Sunday, 28 December 2008

Honest (S)crap

I wasn't going to post again until January 2009, but my blogging mate Jacqui kindly gave me this wonderful award and having pasted it into my blog, I now have to come up with some pithy and honest things about myself, so here goes:

1) I am crazy about cats. If I had a lot of money, I'd have dozens. I will walk across the street to pet a cat and as far as I'm concerned, all cats are lucky, no matter what their color and no matter whether they cross my path from left or right. So what if I'm allergic?

2) I'm an awful liar and I can't figure out why this is. When I was a kid, I fancied myself a pretty good liar, but now I wonder if I really was. After my mother died, I happened to find one of her diaries and I found out she'd known all along that I stole dimes from her purse when I was five. I think this shook my confidence.

3) I hate being accused of things I did not do. Nothing enrages me more than someone who tries to blame me for his or her own mistake. It drives me wild when my husband and kids ask me what I did with their things. Why don't they just learn to keep better track of their own possessions? Why should it be my responsibility?

4) Whenever I can't find something of mine, the first thing I do is look for someone to blame.

5) I love country and western music, and gospel. I am also crazy about enka, both Korean and Japanese.

6) I had a horrible time in high school due to shyness, nerdiness, and the fact that my sisters and I never figured out how to behave like everyone else.

7) I have no fashion sense; I depend on others with better taste to help me pick out clothes when I absolutely have to look good.

8) I have no sense of direction. This has caused me a lot of misery throughout my life, but I am convinced it has also helped me learn languages.

9) If I don't spend at least part of my week writing, I drive people insane by talking too much. If I don't write, it's tough on everyone around me.

10) There are times I think my IQ must be well over 160 and I wonder why the people around me can't understand the things I understand; there are other times I wonder if it's even 100 and I hope to God the people around me never figure out just how much I don't know.

And now I pass the honest baton on to Kim, Kara, and Kanani.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Fast Food Angel

The woman didn’t look like an angel. She was short and squat and tired looking, with three squabbling kids, all under the age of ten. My friends and I were just behind her in line and we watched as she negotiated the counter, getting her children’s orders straight, taking her coin purse out of her shoulder bag and carefully counting out the money. She was wearing some sort of cleaner’s uniform and a pair of old shoes with the heels turned down, and she looked as though she’d had a long, hard day.

Just as she received her order, an ill-dressed man sidled up to the line. “Spare change?” he muttered.

The man reeked of alcohol. His long grey-streaked black hair was dull and greasy and he had obviously been sleeping in his clothes for God knows how long. We all shook our heads and averted our eyes, and so did the cleaning lady.

“You can’t give money to guys like that," one of my friends said. "If we gave him money, he’d just go out and get drunk with it.”

The rest of us agreed. We were students, after all. We didn’t have much money and we weren’t about to waste it on some street person who’d just blow it on a bottle of cheap wine.

Just across from us, the cleaning lady was getting her kids settled, pulling hamburgers and packets of French fries out of paper bags. Two of her children quarreled over who had asked for the cheeseburger and she sorted that out, then distributed drinks. Her own meal sat untouched on the table.

My friends and I had just started to eat when we saw the woman get up from her table and get back in line. We assumed that she’d forgotten something one of her kids wanted, but after she'd paid for her second order she walked over to the ill-dressed man, who was sitting by himself at a table, trying to get warm. Silently she handed him the food -- two hamburgers and a cup of coffee -- and placed them in front of him.

It was hard not to watch as the man tore the paper off his first hamburger and began wolfing it down with swigs of coffee. He almost spilled it in his eagerness to get food and drink to his mouth.

My friends and I watched this in open-mouthed amazement. “She’s one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses or something,” someone at another table muttered. We all watched and waited for the woman's save-your-soul pitch to begin.

But the woman wasn’t rummaging through her bag for a religious tract; she was finally eating her own dinner, reaching to steady the drink of one child, to wipe the nose of another. She ignored the street man, who all but inhaled his second hamburger. It was clearly the first meal he’d had in a long time.

The man finished his dinner in very little time and got to his feet. Stumbling over to the woman’s table, he mumbled his thanks. The woman barely nodded back at him, and he left, letting in a frigid blast of wind as the door slammed behind him.

