Saturday, 9 December 2017

Babies (Singapore)


An ex-student, Petra, gave birth a few months back, and has been posting updates on Facebook, one of which said she gets peed on and is covered in vomit.

This reminds me of what happened on one of the post-natal trips I made with my mother, who was a private midwife.

The term “private” needs to be clarified here:  in those days (1950s and 1960s), women who were illiterate did not want to go to hospital to have their babies delivered because they couldn’t speak English (the official working language of the time in British colonial Singapore).  They also preferred to be at home, so that they could be cared for by family members, usually the older children.  These women mostly lived on coconut and rubber plantations, and some would have 12 to 16 children.

My mother’s post-natal visit routine:  bathe the baby, clean the area around the tied-up umbilical cord, bundle the baby up in clean swaddling cloth, check the baby over (take body temperature, etc.), then leave it lying on the bed and go and attend to the mother who’d be sitting in a chair (a change from lying in bed).  

It was after my mother left the all-clean, all-nice-smelling baby on the bed and went over to the mother that I, aged six, would sneak up to the bed, open the swaddling cloth at the bottom, pull out the baby’s feet and kiss them.

If I was spotted by the mother, she’d ask, “Would you like to take it home with you?”  I’d look at my mother eagerly, as if to say, “Can I?  Can I?”

On one of these occasions, however, I opened the swaddling cloth to find the baby had just defecated.  Not realising what had happened, the baby’s mother asked the usual question, “Would you like to take it home with you?”  I reeled back in horror, “No!”  She asked, “Why not?”  The six-year-old me said, “I only want one that doesn’t poo.”


(Singapore late-1950s)

A most unusual Chinese ingredient (London)


Went to a small reunion dinner the other night at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.  Going through the menu, I came across a dish that had, for one of its ingredients, “dry winds meat”.

Some 15 years ago, I’d gone for a Chinese meal with Pam and Jackie.  Pam was totally baffled by one of the ingredients and asked, “What is ‘minced wind’?!?”.  My eyes moved on to the next line:  ah, if she’d read on, she would’ve seen that it was “minced wind dried meat”.


Note:  Wind-dried meat (风干肉 / 風乾肉 fēng gān ròu / “wind dry meat”), in Chinese cooking, is meat that’s marinaded, then left to dry in the wind, suspended from a hook, just like cured meat such as sausages in the West.

(London)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

A very special old lady (Johor Bahru, Malaysia)


A Malaysian ex-student has just shared on her Facebook wall The Straits Times’s video on Robert Kuok, whose recent Robert Kuok: A Memoir has already sold out only one day after publication.

I remember Robert Kuok's mother very well — she was my (maternal) aunt's Buddhist master who lived in Johor Bahru.

She'd always bring a huge bag of oats from their flour mill in Kuala Lumpur when she came to visit us.  Nobody else in the family particularly liked Western-diet ingredients like oats and milk, so I'd have all the oats to myself!

She also brought me a table lamp and a book about the tulips in Keukenhof Gardens from Holland after she went to visit her eldest son, Philip Kuok, when he was ambassador there. It was all very exotic for a teenager!

The old lady (whom we called Ah Por ["grandma"]) had :

* a maid (an unmarried woman with no relatives to whom she'd offered shelter);

* a driver called Ahmad (who'd make one trip a day to the market, and now and then to the temple the old lady had built somewhere outside Johor Bahru in the countryside, spending the rest of the time cleaning and polishing the car, a Morris Minor).  The Kuok brothers bought the old lady an Audi (I think) for her birthday one year, but she went on using her Morris Minor;

* a parrot called Benjamin with a vicious beak -- he'd only allow the old lady to touch him; she'd call him Benji as she scratched his neck and he'd bend his head;

* a pair of dogs (Morning and Evening, one born in the morning and one in the evening); 

and

* a cat called 珠小姐 zhū xiǎojiě / Miss Pearl, who lived in a bird-house contraption at the bottom of the garden, atop a pole, high above the ground, so that Miss Pearl had to walk this long, long, long wooden ramp to get to it at night.


(Johor Bahru, Malaysia, 1960s)

Phone calls (London)


I dislike phone calls — making one and taking one.  

Emailing or texting allows the receiver to read the message at his/her convenience or when his/her mood dictates, and reply as and when s/he wishes.  

