tummy than on the table.

(Singapore, 1960s)

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

2 + 2 = 5 (London, and Geneva / New York)

I had been given a small compass that would fit onto the strap of a wrist-watch.  Viewing flats around 2000, I’d take it along to check which room faced which direction—where the morning/afternoon sun would befor the light.  

At the time, the Chinese concept of fengshui had just become known to the general British population, with fairly regular references to it in the papers.  Some TV programmes also featured fengshui experts checking out properties for clients.  (fēngshuǐ / 风水 /  “wind water” = geomancy, checking out the lie of the land for things like energy lines, for auspicious positioning of houses.)  The vendors and estate agents showing me around the properties would invariably think it was some exotic fengshui measuring instrument instead of the plain old compass which any Westerner would recognise.

This reminded me of a story I’d heard about Morarji Desai (Indian prime minister 1977–1979) who was known to drink his own urine, as part of "urine therapy".  (I have heard that some people do have this practice as we lose a lot of nutrients in our urine.  It makes logical sense, therefore, to recycle our urine, but most of us are too squeamish about such things.)  One day, he was at a United Nations conference.  Everyone had a glass of water in front of them, but Desai had a glass of pale yellow fluid in front of him.  Nobody could concentrate on the speeches, discussions and arguments put forward at that session—they all had their eyes glued to that glass of pale yellow fluid, waiting to see if he would drink it in public.  He did, and people gasped / blinked.  It turned out to be plain old diluted lemon juice.

(London 2000, and Geneva/New York)

(See also blog entry Jumping to conclusions)

Quaint English (London)

The Gentle Giant’s English is pretty good for a non-English speaker because he is very well read.  The problem with this, however, is that as he’d got all his basic English from books, he would occasionally produce a time-frozen turn of phrase such as “perchance”, which is archaic or literary in usage.

Another quaint turn of phrase came from another German-speaker, this time an evening class student, Burkhardt, a young man in his early 20s who spoke good English otherwise.  We were going from the college to somewhere and had to cross a slightly complicated junction which had six different roads leading off it.  We were trying to get from Road 1 to Road 4.  The usual way would have been to cross Road 1, walk to Road 2, wait for the lights to change, cross Road 2, walk to Road 3, wait for the lights there to change, cross Road 3, walk to Road 4.  This would also have taken more time, however.  I knew the timings of the traffic lights at that junction very well, so at the right moment, I made for Road 4 diagonally from Road 1.  Taken completely by surprise, Burkhardt trotted along close behind me but still found time to protest, “This is most unorthodox!”

I think it is also no coincidence that they (Burkhardt, and the Gentle Giant in blog entry When in Rome…) are both German-speakers:  brought up to obey rules to the letter.

(London, 1987/8)

When in Rome… (London / Zürich)

During one of the Gentle Giant’s turns to come over to London, we were walking down the road when I sighted a bus we could catch.  It was one of those old red London buses—the Routemaster with an open back for passengers to jump on and off—crawling along in the traffic jam.  I said, “That’s our bus!” and made off for the bus.  Running along beside me, he protested, “But we’re not at a bus stop!”  (The Swiss are known for being law-abiding, even more so than Singaporeans.)  I replied, “We’re in London!”

The next time it was my turn to go over to Zürich, we were standing by the traffic lights, waiting to cross.  The light for the pedestrians was on red, but there were no cars in sight.  As I stepped off the pavement, about to cross, the Gentle Giant grabbed my arm and held me back.  I protested, “But there are no cars!”  He replied, “We’re in Switzerland!”

(London / Zürich, 1987)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Significant silence (London)

I was doing a translation exercise with Adam.

Students often translate at face value, i.e., if the word order in the source text is SVO (Subject Verb Object), the student will use the same pattern in the target language.  I can’t speak for other languages, but it doesn’t always work like this for Chinese.  

I distinguish between “grammatical usage” and “cultural/social usage” in my teaching.  An example:  “I don’t have enough money today” can be translated into the grammatically-correct Chinese version 我今天没有足够的钱 wǒ jīntiān méiyǒu zúgòu de qián / “I today not have enough of money”.  The more cultural/social usage rendition is:  我今天的钱不够 wǒ jīntiān de qián bù gòu / “I today’s money not enough”.  The focus is on the money, not on me.

