Thursday, 22 December 2016

My “spouse” (London)

A student, Tim, who used to attend my evening classes was transferred to Hong Kong for a few years.  When he got back, his company was approached by a mainland Chinese bloke about Mandarin classes for their employees, so they took him on.  It turned out that he only used his own teaching experience to get a foot in the doorway, for he then sent someone else along to do the teaching.  In this case, a young woman from Sichuan in her early twenties.

This young lady would often turn up five minutes late, but leave on the dot.  She’d also come to class without having prepared enough material for the full hour, so that after 40 minutes, she’d run out of material.  She’d then say, “Oh, can you go and do a photocopy of this for me.”  By the time the student got back from the photocopying, it was time for her to leave.

One day, when talking about his (gay) partner during a conversation class, Tim used the mainland Chinese term 爱人 (àirén / “love person”), which is for one’s spouse (applicable for both husband and wife).  

The young lady teacher wrinkled up her nose and said, “No, no, no, no, no!  It’s such an old-fashioned term!  Nobody says that anymore!!”

Tim then said, “我的丈夫 [wǒ de zhàngfu / my husband].”  

The teacher said, “No, 太太 [tàitai / wife]!”  

Tim said, “丈夫.”  

Teacher: “No, no, 太太!”  

Tim: “丈夫.”  

Teacher: “No, no, no, 太太, 太太!”

Tim said, in English, “I’m gay.”

Silence, as the teacher tries to process this.  Then, a climb-down:  “OK, 爱人 then.”

Tim thought, “One nil!”

(London 2012)

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Catching the last Tube train (London)

An ex-student on the evening programme who had gone to teach English in Japan and was back in London one summer for a short visit threw a party at his place in Brixton to see all his friends.  In the end, I left the party just in time to catch the last Tube train to Highbury.

Sitting opposite me in the otherwise empty compartment were two young men — in their late teens or early 20s — obviously stoned, with a glazed look.  Each was clutching a plastic bag full of chocolate bars, out of which they fished a bar each.  What followed was most surrealistic.  Every move of theirs was done in s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n: t-a-k-i-n-g o-u-t the chocolate bar from the plastic bag, u-n-d-o-i-n-g the wrapper, b-i-t-i-n-g i-n-t-o the chocolate bar, c-h-e-w-i-n-g the chocolate.  They were so stoned they could barely keep their eyes open as they worked their way through the chocolate bars.

About five stops after Brixton, one of them spotted me sitting opposite them, put his hand into his plastic bag, took out a chocolate bar and offered it to me.  (And there I was, worrying about being in danger.)  I wasn’t sure if saying no might offend them, but went for it all the same, “No, thank you, I’ve just had a big meal, I have no more room.”  They went back to their chocolate bars.

Another five stops later, the train arrived at Kings Cross, a major interchange stop for other Tube and overland trains.  As it was the last train, the driver waited for a good five minutes, to allow people the chance to catch it.  

The two young men were still on their slow motion journey through their chocolate fix when they suddenly realised we were at Kings Cross.  They cried out, “Oh sh-t, that’s our stop!”, and with unexpected agility, leapt up and shot out of the train just as the doors were closing.

I was the one left wondering if I’d been the stoned one and imagined the whole surrealistic experience.

(London 1990)

Surrealistic journey home on the night bus (London)

After a post-shift drink on the closing shift, I jumped on the N29 bus at Wood Green at 3am.  There were already two men on board, both in their late 20s or early 30s.  One of them seemed very angry, yelling and shouting —I wasn’t sure if it was at his friend or at the driver, as I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, only picking out the words “Oyster” [a bus/Tube fare payment card], “payment” and “violation”.  Must be something to do with fare payment, then.  People have told me that Wood Green is a rough area, and this wasn’t the first time I was witnessing a late-night / early-dawn incident.  A month ago, a passenger who couldn’t pay just sat down and refused to get off the bus.

After a minute or two shouting at the driver through the cab window, the shouty man then came and sat behind me, with his friend in a seat the other side of the aisle. 

He carried on shouting at his friend, on and on, stop after stop.  At one point, I thought perhaps I could calm him down a bit by distracting him, so I said, “Would you like a slice of angel [sponge] cake?”  He stopped yelling at his friend, turned to me and said in a polite voice, “That’s kind of you, darling, but no, thank you, darling,” and went back to shouting at his friend.  