A phone call demands the receiver to interact even when s/he is not ready:  not in the mood to socialise or even just talk;  an inconvenient moment — in the loo, walking on the road or getting on/off the bus, being in a public place and therefore having the conversation overheard, etc..  

My old friend Valerio suggested that one could just ignore the call.  My secretarial training, however, had taught me never to let the phone go unanswered for more than two rings, so I find it difficult not to answer the phone.  Especially in the old days, on a landline phone, when you cannot see the number of the caller.

A friend who used to work at Amnesty said, “When you pick up your office phone, you’re all professional and polite as you announce your number.  When you pick up your home phone, your tone of voice as you announce your number implies, ‘And now go away!’ ”

A student, Julia, said when I rang her and she picked up the phone, I always sounded disappointed that I hadn’t got her answering machine.


(London 1980s)

Judging by appearance: 2 (Singapore)



I was in Singapore in 1993, after a 14-year gap, so one of my classmates, Seok Leng, rang around and got a group to have dinner with me.  Ex-classmate Jong Long invited me to go round the corner to his new Europa pub, then offered me a lift home (to my sister's), but said he had to go to his other pub first en route to sort out a problem.  At this second place, I was left sitting on my own, waiting for the lift home.  Jong Long told his barman to serve me whatever I wanted.  I asked for a pint of Guinness.  As I sat there drinking it — a woman on her own, drinking alcohol — a local man kept looking at me, probably thinking I was a prostitute, touting for business.  He approached me a few minutes later, tentatively starting a conversation: was I from Singapore, to start with.  After a few more questions, I let drop that I was the boss's friend, just waiting for him to sort out his business.  He moved away pretty quickly!

(Singapore 1993)

Judging by appearance: 1 (London)


I arrived in the Wood Green library last Friday and spotted a lighter sitting under the chair of a man in his 30s.  Normally, I’d draw attention to it, “Is this your lighter?” (or whatever the item is).  This time, however, I wasn’t sure I particularly liked the look* of this man, so I left it.  (*He looked a bit too streetwise for my liking.)

A few minutes later, he fell asleep, so the doorman came over to wake him up.  A few more minutes later, I saw him chatting amicably to the doorman, so obviously he didn’t hold it against the doorman (for not allowing him to doze off).  My opinion of him went up a bit.

As I was trying to plug in my computer, he immediately offered to do it, as it is a bit awkward with the socket under the table — one has to go on one’s knees and stick one’s head under the table to do it.  I felt ashamed of my initial unfair judgement of him.

This episode reminds me of something a student, Julia, once told me.  She’d seen a young woman in a tight dress, and probably garish make-up, and didn’t like the look of her, thinking, “What a tart!”  A few minutes later, an old lady nearby was struggling with her bags.  The “tart” immediately went to help her.  Julia felt so bad about pre-judging her.

I told these two stories during a lesson with Alex last Friday — I often use my own experiences as teaching material, which is what one would do in real life: talking about what one has come across.

Alex had his story to add.  He once went to the John Lewis sportswear department, wanting to buy some specialist squash sportswear.  Along came a female sales assistant, asking if she could help.  Alex took one look at her — female, in Muslim gear (nearly fully covered) — and thought, “Oh yeah, what would she know about specialist squash sportswear?”  When he said he was looking for specialist squash sportswear, she then launched into a whole series of options: Option A is this and that, Option B is this and that, Option C is this and that.  Alex said he, too, had learned a lesson from that.

This puts me in mind of another story.  One of my students told me in the 80s she was in the Russell Square area late one evening (around 1030pm) when she saw two lost German tourists trying to get help from an old man who looked a bit like a tramp.  My student heard the old man speak English in a posh accent.  When the tourists struggled a bit with their English, the “tramp” switched to fluent German!

Read also blog entry The smell, which is another Judging by appearance.


(London 1980s—2017)

How some people use their mobile phone (London)


To people on the mobile phone:  I am often tempted to say to them, "You don't need to use a mobile.  You can save some money.  At this volume, the other party can hear you all the way from there without a mobile phone.”


(London)

Learning Chinese: good or bad for the brain? (London)


I’ve been telling students over the years that they won’t get Alzheimer’s learning Chinese.  

Now I’m going to add, “You might not get Alzheimer’s, but your brain will be completely scrambled*.”