The sentence in the passage I gave Adam was:  "My younger brother is a student at the College of Engineering."  This sentence can be translated using the SVO template (My brother is student), which was what Adam produced.  I then tried to get him to come up with a different perspective, i.e., instead of identifying my brother’s status (a student).  Adam couldn’t quite follow what it was I wanted (which was to say what my brother does, i.e., study), so I decided to prompt him with:  “What do you do as a student?”  Long silence.  Most telling, that.

(London 2013)

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

How to extract a secret recipe — by stealth (London)

On my first visit to the Isle of Man (IoM), Pete’s mother offered us some sloe gin, which is gin steeped in sloe* berries over a period of time (something like 3–6 months, if not longer, with the bottle turned upside down regularly).  She said she was given some sloe gin soon after her arrival on the IoM, and when she asked how she could get hold of some sloe berries for her to make some sloe gin of her own, she was told by the locals, “Tell us how much you want, and we’ll go and pick them for you, but we won’t tell you where to find them.”  This was my first exposure to the self-preservation strategy of not giving away too much.

A French student told me her mother said the same thing to her:  that one should/must always have at least one trump card at one’s disposal.

I have very few culinary aces up my own sleeve.  One of them, kimchee—Korean pickled vegetables (can be meat, too)—is frightfully expensive in the shops and an exotic item in the British (even modern British) diet, so I make it on a regular basis as a treat for my students.  (I often say that I have to bribe my students to come to class!  Cf. blog entry Spoonerism: Crooks and nannies.)

I’d mentored a Korean chap in the mid-90s when he was in London for a year with his Korean Housing Board colleagues to study the UK’s housing policies.  One of these colleagues, acknowledged among his peers as an expert in kimchee-making, taught me how to make it, and since then, I’ve established a reputation for myself in making authentic-tasting kimchee.

A new student’s parents run a Chinese restaurant, with the father doing the cooking himself.  When I told them I can make kimchee, their eyes lit up, because they eat a lot of pickled vegetables—Tianjin and Shandong style, though.  I said I’d make a batch for them—I have often said of my kimchees: “I will make a batch for you anytime you want some, but I will not divulge the ingredients.”  They immediately asked me not to go to all the trouble of making it at my place and lugging it right across London to theirs, offering to get all the ingredients for me to make it in their kitchen.  

It was thus that my secret recipe had to be divulged.  Clever trick, that!

(London 2013)

*  sloe |slō|
another term for blackthorn.
• the small bluish-black fruit of the blackthorn, with a sharp sour taste.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Polyglot swearer (England)

Just heard this a few days ago about an old lady in a home for sufferers of dementia.

This old lady used to be a high-flying interpreter (I think she might’ve worked for the UN).  In her senile dementia state, she got very bad-tempered, and would swear at the workers in the home, each time in a different language.  

The workers took it good-naturedly.  One day, one of them said to her, “Magda, we don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Magda said, “I’ve said f..k off to you in Italian, Spanish, German, French, Hungarian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Russian...”

(England, 2013)

Friday, 22 November 2013

Alzheimer’s Disease

An old schoolmate sent me another one of these health emails recently, this time on how to avoid Alzheimer’s Disease.  One of the 25-point advice says: 

Know the early signs
Memory problems are not the first clue. You may notice a decline in depth perception, for example you reach to pick up a glass of water and miss it. Or you misjudge the distance in walking across a street.

I have always had problems with judging distances, ever since my early years (as early as age 8?), all the way to today in my sixth decade of life.  As a child and a mature adult, even a middle-aged—and now old-aged—adult, I’d (i) stub my second long toe on the vertical section of steps on my way up; (ii) miss a step on my way down, if I don’t consciously focus on the steps and practically count them mentally with every single step down, ending up stumbling or taking two steps instead of one; (iii) open wall cabinet doors into my own face; (iv) slam one of my shoulders into the door frame as I go through a door way; (v) miss my mouth as I lift a drinking vessel and spill the contents all over my front.

I have often asked, and still ask, myself: “Don’t you even know where your mouth/face is after all these years?  How can you mis-judge the width of the doorway when you’re not that big?”

As a child, I’d have “Clumsy!” levelled at me regularly.  As a grown-up, I’ve had to field expressions of sympathy like “Oh, poor you, what happened?” with embarrassing confessions to having been the perpetrator of my own injuries through such (incomprehensible to most people) clumsiness.

