Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Talking Religion

"My country is so full of sh*t," said one of the boys waiting for the bus. "Not so much the people, but I mean the government. Just one stinking pile of sh*t."

"All countries have some wrong," his companion replied in heavily accented English. "My country has many bad things too."

I immediately moved closer, the better to hear their conversation. This sounded interesting. We English teachers are, with very good reason, forbidden from discussing religion and politics with our students, and in any case, the English level of both boys was far higher than my students' -- so much so that it was a real pleasure to overhear their conversation.

The boys were quiet for a few moments, making me worry that they had noticed my interest, so I took a book out of my bag and pretended to read it.

"The government used to be perfect! They used to treat the people with respect, you know? Like adults."

"I know."

"Now, it's religion all the time. The women must cover themselves. The men must behave a certain way--"

"My father says that religion is like alcohol," interrupted his friend, pronouncing it al-co-HOL, like almost all of my students. "A little bit of it is good for you; too much of it is like poison."

I loved this so much it was all I could do not to turn around and congratulate the boy on having such a sensible father. I turned a page instead.

"Religion is sh*t," muttered the first boy.

"Religion can make our lives fresher," parried his companion in his soft voice. "No, not fresher -- richer. It can make us better people--"

His friend snorted. "Religion makes people stupid! It makes politicians even stupider."

Turning around, I frowned and pretended to consult my watch as I surreptitiously studied them. The first boy took me aback: he was the spitting image of David Levi, a boy I went to school with; if he'd only had waist-long hair and been a few inches shorter -- and several decades younger, of course. His companion was dark and swarthy, with liquid brown eyes and black curly hair.

"But it doesn't have to make them stupider," the darker boy insisted. "Only too much religion--"

"Even a little religion can be too much for some people!" the first boy practically shouted. "If you came to my country, you would see!"

"My country too," sighed his companion.

Now I was desperate to turn around and talk with these boys. I wanted to find out what countries they were from. I wanted to ask them about their families, their own religious backgrounds, what they believed in. I wanted to tell them about myself, too -- about all the religious zealots in my family. About the holidays that were ruined by arguments over religion; the family feuds that began when my mother made the difficult decision to leave the fundamentalist church her family had belonged to for ages. But instead I scratched the back of my neck and turned another page of my book.

"Still, people can use religion to help each other," the darker boy started again, and I thought of the charity coffee mornings, the fund-raising events, all the good things so many churches do. I agreed with him.

"Help each other!" muttered David Levi's dead ringer. "They say they help people, but really they help themselves!"

Damn it, I agreed with him too.

"After monsoon," murmured the dark-eyed boy and his voice was so low that I had to strain to hear him over the noise of the traffic. I took a step back and tried to resist cupping my ears.

But just then the bus came.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Around The World With English

Years ago when I was in graduate school, I did my practice teaching in a school where the student body was largely Hispanic and Indochinese. I taught beginning English to fifty-three adults, and one of the skills included in almost every lesson was how to extend short, informal invitations. One morning when I'd told the class to work in pairs, inviting each other to a block party, I listened in on two men, one from Vietnam, the other from Nicaragua, who were working together. I heard the following conversation:

"So you can come, yes-no?"

"I can come yes, thank you so much. Wife okay come too?"

"Of course wife okay and childrens too! All family is welcome!"

"What foods we bring?"

"Not bring anything! Bring yourself only!"

At first, I thought these men had merely improvised a script, but then I realized that their communication was the real deal. Ngoc Bao was inviting Jorge Perez to a family party. It might sound odd, but this gave me a huge thrill: a man from Vietnam and another from Nicaragua had become friends in my class and were using English -- their new lingua franca -- to communicate. What a great job I had.

Not long after this, I found myself learning Japanese in a small town. At first, I was nervous about speaking Japanese with Japanese people. I worried that they were monitoring my language for infelicities -- that they would look at my face and concentrate on the fact that I was different, not what I was saying. I gravitated towards other foreigners who were also learning Japanese: Brazillians, Chinese and Koreans, in particular. They didn't speak English and I didn't speak their languages, so there was no choice but to speak Japanese to communicate with each other. Our conversations were never at a high level and sometimes we reinforced each other's awful mistakes, but we never worried about the embarrassing faux pas we might be making. In fact, whenever we did make these, we shared them around and had a good laugh. We were all in the same boat.

