Friday, 19 December 2014

No common sense AND obstinate to boot (France)

Found in my journal entry of 05 September 2011 an account of my waiting at the luggage claim conveyor belt at the Toulouse airport:

This country-bumpkin-looking English woman (60s?), visiting her brother in the midi-Pyrénées, picked out a total of 3 bright dark pink suitcases as hers before eventually identifying the right one.  They were all different shapes and shades of pink/red, but she still couldn’t be quite sure about each one, saying she’d need to look at her name tag before she could be sure.  I said to her, over and over again, that she should’ve tied a ribbon or something to it to make it stand out for easy and speedy identification, because the conveyor belt made it difficult to read labels fast enough.  

As if this wasn’t a stupid enough way of going about it, I had to lug the suitcase off the conveyor belt each time for her to have enough time to look at the tags for her name at close quarters, and put it back on when it turned out not to be hers.  The owner of the 2nd or 3rd one came hurrying over to claim her suitcase when she saw me taking it off the belt.  Luckily she wasn’t angry with me — if this was China or S.E.Asia, I’d have got a dirty and suspicious look almost for sure.  

The other amazing thing about this rather stupid woman is that each time I suggested she tie some form of distinguishing item to her case, she’d say, “As long as I can read the label to see if it’s got my name on it, it’ll be all right.”  Yes, madam, but someone else has to hump it off the conveyor belt for you first, then lift it back on to the belt.  I told her I have a black case, so I tie a strip of cloth to help speedy identification.  She said, “But your case is black, and there’re lots of them.  Mine’s red.”  Yet she managed to mistake 3 other red/pink ones before she found her own.  It’s most incomprehensible why she was still so recalcitrant about taking on board the suggestion.  Kept saying she just needed to see her name on the label.  I refused to give up and said it every time it happened, and eventually she said, “OK, point taken.”  

In hindsight, I should’ve just left her alone to drag every single similar-looking red/pink suitcase off the conveyor belt by herself each time.  Maybe she’ll learn when she has to find out the hard way.

From what I’d seen of this woman’s lack of common sense, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after finding out that the suitcase wasn’t hers, she’d just leave it on the floor instead of putting it back on the conveyor belt.  I was the victim of such stupid behaviour at Gatwick one year when I’d waited at the conveyor belt until, an hour later, every single piece of luggage had been claimed, then found that my suitcase had been left sitting on the floor at the far side, obviously by someone who’d originally thought it was his/hers.

(France 2011)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Giving the cat a bath (Singapore)

Made the mistake, during my teens, of trying to wash the cat.  Hands, arms, paws, claws, water -- all over the bathroom, all over me, not to mention the meows and yeows (from me as well!).  Never again.

(Singapore 1960s)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Party drinking Oriental style

The Japanese do not pour alcoholic drinks for themselves at a social meal.

The Koreans apparently go by the same rule, as I discovered at first hand.  A group of some 14 Koreans from the Housing Board had come to London to study the UK’s housing policy, and I’d “adopted” one of them when he came to the university to enquire about English lessons for his teenage daughter in his poor English and my help was enlisted.  When they were going back, they invited me and their English language teacher to their farewell party.  I was the only woman.  When the Korean chap on my left poured out my drink for me, I didn’t think anything of it, as I knew the Japanese do that.  After a sip, I put the glass down, but the chap urged me to finish it as the glass is needed.  This is unhygienic enough as it is, but to be pressured into finishing off one’s wine in order to free up the glass for one’s fellow diners is not my idea of fun.

The Chinese way of party drinking is for one person (from the host side) to raise his glass to the guest, say something like “Here’s to our friendship”, then down it in one go.  Some people will turn the glass upside down on their heads to show it’s empty; some will tilt the glass forwards to show the other person it’s empty.  Then, it’s the turn of the guest to follow suit — not only to drink, but to drain the contents in one go as well.  If you are at a banquet and make the mistake of going along with the first person’s invitation to drink, you will then need to do the same for the other eight diners at your table.  If you don’t, you will make them lose face (see blog entry Chinese hospitality etiquette 01), so you’ll be forced to do it for all nine fellow diners.  When they’ve all individually proposed a toast to you, it’s then your turn to return the toast to each of them in turn.  This means that they’ll each down their drinks twice (once when they propose a toast to you, and once when you return the toast), whilst you will down yours 9 x 2 times.

Linguaphone, a world famous teach yourself language course company, sold some English language course to China in the 1980s, then sent two employees out a bit later to find out what the Chinese thought of the course.  Let’s call them John and Robert.  It was John who told me the story.  John and Robert were treated to a banquet, and the usual toasts, of 茅台 máotái (54%–55%, made of wheat and sorghum), were proposed, individually by each of the eight Chinese.  Robert was a 14-pints-a-night drinker, and thought the little glasses of the water-like liquid most innocuous.  After 16 rounds of this fiery liquid, Robert was starting to eat the flower arrangement in the middle of the table.  The Chinese just love to get someone drunk, so they were nudging each other and laughing, “Look how red his face is!”  Stone drunk, Robert was a deadweight and had to be half carried back to his hotel room, by two men trying to prop him up with a hand under each of his armpits, feet dragging along the ground.

My boss, Dr. Page, Chief Geologist at Conoco Taiwan, was once invited, alongside the Vice President, Mr. Bolleter, to a Chinese banquet-style dinner by the state oil company, our partners in our exploration for oil.  Both men are American, drink bourbon, and 6’ 6” and 6’ 4” respectively, so the Chinese expected them to be serious drinkers.  The toast was first proposed to Mr. Bolleter as Vice President.  The drink served, kaoliang (高粱 gāoliáng), is made of sorghum, looks like water but is 54%–63% — its nickname is “Firewater of Taiwan”.  When the proposer of the toast downed his (spirit drink size) portion of kaoliang and tilted the small glass forward towards Mr. Bolleter, the latter thought, “That’s a small portion,” and downed his too.  Then, a flush spread from his neck up his face to his forehead, and his eyes were bloodshot.  The host side exchanged knowing looks and smiled.  The big tall American bourbon drinker was beaten by their kaoliang!

