Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Decongestion Peruvian-style? (Peru)

When the Lima-to-Pisco bus was in the outer suburbs of Lima, about to leave Lima altogether, we suddenly heard the bus conductor shouting out “Pico, Pico!” to the clusters of people by the road surging towards the bus, hoping to embark.  We sat bolt upright in our seats and went into a momentary panic:  Had we got on the wrong bus?!?  With this being the outer border of Lima, how were we to find our way all the way back to the centre of Lima to catch the right bus to Pisco?  A quick check with a fellow passenger told us that “Pico” and Pisco are the same thing.  When, three days later on the Ica-to-Nazca bus, we heard the conductor shouting out, “Naca!  Naca!”, we had the same instinctive moment of panic, then thought, “Ah, maybe another Pico thing,” but checked with a fellow passenger all the same.  

Maybe, just like the wildly shifting advertised departure times of long distance buses, and the discrepancy between the advertised departure time and the actual departure time (cf. the Pisco-to-Ica bus in blog Peruvian ways), this is yet another way to filter out overcrowding, with tourists leaping off in a panic, thinking they’d got on the wrong bus.

(Peru 1986)

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Why do we say someone is "ratty" when they're in a temper (London)

During my Chinese lesson with my French student Hélène (aged 71), I was doing my usual literal breakdown of a compound.  In this case, the sentence was what a mainland Chinese friend once said of me to my mainland Chinese colleague: “她心很好,脾气不好。” (tā xīn hěn hǎo, píqì bù hǎo / “she heart very good, spleen qì not good” = She’s kind-hearted but bad-tempered.)

(Look online for the different interpretations of qì 气 / 氣 as it’s a bit complex to go into here.  The most simplistic take on qì is:  it’s the vital energy that flows through our body, and any imbalance in the qì in any part of the body, e.g., one of the organs, will manifest itself in some form, e.g., illness, or, in the case of the comment above, one’s temper.)

Hélène didn’t understand what “spleen” was, and as usual, as a keen learner, when she didn't know a word, she’d immediately go and get her English-French dictionary.  She found that it is “la Rate” in French (Rate pronounced like raht, which sounds a bit like rat in English).  

A light bulb moment for me:  that is why we say someone is ratty when they're bad-tempered and irritable!  (cf. "splenetic" in English)

ratty |ˈratē|
adjective ( rattier rattiest )
resembling or characteristic of a rat: his ratty eyes glittered.
• (of a place) infested with rats.
• informal shabby, untidy or in bad condition: a ratty old armchair.
[ predic. ] Brit. informal (of a person) bad-tempered and irritable: I was ratty with the children.
rattily |ˈratl-ē|adverb,
rattiness noun

(London 2015)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Halloween (London)

I do one shift a week at the pub, and this is the time of year when I can safely say to customers dressed up for Halloween, “You look horrible!” and they like it!

(London, 2015)

The assertiveness of Americans 05

Part-heard (I was multi-tasking), Tuesday 27 October, an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Womans Hour with two famous women authors, one of whom is an American well-known for her novel which was “controversial for its portrayal of female sexuality” (Wikipedia).  

At one point, the American author mentioned a kinky sex scene in her new book, which features the word “pee”.  The interviewer nervously reminded her that it is half-term this week (with school children being at home on half-term holiday), which means they have to be careful about their language*.  Undeterred, the American author said, “But I think even people in half-term pee.”  (My impression is that the interviewer was nervous about the kinky sex scene description rather than the mere word “pee”.)

In spite of having been warned about needing to be prudent with her language, the American author went on to use the V-word (in female anatomy) a few minutes later, which sent the interview into a near fit, saying she (the interviewer) would be summoned before the big boss after the interview. 

This reminds me of the American mother of one of my flatmates during my final year at university.  She was turfed out of her flat for non-payment of rent, so he moved her into our flat.  One day, I found her tipping a pot of old stew into the toilet bowl.  When she saw the look of horror on my face, she said, “Why not?!?  You crap down it, don’t you?”

*Why, then, did they schedule, not to mention broadcast live (i.e., no censorship possible), an interview on such a delicate subject during half-term and with an American author who’s known for her outspoken views??

(London, 2015 and 1981)

The assertiveness of Americans 04

I heard this story some 30 years ago:

An American is walking around the campus of one of the Oxford University colleges.  He stops a passer-by, “Excuse me, can you tell me which direction the library is in?”  The passer-by says, in a posh British upper class accent, “My dear fellow, don’t you know you should never end a sentence with a preposition?”  The American thinks for a few seconds and says, “OK.  Excuse me, can you tell me which direction the library is in, asshole?”  

(Heard 1986)

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Quick response at dodging (London)

When I first started working at the pub, nearly three years ago now, a young crazy colleague Giacomo used to burst into song loudly at me, opera-fashion, whilst doing the floor (delivering/collecting plates and collecting glasses), “I LOVE YOU!”  At other times, he’d “attack” me from behind, in the style of Kato of Pink Panther fame, Inspector Clousseau’s sidekick, sometimes throwing in the sound effects as well.  On one such occasion, on my way to the kitchen, I managed to block a mini flying kick from him from behind, which was witnessed by a customer sitting at a high table in the corner.  The customer was impressed, “I saw that!  That was really quick response on your part!”

Nearly three years on, Giacomo has left, but my dodging instincts have not waned.  A few weeks ago, I was walking towards the kitchen when, last minute, I dodged a near-collision with Matt who had come up from behind.  He later commented on how fast my reaction had been.