* from the homophones, the tones, the lookalike characters (e.g., tiān / sky, day vs yāo / to die young), and the word order.


(London 2017)

Black cab driver (London)


Back in the 1980s, I had an evening class student, David, who is Irish and white, who was a black cab driver.  Whenever I referred to him — “my black cab driver student David” — people would say, “It’s very unusual for a black man to be learning Chinese.”  (That was back in the 1980s when hardly any black person came to learn Chinese on my evening programme.  I’ve had something like five black students out of the 2000 or so students over my 26 years of teaching Chinese at the university.)

Yesterday, another David student told me he once had an American banking colleague, freshly arrived in London, asking about tipping London taxi drivers.  (Tipping is a big thing with Americans.)  David told her, “We don’t usually tip black cab drivers.  Taxi rides are very expensive in London anyway.”  A bit later, the American lady told David, “Since you told me about not tipping black cab drivers, I’ve been looking closely at the drivers when I get in a cab, to see if they’re black.”


(London 1980s)

Reputations live on forever (Singapore / London)


Ex-student Jo invites me round for a meal every now and then, maybe to thank me for all those years of baby-sitting Ella (who is now 17!) and helping out on the allotment.  I will tease Ella when dishing out the food:  when she says “a bit”, I will give her one tiny morsel (less than half a mouthful) or, in the case of countables like peas or Brussels sprouts, just one.

Pub colleague Matilde was given a box of chocolate the other day and came into the staff room to share them.  I said to Lee, the other person in the room, “Take the whole box and give one back to her.”

When I went back to Singapore in 2002 for a reunion of our batch (1971–1972) at Raffles Institution (RI), Balan, who was giving me a lift to the event, said he’d arranged to meet Siva at the Singapore Cricket Club for a beer before going to Raffles City (the site of the old RI) for the reunion party.  We arrived to find Chin Tuan already ensconced at the bar, looking like he’d been there a little while.  He shook hands with Siva and Balan, then turned to me, “I know the face but can’t quite place the name.”  (I’d last seen Chin Tuan in 1972.)  As he was having trouble coming up with a name, Siva prompted him, “The naughtiest girl in the school.”  Chin Tuan immediately produced my full name, which is not a common name.  And after all these years as well!  

It was certainly new to me that I was the naughtiest girl in the school!!


(Singapore 2002; London 2010–17)

Friday, 24 November 2017

Treacherous language: 2 (London)


I was in the Wood Green public library, tapping away at my computer, when a woman in her 50s/60s came up to me with a diary and a piece of paper.  She looked like she could be Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian, or Turkish (Wood Green has lots of them), and could barely speak English.  

She showed me the diary, in which was written a name and a phone number, then the piece of paper in her other hand, and asked, “Can you write?”  

I couldn't believe my ears.  Can I write?  She’s asking me if I’m literate!?  What did she think I was doing at my computer if I couldn't read or write?!?  

I asked, “Do you want me to write down this name and number for you?”  She nodded.

A day on, I think she might’ve meant:  “Can you write this down?”

Read also blog Treacherous language1 where the young man told me his back was good after the first massage, then asked “Is it better if I lie?”

(London 2017)

Update:  The day after, I was in the library again, working hard at my computer as usual.  The same lady walked past, and made a point of stopping and saying hello to me.

Update a week on:  My nephew in Singapore says his mother (my sister-in-law who was Chinese-educated) also says, "Can you write?" when she means "Can you write this down for me?"



Saturday, 18 November 2017

Students’ versions are much more fun: 2 (London)


One of the ways I teach students to parse a long and/or grammatically-complex sentence in Chinese is to get them to pull out what I call “the skeleton”: just the main message, without the subordinates / extra information (the when / where / how / etc.).  I call it “the telegram principle”: if you don’t have enough money for the extras, then just convey the minimal essentials.  This way, once the key message is in place, they can see how the rest (subordinates) slot in.

I was explaining this to Stanislav, my 14-year-old student, saying, “Pretend you’re sending a telegram, and you don’t have enough money for the whole message.  As a telegram is charged by the word, just go for the skeleton message.”

He said: “Couldn’t you just join the words together, so that you just pay for one word?”