I found it most interesting that he was able to switch from being so cross to being courteous, then back to being so cross again.

Some ten stops later, I got up at Manor House to get off.  He interrupted his shouting to say to me, “Bye, darling, take care, mind how you go!”  I thanked him and wished him a safe journey.

I went the rest of my way home thinking what a surrealistic experience that had been, but smiling as well at how the angry young man still managed to be so polite to me.

(London, 2016)

Love-hate relationship (London)

An evening student Mike in Grade 1 asked me one day after class, “Can you explain something to me.  I’m in a love-hate relationship with a woman from China.  She keeps saying things like, ‘Your Western food is rubbish.  Your Western cars are rubbish.  Your Western houses are rubbish.  Your Western culture is rubbish.’  Why does she do that?  I’m doing Chinese because of her, which proves I have respect for her culture, yet she just slags off mine at every opportunity.  I don’t understand why she’s doing it.”

I said, “You said you’re in a love-hate relationship with her.  Where’s the love bit?”

(London 1993)

Saturday, 10 December 2016

British take on life

A colleague at the university asked, when I got back from a summer trip to Finland, how my holiday had gone.  

I told him I was most impressed with the Finns:  

  • They were polyglots, speaking Finnish, Swedish and English (and German — see blog entry: The Helsinki fishmonger).
  • Their transport ran on time.
  • People picked up things like empty crisp packets from village greens if they came across them.
  • They put thought into their architectural designs.  For example, the main entrance for a block of flats opens outwards, so that in the event of a fire (and the likely ensuing stampede), people wouldn’t get trapped in the building with everyone pressing against the first person trying to open a door opening inwards.

At the end of this list of praises, the colleague said, “So, very boring then?”

(London, 1996)

Judge not a book by its cover (Singapore)

When I was in Primary Four (aged 9), we got a new Mandarin teacher, Mrs Leong, from Malaysia.  In those days in British colonial Singapore, anyone who spoke Chinese, rather than English, would be treated as second-class citizens.  Such was the pervasive practice at the time, with Singaporeans treating their fellow citizens with contempt (and toadying to white people).

One day, Mrs Leong went along to a government department to process an enquiry, which involved getting a signature from that department.  

In the 60s, Hokkien (the Fujian dialect) was the Chinese lingua franca (versus Cantonese these days), so between Singapore Chinese, the default language of communication would be Hokkien.

Mrs Leong, herself a native Hokkien speaker anyway, put her request, in Hokkien, to one of the two girls on duty, who then told her brusquely and superciliously, in Hokkien, “OK.  Go and wait over there.”

As Mrs Leong sat and waited, the girl gossiped with her colleague, in Mandarin, about some other girl’s latest boyfriend, filing her nails at the same time.  Ten minutes later, Mrs Leong went up to the counter and asked politely and meekly, still in Hokkien, “Can you please see what’s happened to my request?”  The girl barked, “I told you to wait, didn’t I?  Just go and sit down!”

Another ten minutes later, Mrs Leong asked again, only to be treated in the same way.

Yet another ten minutes went by.  Mrs Leong tried a third time.  This time, after barking at Mrs Leong, the girl then turned to her colleague and said, in Mandarin (thinking Mrs Leong wouldn’t understand it), “Honestly, these people!  They give you a heart attack, I tell you!”

Now, the reason the girl was so dismissive was Mrs Leong using Hokkien (implied: had not done any formal schooling, thus placing her even lower than a Mandarin-speaker), on top of her body language and her modest style of dressing (triggering the girl’s initial visual assessment that she must be a country bumpkin).

As it turned out, however, Mrs Leong had a university degree from the National University of Taiwan, which was — in those days — a notch up from a degree from Malaysia, even one from Singapore.  The Mandarin she spoke was, therefore, without the Singapore / Malaysian accent.  (I’d personally noticed in 1977, after two years away in Taiwan, that Singaporeans — shop assistants, enquiry desk workers, stallholders — would treat me with a lot more courtesy as my Mandarin sounded “posh”, quite different from the local version.)