Now I have an explanation for it:  I was born with Alzheimer’s Disease!

Point 9 of the same advice list says:

The ApoE4 gene
One in four of you reading this has a specific genetic time bomb that makes you three to 10 times more susceptible to developing late-onset Alzheimer’s. The gene is called apolipoprotein E4. If you inherit a single variant of ApoE4 from one parent, your Alzheimer’s risk triples. If you inherit a double dose from both parents, your risk rises by 10 times. Ask your doctor about a DNA test to reveal your ApoE4 genotype.

So, perhaps I have ApoE4 gene in my blood.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

How to interpret responses from Chinese officials (Xiamen, China)

In 1996, my brother had suggested we go visit our father’s birthplace in S.E. China, so I threw in Xiamen as a second destination because ten days would be too long for my father’s birthplace alone.  A retired SOAS academic, Russell Jones, had been the inspiration behind this, by saying that if I wanted to see the Singapore of 50 years back, I should go to Xiamen.  We’d been talking about how most of Singapore’s old Chinatown had been torn down in the cause of advancement and development.

One evening, my brother came back from a few beers with a Singaporean friend of his working in Xiamen, with this story from the friend:

If one was applying for a permit to run some kind of business in China (or maybe only in Xiamen?), one would need to listen carefully to the official’s response to interpret what is expected of one in return in order to secure approval of one’s application for the permit.

Response 01:  
If they say:  我们去研究研究 / wǒmen qù yánjiū yánjiū / “we go study study”, it means on the surface, “We’ll go and ponder over it”.  

The subtext is:  they want cigarettes and alcohol (cigarettes = 烟 yān; alcohol = 酒 jiǔ).  

(The tones for “study” are different from those for “cigarettes alcohol” but this is not that important when it comes to punning — an approximation of the sounds will do.)

Response 02:  
If they say:  很有机会 / hěn yǒu jīhuì / “very have opportunity”, it means, “Your chances are good”.  

The subtext is:  they want a TV set — 电视机 / diànshìjī / “electric view machine”.  And presumably a 36” colour one at that too, no less.  

(机 in “opportunity” and “machine”.)

Response 03:  
If they say:  要看看你的表现 / yào kànkàn nǐ de biǎoxiàn / “have-to look look your performance”, it means, “It depends on how well you do”.  

The subtext is:  they want a watch, presumably a Rolex gold one, no less.  

(表 biǎo in “performance” is also “watch”.)

Response 04:  
If they say:  很有前途 / hěn yǒu qiántú / “very-much have front journey”, it means, “There’s a good future ahead [for your application/business]”.  

The subtext is:  they want money, which is infinite.  

(前 qián in 前途 / future sounds exactly like 钱 qián / money.)

(Xiamen, S.E. China, 1996)

The children are always greener on the other side of the fence (Singapore)

There are five children in my family (four girls with a boy in the middle), and six children next door (four girls and two boys), all of practically the same age respectively, except for Boy No.1 next door.  We’d pair up:  the older girls chatting across the fence, the youngest ones playing story-telling.

My siblings and I were a lively bunch.  The girls would go around in shorts, climb trees, sing and whistle.  We’d often invite the six children next door (and their dog) over to ours to play rounders (along with our dog).  The dogs practically always got to the ball first, so we’d end up chasing the dogs around the garden in one boisterous frenzy to retrieve the ball.

I’d play marbles and fly kites with my brother’s friends—none of these girlie activities like playing with dolls for me!  We’d grind up broken glass, dig a hole in the garden, light a fire with twigs and melt cow hide in a discarded tin can, add the ground-up glass to this gooey mixture, and then apply it to the kite string.  The reinforced kite string would cut other people’s kite strings in the sky when our paths crossed, leaving our kite the sole flyer in the air.

The four girls from next door were soft-spoken and ladylike.  They wore skirts / dresses, and were fair-skinned.

My mother was always saying to us girls, “Why can’t you girls be more like the Teo girls next door?  Feminine and quiet.”

One day, the Teo girls said to us, “Our parents are always saying to us, ‘Why can’t you be more like the  girls next door?  They’re so lively!  You lot creep around the house like mice.’”

(Singapore, 1960s)

Monday, 4 November 2013

A bus journey in London

Was on Bus 29 heading for Chinatown to a lunch appointment when, at Camden Town, the bus was held up a while by a middle-aged woman tottering along with a walking stick, getting to the bus after what seemed ages.  The driver had very kindly and patiently waited for her — quite a common occurrence in London.  