(London, 2017)

Photographic memory: 7 (London)


Two pub ex-colleagues (Fanny and Eloise) who’ve moved back to France came over to do a short course in English in mid-September.  We arranged to meet up for a meal and drinks at the new branch where I now work.  At one point, a regular customer walked past our table to go to the loo, with a pained look on his face, so I asked him what was wrong.  He said he’d just fallen from his bicycle and landed on his arm, so I said, “When you come back from the loo, I’ll fix it for you.”

Fanny said, “Oh, my sister-in-law is also into massage.  She’d love to meet you.”  Unfortunately, she lives in France, in the Toulouse area.  I asked, “Whereabouts is it?”  She said the name, but I didn’t catch all of the French, so I asked her to write it out.  When I saw “Saint-Antonin Noble Val”, a bell rang in my head.  

Only a couple of months ago, I’d watched a DVD called The Hundred Yard Journey, featuring Helen Mirren as a Michelin-starred restaurant owner in a small French village, who then had an Indian family moving into the village and setting up an Indian restaurant opposite her.  The film did not mention the name of the village, but it looked a bit like the big house on the outskirts of the French farm village, bought over by someone who then turned it into a restaurant and partying venue.  I googled the film, and found that the village was Saint-Antonin Noble Val.  Just that once, and it stuck in my brain screen.  What a small world.


(London, 2017)

Photographic memory: 6 (London)


When student Ed discovered my birthday is in October, he said, “Oh, my mother’s birthday is in October, too.”  It turned out to be the end of October — mine’s at the beginning.  

The following October, I said to Ed, “Say Happy Birthday to your mother for me.”  He said, “Wow.  What kind of teacher remembers even the student’s MOTHER’s birthday!”


(London, 2012)

Photographic memory: 5 (Prague)


Hattie (now deceased) was going to Prague with her German friend, Irmtraud, over the Easter long weekend.  Irmtraud was staying with her Czech boyfriend, and he had arranged for his British friend, Steve, to put Hattie up.  I then decided to tag along last minute, and Steve was happy about me sharing Hattie’s room.  

The Czech boyfriend came to the airport to pick us up in his car.  This was around midnight, as Hattie caught the last plane in (I’d arrived in the morning, and spent the day at the airport, revising for my Linguistics exams), so it was all dark when we arrived at Steve’s block of flats.  Across the street were two big wheelie (rubbish) bins.  The Czech boyfriend pointed at them and said to us, “There, that’s your accommodation for your stay!”

Two nights later, Hattie and I got tickets for the opera.  After the post-opera meal, we took a taxi back to Steve’s.  Steve’s residential area is made up of parallel streets off the main road from the airport, with another road at the other end of those streets, running parallel to the main road.  The taxi driver had said he knew our street, but had turned off the main road a street too early.  So, he got to the end of that (wrong) street, up the parallel road, and turned into our street, this time heading towards the main road.  As soon as he got to our block, I saw the two wheelie bins, and said to him, “That’s it, that’s our block.”  

I’d only seen those bins once before, on the night we arrived at midnight from the airport.  We’d approached the block of flats from the main road then, but they’d somehow just stuck in my brain screen, so that I could even identify them from the other side.


(Prague 1993)

Sibling rivalry (Worldwide)


Growing up in Singapore as a child from the Teochew (Cháozhōu 潮州, S.E.China) dialect group, I’d hear derogatory / pejorative remarks made about other dialect groups.  The Cantonese (S.E.China) put too much oil and salt in their cooking.  The Hokkiens (from Fújiàn 福建 Province, S.E.China) are uncouth — they apparently have the biggest range and the most vulgar of swear words and phrases, so vulgar I didn’t dare listen, never mind repeat.  The Hainanese (from Hainan Island, S.E.China) were called “white stomachs”, which is a kind of sea fish: it has a white underbelly and floats in the water upside down, white underbelly facing up, thus making it very easy for fishermen to spot and catch them, hence stupid.  Similarly, there were jokes / comments about the Malays and the Indians.

When I went to work in Taipei, I heard similarly critical comments about three regions (there must be others):  people from Anhui Province (further north of S.E.Chia, inland westwards from Shanghai) are fierce;  people from Sichuan Province (S.W.China) and Hunan Province (central China) are fiery (because of the hot food they consume) and can outdo anyone in a row.

Coming to London, I came across jokes about (and labels for) the Irish and the Scots, sometimes about northern English people.