Dr. Page noticed that there was a potted plant next to him, so he chucked his kaoliang into the pot and replaced it with water.  When the toast was proposed to Dr. Page and he downed it in one go, the host side looked carefully for signs of the flush — none came.  Everyone was impressed.  A lot of machismo is attached to the ability to drink alcohol (equally to chilli eating).

Throughout the rest of the meal, Dr. Page matched each proposer glass for glass, and gained a lot of kudos.  I don’t know what happened to the plant.  Undoubtedly had a huge hangover the next day…

(The Orient)

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Bums, boobs and bellies (Prague)

In August 2011, I’d taken the long distance coach to Prague, and back.  In the 220811 journal entry, written immediately after I boarded the London-bound bus:

“Bums, boobs and bellies” will be the title of a new blog— it wasn’t exactly a scrum but people didn’t quite respect personal space as they boarded.

(Prague 2011)

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The reader in Ukraine

Someone in the Ukraine's been reading my blog posts.  Is that you, Simon de Cruz?  If so, a big wave from London.  If you're not Simon, still a big wave from London.  Thanks for reading my blogs.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Relativity 01 (Singapore)

Traditionally, the Chinese tend to behave according to their status, not their age.  For example, someone aged 18, especially if a woman, will behave almost child-like if still at school, more grown-up if already in paid employment, certainly even more grown-up if married, and finally, definitely very much more grown-up if she’s a mother.  It may not be conscious role-playing, but it is not “acting your age”, it is “acting according to your status”.

I did some supply teaching at age 18 while waiting for my ‘A’ level results to come through from Cambridge (Cambridge Overseas Examination Syndicate).  My students were 14, only four years younger than I, but I had to act authoritatively, whilst only a few months back, when I was still at school, I was “the naughtiest girl in the school”, playing all sorts of tricks on people.  

At the end of the first term, I left that temporary post to go and do a secretarial course.  My students bought me farewell presents, little knick-knacks that children of that age like.  In return, I took them out to an open air food stall, sitting down for shaved ice (heaped over sweet mashed red beans and dowsed with multi-coloured syrup and condensed milk), paying for all 30 of them.  Very grown-up.

(Singapore 1973)

Relativity 02 (Singapore)

My third sister had been the most timid and lacking in assertiveness of all the five children in the family.

One day she told me about the change of behaviour in her before and after marriage.  

She’d go to work by bus in the morning, which was always packed, as it was peak hour.  No MRT (Mass Rapid Transport, Singapore’s version of the Tube or Metro) in those days in Singapore.

The practice in those days was for the conductor to move up and down the bus, stop at each passenger and ask, “How much?”  Fares were determined by the distance of the journey.

One day, the conductor kept overlooking her on his way up and down the bus until much later.  When his attention was finally drawn to her, he recognised her as having been on the bus for a while, and shouted at her, accusing her of trying to fare-dodge.  My sister had had her money ready in her hand from the moment she got on the bus so it was a gross injustice, not to mention terribly humiliating being shouted at in front of so many people.  She told me, “I didn’t have the courage to speak up in front of everyone, not even in my own defence against a wrongful accusation, so I remained silent.”

Fast forward to after she was married (at age 21, which is a young age in Eastern eyes in terms of status).  Same journey to work.  Same bus, same conductor, same situation.  This time, she answered back, “I’ve been standing here with my money ready all this time.  It’s not my fault you never saw me!”

She said to me, “I don’t know how I found the courage to answer back, and in front of all those people, too.  It must be because now that I’m married, I feel more grown-up and assertive.”

(Singapore, 1970s)

How to break down Chinese officials’ resistance 01 (China)

On the 37-day film shoot in 1988, we had a Shanghai Film Studios producer come along with us all the way from Shanghai to the border with Pakistan.  His role was to ease the path for us with his local credentials (and grease some palms).

At the stop before Xi’an, we woke up to find that the previous night’s thunderstorm had washed away two-thirds of the bridge across the river, so after hanging around for a number of hours hoping they’d get something fixed for us to get through, we had to backtrack into town and catch a train to Xi’an.

By then, it was 4pm.  The last train for Xi’an was in half an hour.  We had 54 boxes of filming equipment, large and small, plus two suitcases each for the crew of five and the “star” of the travelogue.  The station manager, a little chappie barely taller than I, told us that we had to tag all of them in duplicate, by hand of course.  Details to be filled in were:  full name of company (in Chinese of course), full address of company (in Chinese of course).  He said the train might be full, as it was the last one for the day, and there was also no way we’d be ready to board in half an hour, so there was no point letting us through.

I then witnessed one of the finest and subtlest negotiation techniques I’d ever come across, Chinese style.

The Shanghai Film Studios producer said, “Let’s step aside and talk about it.”  But first, the producer, a non-smoker, fished out the packet of cigarettes that he always carried around in his breast pocket and offered the chappie a cigarette.  The latter went through the Chinese ritual of saying no.  The producer pressed him to accept.  The chappie said no a second time.  The producer pressed him again, and this time, the chappie accepted, because it is impolite to decline so many times.  Or rather, it’s impolite to keep on declining when the other party is so keen to offer you hospitality.  (Or maybe it’s easier to say yes, just to stop being hassled.)