I told Matt about Giacomo, adding that I don’t seem to have trouble with avoiding anything that moves.  It’s non-moving ones that I still collide with on a regular basis:  chairs, table corners, outstretched feet, bags left on the floor.  Anything that can be bumped into or tripped over, I will.  My foot will somehow find its way into the loop of a bag sitting innocently on the floor.

It’s Rugby World Cup at the moment, until the end of October, so the pub is filled with rugby fans before they go to Wembley.  Three Saturdays ago, a chap was sitting on the outside edge of one of the high tables with his four friends, on a high chair, so that his knee was on a level with my stomach.  I managed to walk straight into it.  All five men drew in a sharp breath, and expressed concern.  I laughed it off with, “That was a failed rugby tackle.  I must put in more practice.”

See also blog entry o-chyo-ko-chyo-i.

(London 2015)

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Not seeing the wood for the trees (China)

The Chinese for this is: 见树不见林 jiàn shù bù jiàn lín / “see tree not see wood”

A white British student, Jackie, was walking along the road somewhere in south-west China with Pam, another white British fellow student of hers, when a local farmer came from the opposite direction leading a bovine.

The man asked Jackie, in Chinese, if she knew what the animal was.

Jackie answered, in Chinese, “水牛 (shuǐ niú / “water bovine”).

The man said, in Chinese, “黄牛 (huáng niú / “yellow bovine” / brown cow),” and went away laughing at her ignorance.

What amazes me is that the man had failed to notice that Jackie is not Chinese and is, therefore, not expected to speak Chinese at all.  Yet, he was tickled pink by the fact that she couldn’t tell a water buffalo from a brown cow.

(China, 2007)

You know you’re getting old when… : 3 (London)

...even visibly pregnant women (six months?) refuse your offer of a seat.

...even old men offer you their seat.

(London 2015)

Monday, 28 September 2015

How to keep in touch with your pet dog (London/Italy)

My Italian student has brought her father over to London after his operation, so that she can keep an eye on him for a few months.  He does not speak English and has no friends here; his daughter, son-in-law and grandson are out all day at work or school, so he’s bored and has been talking about going home.  

He also misses his dog.  I suggested that he could get his friend, who looks after the dog for him, to use Skype for him to see his dog on the screen and talk to it.

Success!  My student reported last week that the dog recognised him on the screen and got very excited.  

Now we just need to teach the dog to go on Skype itself, so that the friend needn’t be troubled each time.

(London/Italy, 2015)

Update 19 October:  My student said the dog’s now even pawing at the screen to try and touch the master’s face.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

You know you're getting old when… : 2 (London)

… people refuse your offer of help with their luggage up/down the stairs.

(London 2015)

See also:  You know you're getting ancient when...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

How to dent male chauvinistic behaviour (Singapore)

My father absolutely loved parties.  When he was put in charge of my maternal grandparents’ grocery shop, he used to rope the villagers in for a drink and titbits, all grabbed off the shelves, once the shop was shut for the day.  

Chinese entertainment style is to have cooked dishes served up one at a time, piping hot, fresh from the wok, without any rice*.  So, my father would make the two shop employees stay behind and cook the food, which produced a lot of grumbling in the kitchen.

When he was found to be hopeless at managing the shop, and was relieved of that post, he transferred his partying to his home, with the womenfolk taking the place of the two shop employees.

He’d set up a big round table in the living room, complete with a lazy Susan.  The women (my mother, paternal aunt, maternal aunt, us four daughters, the two servant girls) would be slaving away in the kitchen.  

Once the men had had time to settle down and take their first sip of alcohol, we’d serve up the first dish.  We’d then retire to the kitchen and quickly eat whatever had been put aside for us, keeping an eye in the meantime on how far the men had got with the first dish, to be ready to cook and serve the second dish.  Sometimes, instead of putting aside some food for ourselves before serving up the dish, we’d eat whatever of the previous dish the men might’ve failed to polish off, which would mean us eating only after they’d had their fill of the dish.

This would go on, dish after dish, with us snatching fleeting feeding moments behind the scenes.  It might be a party at home, but the number of dishes would easily run up to eight, if not the standard ten for a banquet.  Serving five dishes over the span of an evening’s entertaining just didn’t seem hospitable enough.

One day, my second sister, the rebellious one, who was in her late teens at the time, refused to take any more of this treatment.  “We’re the ones doing all the work.  Why should we eat behind the scenes and between courses, sometimes even only the leftovers, like servants?”  

She went to the living room, pulled up a chair and sat down at the table.  The men’s eyebrows went up.  Annoyed, my father asked: “What are you doing here?!?”

“Well, I have worked very hard, helping to cook all this food, so I think I have earned the right to sit down at the table and eat it comfortably.”

Shamed by this, the men’s memory was suddenly jolted:  “Oh, where’s your wife?  She should be sitting down, eating with us too.”

My father never held another men-only party after that.

(Singapore 1960s)

*Rice is the cheap and filling ingredient, which the host would not serve for fear of being thought miserly.  At a proper banquet, the rice dish (a fried rice) is usually Course No.8 of 10 courses, in case the guests are still hungry after all the meat and seafood.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The hidden message in Chinese food 06: consuming vinegar (Taiwan)

Another Conoco Taiwan local staff lunch outing was to a dumpling restaurant.  I was absolutely amazed at how many dumplings my colleagues could each eat.  Even the women could eat something like 25 of them at one sitting.