Teaching English in Japan, I missed the multi-cultural multi-linguistic make-up of the classes. Almost all my classes were 100% Japanese, but the odd foreigner could really liven things up: a homogenous group of Japanese students in an English class will quickly lapse back into Japanese when the going gets tough and the teacher's back is turned; put in someone from Indonesia or France, and it is almost miraculous how quickly the brighter students will start speaking in English even after the teacher has left the classroom. Suddenly the students see the purpose to what they are doing. They see that studying English isn't just a painful exercise in futility, yet another tiresome chore to cram into an already too-busy schedule. Suddenly they can talk to people they might never have been able to communicate with if they did not share a language, however tenuously. They aren't just parroting nonsense; English is clearly the means to an end -- and an interesting end, too.

Before we got here, I had the idea that our students would be all Turkish-speaking. I pictured a group of the kind of Turks I have tucked away in my horrible bag of stereotypes: the men, swarthy and well-fleshed, smoking, six paces ahead of their modest, head-scarf-wearing womenfolk. In fact, many of our students are Turkish speakers, but they are hardly anything like the shadowy characters I pictured. And there are plenty of people from so many other countries here: Iran, Nigeria, Vietnam, Kuwait, Kazahkstan -- and many more. Every day, I hear conversations in the corridors that make me want to smile, cry, laugh out loud. Every day I hear honest-to-God communication between the most fascinating -- and unlikely -- groups of people. I could write about this country, these people, and the interesting combinations they fit into until hell froze over and I could not possibly do them justice.

But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Saying Something

"I had to get all American again," the elderly woman moaned to her companion as she set a pile of books on the check-out counter with a resigned sigh.

I looked up. I'd been thoroughly in my own world, happily browsing among the shelves, delighted to be in such close proximity to so many books I could read again. No one, to my knowledge, knew my nationality and since everyone around me appeared to be British, they no doubt assumed I was one of them.

"It's hard to know what to pick out," her friend agreed rather vaguely, shifting her own selection of books from one arm to the other.

"And there are just so many American books," the first woman moaned again, causing me to give her a hard look that sailed right over her silly head.

For a brief moment, I had a nasty fantasy of sticking this woman in a room with one of my English-people-hating acquaintances or relations. Part of me delighted in picturing this; part of me winced at the very thought. I really ought to say something...

"Mmm," murmured her friend, "there are a lot of American books, aren't there?"

I found myself grinding my jaw and counting slowly to ten. Of course there are a lot of American books available. There are a lot of British books out there too, to say nothing of Australian, Canadian, etc. Aren't we all lucky?

"Have you got The Secret Life of Bees?" I asked the woman at the check-out counter in my best American whine, and I spoke as loudly as I could too. Decades away from my country of origin have leached away much of the American from my accent, but I did my best to put it all back in now. No way did I want this woman to go on. I swear, if I'd had my passport on me I'd have flashed it at her. In fact, I was desperate to make it obvious that I was not Canadian.

"Got your books?" my husband asked, joining us at the check-out counter. He looked happy: he'd just found that the tiny library we were in stocked a full selection of Terry Pratchett.

"Just this one!" I said brightly, watching as the woman's friend checked out five Catherine Cookson books. "But this is such a good book, I'm just thrilled I found it!" And I'm betting the author is American too, so nyaa nyaa nyaa!

My husband was too absorbed in his books to notice my brand-new southern drawl. If the two women noticed it, they never batted an eye.

"I've read all those," the whiner remarked to her friend, tapping one of the Catherine Cooksons with her finger. "In fact, I think I've read ALL of hers."

I found the snob in me rearing its ugly head. It might be hard for some people to know what to check out, but I never have any problem figuring out what NOT to check out, and Catherine Cookson is way up there on my list. On behalf of the hard-working American novelists who wrote whatever books the whiner checked out (I tried to see, but she was holding them in such a way that I could not) and all the good British authors whose works this woman cannot possibly have read, I felt well and truly vexed. And what business does she have complaining about American novels when she's been checking out Catherine Cookson anyway?

Wish I'd said something, but it probably wouldn't have helped if I had.

Later I saw the reluctant American-novel-reading woman chatting with another friend outside. There was a charity jumble sale in benefit of a cancer society and both woman, originally light-skinned, had tanned their skins to a dark, leathery brown. They were hatless and the noontime sun was blazing down. And both women were smoking. "Put those cigarettes out!" I longed to tell them. "Giving money to a cancer charity is well and good, but you guys are crappy examples for my children. And for pity's sake, get a hat on and slap on some sun screen. Your skin can't take getting fried like that."