As the chappie puffed away at the cigarette, the producer put forward our dilemma to him.  The chappie repeated what he’d said in the first place.  The producer promised we’d be able to get everything tagged in time.  The chappie hesitated, in the face of such persistent determination.

The producer offered the chappie a second cigarette as the latter pondered the situation.  The chappie said, “But I haven’t finished this one yet.”  The producer, who was easily a whole head taller, just stuck the second cigarette in the space between the man’s ear and head, where people usually stick a pencil.  

This did the trick, because it was treated as acceptance on the chappie’s part.  He relented and let us through.

A cheap price to pay.  Just two Chinese cigarettes.  

I then understood why a non-smoker like the producer always carried around in his breast pocket a packet of cigarettes.

(China, 1988) 

How to break down Chinese officials’ resistance 02 (China)

Film shoot of 1988:  We had arrived at Jiāyǔguān (嘉峪关*).  It is where the last western section of the Great Wall is to be found, so we wanted to shoot the travelogue “star” riding off into the sunset, bound for Xinjiang out of China proper.

There is a building with turrets, from which we thought it would be most atmospheric to shoot the departure scene.  As we approached the front entrance, a bristling gatekeeper barred our way.  (They seem to be always bristling, if not actually barking—maybe because this makes them look authoritative.  It’s almost as if being polite and mild-mannered would put them in a subservient position by inference.)  Out came the name card bearing Shanghai Film Studios, a form of handshake with the man—the producer’s palm ready lined with some notes, and we were waved in.

As we approached one of the turrets on the far side to do a recce (reconnaissance), another man came charging into the courtyard, also bristling with outrage at our intrusion.  The film producer placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and said, “Shall we step to one side and talk about it?”  As the man turned to walk towards one corner of the courtyard, the producer gestured to me with his eyes to get on with it, and be quick about it.

We did a few hurried shots from the turrets.  Going down to the courtyard some ten or 20 minutes later, we found the producer had become what I call “squatting pals” with the second bristler at one of the walls of the courtyard.  The latter was puffing away at a cigarette, most likely from the producer’s breast pocket (see blog entry How to break down Chinese officials’ resistance 01).  

During the time we were up in the turrets, the producer had managed to engage the man in a conversation about the latter’s background:  he was not local but from somewhere much further out east, and only saw his wife and child once or twice a year.  The producer even got the man to show him a photo of the wife and child—which is another fail-safe conversation winner. 

David Bonavia mentioned in his 1975 Penguin paperback The Chinese a similar incident when he was caught speeding in Beijing, late for an appointment.  As he took out his very-full wallet to show his driver’s licence to the officious traffic policeman, out fell a wad of Chinese dollars that was the equivalent of someone’s monthly, if not yearly, wages, which made the gathering onlookers laugh (at the stupid foreigner).  This probably helped him in a way because he was partially humiliated, therefore not so threatening.  However, a photo of his blond(e) and blue-eyed child also fell out of the wallet, which then started a conversation about the child and completely defused the situation.  I’ve since been recommending that my students carry a photo of a blond(e) and blue-eyed child on them, even if they’re not married or childless.  Who knows, it might save an awkward brush or two with Chinese law enforcers...

*关 guān is “mountain pass” in Chinese, where one crosses from one side to the other, so 关 in a place name would usually signify a border place—there are Tang Dynasty (618–c.960 A.D.) poems about people going off to border lands, probably to war or in exile.

(China, 1988) 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Chinese hospitality etiquette 01 (China)

Nick used to take British trade delegations to China on outward missions.  At the end of each visit, the Chinese side would throw a banquet, which is typically a ten-course meal for ten people.  “Course” here is not in the Western-meal sense of a whole dish each for every diner.  Rather, in the Chinese banquet tradition, all the diners partake of each dish when it is served up, but not necessarily one-tenth each.

Chinese-hospitality etiquette requires the host to keep pressing the guest to eat more, and the guest has to decline, at least three times, and, even after that, to eat small amounts only.  The host must not be seen to be stingy with the food, and the guest must not be seen to be greedy.  So the game is played out every single time, with each side knowing how many times to press/decline and when to give up—usually it’s the guest, simply by dint of his role.

One of the tools of persuasion employed by the host that is practically fail-safe is, “You must give me face.”  At this, the guest cannot say “no” anymore.  The ultimate trump card.

Alongside suckling pig, king prawns, fish, lobster and dried mushroom served up at Chinese banquets is another expensive ingredient that the Brits insist on calling “sea slug”.  I grew up with the term “sea cucumber”, because bêche-de-mer does look like cucumber.  For some reason, the people in Britain choose to call it “sea slugs”, which is revolting.  This is probably deliberate, to make it off-putting as it does have an acquired taste.  It’s rubbery in texture, and practically devoid of any discernible taste to the uninitiated.  It has very high nutritional value, though, and is gastronomical gold dust, which makes it a “must serve” at banquets and parties.

At one farewell banquet in China, someone from the Chinese side, treating Nick as “one of them” since he could speak Chinese, said candidly, in Chinese, “We know you Westerners don’t like sea slugs, but we like to serve it to you all the same.”  And he sat back and smugly watched this being digested.

Having to put up with eating the stuff is bad enough if it’s just a matter of how highly prized (and priced) it is, but for the host to deliberately inflict it on the guest whilst knowing how much the guest dislikes it is something Nick finds hard to stomach.

At the end of the banquet, Nick picked up a banana from the fruit bowl and offered it to the chap, who rubbed his tummy and said, “No, I’ve had a lot of food already, thanks.”  Nick applied Chinese-hospitality etiquette moves and pressed him: once, twice, then finally went for the kill, again playing by the rules the Chinese use: “You must give me face.”  The man accepted the banana.