The simplest dip for dumplings is soya sauce and vinegar (醋 cù).  One can also add one or all of the following: chilli oil, sesame oil, garlic paste, ginger, chopped spring onion, coriander.  Anything that one fancies really, I guess.

My youngest colleague, Mary Fu, then only 21, had her saucer filled with something like one part soya sauce and four parts vinegar.  

Cray, as usual, immediately remarked, “哇,你很会吃醋!wa, nǐ hěn huì chī cù / Wow, you very much know how to eat vinegar.”  

This was an obvious pun, because 吃醋 chī cù / “eat vinegar” in Chinese means “to get jealous”, so Cray was saying to Mary, “You get jealous easily (You’re very good at eating vinegar).”

Mary’s instant response was, 我只会吃湿醋,不会吃干醋 / wǒ zhǐ huì chī shī cù, bù huì chī gān cù / “I only know how to eat wet vinegar, not dry vinegar”.

(Taiwan 1975)

The hidden message in Chinese food 05: eating bean curd (Taiwan)

As already mentioned in another blog, the lunch outings for the local staff at Conoco Taiwan often had ten, if not 12, people at the table.  

On one occasion, there was no lazy Susan on the table, for some reason.  The accountant, Cray Chang, who was sitting at the other side of the big table from me, asked me, looking at the bean curd dish placed in front of me, “我可以吃你的豆腐吗?wǒ kěyǐ chī nǐ de dòufǔ ma? / Can I eat your bean curd?”  Because Chinese meals are communal, I happily said, “Of course you can!”  

Everyone roared with laughter.  Cray’s assistant Peggy said, “You’ve walked into his trap!”

It turned out that 吃豆腐 chī dòufǔ / “eat bean curd” means “[a man] taking advantage of [a woman]”, usually in the sexual way.  

Some 20-odd years later, in my middle age (and therefore less easily embarrassed about such things), I discovered the imagery behind this phrase:  bean curd has the same texture as a woman’s breasts.

(Taiwan 1975)

The hidden message in Chinese food 04: carrying a whole watermelon in one’s arms (Taiwan)

One day in the summer, I went out for a quick simple lunch in the back alley with the accountant Cray Chang (the one who gave me the advice featured in the blog entry Gender Politics) and his assistant Peggy Lü.  

On the way back, I decided to buy a watermelon for everyone in the office to share.  The head count came to 8 bosses, 8 secretaries, and 4 drivers, so I bought the biggest one I could see.  

The accountant offered to carry it for me, and I said, “No, it's all right.  I can carry it in my arms.”  In Chinese, for carrying something in one’s arms (e.g., a baby, a big bundle), embrace-fashion, the verb is 抱 bào.  Cray immediately said, “不行,你还没结婚,你不能抱西瓜 / No, it won’t do.  You’re not married, you can’t carry a watermelon.”  抱西瓜 bào xīguā is one of the Taiwanese euphemisms for being pregnant.

(Taiwan 1975)

The hidden message in Chinese food 03: making a coy announcement (Taiwan)

For the two years that Conoco Taiwan was drilling off the west coast of Taiwan, it was decided that it would be much easier to fly over from Singapore (the hub for the oil wells in Indonesian/Malaysian waters) all the oil rig personnel, because of the hassle involved in getting them visas and accommodation in Taiwan.

The men worked two-week shifts on the rig, so there was a fortnightly flight carrying them from, then back to, Singapore on the company’s Electra plane.  

The Singapore office would throw in a black doctor’s medical bag containing correspondence between the Singapore and Taipei offices.  This didn’t take up much room, so my eldest sister (who was at the time the geological secretary in the Singapore office) would throw in all sorts of goodies for me:  a scarf/hat/shawl set knitted by her for me, and other things that I wouldn’t be able to get in Taiwan.  

One day, a packet of durian* sweets turned up in the bag, so I went round the office, offering them to my colleagues.  They said, “Oh, are you treating us to sweets?” which, in Chinese, is: 请吃糖 qǐng chī táng / “treat eat sugar”.  The Chinese make a lot of remarks that a Brit would find too obvious (and therefore totally unnecessary), such as “Ah, you’ve come back” / “Ah, you’re home”, so I thought nothing of it, and said, “Yes!”  Everyone laughed and asked me when the happy event would be taking place.  

It turned out that the Chinese way of announcing one’s engagement is to offer sweets to friends and colleagues.  

If one wanted to know when a friend or colleague would be getting married, one would ask, "When are you going to treat us to some sweets?"(什么时候请我们吃糖啊? shénme shíhòu qǐng wǒmen chī táng ah?

*durian: a spiky tropical fruit the size of a rugby ball that’s native to S.E.Asia.  Regarded by the locals as the “king of fruits”, it is similar to cheese in the intense love/hate feelings it arouses.

(Taiwan, 1975)

Friday, 7 August 2015

The hidden message in Chinese food 02: how to sack an employee (Taiwan)

When I was working at Conoco Taiwan (1975–76), the staff would go out regularly to eat at restaurants as a group, often numbering ten or even 12.  We’d have a lazy Susan* on the table, so that everyone would be able to reach all the dishes.  

On one occasion, my boss, the Chief Geologist Dr. Page, came along, so we ordered a whole Chinese roast duck.  It came with all the slices laid out in the middle of the platter, and the head, wings, and parson’s nose in the same respective positions as on the real bird.  One of my colleagues twirled the lazy Susan and everyone waited until it came to a halt, then the rest of them laughed at the person the head of the duck was facing.  