Mrs Leong had put up with the girl’s appalling manner long enough.  This latest remark by the girl had gone a bit too far.  She said, in “posh” accented Mandarin, “What do you mean, ‘These people’??  What do you mean, ‘Give you a heart attack’??  How dare you?!?  Let me remind you that you are a civil servant, and that your salary comes from my taxes.  I was making a simple request — just getting a signature from your department — yet you made me wait and wait and wait.  Not only that, you spoke to me so rudely each time.  And now you say I give you a heart attack?  HOW DARE YOU?!?  Get me your manager.  I want to make a complaint.”

The girl scooted off to her manager’s office, and returned with the signature within two minutes.

(Singapore 1967)

These foreigners don’t understand the language anyway: 03 (England; USA)

British student Alex’s father, Bill, had done military service in India in the 1950s, and picked up some Urdu.  Back in England upon retirement, he was in a mini-cab in the north of England, trying to get somewhere, when he heard the driver asking his bookings office, on the car radio, how to get to the destination address.  Bill quietly said to the driver, “You don’t know the way, do you?”  The driver almost crashed the car.  (England)

Bill’s job had also sent him to Taiwan for a couple of decades (as well as Singapore and Sri Lanka).  Alex’s sister, Beatrice, went to the American School there, and could speak fluent Mandarin.  She then attended university in LA.  One day, in the ladies’ loo, she found two Chinese girls complaining freely, in Chinese in the presence of Beatrice, a white girl, about life in the West:  these Westerners and their awful food, their culture, everything under the sun.  After enduring five minutes of this, Beatrice said to them, in fluent Chinese: “If you dislike the West so much, why don’t you just go back to your country then?”  The girls’ faces were a right picture.  (Los Angeles)

Also read: These foreigners don’t understand the language anyway: 01These foreigners don’t understand the language anyway: 02

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Spooky encounter (London)

A friend’s Facebook posts had said if one were to see feathers, they were blessings from angels, so I've been saying, "Thank you, Angel," every time I see one. 

Told my friend Jackie about this. 

Yesterday, we were walking in a small local community park (veg and flower beds, and pond) when a butterfly came over to me and landed briefly on my right hand.  Jackie said, "That's better than a feather from an angel!"

She'd recognised it as a comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album).  We googled it, and guess what they're commonly called??!!?  Spooky or what?

The Comma is a species of butterfly belonging to the family Nymphalidae. Its irregular wing edges are characteristic of the Polygonia genus, which is why they are commonly called anglewings.

Update 31 August: I've just realised it's "anglewings", not "angelwings"!!! The eyes see what the brain wants them to see...!

(London 2016)

Friday, 19 August 2016

Coping without an alarm clock

Being a night owl, I’d always had trouble getting up in the morning.  

One of my cousins resorted to a Heath Robinson solution, rigging up his radio to the alarm, but with the radio being at the other end of the room and on maximum volume, so that he had to get out of bed to get rid of the din.

My own trick during my primary and secondary school days was to move the alarm clock forward by half an hour, so that when the alarm went at 6:30am — the time I needed to get out of bed — the real time was 6am.  Very strange logic this, given that I knew in my head what the real time was.  Surely if I’d wanted to be woken up half an hour earlier than I needed to get up, to give me time to come round gradually, it’d have made more sense to set the alarm earlier rather than move the clock forward.  For some strange childish reason, my way of half tricking my brain worked well enough.

Later, I switched to something more effective, because being woken up earlier than needed meant that I’d just doze on.  What was supposed to be “just 5 minutes” would turn into an hour or, worse, longer, so that I’d end up being late.  A full bladder has its own mind and there’s no way one can sleep through an insistent full bladder.  

One year, a first year student Felix kept coming to class late.  When he said he needed to buy an alarm clock, I said, “You students are always skint — don’t buy one.  I’ll let you have mine on long loan, but the bladder is a very effective alarm clock, and it’s free.”   He nearly fell off his chair in surprise.

One needs to know, however, one’s own biorhythm — in this case, how long it will take a glass of water at bedtime to fill up the bladder.  If it’s 3 hours in your case, then going to bed at midnight for getting up at 4am means you’ll need to drink the water at 10pm, which makes you get up at 1am to go to the loo, then drink another glass of water for the 4am bladder alarm call.  