The woman got on, and below is the conversation between her and the driver:

W:  Does this bus go to Cantelowes Park? 
D:   No.

Woman paused and looked at the driver for about 10 seconds, as if not quite comprehending.

W:  It doesn’t go to Cantelowes Park?
D:   No.

Another pause as the woman looked at the driver for another 10 seconds, trying to process this information.

W:  Maybe it’s Bus 27 that goes to Cantelowes Park, then.
D:   Maybe.

(I don’t think the driver was being unhelpful here.  London being so big, a lot of people, even bus drivers, don’t know where lots of places are.)

Woman paused for another 10 seconds, wondering what to do.

W:  Shall I get off and wait for Bus 27?

Long pause as she eye-balled the driver, obviously waiting for him to decide.

Versus what?  Staying on Bus 29 to wait for Bus 27 to come??

(London, Oct 2013)

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

You know you’re getting ancient when… (Manchester, UK)

I was asked last minute to look after a 37-member tour group from Indonesia, a third of whom are about my age.  One of them asked me, “Do you have any grandchildren?”  Unlike Westerners who generally can't place my age correctly, this lot is from my part of the world so they’d be able to gauge my age fairly accurately.  Still, it was a bit of a shock to be reminded I’ve moved from “Aunty” status (mentioned in blog entry: You know you’re getting old when…) to “grandparent” status!  Not old now, but ANCIENT!

(Manchester, UK, 2013)

Monday, 22 July 2013

Faux pas in Chinese (Taiwan)

My beloved ex-supervisor, Dr. Paul Mulligan Thompson* (deceased), was in Taiwan in 1952, three years after the Nationalists’ retreat from mainland China to Taiwan.  The Americans, Taiwan’s ally at the time, had donated, among other things, powdered milk in tins with labels stating clearly: “A gift of the American people.  Not to be re-sold”, which was, of course, totally flouted. 

An American chap, who was in Taiwan at the same time as Paul Thompson and could speak some Chinese, went off one day to buy one of these tins of powdered milk.  His Taiwanese contacts had all told him not to forget to add the 牛 niú / “cow” bit when referring to drinking milk, because in Chinese, 奶 nǎi / “milk” used on its own tends to mean “breast milk” as 奶 nǎi is also used to refer to the breasts of a woman (e.g., 奶罩 nǎizhào / "breast mask" = brassiere).  So, for dairy milk, one has to say 牛奶 niú nǎi / “cow milk”.  Powdered milk is 奶粉 nǎi fěn / “milk powder”, with 粉 fěn / “powder” being in the third tone. 

When he got to the shop, he remembered the 牛 niú / “cow” bit and forgot the 奶 nǎi / “milk” bit.  Then, he mis-pronounced the third tone of “powder” as a fourth tone, one of the characters for which is 粪 fèn / “excrement”.  

So he ended up asking the shopkeeper for a tin of 牛粪 niú fèn / “cow dung”!

This same unfortunate gentleman went to a banquet where a young lady was assigned to look after the honourable guest.  In those days (1952), not that many people in Taiwan could speak English, and since the American could speak some Chinese, their conversation was conducted in Chinese.

The young lady offered him some tea, to which he said no.  She then offered him some beer, to which he said no as well.  She came up with more offers, to all of which he said no.  She then asked what he would like.  

Of all the times to get the verb wrong, this poor chap had to choose that moment to do it and on “milk” of all the nouns to boot.  He used 吃 chī / “to eat” instead of 喝 hē / “to drink”.  The one liquid one can indeed 吃 chī / “to eat” in Mandarin Chinese is milk, but only in a special usage: 吃奶 / “eat milk” = (said of a baby) to suck the breast.  

Second mistake: of all occasions, he had to go and add “your” on this one.  The man presumably only wanted to try the Taiwanese kind of milk, Americans being regular milk drinkers, so he added “your” to make it clear he wanted to try their kind of milk.

Third mistake: he used the singular “your” (你的 nǐ de) in Chinese, instead of the plural “your” (你们的 nǐmen de) (for referring to Taiwan).

