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