It was explained to Dr. Page and me, the two outsiders, that if an employer wanted to remove a particular employee, he’d instruct the waiter to serve the duck dish with the head pointing at the person about to be sacked.  

My immediate thought was I hoped the duck dish would come last, so that at least the poor person could eat his/her meal in blissful ignorance of his/her impending fate.

(Event happened Taiwan, 1975)

* lazy Susan:  “a revolving stand or tray on a table, used esp. for holding condiments.”

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The hidden message in Chinese food 01: based on homophones

The language of Chinese food is observed in everyday life events, usually those that are of some significance.  

On the wedding day, the man goes to collect his bride, and they serve tea, on their knees, to her parents, for her to say farewell to them, before going to his place to serve tea, on their knees, to his parents, for her to pay her respects to her new parents and for them to welcome her into their family.  

Then the couple retire to their bedroom, where they share a bowl of sweet clear soup:  sweet for a sweet start to their new life together as a couple; the clear bit is probably partly because most Chinese soups are clear, and partly for the obvious symbolism (clear as opposed to cloudiness).  

In the soup are: 枣子 zǎozi (red dates), 花生 huāshēng (peanuts), 桂圆 guìyuán (dried 龙眼 lóngyǎn / “dragon eyes”; lóngyǎn is more commonly known in English as longan, after the Cantonese pronunciation; the dried form is called 桂圆 guìyuán and is a common ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine), and 莲子 liánzi (lotus seeds).  

The zǎo of the red dates is the same sound as the zǎo of 早 / early.  

The shēng of the peanuts is the same character for “to give birth to”.  

The guì of the dried dragon eyes is the same sound as the guì of 贵 / treasured.  

The zǐ of liánzi is the same character as that for “son”.  

So, the ingredients add up to the phrase: 早生贵子 zǎo shēng guì zǐ / “early give-birth-to treasured son”.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Gender politics (Taipei and London)

Came across this excerpt in Anne of Windy Willows (by L.M. Montgomery) (Book 4 of the Anne of Green Gables series [of 6]):

It was not, perhaps, quite so pleasant to call at the houses themselves and ask for subscriptions for the benefit of the Dramatic Club, but Anne and Lewis took turns in doing the talking.  ‘Take the men if you’re going in that dress and hat,’ Rebecca Dew had advised.  ‘I’ve had a good bit of experience in canvassing in my day, and it all went to show that the better-dressed and better-looking you are the more money — or promise of it — you’ll get if it’s the men you have to tackle.  But if it’s the women put on the oldest and ugliest things you have.’

This reminds me of the advice I was given by the accountant at Conoco Taiwan at the end of my two-year stint, when I had to go to the tax office to get a certificate  proving I’d paid all the taxes required, in order to get an exit permit from the country.  He said something that had never occurred to me before, even at age 22:  “When you go to the tax office, if you have a choice of windows, go to the one served by a man, even if the queue is longer.”  

“Why?  What’s the relevance?”  I asked.

“People are usually nicer to members of the opposite sex,” he said.

I did as he’d advised, standing in the longer queue served by a man, and watched the body language in the meantime.  Sure enough, the manner of the man, and the woman at the other window, varied depending on the sex of the customer.  The accountant was right.  Since then, I’ve tried to put his advice into practice wherever possible, even if it means being stuck in a longer queue.

Some seven years later, I noticed that a female Cantonese-speaking colleague in the film company in London seemed initially a bit “threatened” by me professionally, as she wanted to go on the shoots in China and was worried she might be displaced on account of my being able to speak Mandarin.  When she discovered that there was no danger of that, she started to relax towards me, and then went over to the friendly side socially, singling me out for lunching out, just the two of us — no, she is most certainly not gay!  My interpretation is:  not being one to dress up in a feminine and “sexy” way, I posed no challenge to her where men are concerned.  It’s what I call “sibling rivalry”, which generally works between members of the same sex, people in the same ability group, people in countries geographically close to each other — seemingly “racist” jokes are usually about their neighbouring countries, e.g., the Brits with their Irish jokes, the Swiss with their Austrian jokes, the French with their Belgian jokes. 

(Taipei 1976 and London 1982–4)

Monday, 1 June 2015

Simplistic but effective communication (Singapore)

An ex-student, Sheila, British, was teaching English at a secondary school in Singapore.  One day, she walked into a clothes shop.  This was the conversation between Sheila and the shop assistant:

Sheila:  (pointing at one of the dresses on the clothes rack)  Can?  (for trying on)
Shop Assistant:  Can!

Sheila went off to the changing room, and upon emerging,

Shop Assistant:  Can?
Sheila:  Can!

Sheila paid and left.

(Singapore, 1980s)

Friday, 22 May 2015

How to expedite matters (London)

A heavily pregnant student Iroda’s mother had come over from Uzbekistan to be with her at, and after, the birth of the grandchild.  She had come along on the day of Iroda’s in-class listening test, in case the baby decided to arrive early.  The test was only an hour in all, so I thought the mother could just sit in a corner of the classroom for that hour, rather than ask her to go and kill time in a café somewhere, especially since she was unfamiliar with London and could not speak much English.  Normally, I could sign people in as my guests, but the porter at the building where the test was taking place didn’t know me and, for some reason, was reluctant to let her in, even after my explanation.  As it was getting close to the start of the listening test, I decided I could not afford to lose more time bargaining with him, so I put this question to him, “Do you know how to deliver babies?”  He immediately granted the mother access.