When I started going out with a Swiss man, I heard that the Swiss have jokes about the Austrians, and the French have jokes about the Belgians.

It then dawned on me that it’s geographical proximity (and therefore familiarity) that decides who the targets of disparagement would be.  

The Chinese community in Singapore in the 1960s consisted mainly of Hokkiens (the biggest group at the time), the Cantonese, the Teochews, the Hainanese and the Hakkas.  It’s not a coincidence, I think, that they’re all from S.E.China.  There were no derogatory remarks about people from Anhui, Sichuan or Hunan, because we didn’t have them in Singapore at the time.

Ditto the English jokes/comments about the Irish and the Scots.  Ditto the Swiss and French ones.  They’re all neighbours, or close enough.  I have a feeling there’ll be Scandinavian ones about each other. 

I call this “sibling rivalry”.  

It can also be applied to people from the same sex:  in my experience, women tend to be more competitive with (and often, catty about) other women, and men with men, rather than across the sexual divide.


An example from my personal experience: when I started my relationship with the Swiss man, I told a good friend, Bernhard, about it, adding, “And he’s a German speaker, too!”  Bernhard, who’s German, said, “That’s what he thinks.”

Update 271117:  An ex-student's father, who's from Tianjin, China, said last night when I told him the Hainanese story: "People in mainland China think people from Hainan are very clever."  Proves my Sibling Rivalry theory, I think  Tianjin in north China is much further from Hainan Island in the south-east.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Photographic memory: 4 (Caracas, Venezuela)


We took a bus from the Caracas airport into town as it’s a lot cheaper, then a taxi from the bus terminus to our hotel.  Three days later, we were going to the airport to try and catch the first flight out to a jungle resort past the Angel Falls.  It was 3:30am, so we were lucky that a taxi came along within five minutes.  The taxi driver said he knew how to get to the airport bus terminus.  A few minutes later, however, he said he didn’t after all.  He might've been only half feigning ignorance in the hope that he could take us all the way to the airport, given that we were tourists, therefore wouldn't be expected to know the way. Unfortunately for him, I remembered the taxi ride from the terminus to our hotel three days before, so I directed him there.  He certainly took revenge by driving off with our big note without giving us the change.


(Caracas, Venezuela,1986)

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Photographic memory: 3 (UK)


I was touring the Isle of Man with some English friends on Easter Sunday in March 1978 when we drove past a shop that sold something I’d been looking for.  It was shut and we were returning to Liverpool the next day, when it’d still be shut (those were the days when everything shut at 4pm on Saturday and all day Sunday — public holidays are treated as Sunday).  The shopfront had its telephone number displayed, but we didn’t have any pen and paper to write it down.  I gazed at the number, imprinted it onto my brain screen, then when we got back to the house and could get hold of pen and paper, closed my eyes to call up the number on my brain screen and wrote it down. 


(UK 1978)

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Photographic memory: 2 (Singapore)


I’d always had a photographic memory.  

As a child, I’d go with my mother on her post-natal visits as a private midwife, just for the car ride.  

One day, a man whose wife was going into labour turned up while my mother was out on her rounds and I happened to have opted out.  My mother’s cousin had dropped by, so we jumped into his car and I directed him along the route my mother would’ve taken.  We found her at the second place, so she was able to dash off to deliver the baby before resuming her visits. 

My nephew Kaikai shares the same ability.  My brother and his wife would drop him off (aged two or three) at his maternal grandma’s place before going to work.  He used to hate this and would cry as soon as they approached the grandma’s block of flats, so one day they decided to try a different approach to the block.  Now, Singapore’s high rise blocks, especially those within the same estate, all pretty much look alike, yet Kaikai knew they were driving him to his grandma’s and started crying, even though it was from a different direction this time.


(Singapore, 1960s / 1980s)

Friday, 15 September 2017

Students' versions are much more fun: 1 (London)


My style of teaching is to challenge the student as much as possible, e.g., make them work out the meaning of a compound or phrase by breaking it down to the individual components and arriving at the final meaning that way.

One of those phrases is 可有可无 kě yǒu kě wú / “can have can not-have”, which the Mac dictionary gives as “be as well without it as with it” and another, online dictionary gives as “it doesn’t matter whether one has it or not”, i.e., one can take it or leave it, it’s dispensable.  An example would be: "Some people cannot do without coffee.  For me, it's 可有可无."