So what he ended up saying to the young lady, when she asked him what he would like after all, was:  “我要吃你的奶。 wǒ yào chī nǐ de nǎi / “I want to eat your[singular] milk”)”

The young lady went bright red, rushed off, and never came back.  Lucky for the American he didn’t get a slap in the face.

(Taiwan 1952)


Thursday, 13 June 2013

Chinese tones (London)

Further to my blog entry Learning Chinese: tones, first posted 160811, another word for which Westerners often get the tone wrong in Mandarin Chinese is “笔 / writing implement”, which is bǐ (third tone).  Out of Western students’ mouths, it usually ends up being rendered in the first tone, which is “vagina”( bī:corpse radical 尸 shī, and xuè cavity).

One evening, I was in the pub with my students for our usual post-lesson drink.  The conversation, as ever, was an extension of the lesson—we often talked about things related to the Chinese language or culture.  The students doing the evening classes in Chinese were all there out of interest, so it was natural that they were always interested in background issues beyond the textbook and the classroom.  

At one point, I said something that caught Ronnie’s special interest, so he wanted to write it down.  Turning to Frazer (now deceased), Ronnie asked in Chinese, “你有没有笔?(nǐ yǒu méiyǒu bǐ? / Do you have a pen?)”  

Unfortunately, Ronnie’s 笔 came out in the first tone.  

Frazer had already got up to go to the loo, just as Ronnie put this question to him, so I said, “He’s going to check.”

(London 1989)

Frazer:  hope you’re having a giggle over this!  You’re being missed lots.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Rubbish at experimenting (II) (London)

As a B.A. student, I used to frequent a Chinese restaurant near Russell Square which served a set-meal lunch at an affordable price.  This was a three-minute walk from SOAS, rather than 20 minutes to Chinatown.  My regular order was beef and mixed vegetables in a thick sauce, served over plain rice, because my upbringing in a Buddhist family meant that beef was totally banned from our diet at home in Singapore.  (My first taste of beef was at age 16 when I ventured downtown to a Western-meal restaurant called Cozy Corner on Orchard Road, where I’d have a regular sirloin steak.)  

Unlike the grilled steaks I’d eaten at restaurants and the stir-fried sliced beef I’d tried cooking at home in London, the beef in this dish was tender.  So, after a few more visits when the waiter recognised me and was therefore friendly (the almost-default Chinese reaction to strangers is what I’d call an unfriendly, if not outright hostile, look), I plucked up courage to ask him how they managed to get their beef so tender.  The waiter went off to the kitchen, and came back with the tip from the chef: marinade the beef with some sodium bicarbonate.

My first attempt with the sodium bicarbonate produced a stir-fried beef as tough as before.  Perhaps I hadn’t put in enough of the stuff?  The waiter had said “about a teaspoonful”, so the next time, I put in double that amount.  When I threw the beef into the hot oil, the whole lot started to froth.  I had to rinse the beef under the tap, and start all over again, not daring to add any sodium bicarbonate at all this time.  Chewy beef is still less horrible than frothy beef.

(London 1980)

PS:  I’ve since learned how to produce tender stir-fried beef, lamb and pork, even the cheap cuts, without having to resort to sodium bicarbonate.  But I’m not telling.  (Ditto with my kimchi recipe.)

Cheese sauce: I adore macaroni cheese and cauliflower cheese, so when Pete’s mother served a cauliflower cheese on one of my visits to her place, I asked for the recipe.  Got home, bought the cheese (not cheap on a student’s budget), the cauliflower (not cheap on a student’s budget), the butter and the milk.  Followed the recipe to the letter.  I got a lumpy sauce.  Down the sink  it went.  Started again.  Another lumpy sauce.  Down the drain again.  By the time Pete got home from work around 630pm, I was on my fourth sauce and in floods of tears, just about to chuck it down the sink again.  Fortunately, he took over and managed to rectify it.

(London 1979) 

PS:  I’ve since learned how to make a smooth cheese sauce.  The order of putting together the ingredients is different from the one given by Pete’s mother.

Hash cake (London)

The first time I’d heard of “hash cake” was in 1980 when my flatmate (featured in the blog entry Wrong-footed) came back from a weekend up in Scotland and told me about their exploits:  eating, drinking, smoking (hash[ish]), then going for a horse ride after a dessert of hash cake (cake made with hash[ish] in it).  He said riding while high on hash was an amazing experience.