(London 2010)

Update: 010116:  Iroda the student said the son Nuron was born after the exam, so that was a bit of a close shave.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The motorcycle lane (Taipei, Taiwan)

Valerio mentioning the motorbikes of Rome, in response to my blog entry Traffic around the world: Taiwan 2 has brought back this story.

When I was working at Conoco Taiwan in 1975–1976 in Taipei, the place was teeming with motorcycles, as they were cheap to run and also a quick way of getting around.  The riders would zip around, and in between, the bigger vehicles, making a nuisance of themselves.  So, the authorities set aside a motorcycle lane for them, on the pavement side, i.e., the slowest lane, with railings erected, to stop them from shooting out into the main traffic lanes except at junctions.  Therefore, once one got into one of these motorcycle lanes, one was stuck in it until the next opening, which can be some distance away.

Taxis and other vehicles were allowed to enter these slow lanes to pick up or drop off passengers.

One evening, after an office party, I took a taxi home, and offered my colleague Mary a lift part of the way home for her, so that she wouldn’t have to take two buses, just one.

Taipei’s streets are set up in the traditional format for Chinese cities — in a grid — so streets would run in a north-south or east-west direction.  We were going along Nanjing East Road, and I asked the taxi driver to turn left at the first main junction, because that was where Mary could catch a direct bus home.  He ignored me, and carried on.  Mary said she could catch a bus too at the next junction, but again the driver ignored my request to turn left there.  He must’ve thought he wasn’t going to let himself be dictated to by a girl — there’s no other explanation for his behaviour otherwise.  I know, from first hand experience, that London taxi drivers, who have to pass The Knowledge test, baulk at being given the fastest route by a passenger.

When he finally did turn left at the third junction, which was no good for Mary now for her direct bus, I decided not to carry on my journey with him, and asked to be dropped off.  He went into the slow lane, which was chock-a-block with motorcycles and taxis, and Mary and I got out.

My first mistake:  as I paid him, while still in the cab, I decided to give him feedback:  “I was going to take your cab all the way home but I won’t now, because you were rude.  You refused to turn left, not just once but twice, when I asked you to.”

Second mistake:  we then jumped into the taxi behind him.  

The rude driver was so incensed at being told off by a mere slip of a girl (I was 21 and was often told I looked 16, which is quite inconvenient at times) that he left his taxi and came right up to my taxi, shouting at me through the window pane:  “What do you mean rude?!?  You bloody c..t!  How dare you call me rude?!?  I will not have a woman call me rude!  You f...king broad!  Damn you!!”  Luckily I’d wound up the car window when I saw him approaching, because he looked perfectly capable of punching me in the face. 

The new driver asked me what had brought this on.  I told him.  He shook his head in sympathy, sucked in air and said, “Oh, unwise, very unwise.”  I know, I know, I know now.

We were stuck behind him in the slow lane, making us sitting ducks.  The rude driver ranted and raved, raved and ranted, on and on and on.  Our driver was helpless too, having to sit it out.  The taxis and motorcycles behind us started to sound their horns angrily, as the traffic lights at the next opening went green, then red, then green, then red, then green.

After what felt like at least ten minutes, the rude driver walked back to his vehicle, but he obviously hadn’t quite let off enough steam because he then stood by his car door, and fired off more tirade from there.  I could hear him clearly from my new taxi, even with the windows wound up.  The traffic lights went green, red, green, red, green, and the horns kept up their cacophony of furious hornets.

After what seemed like yet another ten minutes, the man finally got into his taxi, and drove off, but slowly, as if he was still considering stopping and getting out to do more shouting and yelling.

For at least half a year after that incident, I didn’t dare flag down a brown/maroon taxi again, in case it was him.  I’d stand for ages shivering in the cold and in the rain, letting all the brown/maroon taxis go, rather than risk it.  If I saw a brown/maroon taxi in my neighbourhood, I’d break out in a sweat, thinking he’d tracked me down.

(Taipei, 1975/6)

Cultural practices and cultural usage of language (England)

Vita had come to England in 1968 when the student riots took place in Milan, and gone to live in Oxford.  Where she’d grown up, in the mountain area of northern Italy (near Monte Rosa), the local practice was to drape the duvet and other bedclothes over the window sill first thing in the morning, if it was sunny and dry, to air them.  She continued with this practice in Oxford, but the locals said it was a bit vulgar, as it looked like she was announcing, and showing off, her bedroom activities of the night before.  She was horrified they should’ve taken it that way, and thought they were a bit racist towards her.

As she was studying full-time, she got a local woman to baby-sit her son for a small fee, and they got on well.  One day, the English woman called her “duck”, which is apparently offensive in Italian.  Hurt, Vita terminated the woman’s baby-sitting services and never spoke to her again.

It wasn’t until years later, she told me, that she found out the Brits use it as a term of endearment.

duck 3 |dək| (also ducks )
noun Brit.
dear; darling (used as an informal or affectionate form of address, esp. among cockneys).
ORIGIN late 16th cent.

(England, 1968)

Thursday, 16 April 2015

An encounter with an old Chinese lady (London)

I was on the Piccadilly Line Tube train for Chinatown, to have lunch with an ex-student at 12noon.  An old Chinese lady (late 70s / early 80s) got on a stop after me, at Finsbury Park, barely able to get on the train from the platform, in spite of help from a walking stick.  She laboriously made it to the second seat from the door, and her legs wobbled as she struggled to sit down, saying something aloud.  The young woman in the seat next to the door, a Westerner in her early 20s, just watched her without even offering a hand to steady her.  I was at the other end of the row opposite her, and thought she'd be bound for Chinatown, so I'd help her on the stairs up to the ground level.  