I know someone whose bladder sleeps through no matter how much tea she might’ve drunk before bedtime, so it doesn’t work for everyone.  Some people resent having to get up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, so it doesn’t work for them either.  I’m personally happy for my sleep to be interrupted if it means not missing a flight.

Another method which works for me is to go to bed repeatedly chanting in my head the hour at which I have to get up.  I found out (many years later, in 2007) from an ex-RAF pilot (in his 70s) that they were taught this method.  So, what I thought was my own peculiar invention turns out to be scientific enough for the RAF!

Monday, 1 August 2016

The bric-a-brac shop (London)

I lived for two years (1983–85) on Hornsey Road (a busy enough road parallel to Holloway Road) and walked past a bric-a-brac shop every day en route to the Tube station.  I'd see an old man (in his 70s?) standing at a lectern, looking out of the glass-fronted shop.  

One day, I waved at him when we made eye contact, and he waved back, which then became a routine.  A few more weeks later, I went in to have a look around.  It was actually like a very untidy room, being packed up for a house move, with a back room in the same condition, also full of stuff, not properly displayed for selling really.  He told me he used to have a double bric-a-brac shop in Cornwall.  

One day, he invited me to see the back of the house:  the walls of the corridor leading to the kitchen at the back were painted a bright blue with all sorts of sea creatures of garish colours (shocking pink octopus, e.g.) dotted about.  He said his wife had done it, and they felt like they were swimming in the sea every time they went down that corridor.  

The back door opened out on to a narrow passageway (between his kitchen and the garden wall with next door, leading to the garden at the back).  The walls had big eyes (size of dinner plates) painted on them (sideways, and from the front).  He said, "See?  The eyes are everywhere and looking at you!"  There were also frogs (about 2 ft?) painted on the garden wall, again from various aspects (front, side), all with big wide mouths.  He said, "Look, the frogs are laughing at you!"  In the wall were little plants (ferns and flowering plants).  I said, "Is it OK to have the wall covered in them?  Won't the roots crumble the brick wall in time?"  He said, "Oh, we don't care.  Walls can be re-built.  The plants give us such pleasure."  

Into the garden, and yet more wonderfully chaotic / chaotically wonderful vistas.  He pointed out the cobwebs for me to watch out for (i.e., not to break them or disturb the occupants).  There was a little pond in the middle, to which, he said, loads of frogs made an annual migration to come and spawn.  Goodness knows from where, considering it was a built-up area, all terraced housing, and goodness knows how they all knew his garden was a good place to come and produce the next generation.  Ah!  A thought has just occurred to me:  maybe it's the abundance of the cobwebs (and therefore of insects)...  He'd put out the seat of a broken chair in the middle of the pond, as a shade / refuge for the frogs when it rained or got too hot, he said.

Another day, when I was in the shop, a woman (in her 50s) came in, with husband meekly in tow.  She had a haughty look.  Took a look around, and took a fancy to a vase.  "How much is this?" she asked in a haughty voice.  The old man said, "£45."  "£45?!!?  For THIS??!  That's too much!"  The old man refused to budge.  When the woman left, he turned to me and said, "I could've let her have it for next to nothing, but I don't like people like her.  I want my things to go to good homes anyway, where they'll be treasured and loved."

One day, I remarked that his shop was not open at weekends.  He said he and his wife (armed with her camera) went on themed walks, which would last a few months, if not years, until they ran out of material for that theme.  They were on a disused railway lines theme at the time, having done a Christopher Wren churches stint.

Yet another day, he gave me a present:  My Country and My People, by Lin Yutang, of whom I’d heard but whose works (the other famous one being The Importance of Living) I'd not read.  He told me it’d been given to him by a Jewish woman during the Second World War.  He’d been one of the pilots flying out Jewish people from Germany.  She said to him, “I don’t have anything of great value to express my gratitude to you for getting me out.  I have only this book, which I’d like you to have.”

I moved out of Hornsey Road on 28 December 1985, into Belfiore Lodge in Highbury.  Some five years later, I went back to visit the old man, but the shop was shuttered.  I rang the bell of the flat upstairs, and his wife answered the door.  She told me he’d died of leukaemia.