Fast forward to three years later when I was working at the TV documentary film company on The Heart of The Dragon series on China.  One of our researchers was Lisa Pontecorvo, whose father Gillo Pontecorvo made Battle of Algiers (1966), among other films.  (I read in the papers two or three years ago that she was killed in a bicycle accident.)

One day, Lisa joined us in the staff room over the lunch hour.  The rest of us were eating a fish and chips takeaway, but Lisa had brought her own homemade lunch: a sandwich made with brown wholemeal bread, and a salad.  Lisa cycled, was a vegetarian, and didn’t smoke.  So I nearly fell off my chair when, once we’d finished our lunch, she produced a plastic bag with brown lumps in it, and asked, “Anyone for my hash cake?”  I couldn’t believe my ears:  lunch time on a weekday, and Lisa, the clean-living person, was offering us some of her hash cake?!?  It turned out her homemade chocolate cake had gone a bit wrong, hence her calling it “hash cake”.

(London 1980, 1983)

Monday, 3 June 2013

One way of putting on weight (or not) (Singapore)

Traditionally, when the Chinese tell you you’ve put on weight, they mean it as a compliment, as can be seen from the way the observation is phrased: 发福 fā fú / “develop good-fortune”.  The thinking behind it is:  if you’re fat, you must have more than enough to eat; if you have more than enough to eat, you must be rich.  Also, you don’t have to do heavy work, which would keep you thin.  (The same with having fair skin:  it must be because you don’t have to work outdoors, therefore you must at least be a white collar worker, if not outright rich without needing to work at all.  Same thinking behind the Brits traditionally setting so much store by a tanned skin—you must be sufficiently rich to go far enough south to where the sun is.)

My mother retired at age 47 and, being very face-conscious, was concerned about her social standing image now that she no longer had to toil day and night as a midwife.  Being of a naturally slim build, she decided to speed up the process of putting on weight by drinking milk, which she’d heard could make one fat.

Fresh milk was not easy to come by in those days in Singapore, if at all, so she went to a lot of trouble tracking down an Indian man not too far away from us who had a cow.  An order was placed with him for a bottle to be delivered daily.

My mother would boil the milk, but some five minutes after drinking the stuff, she would go straight to the toilet.  It is fairly common knowledge that the Chinese constitution is, as a general rule, unable to process dairy products since it is traditionally not a milk-drinking culture.  (This might now have changed, as more Chinese are adopting Western habits.)  So, what was meant to be an exercise in fattening up my mother ended up with her losing weight through the runs.  The delivery was cancelled after a month.

(Singapore early 1970s)

The hotel bill (Kuwait)

In 1986, a 50-strong Chinese delegation from various provinces was in Kuwait to meet, face-to-face, 50 Arabs from the different Gulf states to talk about a US$3.6bn package of joint venture deals.  A lot of money for 1986.

The Chinese side were originally supplying their own Arabic-Chinese interpreters, but last minute said their interpreters weren’t coming after all.  Not sure if it was cold feet on the interpreters’ part, or they didn’t have enough Arabic-Chinese interpreters to cover such a big event.  The Kuwaitis, who were hosting this event, generously said they would provide a team of six English/Chinese interpreters. I was the second to be invited to form the team.  

We were put up at the Hilton Hotel.  A Mr. Ali from the Kuwaiti Ministry of Finance told us to go to him if we had any special requirements (e.g., photocopying, typing of documents).  He set up a table in a corner of the foyer, with a telephone line and a typewriter, and was on duty most of the time throughout our three-day sojourn there.  If he wasn’t at the desk, we would call him on the telephone.  

When we were not actually in the conference hall interpreting, we would be in the foyer using the sofas and armchairs there to work on documents the Chinese would give to us last minute to translate.  For one particular document that was quite long and a bit trickier, Mr. Ali offered us his suite upstairs as it was quieter.

We were on expenses, dining at the six restaurants on offer in the Hilton, eating oysters, king prawns, lobsters, and steaks, and drinking milk-shake-glass helpings of fresh kiwi fruit juice or strawberry juice.  Mouth-watering juices, eye-watering prices.  (This would be the fuel for flying them in that the consumer was paying for.)

When we checked out on the fourth day, the man behind the reception desk emerged from the print room behind the reception area with a very long print-out which itemised every single meal and drink we had consumed over our time there.  Room and board per person for three days came to a lot more money than what I was earning in a month at my Chinese computer research job.