When I asked David M what he thought it meant and when it might be used, he said, “Perhaps, say, used by a greengrocer, replying to your asking if they have any apples: ‘可有可无。Maybe we have, maybe we don’t.’”  

I collapsed in fits of laughter.  What a perverse greengrocer, being so cagey about whether they might have apples or not!  

(David is a mature student, not a teenager whose general knowledge of life might be a bit more limited and whose imagination might run a bit wilder than adults’.)


(London 2017)

Saturday, 12 August 2017

All-rounder training (Singapore / UK)


When I’d passed my Highway Code test at age 17 and booked a driving test date, my mother came up with a plan:  that I should learn to drive for free by chauffeuring her on her post-natal-care rounds, which were necessary anyway.  When I was good enough at on-road driving, we’d then pay for a professional instructor to teach me test techniques such as parking, reversing into a minor road, uphill climb, etc., which would only be a handful of lessons, thus saving a lot of money.  (This is advice I now dole out to young people wanting to learn to drive.)

For the first trip out on the road, I was wearing sandals.  To get a better feel of the pedals (it was a manual-drive car, automatics being a little way off yet), I shed them.  My mother said, “No, don’t do that.  You should learn to drive with whatever footwear you’ve got on, be it platform shoes, high-heeled shoes, clogs, sandals, flip flops or gym shoes.  This way, you’ll learn to adjust the pressure you apply on the pedals accordingly, so that it becomes intuitive and you don’t have to think about it.”


This reminds me of something my brother said in 1999 when I was helping out my sister-in-law at the canteen she was running at a 24-hour factory.  His comment was, “Westerners have this amazing array of knives, big and small, with practically each one dedicated to a particular function.  The Chinese just have the one — the meat cleaver — which can be for hacking a whole chicken to smaller pieces, for mincing pork, for peeling a potato, or for cutting ginger into small thin slices or strips.”  Same principle:  it's the control over the way the hand holds the cleaver and applies the pressure.

I’ve since applied this to my teaching of text analysis.  Students are often deliberately not given the context, or are just given the middle paragraph of a piece, or even only the second half of a sentence.  This way, they’re forced to rely purely on, say, their knowledge of Chinese grammar to do the parsing:  e.g., how do you know it is a Verb here rather than a Noun (e.g., 发展 fāzhǎn is both a Verb [to develop] and a Noun [development]).  

And of course, what I’ve called “Guessology skills” (“Guessology” is my coinage from the 1980s): the logic of one version versus another (whether it makes sense there), etc., without resorting to any assistance from their knowledge of the subject matter in hand.  Which is very likely to be the case in real life when they have to read or listen to a piece in Chinese that might have no universal equivalent.

It works very well, because my students approach their texts using their knowledge of grammar (they can all do grammatical justifications in their sleep, so frequently-drilled they are) rather than just hit-or-miss, unsubstantiated guessing, relying on the teacher to confirm that they’re right.


(Singapore early 1970s & 1999; UK)

History repeating itself (UK / China)


I was doing a Skype lesson with Ed in Shanghai.  He’d chosen an article which was an interview with an American CNN journalist who had covered the 4th June 1989 Tian’anmen Square Incident.  

At one point in the interview, the journalist was talking about the difficulties they’d encountered broadcasting live.  The Chinese government had clamped down on live satellite broadcasts the day after Gorbachev left, so they had to do them via the telephone.  The video tapes had to be smuggled out of Beijing to Hong Kong or Tokyo, to be broadcast from there, thus incurring a lapse in real time of a few hours.

It was when we were reading this bit of the article that the sound quality on Skype started to experience trouble, so I suggested that we use FaceTime.  The sound quality was good on FaceTime but there was no dialogue box for me to send the text over for Ed to read and translate.  We resorted to me sending the text to the dialogue box on Skype for Ed to read, but using FaceTime for the verbal element of the lesson.  Then Skype wasn’t transmitting the text I’d inputted into the dialogue box, so I had to use FaceBook Messenger for that.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were experiencing the same thing as the CNN journalist back in 1989, having to use different modes to send material out.

Spooky or what?


(UK / China, 2017)

Clever parenting (UK)


In the ‘70s, home students doing university courses could get a government grant which covered their fees and all living expenses.