(London 1983)

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

British sense of humour 01 (England)

A railway company covering the south of England has been beset by problems: staff sickness, industrial action, to name two.  Delays are so bad that some commuters have apparently lost their jobs because they regularly fail to get to work on time.

To solve the crisis, I read in one paper last week, the company decided to cancel 341 trains (per day).  The heading for the report in the paper said:  Better never than late!

(England, 2016)

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Chinese heart versus the Chinese brain

Re-reading Valerio’s comment of 07 Dec 2015, on my blog Why do we say someone is "ratty" when they're in a temper (London)

QUOTE Just yesterday I was listening to a radio show where they were talking of "functional medicine" as being the new trend, and this made me think that it may be just traditional Chinese medicine rediscovered… UNQUOTE

has just made me recall something on this front.

I tend to say outrageous things in the course of my teaching, because it makes students laugh, which leaves a deeper impression, in turn helping them remember the word more easily.  

Some 30+ years ago, when I was teaching newspaper (formal register) Chinese, we’d come across constructions such as 进行发展 jìnxíng fāzhǎn / "carry out development", using 发展 as a noun, when they could've used 发展 as a verb.   I'd tell the students that Chinese journalists got paid by the word count.  Time after time, I'd repeat this joke whenever we came across such usage of language in formal register Chinese.  A decade later, a student said she'd read somewhere that Chinese journalists DO get paid by the word count!

Another joke I used to apply to my teaching: in Chinese, one says 心里想 (xīn lǐ xiǎng / "heart inside think”)  for thinking something to oneself (“inside the heart”, without saying it aloud).  I'd say to the student, "The Chinese heart does all the emotional and intellectual processes.  The Chinese brain doesn't do any work.”  (I often say outrageous things because it’s more effective as a mnemonic, apart from making them laugh.) A couple of years ago, I heard a programme on BBC’s Radio 4 saying scientists had discovered the human heart does more than just pumping blood around the body.  So, if it is true that language usage reflects thought/cultural processes, the Chinese must already have known long ago that the heart is in charge of all the intellectual and emotional processes as well.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Punishing errant husbands (China / Hong Kong)

Came across a joke in a mainland Chinese magazine about a wife punishing a husband by making him kneel on the TV remote control.  Every time the channel changes, he gets whacked.

This reminds me of a Hong Kong Cantonese movie I saw in the ‘60s.

The first time the husband came home late at night from a drinking session with his mates, he found the lights blazing and his wife waiting on the sofa.  He got a telling-off.

The second time he came back late, the wife was sitting up in bed, feather duster in hand, thwacking it on the blanket as she ticked him off.

The third time, the wife had drawn a chalk circle on the floor, and he was made to kneel within the circle, while she slept on.  If she woke up in the middle of the night and found he’d dozed off in the circle, she’d thwack the feather duster and order him to get back to the kneeling position.

The fourth time, he had to kneel on an abacus within the circle.  This made it difficult for him to nod off.

The last time, he had to kneel on the abacus within the circle, and hold a full chamber pot on his head.

(China / Hong Kong)

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Machine translation: 01 (London)

A Slovakian ex-student’s mother had come to London to visit him for a week.  He had a full-time job, so I offered to spend time with her.  She teaches cooking back home in Slovakia, so I thought I could cook her some simple stir-fried dishes to demonstrate how simple and versatile stir-frying is, as practically any permutation is possible.  

In addition to the practical demonstration, I thought I’d also tell her about some basic principles: the different ways of cutting up the ingredients (e.g., cutting across the grain, apart from the obvious slicing, dicing, etc.), when to add which ingredients to the wok (e.g., crunchy bits first to cook longer, leafy bits at the end for a short blast), the food therapy properties of the ingredients (e.g., wood ear for cholesterol).

Since I only know three words of Slovak (“hello”, “yes”, and “thank you”) and Emilia’s English is lower beginner level, communication was not easy.  It then struck me that I could use my laptop and call up googletranslate in two windows: one for English to Slovak, and one for Slovak to English.  It’s not ideal, but would get a lot more across.