I couldn’t understand why the man should be presenting us with this marathon three-foot-long print-out, unless it was for us to keep as a record.

It then transpired that he was expecting us to pay these sums!  The conversation went something like this:

Me: But, we were on full expenses.

Man: (Grave expression on his face; graver, no nonsense tone of voice) That is not my understanding.

Me: The Ministry of Finance are supposed to be footing the bill.

Man: (Tilting his head, raising his chin and looking down his nose at me) I have received no such instructions.  (Sub-text: “Yah, sure.  Good try.  Ministry of Finance indeed.”)


Me: (Suddenly remembering Mr. Ali) You can verify with Mr. Ali.  He’s from the Ministry of Finance and he was looking after us over the last three days.

Man: I have never heard of a Mr. Ali from the Ministry of Finance.


Me: He had a temporary office desk in the corner of the foyer.

Man: There is no such temporary office desk in the foyer now.

Oh help.

Me: (Suddenly remembering the suite) He has a suite upstairs, on the seventh floor.  Please ring him.  His suite number is xxxx, and his extension number is xxxx.

Man: That suite has been vacated.  We have no record of the details of the occupier.

WHAT!?!  This was getting truly surreal!  I had visions of my washing up dishes at the Kuwait City Hilton for the next six years.

Then I remembered that Ken
 and I had gone the day before to see the Kuwaiti Minister of Finance with a business consultation idea of ours, and the Minister had given me his business card.  I duly produced it now.  

The man looked at the card for a while, then at me for another while, then at the card again, studying every letter of the alphabet printed on it, wondering if he should believe me.  Eventually, he reluctantly picked up the telephone and dialled the number on that business card.  

After a minute or so, he hung up, and said, “The Minister has confirmed that all your bills are indeed to be footed by them.”  

I didn’t stop shaking for another few minutes after we stepped out of the Hilton.  Talk about hairy moments.

(Kuwait 1986)

These foreigners don’t understand the language anyway: 02 (England)

A student’s brother, Bill, had learned to play the flamenco guitar in Spain and was able to speak fairly fluent Spanish.  This was back in the 1970s when it wasn’t so common for British people to go to Spain and not many Brits could speak Spanish.  (The latter is probably still the case now…)

Back in England, Bill was in a pub one day, sitting at one end of the bar, drinking, with a middle-aged Spanish couple at the other end of the bar.  The wife then addressed her husband, without keeping her voice down (presumably because she assumed that people in Britain couldn’t speak any Spanish at all):

Wife:  Look, look!  Look at that man at the end of the bar.  Look how long his fingernails are.

Husband:  He’s either a flamenco guitarist, or he’s a poofter.

As Bill left the pub, he walked past them and said, in fluent Spanish, “Actually, I do play a bit of the flamenco guitar.”

The couple’s jaws nearly touched the floor.

(England, 1970s)

How many seats do you want? (Taiwan / London)

In 1976, the second year of my two-year stint in Taiwan, Pete the British geologist and I were going on a trip to Kaohsiung, in the south of Taiwan, for the weekend.  We decided to fly as we only had two days, and not even full days at that.  China Airlines, the national carrier, told me they were fully booked.  

I approached Freddie Chen (now deceased), who was our deputy manager at Conoco Taiwan.  He was really the fixer for any bureaucratic requirements related to our oil rig, work boats and men, as all his ex-air force mates had gone to work for various government departments after the Vietnam War (where they’d fought alongside American troops—Taiwan being anti-communist, remember).  I would hear Freddie, whose office was next to mine, addressing them down the telephone line as “Brother Wang, this is Old Chen.  I need a favour.”

Freddie now took out a sheet of paper, asked me, “How many seats do you want?”, wrote something on it, put it into an envelope, and said, “Take this to the China Airlines main office on Nanjing East Road and hand it over at the main desk.”

I went along and did what Freddie said.  The staff member took a look at the envelope and went away.  When she came back, she said, “Which flights do you want there and back, and how many seats do you want?”  So there were not only seats available after all, I even had a choice of the flights both ways!  Freddie had only written to the head of China Airlines, no less, or someone high enough anyway, presumably addressing him as “Brother XX”.

Fast forward to 1986 and London.  A student on the evening programme, Robin, told me after a lesson one night, when I asked what he’d be doing for Christmas, that he was in a right conundrum.  