Sure enough, when we got to Leicester Square, the old lady struggled to get up.  There were too many people between her and me for me to get to her to help her up, so I got out at my end, and went to her door to offer her an arm.  She was greatly taken aback, and started to say she could manage.  I stayed with her all the same, and even when we got to the stairs and she tried to dismiss me, I remained behind her, going up step by step at a snail's pace.  Then, I helped steady her from the stairs to the escalators, and then escalator to the turnstiles, and thereafter the stairs to the ground level.  

I asked her where she was going, but didn’t understand a word of her form of Cantonese.  At the turning into Lisle Street, one of the streets in Chinatown with a high density of Chinese restaurants, I gestured, and she nodded her head.  As we walked along slowly, I saw out of the corner of my eye the words engraved on the metallic skirting board of the building along which we were walking:  The Hippodrome Casino.  

When we got to the entrance, she stopped and said, “This is where I’m going.”

(London 2015)

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Concept of time 2 (China)

Filming done, we were about to head for Pakistan via the Pamirs and the Karakorum Highway when we discovered that the chassis of the mini-bus that had been with us practically all the way during the 37-day film shoot was not high enough for the boulder-strewn roads of the Pamirs and the Karakorum.  The only suitable vehicle was a 40-seater local bus.  This is the conversation that ensued:

D(river):  So, what time do you want me to come and pick you up tomorrow?
Me:  Be here [to our hotel] at 5am.
D:  Beijing time or Xinjiang time?

By now, a crowd had gathered round to watch, and pitch in with their opinions, which is a very common occurrence in China.

Me:  What time do you work by?

I thought I was being flexible by going along with his choice of time system.

D:  Beijing time or Xinjiang time?
Me:  Whichever time you work by.
D:  Beijing time or Xinjiang time?

The man obviously just wanted to be given an order, not the power to choose.

Me:  What time do you have on your watch now?
D:  6pm.
Me:  Well, just go by your watch and be here tomorrow at 5am on your watch.

I thought that was the perfect solution, since our watches were synchronised.

D:  Beijing time or Xinjiang time?

In the end, I just gave up and decided for him, “Beijing time,” since that was the official time.

Now, 5am Beijing time would be, geographically speaking, 1am Xinjiang time.  Presumably, the man needed to know so that he would go to bed by the Beijing time system, whereas he’d usually go by Xinjiang time in his daily routine, like those men eating noodles at 2.30am (Beijing time).

(China 1988)

Concept of time 1 (China)

After a very long day on the road, with the lone star’s motorcycle suffering puncture after puncture after puncture, we arrived at our Dunhuang hotel at 2am instead of the scheduled 5pm (in time for dinner at 6.30pm).  Once I’d registered our arrival, got ourselves allocated rooms, and helped move the 54 boxes of filming equipment, the crew sent me off for a crate of beer—always my second task once I’d done the hotel registration and seen the filming equipment safely ensconced in the rooms.

Where to get beer at 2.30am?  The outskirts of Dunhang (in Xinjiang, S.W.China) had been in total darkness on our way in, with no street lights at all, so there couldn’t possibly be anywhere open.  Even the hotel restaurant was closed.  

Still, I ventured out into the unlit street, wondering where to start, when a young man just suddenly loomed out of the darkness on the pavement.  Amazingly, when I asked him if there was a shop around where I could buy beer, he led me to one about 100 yards down the road!  Even more amazingly, there were actually a few men slurping piping hot noodles!  At 2.30am!  

As soon as we entered, one of the noodle-eaters asked my young man what the time was.  He asked, “Beijing time or Xinjiang time?”  

It turned out that China only has one time zone.  It does make things easier in one sense, with everyone having the same time reference, but considering its vast size, which must require three or four time zones, it’s a crazy system in a way.  No wonder people were still eating noodles at 2.30am!  Because Xinjiang time is really four hours behind Beijing, so it was still only 10.30pm for them.  

Somehow, the locals just coped with it:  by carrying Xinjiang time in their heads for things like eating and being out and about, it seems.  I wonder how they manage to get enough sleep if they go by Beijing time for official business and Xinjiang time (four hours behind) for their social activities?  I know that the Chinese have 2-hour lunch breaks, so maybe the Xinjiang people just have a longer siesta, so that they can still be slurping noodles at 2.30am?

(China 1988)

Friday, 27 March 2015

Traffic around the world: Taiwan 2 (Taiwan)

I’d personally witnessed a massive traffic jam at the biggest roundabout in Taipei, when my bus was caught up in it for some three hours.  

It was a huge roundabout, with the radial roads feeding into it being multiple-laned both sides.  (You can google it under “biggest roundabout in Taipei” or “Ren’ai Road and Dunhua South Road roundabout in Taipei 台北仁愛路敦化南路圓環” and see the aerial view of this monstrosity for yourself.)  In the middle of the roundabout was a grassed-over piece of land about the size of a football pitch, if not bigger, and planted in the centre, a raised lookout pavilion with a traffic policeman monitoring the situation.

The standard highway code rule about roundabouts is:  traffic approaching a roundabout will slow down and only enter it if there’s enough room.  Well, this is for most other countries, but as that journalist had discovered in his research (see blog entryTraffic around the world:  Taiwan 1), Taiwan drivers go by their own instincts—one can’t even say “by their own rules” here, as it’s totally anarchic with them.

