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.