Decades later, I still remember that mother and her unselfish act of kindness, and how it humbled and touched us. Though my friends and I were students, all three of us were better dressed than she was, and we almost certainly had, if not more money, better prospects of getting it. But her generosity given her circumstances was not the only thing that impressed us; this woman saw a need and immediately knew the best way to meet it. She had no agenda, and unlike us, she didn't immediately think of reasons why she should not give; instead she spontaneously spotted the very thing that was needed and gave it. What a great example she was to her children -- and to us. To this day, I can think of no better personification of the Christmas spirit than that tired mother, my Fast Food Angel.

Merry Christmas to all of you and your families, and I hope to post again in 2009!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bad Taste, Good Feeling

"CHINA EMPORIUM" the sign shouts in huge red capital letters. We've passed this place half a dozen times on our way to Nicosia, but last Saturday, longing for decent Chinese food, we finally cracked and decided to investigate.

"No way is that really going to be a Chinese food market," said my husband, the pessimist. But hope springs eternal, and after a few disappointing experiences at expensive restaurants that served stale chicken-fried rice, predictably bland chop suey, and won ton soup straight out of a can, we were ready to try anything.

As soon as we stepped through the entrance, all thoughts of black bean chicken, bok choy with oyster sauce, and mabo dofu were quickly abandoned. We weren't in a Chinese supermarket, we were in the Turkish equivalent of a five-and-ten. Instead of noodles and tea, we had plastic Santa Clauses drinking Coca Colas; simpering angels made out of wire and feathers; lamp shades done in glittery purple. We went from aisle to aisle with our mouths open in horror as we saw serving dishes encrusted with plastic sea shells, huge plastic puppy dog statues with giant pleading eyes, and velvet paintings depicting dancing ladies in skimpy costumes.

I've seen some tacky stuff in my time, but nothing to rival this. There were things so awful that we actually had to go up and touch them: great, cumbersome combination paperweight-and-clocks filled with bright shiny heart-shaped confetti; ashtrays so horrifyingly tacky they almost took your breath away. I found myself amazed: here we are teetering on the brink of a world depression. The prices of food and household goods are steadily increasing. Given that, you would think that schlock like this would never have a hope of finding a home. And yet, people were buying freely. Shopping carts were being filled. Hideous items were being picked up and fondled lovingly.

My husband and his brothers have a thing about exchanging tacky Christmas presents, so he was in heaven. "I've GOT to have this," he almost wept, nudging me. I had to cover my mouth with my hand: he was holding a plastic clock radio in the shape of a mosque with Arabic writing across the face. A metal-lined depression in the top gave me pause until I saw the grooves along the perimeter, each one the width of a cigarette. Yes, it defied belief, but it really was a mosque-shaped ashtray, clock, and radio all in one.

"Mom, come and take a look at this!" one of my daughters hissed, pointing to a giant-sized twin kitten figurine. And suddenly I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Because those kittens brought back sweet-sour memories: I grew up around junk like this, and as a child, I thought it was beautiful.

My mother grew up in rural poverty. She and her family counted themselves lucky when there was food on the table. Every summer, my mother and her brothers and sisters went without shoes. All their clothes, handmade by their mother, were well patched and mended, generally hand-me-downs from older siblings. Doctors were only summoned when the patient was near death; my mother never went to a dentist until she was in her twenties.

Given the family's lack of money, anything store-bought was seen as automatically superior to its handmade equivalent, and my mother never got over this prejudice. I can remember going past a bin of cheap plastic airplanes in a toy store when I was ten; my mother picked one up and fingered it lovingly. "Do you like this?"

I frowned. "No. It's cheap-o."

My mother shook her head sadly as she put the airplane back into the bin. "You know, I would have done anything for this when I was your age."

Although my mother was educated, she never developed artistic sophistication. Our house was furnished with items purchased with S & H green stamps. Over our tatty green sofa hung a luridly-colored print in a cheap gilt frame, entitled 'Moon Over Capri', my mother's pride and joy. On top of our television sat a pair of ceramic Siamese cats with plastic aqua-colored eyes. This decoration could be plugged in; when it was, the cats' eyes glowed. We kids had a high opinion of this. I'm not sure how old I was when I realized how hopelessly tacky it was -- and felt ashamed.