As Central Europeans are known for their foraging, I thought I’d teach her some dishes involving dried mushrooms and dried wood ear*, which are two common ingredients in Chinese cooking.  Surprisingly, she’d never heard of wood ear (which is a tree fungus), and did not recognise it when I showed her some.  So, I thought I’d start by telling her what it’s called: 木耳 mù’ěr (“wood ear”) in Chinese, Jew’s ear** in English.

The googletranslate conversation continued with Emilia asking questions: how long to soak the dried Jew’s ear for, how to cook it, what other ingredients to use with it, etc..  At one point, googletranslate showed up “dried synagogue” in English!

*木耳 mù’ěr, Auricularia auricula, family Auriculariaceae
**[from my Apple Mac built-in dictionary] Auricularia auricula-judae, family Auriculariaceae, class Hymenomycetes.  ORIGIN: mid 16th cent.: a mistranslation of medieval Latin auricula Judae ‘Judas's ear’, from its shape, and because it grows on the elder, which was said to be the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself.

(London 2012)

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Problematic surname (London)

A new student turned up one day to join the evening classes.  As he was not a beginner, I had to assess him so that he could be placed in the appropriate grade, so I went through the usual list of questions, starting with personal information.

I asked him:  nǐ xìng shénme / “you surnamed what” / What is your surname?
(“shénme" is often pronounced “shěme” as a shortcut.)

I heard him say: wǒ xìng shěme / “I surnamed what” / What is my surname?

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his answer: was he trying to check that he’d heard me correctly?  There was no other explanation for his reply.  

So, I decided to confirm my question: nǐ xìng shénme.

Back came the same answer from him.

This went on for a few more times, and I was starting to think he’d gone mad, not knowing his own surname.

It then emerged that his surname was Shama’a.

 (London 1990s)

Monday, 23 May 2016

How to get adults to eat their food (UK)

My first professional interpreting assignment was during my third year as a BA student, in 1980.  A textile factory in China had bought machinery from a firm in north England, and although the contract included servicing, the Chinese side decided to send over four people to learn how to fix minor technical problems so that they wouldn’t have to wait for a British engineer to go out.

The British side had booked the delegation into a five-star hotel, converted from a manor house sited in acres of grounds complete with oak trees and grazing black and white cows, and a French chef.

At the delegation’s first meal, I noticed that they hardly touched their lunch.  I’d helped them order from the menu: all Western food (grilled steak, beef stroganoff, lasagne, chicken Provençal, Lancashire hotpot), served with the usual potatoes (chipped, or mashed, or roasted) and vegetables (boiled french beans, carrots, peas).  They were, however, individual portions, so that each person had his/her own dish, e.g., the person who’d chosen chicken Provençal would just have chicken Provençal.

I decided to try something different, and had a private chat with the chef.  We would still order five dishes, but could the kitchen present the food in a Chinese way:  serve the meat and vegetables in separate dishes, substitute the potatoes with rice, and place all of them in the middle of the table so that everyone could tuck in?

The group polished off all the dishes, and at every subsequent meal, too, for the rest of their fortnight’s training.

(Accrington, Lancashire, England, 1980)

How to beat the pickpocket (Morocco)

An English assistant editor I used to work with on The Heart of The Dragon, Andy, was in Morocco.  He had been warned about pick-pockets, so he left his hotel room one morning with his trouser pockets stuffed with toilet paper, neatly folded like paper money.  

On the bus, he left a hand feeling his upper legs, but pretended he hadn't noticed.  When the man got off the bus, Andy followed him.  The man went into an alleyway to check his pickings.  Andy stood at the corner, peeking round.  

After the man found that his pickings were just wads of toilet paper, he looked up to see his victim watching him.  Talk about adding insult to injury!  

*Andy is the protagonist in my blog "How to do business" [in Turkey].

(Morocco, 1970s)

Thursday, 21 April 2016

How to backfire swearing: 1 (London)

When I was working on the Channel Four series The Heart of The Dragon in the early 80s, there was suddenly a spate of phone calls with the caller using obscene language (“Do you want to f..k?”).  One call even had a little child, who seemed barely able to speak (probably aged five), asking the obscene question, obviously being prompted by an adult in the background.