Nick waited for a couple of minutes, then offered him a second banana.  They went through the same ritual, and Nick used the same trump card: “You must give me face.”

Three trump cards and three bananas later, the man’s face was the same colour as the bananas.

Nick sat back and thought, “Now you know how we feel when you keep forcing us to eat those damned sea slugs, you b…..d!”

(China, 1984)

Chinese hospitality etiquette 02 (London)

Throughout my life, I’ve suffered endless occasions of having things foisted on me by Chinese people and accepting because I don’t have the same level of tenacity as the offerer.  Giving in and accepting requires much less effort.

My latest run-in on this score was with a woman in her early 50s.  I mention her age because it is my impression, and first hand experience, that older Chinese people are very insistent when they’ve decided they want to give you something.  Whether you’d like it or not seems to be totally irrelevant to them.  Even when you actually tell them to their face that you don’t like such things, they’ll still press it on you.  Even when you make it clear that you’re not just being polite—cf. blog entry Chinese hospitality etiquette 01 on the ritual played out by host and guest in pressing and declining.

This happened a fortnight ago, which was fairly soon after the Mid-Autumn Moon Cake Festival.

The woman said she’d meant to bring in a particular type of moon cakes for me but had forgotten.  I told her I hated them.  Big mistake, for I was then dragged through the tedious ritual of being sold on the idea, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Eventually, in an attempt to stop her trying to ram the moon cakes down my throat, I said, “You must respect other people’s wishes.”  Her answer was, “And you must respect my wish to give them to you.”

Maybe next time with people like that, I’ll accept, then bin their presents in their presence, so that I fulfil their desire and get my point across as well.  I’m not being ungrateful or stubborn; it’s their insisting on ramming their taste down my throat that sticks in my craw.

(London 2014)

PS:  This is also inspired by Thomas, a Greek vegetarian, who said his aunt insisted on cooking him a meat dish when he visited her, on the basis that she couldn't possibly tell friends and neighbours she'd cooked him "nothing else but vegetables" — my paraphrase.  So, it’s not just the Chinese then.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A house of skip raiders 01: the bookshelves (London)

I moved into Belfiore Lodge on 28 December 1985.  

It was an attic flat with sloping roofs, which left awkwardly-shaped wall space for standard book shelves.  Shop-bought ready-made book cases were out of the question.  Putting up our own brackets meant taking precise measurements for every single one of the planks as each level would be a different length.  We were also not that confident about our drilling skills for the brackets.

To match the style of the house (see blog entry A family of skip raiders 02), we decided to make the book shelves out of bricks and planks.  A house a street away was being renovated, and the skip outside was full of old bricks ripped out.  Unlike new bricks, they had different hues—tinges of reddish brown, orangey brown, purply blue.  The type one sees in old houses in England.  Just right for Belfiore Lodge.

We went out late one drizzly Sunday night, as no-one would be out and about, and humped back bucketloads of these bricks, getting wet and slightly muddy, looking like a couple of hobos.  Then, we washed them, to get rid of the mud, and dried them in the oven of the dinky 1930s cooker, which we’d kept going in the winter for heating, as all the flats (bar one) in Belfiore Lodge had no central heating.

It was a time warp experience in every step of the way!  Most fitting for a time-frozen house like Belfiore Lodge.

(London, 1986)

A house of skip raiders 02: the windows (London)

Belfiore Lodge was a Victorian house that looked like it had come out of a Dracula film set:  the outer walls of the main house and the wing covered with Virginia creeper, ivy, honeysuckle and sweet pea; turrets on the roof of the main house, complete with a wind vane.  People who happened to come down our cul de sac would stop, stare and point at these features in amazement, admiring this most eccentric house.

There were eight self-contained one-bedroomed flats:  four in the main house, four in the wing that was added on later (in the 60s?).  The landlord and landlady, Fred and Nora, lived in one of the ground floor flats.  

In the space between the house and the one next door was a single-storey long room, with the front and back walls made of brick and a tiled roof, used as a kind of storage area / workshop.  (The other two walls were the side wall of Belfiore Lodge, and the garden wall.)  

Further down the garden was a spare shed, completely made out of doors and windows salvaged from skips.  The inside was stuffed full of other things, also picked up from skips.  I heard that the built-in wardrobe in Fred and Nora’s bedroom was made out of discarded doors, rescued from skips.

One blustery winter’s day, one of my two living room skylights, which had a dodgy rotting catch, was blown right off its hinges, flew over the sloping roof and landed on one of the skylights, which was in good condition, in the bedroom on the other side, smashing it to bits.  In an instant, there were two gaping holes in the roof, one at each end of my attic flat, providing a clear passage for the gale outside to whip through my flat, slamming doors hither and thither.

I ran downstairs to inform Fred, who came up to inspect the damage, then went downstairs to his spare shed to pick out a couple of spare windows stored in there.  

Where would one find someone to come at 5pm on a windy Sunday afternoon, never mind get two windows replaced within 20 minutes?

(London, 1986)

A house of skip raiders 03: the deckchair (London)

A deckchair sitting out on the pavement outside the garages at the curve of Leigh Road caught my eye: “Obviously to be thrown out.  Only the canvas needs replacing.”

“But you don’t have any need for a deckchair,” I reminded myself.  “When are you going to find the time to replace the canvas?  No, leave it, leave it.”

The following day, I came home and found the deckchair still sitting there.  The same internal struggle to resist taking it.

This went on for about a week.

One day, I came home and the chair was gone.  Relief!  No more having to hold myself back.  Someone’s found a home for it.