I felt ashamed now too, but for different reasons: as a stroppy adolescent, I can remember making mocking comments about my mother's highly prized light-up Siamese cats. I wanted to distance myself from her kitschy taste -- to show that I knew what real art was.

"Aren't they awful?" my daughter whispered, pointing to the cats. And yes, they really, really were.

I saw an elderly woman pick up a pair of ceramic puppies covered with hideous spray-on fuzz. I watched her as she turned this aberration over in her hands, looking for a price tag. It must have been within her means: she put the puppies into her shopping cart, a look of quiet satisfaction on her face.

"The kittens are okay," I said to my daughter. "But I've seen better. You can't plug them in and their eyes don't light up."

She's lucky we made it out of the store without a velvet painting.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Personal Statement

Yesterday, Acquired Daughter asked me to look at the personal statement she is sending to the university she hopes to attend next year. Eldest Daughter, who wrote her own personal statement last year, helped her compose it and the two of them felt I might be able to make some useful suggestions about the writing.

No sooner had I read the third paragraph than I snorted in amazement. I enjoy playing sports, in particular, tennis and rugby.

Now, Acquired Daughter has a good build and, unlike me, perfectly good coordination, and I have no doubt that if she wanted to play rugby and tennis, she could. But the fact is, she doesn't want to play either, so she doesn't.

I pointed an incredulous finger at the offending sentence. "Excuse me, what is this about you enjoying rugby and tennis?"

Acquired Daughter had the goodness to look embarrassed. She told me that Eldest Daughter felt she should 'have a sport'. And really, I could not agree more.

When it came about that Acquired Daughter would be joining us for our year abroad, my hope was that she and Eldest would inspire each other to be more active. Although they are strong, capable girls, they also have strong couch potato tendencies and, given the choice of whether to spend a day hiking in the hills or sitting on the sofa watching Korean dramas on their laptops, there is no contest. I find this so sad. At their age, I was skinny and even more uncoordinated than I am now, and my parents did not push me to be more athletic. When I realized our daughters had inherited my husband's physical grace and coordination, my relief was huge. I should have realized that adolescence was just around the corner: even our youngest daughter now elects to stay inside instead of joining us for a walk. The joys of the internet combined with inertia and sheer teenage rebellion have given us three pommes de terre de divan.

Acquired Daughter won't go near water and she has no head for heights. That takes out hill walking and swimming, two activities that could easily be pursued here. Whenever my husband and I ask if anyone wants to accompany us on a walk, one or the other them will invariably come back with the following: I'll go if they go. 'They' -- needless to say -- never go.

Smart, huh?

"Listen," I told Acquired Daughter, "you can't write on your personal statement that you play tennis and rugby unless you actually do."

"Yeah, I know," Acquired Daughter admitted sheepishly.

Eldest, when cornered, bristled. "But she played it last year!"

"Come on, she played it only a couple of times and you know it."

"Well, we had to put something! She needs a sport!"

"Oh, I agree," I snapped. "You both need a sport."

"You know what I mean!"

"Yes I do, but you still can't lie about something like that."

"Why not?"

"Because a lie like that will come back and bite you on the butt."

"So how are they even going to know?" she sniffed.

"They'll meet her, eventually. And they'll see right away that she isn't a tennis or a rugby player. And then they'll wonder what else on her statement might not be true."


"What sports did you put on your own personal statement?" I asked with some trepidation.

"Same thing really."

I swallowed a sigh. Way back when our kids were small, we did everything we could to ensure that they would have active lifestyles. We took them swimming every weekend. We played ball and Frisbee in the park with them and we cycled miles together every Sunday; we watched them do ballet and gymnastics and jump rope for hours on end. They weren't exactly athletic, but they were very good. I was so sure they would grow up to be sporty, active teenagers, but how very wrong I was.

"Okay, so we'll take the rugby and tennis out then," Eldest conceded.

"There is an alternative, you know," I said, aiming for a nonchalant tone.


"You two could go out and find yourselves a tennis court. Rent a couple of rackets. Play some tennis." Please oh please oh please!

Dead silence.

"That way," I continued, "it wouldn't be a lie. And it would be great for both of you..."

Eldest looked up at me, appalled. I might as well have suggested setting fire to her hair and parading through the town backwards on a donkey.