My response to the first call was stunned silence, not knowing what to do.  After a couple more, I decided to take action and went out to buy a whistle, intending to blow the whistle really loudly down the phone line.  Unfortunately, the nearest available whistles were from a children’s toy museum (Pollock’s Toy Museum in Scala Street).  Being toys, they all had a low muffled sort of pitch to them, nowhere near shrill enough to deliver a shock to the perpetrator.

I went for Plan B.  The next time the call came and the question was put to me, I said, “Pardon?” innocently.  The caller was tricked into repeating his obscene question, thus making the obscenity lose its impact.  After a few more “Pardon?”, he twigged and rang off in frustration with the parting shot, “Oh, f..k you!”  It felt so good to have the tables turned on him, with him being the flustered one.  The calls never came again.

 (London 1983)

How to backfire swearing: 2 (Singapore)

During a family gathering with my siblings on my recent trip to Singapore, our reminiscing unearthed the story of my father’s swearing, which I’d forgotten about.

In the three southern Chinese dialects that I can (sort of) speak (the Teochew/Cháozhōu 潮州 dialect, the Hokkien/Fújiàn 福建 dialect, and the Cantonese/Guǎngdōng 广东 dialect), one way of swearing at the other party is to say, “F..k your mother!” which is very insulting.

When my father got angry with us (the children) one day, he used this phrase.  We laughed at him, “But our mother is your own wife!”  So, he abandoned that phrase.

The next time he swore, he chose an alternative, which is the Teochew equivalent of the English “son of a bitch”.  The Teochew version is: 狗種仔/狗种仔 “dog breed child/children” (i.e., not human breed).  We laughed at him, “But we are your children, so you’re calling yourself a dog!”

He gave up swearing after that.

(Singapore 1960–70s)

Monday, 18 April 2016

One Chinese way of answering telephone calls

My landlord in Taiwan (1975–1976), a retired soldier who’d gone over to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek upon his retreat from the mainland, used to answer the telephone with, ‘喂,找谁?wèi, zhǎo shéi? / “hello, look for who” ’.  

I used to think that it was a bit unfriendly, especially since he had a loud booming voice, and that it was his own style.  Then, I recalled my second sister telephoning a friend of hers in the 60s in Singapore.  The friend’s name is Lee Diang.  

Unfortunately, in the Teochew (Cháozhōu 潮州) dialect, “who” is pronounced “dee diang”.  Equally unfortunately, both parties kept mishearing each other.

This is how the phone call went.  

Lee Diang’s father (LDF) picked up the phone with:
LDF:  (in Teochew) chway dee diang /  “look for who?”

My sister Eve misheard his “dee diang / who” and thought he said “Lee Diang” which is her friend’s name, so my sister said:

Eve:  Yes.
LDF:  What do you mean “yes”!??  I asked you “look for dee diang?”!
Eve:  Yes, I’m looking for Lee Diang.

Lee Diang’s father misheard my sister’s “Lee Diang” as “dee diang”, so he got quite cross:

LDF:  I asked you who you’re looking for, and you say you’re looking for who!  What a stupid answer!

And he slammed the phone down in frustrated anger.

(Singapore 1960s, and Taiwan 1975–6)

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Simplification of Chinese characters: 2

The simplification of the Chinese script does indeed make it quicker to write out the characters, with a lot of them being reduced from double-digit stroke count to single-digit.

However, there are occasions when this can have serious consequences.

In the early 80s, I was sent a translation done by someone else to proof-read.  One of the verbs made odd sense in the context, so I asked for the original.

It turned out that the sentence, hand-written by the translator, was mis-read by the typist.  The end result was the complete opposite in meaning.

The sentence was: Our company has established a branch in Singapore 我们公司在新加坡设有分行 wǒmen gōngsī zài Xīnjiāpō shèyǒu fēnháng / “we company in Singapore establish have branch office”.

Now, 设有 shèyǒu / “establish have” in its traditional form is 設有, which looks quite different in the first character.  

Unfortunately, the simplification of the speech radical on the left of 設 (from 言 yán to 讠) makes 设有 look very similar to 没有 méiyǒu / “not have”, which has water radical on the left (氵shuǐ), especially when hand-written and read in a hurry (讠 vs氵; 设 vs 没).

The second unfortunate thing about this verb in this context is that it makes equal sense for a company to have set up a branch in Singapore and for it not to have a branch in Singapore, but the two are completely opposite different in meaning.