Half an hour later, I had to go upstairs to my old, attic flat, which I’d passed on to Helen and her husband when I was offered the flat downstairs, to speak to her about something.  As soon as she opened her front door, I espied the deckchair sitting in the living room!

(London 1989)

Being challenged to a car race (Singapore)

I’d passed my driving test at age 18, the minimum age for taking the test.  My mother had, only a year or so earlier, swapped her Morris Minor for a Datsun 1200.  The “1200” was 1200cc here, I think.

Late one night, I was sitting at a set of traffic lights near Thompson Road, practically devoid of traffic at that hour, minding my own business, waiting for the lights to change, when I heard, to my right, a car being revved up repeatedly: vroom, vroom, vroom.  I turned round and saw the source of the noise: a car in the next lane, with its owner—a young man—looking at me in a raised eyebrow, “well, how about it?” way, obviously challenging me to a car race.

As my Datsun was only a 1200 model, I knew it wouldn’t be up to it.

However, I knew the car well enough for a quick off-the-blocks head start for the first three gears, as I could change gears very quickly, with immediate response from the car.

My training and experience as an athlete from age eight throughout my years at school had taught me that one has to start running at the same time that the starter gun is fired, not after one hears it, as this will be a split second too late.  And every split second counts in a 100-metre sprint.  When the starter says “get set” (after “on your marks”), you start counting to three—that’s the time gap between “get set” and the firing of the gun.  At the count of three, you kick off.  The reason for false starts by athletes is they’ve gone too fast on counting to three, thus pre-empting the gun and getting off the blocks a little too soon.

Being the nerd that I am, I had also observed the timing of traffic lights when changing from one colour to another:  there was a 3-second gap between amber and green.

After my first glance at the young man, I’d turned my head back to focus on the road ahead, giving him the impression that I wasn’t going to bite, thus throwing him off the scent.

The lights went to amber.  I started counting to three, and shot off at the same time that the lights turned green, leaving the young man behind.  A few yards on, a quick change of gear to second gear.  Another stretch of road later, a quick change of gear to third.  

Once I’d changed to fourth gear, I eased the pressure on the accelerator pedal and let the car cruise, as my Datsun wouldn’t be able to sustain much speed at fourth gear.

To add insult to injury, I stuck my hand out of the window, and slowly waved the young man on.

(Singapore, 1973) 

Curious level of curiosity (Taipei, Taiwan)

A few days after the noodle shop eavesdropping incident (see blog entry Enthusiastic eavesdropping), I was walking past a shop window during my lunch hour when I spotted an interesting display in the window.  I stopped and gazed at it, standing about 3 feet (1 metre) away.  A few seconds later, a passer-by, wondering what it was that had attracted me so much, stopped and stood next to me, peering into the shop window to see what it was that had caught my eye.  When he couldn’t identify the item, he looked back and forth, back and forth, from my face to the shop window and back, to try and follow the line of vision and thereby pick out the fascinating display.  When even this failed, he just stepped forward and moved sideways to stand right in front of me to try and get the direct line of vision that would lead him to the item!

(Taipei, Taiwan, 1975)

Enthusiastic eavesdropping (Taipei, Taiwan)

A scene in the American TV series Frasier featured Seattle-based radio psychologist Frasier (played by Kelsey Grammer) and his psychologist brother Niles sitting in their usual café, talking about something.  A chap at the next table was so obviously following their conversation that Frasier said to him, “Why don’t you pull up a chair and join us?”

This was exactly what happened to me in 1975 when I was working in Taipei for Conoco Taiwan.  Minus the prompting bit.

My colleagues had taken me to a famous beef noodle place, Chia Chia Beef Noodles 佳佳牛肉麵.  We were speaking in English, which was (and still is) very common in Singapore between people of Chinese ethnicity (ditto between those of Malay/Indian ethnicity) but something totally unheard of, even inconceivable, in Taiwan, perhaps right to this day.

A young man at the next table was so curious about this, and probably keen to learn some English too, that his eavesdropping visibly progressed in stages.  

After the initial quick, startled jerk of the head around to see who were speaking English at the next table, he then turned his head to partially face us, so as to better catch what we were saying, looking at us out of the corner of one eye.  

Not getting very far with that, he then started leaning more and more towards us.  

In the end, he actually turned round completely and pulled his chair up to our table to sit at our table between me and Peggy, nonchalantly looking from one to the other as we chatted away!  

(Taipei, Taiwan, 1975)

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Figs for goitre (American: goiter) (Singapore)

The Chinese name for figs is 无花果 wúhuāguǒ / “not-have flower fruit”.

We initially got these two grafted fig trees for the shade their big leaves could provide our kitchen from the fierce tropical sun, no more.  The variety out in S.E. Asia (don't know about other Asian countries) doesn't have serrated leaves that the European ones do but straight edges.

All we knew was that one could dry the huge leaves, then boil them for drinking as a cooling tea (凉茶 liángchá).  Cooling teas are common throughout S.E. Asia, not for cooling down externally from the tropical heat, but for cooling down the internal heat built up from the air temperature, as well as from eating food that’s too “heaty” or yáng 阳 (yáng 阳 as in yīn 阴 and yáng 阳), e.g., deep fried food, or food of a yáng nature (such as durian).  We also used the green leaves for wrapping up fish that we used to get in huge quantities (my father worked as a bookkeeper at a wholesale fishery place, so we got the unsold ones for free or at greatly discounted prices) to give to friends and relatives.

Throughout the year, the trees would produce clusters of fruit that would go from green to brown, shrivel up, then drop off.  We had to sweep them up and burn them in our garden bonfire (allowed in those early days).  