Ben, two years below me at SOAS, was living at his parents’.  His mother told him he’d have to pay for his room and board, since he got the money for it from the government.  He thought at the time that his mother was a bit heartless, but paid up all the same.

Four years later, when he graduated, the mother handed him a bank account passbook.  She’d been depositing the money over the years on his behalf.


(UK, late 1970s)

Monday, 17 July 2017

The term "comrade" in Chinese

This blog is inspired by, as usual, Valerio, my most avid follower and good friend, after a conversation about my other blog entry "My spouse":

The term "comrade" in Chinese is 同志 tóngzhì / "same aspiration", and was widely used as a term of address between mainland Chinese people post-1949.  It is a unisex term, which is egalitarian as well as convenient.

One would use it as a generic title, addressing Mr. Li / Miss Li as 李同志 Lǐ tóngzhì / Comrade Li.  Mrs. Li would be addressed by her maiden name, e.g., Comrade Wang, rather than as Mrs. Li.

If one needed to catch the attention of a stranger in the street -- to ask for directions, say -- then just tóngzhì in the same way one would say "Sir" / "Madam" in English.  

In the 80s, with Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and a more capitalistic lifestyle (even if officially China was, and is, still a socialist* country), the term "comrade" with its political connotations started to lose its appeal and currency.  

A few more years down the road, it re-emerged, this time for referring to gay people, e.g., 他是个同志 He is gay.  One can see the logic of this.  The Chinese language can be quite flexible and creative, too, not just rigidly fixed in its wide use of proverbs and set phrases.

Note: Wikipedia says this was adopted as a formal term of address after Hong Kong film-maker Edward Lam's 1989 Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival:

QUOTE The Festival is screened annually each September, and in Chinese is known as the Hong Kong Tongzhi Film Festival, with both the title and the resurrection of the word Tongzhi (Chinese同志pinyintóngzhì), which translates into English as Comrades, the idea of one of its first organisers, Edward Lam (林奕華).  UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

QUOTE 1989年随香港人林奕华的同性恋电影节香港同志电影节」的出现,渐渐演变为社會對同性戀群體的代称及該社群之間的正式稱呼。UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

*They call it 有中国特色的社会主义:
QUOTE Socialism with Chinese characteristics, meaning socialism adapted to Chinese conditions, is the official ideology of the Communist Party of China (CPC), claimed to be based upon scientific socialism. ... The CPC argues that socialism is compatible with these economic policies. UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)





Sunday, 25 June 2017

Free burglar lookout service (London / Lisbon)


As I approached Table 46, wondering if I should collect the half-empty bottles of beer, four customers (one woman) at Table 45 said, “They’ve just gone outside for a smoke.”  I said to them, “Do you know what you are?  You’re the Neighbourhood Watch.”  They really liked that, and laughed, turning it over aloud: “Neighbour Watch.  That’s a good way of calling it.”

Reminds me of when an ex-colleague at The Heart of the Dragon, our picture editor Douglas Tunstell*, moved from Malaga to Lisbon in the late 80s.  He wrote, saying, “We’ve moved into our new home.  We don’t need to worry about burglars, as just across the narrow road is another block of flats, with old ladies sitting at their windows all day long, looking out at the goings-on in the street.”

I’ve certainly seen similar scenes in Turkey, Spain, and Greece.  Perhaps a common feature throughout the Mediterranean countries?


(London 2017 / Lisbon late 1980s)

*https://www.nfb.ca/film/women_on_the_march/

Women on the March

 | 58 min

This feature film in two parts is an exploration of the women’s suffrage movement. Spearheaded by women like Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, the Suffragettes realized they would have to become radical and militant if the movement was going to be effective. There followed many demonstrations, and imprisonments until the women’s vote was finally granted, in 1918 (Britain) and 1919 (Canada, except Quebec.)

Machine translation: 02 (UK)


An ex-student on my evening Chinese programme who teaches drama (including Chinese opera) as a university course/module wanted to do a survey among Chinese drama students.  He decided to have a go himself at drafting the questionnaire in Chinese, then sent it to me for checking.

After explaining the aim of the questionnaire, he then asked the informants to 滴答 dīdā the boxes.  I told him that 滴答 dīdā is “tick” as in “tick-tock of a clock”!


(UK 2007)