Monday, 18 February 2013

Serendipity (London)

One dictionary definition is: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.  (Origin 1754, coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.)

One Chinese four-character phrase perhaps comes close to it:  歪打正着 wāi dǎ zhèng zháo / “aslant hit upright hit-the-bull’s-eye” / to do something unintentionally but harvest exactly what one wishes; to hit the mark by a fluke.

Canadian student David’s performance at one of my summer school sessions beautifully illustrates this.  This particular session comprised a mixed-level bag: eight students from different levels, who were broken up into teams of two.  They were given material in English to convey in Chinese to their team partner.  Helen, Grade 2 level, came across the English word “etc.” in her little piece, which she said she didn’t know how to render into Chinese.  I then turned to David, Grade 4 and in another team, for the answer, saying, “David, I know you know the Chinese for ‘etc.’, because I’d taught it to your class just last week.”  David did remember, but only the fact that his class had just been taught the word for “etc.” the week before.

Now, an aside to explain.  The word 等 děng in Chinese means: (i) to wait; (ii) rank/grade; (iii) etc. (often reduplicated, thus 等等 děngděng).

I had a reputation for putting time pressure on students to come up with a response, training them right from Lesson One to work under pressure, so that come the exam it’d just feel like another lesson with me.  Knowing this, David tried to pre-empt me pushing him for an answer, by saying in English, “Wait, wait!”  Serendipitous indeed!

(London, 2003)

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The curator and the erotic woodcuts (London)

In my second year as a BA student at SOAS, we had a chap in our class sent over from the Dutch Foreign Service.  As he was only attending lessons as a diplomat, he didn’t have to take his studies as seriously, so he’d go and find other things to do, such as reading up all the Judge Dee stories by Robert Hans van Gulik (also a Dutch diplomat, among other things).  

When he was finished with that, he discovered that the library had a copy of van Gulik’s Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period [privately published, Tokyo, 1951] but they were under lock and key, and one had to approach the curator in person.  “No problem, it’s just a matter of speaking to the man about it,” thought Clem, and duly went along.  

The curator, however, turned on him and gave him a good ticking off, “You should be spending your time on your studies and not on such material!” and sent him away.  

Clem grumbled to me later, “I bet he wanted them for himself!”  

The curator’s surname?  Lust.  (I kid you not.) 

(London, 1978/9)