Twice a year — mid year and end of year — during the ripening seasons, the clusters of fruit would ripen, turning deep maroon and attracting lots of birds, then insects when the birds left big gaping holes in the fruit.  Whatever was not eaten by the birds would drop off, leaving a pulpy mess on the ground, with more insects buzzing around the piles, which made clearing up quite an odious task.  We also had to leave them to dry in the sun for longer before burning as they were so wet.  We used to curse and swear at the trees for giving us all this work.

One day, a little old lady turned up at our gate, asking if she could have some of our figs.  Yes, certainly, we said, but learning from the 灵芝 língzhī lesson (see blog entry: The Tree Fungus), we decided to ask up front this time, “What do you want them for?”  

She said her granddaughter was suffering from a serious case of goitre (called “big neck frame” in my dialect), so bad that her eyes were full of pus and swelled up until she couldn’t see.

When it first happened, the family took her to the (Western medicine) doctor, who said she had to have surgery, and it would be S$600 — as a point of reference, my third sister’s salary as a bank clerk some six years later was S$160 / month.  They agreed, even though the Chinese generally don't like having their bodies cut up.  

Back it came three months later, equally serious.  Back to the doctor.  Another operation.  Another 600 dollars.  

Another three months later, it returned, equally bad.  The family decided that even if they had a bottomless wallet, they couldn’t let her be cut up every three months, so they started asking around.  Someone said to let her eat figs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, nothing else.  So, the old lady went around looking for fig trees, and found us.  We gave her two sack loads, and started eating figs ourselves, recommending and giving them to neighbours, friends and relatives too.  

Six months later, the old lady came back for another lot.  Her granddaughter’s condition had improved hugely:  the eyes didn’t swell up this time, no pus, the relapse was six months later, not three months later like before.  

We gave her another two sack loads, and never saw her again.  

I cannot be entirely sure that she hadn’t decided she couldn’t keep coming back to us for more figs and managed to source another supplier, but I’d like to think that it was because her granddaughter’s goitre had been cured for good by our figs.

(Singapore, mid-60s)

The tree fungus (Singapore)

灵芝 língzhī (ganoderma*) is a tree fungus which is much prized for its near-magical healing properties.  

芝 zhī is the ganoderma bit.  灵 líng, as a noun, means “spirit” and adjectivally, it means “effective” (for cures in particular), among other things.  As demonstrated by the “spirit” and “effective” definitions, 灵 is almost synonymous with “magical” or “miraculous” when used in the name of this tree fungus.  灵芝 is gold dust in Chinese medicine or dried mushroom terms.  They are featured in carvings on gift boxes or decorative boxes, in sculpted paintings or paintings in relief that the Chinese like hanging on the wall, and often look like bonsai trees in these representations.

There’re classical Chinese stories featuring people having to steal 灵芝 from the heavily guarded gardens of the Heavenly Emperor at great risk to their own lives to save an ailing parent (usually a mother) on the point of near death.  I only knew it as a name as a child, and as a vague image from the films.  

We had three casuarina trees in our front garden at home, one of which had a semi-circular woody growth sticking out of the lower part of its trunk, about half an inch thick.  It was so hard that I could play entertaining as a child and put my toy cups on it.  
One day, a man rang our bell and asked us if he could have it.  It’d always sat there, sticking out of the tree trunk, doing nothing, and we didn’t know what to do with it, so we broke it off and gave it to him.  A few months (or years??) later, it grew back to its former size, and the man came again.  Each time, he’d give us a box of chocolate to thank us.  After a couple more times, we asked him what he wanted it for.  He said it was to be used as a Chinese medicinal ingredient.  We didn’t know enough about Chinese medicinal ingredients, so we just let him have it.  About four months ago, some 50 years on, it suddenly struck me that it might be 灵芝.  Googling it produced the image of that semi-circular woody growth in our casuarina tree trunk.  We could’ve made a lot of money from it, but didn’t recognise its value at the time.

(Singapore, mid-60s)

* Ganoderma is a genus of polypore mushrooms which grow on wood, and include about 80 species, many from tropical regions.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Christmas hamper (London)

I was walking down my road one evening after Christmas when I came upon a black rubbish bag sitting out on the pavement atop a bamboo chest, which was obviously to be thrown out as well.  “That bamboo chest is in good condition,” I thought.  “It’d be a shame to throw it out.”  The chest was not empty like I’d thought, so I opened it to see what was inside, and discovered a leg, among other things.

I enlisted the help of the neighbour in my old flat, one floor above me (I’d put her name forward for my flat when I was moving out), and together we carried the chest home.  Once home, I was able to examine the contents at a more leisurely pace than out on a street pavement, and found that there were actually two legs, not one.  Whole legs of parma ham!  With the skin on and complete with bone!  Why would anyone throw anything so expensive out?

I went through the rest of the contents, and found: a bag of amaretti (Italian almond-flavoured biscuits), a block of parmesan cheese (vacuum-sealed), straw on the bottom of the chest and some wine tags.  The lid had a plain sticker on it, saying:  “Miss Mary Smith, xx Leigh Road, Highbury, Inghilterra.”  It was obviously a Christmas hamper with the bottles of vino removed.  Perhaps an unwelcome admirer from Italy, hence throwing out the rest of the hamper.  I could even understand why the much-prized hugely-expensive parma ham was binned, as one would need a slicer, or it’d at least be extremely fiddly to cut through the skin and fat to get at the ham, heavenly delicious though it might be.  But the parmesan cheese still in its vacuum pack?  Maybe not a cheese eater??