His (British) wife at the time was working in Hong Kong, and they’d arranged to go on holiday in Thailand, meeting in Bangkok—he flying out from London, she from Hong Kong.  He was then going to fly on to Taiwan, where he was hoping to do some business deals.  So, apart from the fact that this was to be over the Christmas holiday—peak period for travel, this was also quite a bit of a juggling job in itself logistically.  And don’t forget, this was 1986, pre-online-booking days.

For some reason, Robin decided to make his life even more hairy by trying out different options (on the basis of price), which left him in the end with none because he didn’t make a decision soon enough on any one of them.  His then-wife, however, had already booked her flight to Bangkok.

I told Robin my 1976 Kaohsiung weekend story, and said I could try Freddie for him.  The next day, I telexed (yes, that’s how long ago it was!) Freddie, explaining Robin’s dilemma, giving him the dates for Robin’s intended travel into and out of Bangkok and Taipei, and giving him Robin’s telex address as well so that Freddie could liaise with him directly, especially given the tight timing.

The following week when I went for the lesson, I asked Robin, “Well, have you heard from Freddie?”  

Robin’s answer: “Yes.  Freddie’s telex just said, ‘How many seats do you want?’”

So from “fully booked” to “how many seats do you want”, one can see that when airlines tell you they have no seats left, it may not actually be the case.  (Look out for another blog, to come, on this subject.)

(Taiwan 1976; London 1986)

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The “ice-cream van” (Taiwan)

A friend’s friend Eric was over in Taipei on some training,  so I was asked to look after him, as he couldn’t speak any Mandarin (a common phenomenon amongst Singapore Chinese in those days):  take him sightseeing and shopping, dine with him.  My colleague Lǚ Jìpíng said she’d come along, so one evening after work, we took Eric to Zhōnghuá Road, which is the shopping, eating and cinema area in central Taipei.  At one point, I saw a jacket in a boutique window, so we went in to try it on, as I’d been wanting one for ages.  Being one degree north of the equator, Singapore is too hot for anything other than short-sleeved, or even sleeveless, tops, so jackets were a sartorial novelty, a “must-have” for me at the time.  By the time we emerged from the boutique, Eric was nowhere to be seen.  We waited for a few minutes, then another few more minutes went by, and still no Eric.  Just as we were starting to worry about the boy getting lost, as he couldn't speak Mandarin, he appeared from round the corner.  “Where did you get to?”  He explained that he’d got bored waiting for these two women to finish their clothes shopping, so when he heard the jingling tune of an ice-cream van, he rushed off in pursuit of an ice-cream.  To his horrified incomprehension, he saw workmen tossing the contents of rubbish bins into the back of the “ice-cream van”.

(Taipei 1975)

Consideration for other people (Singapore)

On one of my visits home, I went with my brother Dave and sister-in-law to the market on a Sunday for their weekly shop.  As I was staying with them, they had to buy enough to feed me as well as the three of them.  

As the bus was taking a little while arriving and Dave’s hands were fully laden with bags of shopping (a chunk of cod a foot long, king prawns, various types of meat, vegetables), I suggested he put the bags down on the stone seats provided for people at bus stops.  His response was, “No, some of the bags are a bit wet because of the fish and the prawns, so I don’t want to mess up the seats for other people.”  I felt SO proud of this considerate brother of mine.

(Singapore 2005)

How to tell which stalls sell the cheapest food (London)

In the West, people often say that the way to tell which Chinese restaurant serves authentic Chinese food is to look in and see who are dining in them.  If a particular restaurant is full of Chinese people, then the food will definitely be authentic.

A mainland Chinese chap had moved into the flat above me, so I took him on a little tour of Nag’s Head, an area beyond our district, because there are more stalls and shops there, and their fruit, vegetables and meat are cheaper.  

I said to him, “There isn’t one single stall that’s cheaper than others for all items.  Some of them are cheaper for one vegetable, and some are cheaper for another.  What you can do is go up to the stalls, and have a look at the price tags put up against the respective items, so that you can get an idea of which stall is cheaper for which item, and make a comparison.”  He said, “No, there’s no need to look at the price tags.  Just look at the people in the queues at the respective stalls.”  I asked, “What do you mean?”  He said, “Well, look at that stall: the queue is full of black people and old age pensioners, so their things must be cheaper!” 

(London 1987)