The drivers in the radial roads would squeeze in, even when the space in the roundabout was only big enough for the front half of the car, or maybe even just a bumper.  In a way, I can see the thinking behind this:  as the traffic was so dense, there would never come a time when the gap was big enough for the whole car to get in.

In the UK, if this happens, the driver in the roundabout would let the squeezer-in get in, by not moving forward.  Taiwan drivers, however, are too pig-headed—with a strong element of face involved here, I suspect—to give way to the cheeky chappie who has the audacity to cut in, so the car already in the roundabout inched forward and totally trapped the squeezer-in’s car.  However, what he didn’t seem to realise, until it was too late, was:  with the nose of the squeezer-in’s car stuck between his car and the one in front of him, he himself couldn’t move forward either.  A split second of yielding would’ve meant everyone being able to move, but these bloody-minded drivers seemed more intent on teaching the perpetrators a lesson, even to the extent of cutting off their own nose to spite their face.

Now, imagine this same scenario happening simultaneously at every single one of the radial road junctions, and you have a massive gridlock, with nobody able to move, literally, even an inch.  This was what happened on the day my bus was stuck in the traffic for three hours.

Cars started to honk, drivers started to stick their heads out of their windows and shout, cursing, swearing and waving their fists.  

The noise drew the attention of the traffic policeman in the pavilion to the stalemate.  He looked around the full 360°, and saw that there was a gridlock at every single junction of the roundabout.  He climbed down and walked all the way across his green island up to one of these stalemate sites, to assess at close quarters how much room there might be for manoeuvre, and who should move to allow whom to inch in or out.  The policeman had to climb over bonnets in some places, so tightly packed together were some of the cars that he couldn’t even squeeze a leg in between car bumpers.

The policeman went round all the junctions, and when he’d found a less tight spot, he’d direct the inching, car by car, junction by junction, stretch by stretch of the roundabout.  Sometimes, he had to walk back down a radial road to see if he could find a gap there, and if so—which could be a few cars away from the roundabout—he’d get the driver to inch back, then the one in front of him to inch back, and so on until he reached the squeezer-in at the roundabout, so that the squeezer-in could then inch back (out of the roundabout) and let the pig-headed driver move on.  Sometimes, once he’d got the roundabout car in front of the squeezer-in to move forward, the policeman would let the squeezer-in get in fully.

Three hours later, my bus was able to move towards the roundabout.  Still, the delay was worth it, as it provided an interesting experience witnessing at first hand what Taiwan drivers are like.

(Taiwan, 1975)

Monday, 23 March 2015

Traffic around the world: Taiwan 1 (Taiwan)

When I first arrived in Taipei, late December 1974, my local colleagues warned me to take extra care out on the roads.  They said, “In other countries, as a car approaches a pedestrian crossing, it slows down.  If there’s someone waiting to cross, it comes to a halt.  In Taiwan, if the driver sees someone waiting to cross, he’ll speed up, especially if the person’s already started to cross.”

One of the three radio operator colleagues, Mr Tan, told me about a book by a journalist from Taiwan who’d done research on traffic issues around the world.  

For noise pollution levels, the journalist ranked these regions in ascending order: Germany, Italy, India, Taiwan.  

In another study, on parking in a parking lot, the journalist discovered:  in most countries, people would drive in through the entrance, park in the middle, and leave the parking lot through the exit.  In Taiwan, there’d be a cluster of cars around the entrance, and another cluster around the exit, with nothing in the middle, as everyone wants to be nearest the openings for a quick getaway.

On road accidents, the journalist had this to say:  in America, other drivers would drive the victim(s) of a road accident to the nearest hospital.  In Britain, people would phone for an ambulance and let them deal with it.  In Taiwan, a crowd would gather around the injured party, and be heard to utter, “He looks so young!”, “Oh look, he’s bleeding!”, “That’s an expensive-looking shirt!”

(Reminds me of a similar joke, back in the 70s, about Hong Kong people injured in a car accident.  The first thing the owner of an expensive car, say Mercedes Benz, would say would be, “My Mercedes!  My Mercedes!  Is it all right??”  If a bystander pointed out that his arm was bleeding, he’d say, “My Rolex!  My Rolex!  It’s damaged!”)

(Taiwan 1974–76)

Traffic around the world: Jakarta (Indonesia)

I had been giving private tuition to a group of Indonesian students whose parents had sent them to Singapore for their education.  They kept telling me I must go and visit their country, so during the end-of-year school holidays in December, that was what I did, staying with student Honi Handaya’s family.

On my second day, Honi took me out to explore Jakarta.  

The driving was hair raising, to put it mildly, with smaller vehicles like motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws (called becak [pronounced beh-tjak], from the Fujianese dialect pronunciation of 馬車 / 马车 mǎchē / “horse vehicle”) weaving their suicidally fearless and reckless way in and out of the throng of buses and cars.  Sitting in one of these becak, you are only at the level of the wheel of a bus, so it was very frightening to be about a hair’s breadth from these tons of metal thundering past.  Also, the trishaw rider is behind the passenger, which means that the passenger doesn’t have the driver between him/her and the vehicle in front to take the impact of any collision.

After that leg-wobbling experience, I suggested we take the bus instead.  Honi took me to where a cluster of people were standing by the road—that was the bus stop.  No post, no board with bus numbers, let alone a board setting out the routes.  Just a bunch of people to mark the spot.  I asked Honi, “How do we know which bus is going where?”  She said, “The conductor will announce the stops.”