My landlord Fred knew a Mr Pezzani whose house was 10 minutes’ walk away by Highbury Fields, who used to run an Italian restaurant, so we invited him round to try and solve the mystery.  He sniffed, scraped, and tasted a bit of one leg, and pronounced it perfectly edible, seconding my puzzlement.  As he had a professional slicer at home, I gave him one of the legs.  Every two weeks, he’d slice up a batch and deliver them, and I’d give some to Fred and Nora.  This went on for quite a few months, and when the supply from the first leg was exhausted, I gave Mr Pezzani the second leg, and we started the next cycle of fortnightly parma ham for another few months.

Mrs Pezzani, in the meantime, had gone to Italy on holiday and returned, reporting she’d had a look around the shops, and found that my block of parmesan cheese was worth something like £120, as it was the Regina brand—the queen of parmesan cheese in more than just its brand name.

So, retrieving that binned bamboo chest to recycle it had netted me something like a few hundred pounds sterling of fine Italian preserved food!

(London, 1987)

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The pay phone (London)

I moved into Belfiore Lodge in Highbury on 28 December 1985 after waiting for a year and a half for one of the attic flats.  It was a Victorian house that looked like it’d come out of a Dracula film set, with a Virginia creeper covering the front wall, honeysuckle and sweet peas covering the side wall, and turrets and a wind vane on the roof.  The interior was equally time-frozen with, among other things going back to the 1940s–1960s, a pay phone on the wall in the ground floor hall.  There was a bell on the ground floor, and another on the attic floor just outside my door, so that all eight flats (from basement to attic) could hear the ringing.

One day, I was at home all day, marking 200 ‘O’ level Chinese exam papers when the phone rang.  Not expecting any calls, I ignored it.  The ringing went on for a long time, then stopped.  A few minutes later, it started again, going on and on and on.  This happened at least half a dozen times, each time ringing for ages.  It was driving me to distraction.  I wanted to run downstairs, pick up the phone and shout at the caller, “Will you stop ringing!  You’ve been ringing non-stop.  Can’t you tell nobody’s home!?!”

(London, 1986)

The glass boot (Vienna, Heidelberg and London)

A Singapore childhood friend, Jin, came to London for a 10-week course at the London Business School, then went on a 21-day package tour of 20 European cities with his wife.  In Vienna, they played a game involving taking turns to drink lager out of a glass boot.  When the lager got down to the level of the horizontal section of the boot, especially if it was confined to the tip of the boot, the drinker had to tilt the boot gently or the lager would suddenly gush out and splatter him/her, earning him/her a penalty drink.  It was a vicious cycle:  the more the drinker is penalised, the less able s/he is to handle the tilting of the boot, so the more s/he is penalised.

Jin and his wife loved the game, and thought, “We must get hold of one of these glass boots, so that we can play this game when we get home to Singapore.”  They were told that this game was one played in German-speaking countries.  The next stop, Heidelberg, was also their last Germanic venue, therefore their final opportunity to track down a glass boot.  They arrived at 4.30pm, half an hour before closing time, so they rushed around, scouring the shops, ignoring the famous castle.  Eventually, they got their glass boot.  Happy at last.

When they got back to London, they decided to do more shopping during their three-day stay.  As they emerged from Oxford Circus Tube station, the first thing that met their eyes was a shop window displaying these glass boots, and at a much lower price than what they’d paid in Heidelberg.

(Vienna, Heidelberg and London; 1985)

The assertiveness of Americans 03 (London)

An old friend Valerio’s American wife Natalie came over one summer to London with her sister Roberta on a short visit, and stayed at a hotel in Paddington.  The Paddington area has lots of multi-storey terraced houses turned into hotels.  

One day, Roberta was walking around their hotel room in only her underwear when Natalie spotted a man at a window on the same floor of a house across the road, looking their way.  Natalie drew Roberta’s attention to this, at which Roberta said, “It’s HIS problem, not mine!”

(London, 1990s)

The assertiveness of Americans 02 (London)

I was working at the Apple Mac in the equipment room on the third floor at SOAS on a Saturday, meeting a deadline, when a newly-arrived young American academic approached me, asking where he could get something to eat for lunch.  I took him to a sandwich bar near Russell Square Tube station.  He ordered a sandwich, it cost 42p, he paid, and got 8p in change.  He said to the woman, “I gave you a pound.  You should be giving me 58p in change.”  The woman said, “You did not give me a pound.”  The American said, “Yes, I did.”  The woman said, “But there’s no pound coin in my till, so you couldn’t have given me a pound.”  The American said, “That’s YOUR problem, not mine.  I know I gave you a pound.”

(London, 1990)

Friday, 7 February 2014

Double standards 01 (Taiwan)

When I was working with Conoco Taiwan 1975-76, we’d have visiting geologists and geophysicists from other offices.  The usual practice in those days, in Taiwan and Singapore, was to ring up the airline company and ask if (a) the flight in question was on time; (b) the passenger had actually got on.  This was to save us a wasted trip to the airport in case the flight was delayed or the passenger had missed it.

For one such phone call, I decided to use Mandarin out of courtesy to the host country, since Mandarin was their working language, even though the default language in Singapore tended to be English for official phone calls.

This was what took place between me and the staff member at Northwest Orient, with the conversation conducted in Mandarin:

NWO:  (In Mandarin) Northwest Orient.

Me:  (In Mandarin) Hello.  I’d like to know if Flight 123 from San Francisco, due to land at 10.30am today, will be arriving on time.

NWO:  (Brusquely, in Mandarin) Wait a minute.  (Receiver clattered loudly onto the table as she went to check.)  Yes, it is.  (CLICK -- she hung up before I could ask my next question.)

I had to re-dial the number.