The exception would be if the company in question is Barings Bank.  Post-Nick Leeson (who’d crashed the bank in 1995), it wouldn’t make any difference whether Barings had set up a branch in Singapore or did not have a branch in Singapore.

我们银行在新加坡设有分行 wǒmen yínháng zài Xīnjiāpō shèyǒu fēnháng / “we bank in Singapore establish have branch office”.

我们银行在新加坡没有分行 wǒmen yínháng zài Xīnjiāpō méiyǒu fēnháng / “we bank in Singapore not have branch office”.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Oops 1 (London)

I’d completely forgotten it was Remembrance Day.

As I was finishing my Skype lesson at 11am, using the wifi at the pub where I do one shift a week, one of my bar colleagues rang the wall bell behind the bar.  

For those for whom the significance might not be clear, pubs in Britain ring the bell twice towards closing time, with the second bell signalling the end of orders and the punters then have about ten minutes to finish their drinks and leave the premises.  On a Saturday night, when closing time is a bit later than the rest of the week, the first bell is at 11.15pm, and the second and last at 11.30pm.

I laughed out loud and said to my student in Australia, “Haha!  It’s 11am and they’re ringing the bell!”  There were about 30 customers scattered around the tables, and some of them turned round and looked at me.  I thought perhaps I was speaking too loudly because of my headphones, and being perched at the high table in the corner, my voice was bouncing off the walls more than it would’ve at the floor level and amongst all the tables.

It wasn’t until a day later that it suddenly dawned on me the bell was rung to call for the minute’s silence that we observe at 11am on 11 November…

(London 2014)

Monday, 14 March 2016

Sanity-challenging conversations: 1 (Singapore)

On this latest trip to Singapore, I experienced two strange conversations that made me think I was beginning to lose my ability to process linguistic information.

Susan:  I won’t be here next week.  I’ll be going to Bandung.
Me:       Ah, Bandung!  I was there in December 1973.  Ate avocado pear for the first time there.
Susan:  I love avocado pears.  Every time I go, I’ll be sure to eat some.
Me:       How many times have you been to Bandung?
Susan:  This is my first.
Me:       But you said “every time I go”.
Susan:  Oh, I meant Indonesia.

At a Chinese New Year lunch for the restaurant staff.  Lady Boss’s friend (LBF) (in her early 70s, I think) sat to my right, with Zhang Ming, one of the cooks, opposite me.

Me:  Zhang Ming, you can get on to the internet on your hand phone, right?  Can you google a famous Brazilian footballer for me?  I want all of you to take a look at him.  I think Heidi [the manager] looks like him.

Before Zhang Ming could even start keying in “google”:
LBF:    No, she doesn’t.
Me:     But you haven’t seen what he looks like yet!
LBF:    She doesn’t look like him.
Me:     How do you know that, when you haven’t even seen what he looks like?
LBF:   He’s a footballer.

It would've made more sense if she'd said, "How can a woman look like a man?" but on the basis that he's a footballer?!?

(Singapore, 2016)

Thursday, 10 March 2016

A vodka-fuelled journey (USSR)

Ben Williams and Ralph Kiggell (, two years below me at SOAS, had just spent their Year Abroad in Beijing and were returning to the UK on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow — a six-day-five-night journey covering 4,735 miles.

On the USSR stretch, they were joined by a Russian soldier who spoke no English.  He did, however, have a rather generous supply of vodka, which he shared with the boys.  The rest of the journey went by in a haze, and they arrived in Moscow a few days later around 7am.

As they were shaking hands in farewell, the boys felt that they should at least express their gratitude by offering the soldier a drink in return, miming the act, quite certain that he would say no, after five days of solid drinking.  He readily accepted.  

A couple of hours later, Ben and Ralph staggered off to the platform to catch their train to Germany.  As they stood there, waiting for their train to arrive, they saw a train already sitting on the tracks on the other side.  They then saw some familiar-looking suitcases among the luggage strapped to the roof, and suddenly realised that they were their suitcases!

The shock jolted them out of their inebriation and they legged it up the bridge across to the other platform and caught their train just in time.  The next train would’ve been something like a few days later.

(USSR, 1981)