Whenever a bus—unmarked on the front—arrived, the knot of people would surge forwards as it approached, looking expectantly and listening intently.  The conductor would hang out of the door, shouting out all the names of the stops from that point on.  Those who heard the name of their stop on the list would leap on; the rest would step back to wait for the next bus.  And the whole process would repeat itself the next time a bus approached.

(Indonesia 1973)

Exploiting loopholes (UK)

In the 22 March 2015 BBC Radio 4 programme On Your Farm—about a sheep farmer in the Shetlands*—the journalist commented to the farmer that the cost of transporting the sheep to markets anywhere must be very high, thus adding to the price of his sheep.

This reminds me of another Shetland sheep story reported in the newspaper some three decades or so ago.  Because their farms were so remote, Shetland sheep farmers could get a discount on the ferry if they were transporting sheep.  One (or more?) such farmer would take a sheep with him in the car when he went shopping in the nearest town on mainland Scotland so that he would qualify for the discount.

Around the same time that this story came out, or a bit earlier, shops in the UK were not allowed to open for business on a Sunday unless they were selling vegetables.  A furniture store started selling carrots for something like £300/lb. (0.4536kg), giving away a “free” sofa with the carrots.  (I’m not sure how long it took the authorities to catch up with them and close the loophole.)

*Shetland Islands |ˈSHetlənd| (also Shetland or the Shetlands )
a group of about 100 islands off the north coast of Scotland, northeast of the Orkneys, that constitute the administrative region of Shetland; pop. 21,800 (est. 2009); chief town, Lerwick. Together with the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands became a part of Scotland in 1472.
Shetlander noun

(UK, early 1980s)

Friday, 20 February 2015

Peruvian ways (Peru)

February 2015:  Unearthed my journal from my first trip to Peru in June 1986, and these excerpts (in chronological order of occurrence as we travelled from Lima up to Cuzco) just make me chuckle:

Excerpt 01:  Pisco.  We packed and bought tickets for the 3.15pm [long distance Pisco-to-Ica bus].  The wall chart at the bus terminus says 3pm and 3.30pm, and then the bus left at 2.40pm!  I suppose this is how you filter out overcrowding — by wrong-footing the passengers with crazy, shifting time-keeping!

[NB: Being a long distance bus service, they wouldn’t have had a bus leaving at 3pm, one at 3.15pm, one at 3.30pm, which is too frequent at 15-minute intervals, so it must've been purely the Peruvian fluid time-keeping. ed.]

Excerpt 02:  2.5-hour journey [from Ica] to Nazca.  Well, add to that an hour late in departing from Ica.  The driver then stopped for lunch about half an hour out of Ica despite protests from passengers.

Excerpt 03:  Nazca.  The two strange American chaps (one doing weights, the other very dark skinned with greyish hair) were leaving for Chile via Tacna.  Their bus was something like an hour late — we should’ve booked the 7.30pm instead of the 9.30pm then for Arequipa!  Sure enough, our bus came at about 10.30, and then we found two women in our seats.  The driver finally got a chap with an empty seat next to him to move to the back.  I’m sure two other chaps also got moved off the bus to make room for us but maybe I was wrong.

Excerpt 04:  Cuzco.  Arrived from Juliaca after sundown.  Collected at the train station by mini-bus, 10 of us tourists packed in like the locals are, and driven through unlit streets.  We were told that we were going this way into town because the direct route had suffered the effects of an earthquake.  At one point, the driver turned left into another unlit street and I saw the headlights of two mini-buses coming towards us, side by side.  It was one overtaking the other just before the junction!  I let out a long and low, “Ohhhhhhhhh…!” and the other passengers laughed at me.  Somehow, in a Peruvian sort of way, we managed to avoid a headlong collision.  With nine gringos in the bus, it was laughed off — the locals would probably not even have noticed it, let alone bat an eyelid.

[Gringo: what Peruvians call (usually white) foreigners — one version says this is from when the latter first arrived and, homesick, used to sing around the campfires, Green Grow The Rushes (in their own homeland).  You can google for more precise versions.]

Excerpt 05:  Cuzco.  Outside the [hotel] bathroom window which overlooks the Indian shacks by the Machu Picchu railway track under the bridge, the train was leaving noisily for Machu Picchu, hooting its way out of town like it does into town.  I remember the TV series Great Railway Journeys of the World — the one on Peru was about the world’s highest railway:  as the train was getting out of town, it had to hoot continuously because there were people selling, working, resting on the tracks.  People gathered up their things and chickens, and one peasant had a goat which refused to budge, so the train had to stop until the animal could be persuaded.

Excerpt 06:  Cuzco.  Tried to look for the Viasa office to change date of departure from Peru from the 20th to the 27th, giving us one more week to enjoy Cuzco.  It turned out to be a nightmare — everyone (including the traffic policeman in a little kiosk in the middle of the long road where the Viasa office was meant to be, according to the guide book) giving us wrong directions rather than saying they didn’t know.  

[ed., 2015:  This was something the guide book did warn us against:  Peruvians, or maybe all South Americans, will just give you any answer rather than say they don’t know.]

Excerpt 07:  Cuzco.  The man at the camping equipment hire shop said we could go back the next morning to collect the equipment, saying that they open at 9.  I said, “So we’ll see you at 9.”  He said, “No, come at 10.”  I said, “I thought you said you open at 9?”  He said, “Yes, 9, 10, something like that.  Come at 10.”

(Peru, 1986)