Me:  (In Mandarin) I’m ringing up about your Flight 123 from San Francisco which is landing at 10.30am today.  Can you please check your passenger list to see if Mr John Smith is on that flight.

NWO:  (Brusquely, in Mandarin) Wait a minute.  (Receiver clattered loudly onto the table as she went to check.)  Yes, he is.  (CLICK -- she hung up.)

A few weeks later, another visitor was coming over from our head office.  This time, I decided to speak in English.

Me:  (In English) Hello.  I’d like to know if Flight 456 from San Francisco, due to land at 2.30pm today, will be arriving on time.

NWO:  (Politely in English)  Just a moment, please, Ma’am.  (The receiver was placed gently down onto the table as she went to check.  Then, very politely) Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am.  Yes, Flight 456 from San Francisco is landing on time at 2.30pm.  (Here, I was expecting her to hang up.)  Is there anything else, Ma’am?

Me:  (I was so surprised I nearly dropped my telephone.  In English, and in shock)  Oh yes, yes.  Can you check the passenger list and see if Mr Robert Jones is on that flight.

NWO:  (In English, politely)  Just a moment, please, Ma’am. (The receiver was placed gently down onto the table as she went to check.  I then heard her say to her colleague in Mandarin) 死*美国人,问东问西的! / “dead American, ask east ask west case-of” / Goddamned American, all these questions
(Politely in English)  Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am.  Yes, Mr Robert Jones is on the flight.  Is there anything else, Ma’am?

So, when I used Mandarin for my first call, she thought I was one of them, and treated me with brusqueness and rudeness.  When I used English for my second call, she thought I was American, and treated me with courtesy, even if only superficial.  Whilst there are undoubtedly nice people out there as well, this is unfortunately something I’ve encountered regularly throughout all the Chinese-speaking countries and even as recently as 2011.

(*死 sǐ / “to die” is used in Chinese as a noun-prefix for expressing extreme odium towards something/someone, when berating or cursing someone.)

(Taiwan 1975)

Double standards 02 (Taiwan)

My secretarial training had taught me to pick up the telephone within a couple of rings, and to screen calls.

One day, a woman rang up for my boss.  I went through the usual routine:

Me:  (In English)  Hello, Dr Page’s office, can I help you?

Woman:  (In a haughty voice, in English) Is he there?

Me:  (In English)  May I know who’s calling, please?

Woman:  (In English) Rose Chang.

I’d never heard of a Rose Chang among my boss’s professional or personal contacts.

Me:  May I know from which company, please?

Woman:  (A slight pause — she seemed taken aback that she had to provide all these details.)  XYZ Company.

I’d never heard of an XYZ Company either among my boss’s professional or personal contacts.  It was a Chinese name.

Me:  (In English) Sorry, can you repeat that, please?

Woman:  (In English)  XYZ Company.

Me:  (In English)  Sorry, how do you spell that, please?

Woman:  (Brusquely, in Mandarin) 把我接过去,好不好!(Put me through, will you!)

I was only 21 and had never been trained to be assertive, so I just put her through, then sat there at my desk, shaking with indignation at her atrocious treatment of me.  

After the call, my boss came round and said, “Do you know who that was?  The president’s daughter-in-law!”  I said, “I don’t care if she’s the president herself.  She shouldn’t have been so rude.”  My boss said, “Yes, she did wonder about you and asked me where you’re from.  When I told her you’re from Singapore, she said, ‘Oh, I see.  No wonder her English is so good.’”  I said, “Is she saying she would’ve been more polite to me if she’d known I am not from Taiwan?  That’s an equally appalling attitude!”

(Taiwan, 1976)

Antenatal training (Taiwan)

Some Chinese believe in 胎教 tāijiào / “womb education” = antenatal training.  This is a process of starting to mould the baby even before it is born — in looks, in temperament, in intellect.  The pregnant woman would listen to soothing music and look at beautiful pictures, including photos of beautiful people in the hope that the baby will develop good looks as a result.  (The other side of this 胎教 is to avoid going to places like the zoo, so that the baby won’t end up looking like a monkey.  Blog to come on this.)

I was often invited to social events organised by the Western community in Taipei, mostly but not exclusively within the oil community.  A German couple in this Western community had a son, Marko, who was five years old: blond, blue-eyed, really angelic, especially to the Chinese eye.  

One day, I went in to the office with photos of my day out at the beach with a Dutch/German group the previous weekend.  The girls in the office, all unattached at the time without even a boyfriend, never mind a husband, took a great fancy to Marko, who was featured in a couple of close-up shots.  They asked for a copy of Marko’s photo.  “What for?” I asked, “You don’t even know the boy.”  They said, “For when we get pregnant, so that we can look at his photo and give birth to a beautiful baby.”  What, a blond blue-eyed Chinese baby??

(Taiwan 1975)

Indian man’s experience in China (China)

A white Danish friend and her Indian partner are both fluent speakers of Chinese.  The Indian partner is a naturalised Dane.

Back in the late 70s or early 80s, this Indian man went travelling around China.  In those days, foreigners were restricted to certain areas only (e.g., the big cities), outside of which they’d need to have special travel permits for, to be applied for beforehand.

He arrived in a smaller town one day and was walking along the road when a Chinese chap in the street asked him, in Chinese, 你是丹麦来的吗?nǐ shì Dānmài lái de ma? / Are you from Denmark?

Now, this Indian man is very dark-skinned, so how on earth did the man conclude, spot-on, that he was from Denmark?  And Denmark of all places, too, rather than, say, a more likely country like Brazil, where they have dark-skinned citizens.  Also, how did the man know this Indian man could speak Chinese?  I shall leave the reader to draw his/her own conclusions on both counts.

(China, late-1970s / early-1980s)