Wish I'd said something, but it definitely wouldn't have helped.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Taking The Cake

Early this morning, my husband got a phone call from one of his new colleagues. There was a car for sale at a fairly reasonable price, parked in front of a hotel in the next town. Were we interested?

Personally, I don't want a car. Cars, in my opinion, are unnecessary luxuries. The house we hope to rent is not far from a good grocery store, and there are small vans, called dolmas that run from our neighborhood to our respective schools. Why buy a car when you can get around so easily on public transportation? My husband, though, has pointed out that a car will be useful when we want to tour our new country, and all the girls are keen.

So I have given in. We've been lucky enough to borrow a colleague's car, and, after very little discussion, I capitulated on the car issue. I figure it's all about picking your battles. There is little recycling in this country; maybe I can encourage everyone to start a compost heap this way. God knows the soil has little enough organic matter in it; if I agree to turn the stuff, maybe everyone will go along with this again.

We bought the car from a man called Mahmout who runs a small coffee shop surrounded by date palms. My husband, youngest daughter and I drove out in our rented car to look at it and although I was intellectually aware that there was a tiny likelihhood I might be needed to drive one of the cars back, my heart sank when I heard my husband tell Mahmout what he'd already told me -- that yes, he wanted the car. "My wife will drive it back," he said with a certain nonchalance.

And suddenly, the enormity of this hit me.

Now, I am proud to have passed my road test two years back the very first time, after a mere three years of intensive and expert instruction. That might sound like self effacing humor, but I'm dead serious. I'm not a natural driver; I'm scared stiff of machines, have utterly no sense of direction, and I have a far too healthy sense of mortality. Learning to drive trumps lots of other things I've done in my life. But driving in our new country leaves much to be desired, and I am someone who has witnessed rush-hour traffic in Paris.

"You'll be fine," my husband assured me after watching me run through the gears in our rented car. I had my doubts; just a week earlier it had taken us ten minutes to turn onto the main road we were on. I'm awful at doing things like merging and knowing when to turn off a roundabout. Still, I nodded gamely and watched as he and youngest daughter got into our new car and turned onto the main road, pulling in by the side of the road to wait for me.

It took me ten minutes to get across; the first chance to go I got, the damn engine stalled.

In fact, it did that a lot. The clutch stuck like nobody's business, and no sooner would that miracle occur -- a break in the traffic -- than the nasty thing did it again. Finally, after many false starts, I made it, but after the signal buzzer clicked off, there was still an irritating bzz bzz buzz that would not go away. I checked the signal hastily, my heart in my throat as a motorcyclist passed me suddenly, weaving between me and my husband in daredevil fashion. No, the signals were both off! It took me a nerve-racking two minutes to realize that I'd been driving with the handbrake on.

Drivers here do not seem to have heard of the 'tires and tarmac' rule that my driving instructor took such pains to drill into me. "Now are you sure you can see both rear tires and road?" my instructor must have asked me half a zillion times as I pulled up behind another car, and even now, whenever I've gotten too close to the guy ahead of me, I can hear his voice in my ear. In my desperation not to lose sight of my husband, I threw the tires and tarmac rule right out the window. I followed him so closely my heart was in my mouth lest I rear-end him. But I was so nervous about losing sight of him and spending the next several hours circling the crowded city center, I'm sure a lot of other drivers must have assumed I was being towed by an invisible line.

I'm hard put to remember when I've spent a more miserable thirty minutes. Well-fleshed ladies in head-scarves dashed out from between parked cars right in front of me. They might have been less nonchalant if they had taken in my expression of frozen terror or my white-knuckled death's grip of the steering wheel, but the looks they wore were so provokingly blase that I marveled that they had lived so long. Trucks tried to cut ahead of me; children -- off school for the Bayram holiday -- swerved crazily on their bicycles, nearly side-swiping me. My heart was in my mouth every inch of the way, and I am very sorry to say that for part of the way, I drove like an asshole. An apologetic, timorous asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. I jumped the gun entering a roundabout and got honked at, and had to put my brakes on fully when a man with an enormous bundle jaywalked in front of me. I stalled and used up every foul word I know, and when an ambulance came shrilling along behind me, damned if the engine didn't go and stall yet again.

But the ambulance made it past me -- thank God! -- and I made it home safely. Thank God, really; I certainly have -- many times over.

And when I got back to our guest house, guess what was waiting for me? In all fairness to the baker, it had spent two hot nights in the trunk of my friend's car and the jaunty bow has melted into a rather wilted mess. But who cares?

I know a miracle when I see it.