Well, you can't blame me for trying. I suppose I can't blame them for trying either.

Sunday, 7 December 2008


Every morning on my way to my school, I go up a long flight of stone stairs. I'm an ungainly person, so I tend to look down at my feet as I climb, and I generally have a lot to think about too, so I am always lost in thought. And because of this, I invariably don't see the cleaner, the lone person up as early as I am, until I am almost past her. She is a woman about my age who looks as though she could tell a story or two. She wears a bright red headscarf over her pitch-black hair, and she is very light on her feet, so I never hear her coming. And -- shame on me! -- the following exchange takes place every single time:

Me (Flustered and caught off guard) Oh -- good morning!

Cleaner (Pointedly) Günaydın!

Every single time this happens, I cringe. Here I am in this woman's country and I cannot even manage a simple greeting in Turkish! What kind of self-respecting resident alien am I?

I've been here for almost three months now and I cannot even manage Good morning in Turkish. Because my Turkish is nowhere near basic. After three months in Japan, I knew greetings, seasons, the days of the week, even a few proverbs. I could make simple sentences, ask for directions, get train tickets, order meals, and even understand some of the conversations I heard around me. It is true that I studied Japanese before I went to Japan, but I had to get a kick-start on Japanese, given the different writing system, so I don't really count that. It is also true that I am much older than I was when I started Japanese, but I don't count that either; I am convinced that even with my aging brain I can still learn a language if I put my mind to it. Personally, I'd like to blame my teenagers, both the ones I teach and the ones I live with -- they get me so bamboozled and take up so much of my time -- but deep inside, I know very well that they're not the reason.

In fact, my failure to learn Turkish might be a combination of all the above factors, but I suspect the main problem is that I have no real motivation to learn. When I lived in Japan, I lived by myself with only a handful of English-speaking colleagues to converse with for a few minutes every day. Very few people around me spoke English and none of my neighbors did. I quickly discovered that I needed Japanese if I wanted to get my toilet unblocked in a hurry or find the one brand of orange juice that didn't have added sugar. Learning Japanese also gave me a means of making friends, and because I was very lonely on my own, this became a huge motivation.

Here, I live with my family and have no time to be lonely, so where is my motivation?

Motivation is a huge factor in learning a language. Years ago, one of my fellow English teachers commuted to a factory in Japan every Wednesday to teach a group of engineers there. Like a lot of Japanese men, the ones she taught tended to put in ten- and twelve-hour work days. They were perpetually sleepy and exhausted, and the last thing they wanted to do was learn how to speak a language they were convinced they would never need. She planned the most useful, interesting, stimulating lessons she knew how to plan, but her class remained a group of disgruntled, monosyllabic drudges who could hardly open their mouths without yawning. Then one day they got the news that their company was planning to open a factory in Wales. Some of them would be needed there. Overnight, the drudges turned into driven, committed men. They stopped sleeping in class, sat up straight in their seats, and greeted her with enthusiastic smiles every morning. Every session fairly zinged with energy and good cheer. Wednesday quickly went from being the day she dreaded going to work to her favorite day of the week.

I envied my friend from the bottom of my heart. As it happened, I also taught a group of engineers at a factory, in Morioka. I used to have fantasies about their company building a factory in an English-speaking country, but it never happened. Every Tuesday, I set off to work with a heavy heart; on my last day there, I don't know who was the most relieved -- me or my fifteen miserable students.

By far the most motivated class I ever taught was a small group of housewives whose children all attended the same middle school. This little group of women had formed and bonded when their children were tiny and they had decided that one day, when their children were old enough, they would learn English. When their husbands retired, the four of them planned to see the world together. "What about your husbands?" I asked, but they laughed. "They don't want to go to places where they can't use Japanese!" Every week, these women brought me articles they wanted to discuss -- all of them as eclectic and interesting as could be. We discussed bullying in schools, race relations in America, Japan and South Africa, Machu Picchu, pedigreed dogs versus mutts, cooking, fairy tales, poisonous snakes and spiders, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Never have I had a group of students so dedicated or passionate about learning English: they were motivated to learn because they had a dream.

No doubt about it: I need a dream. I need motivation.

Here is how much Turkish I have learned thus far: I can ask someone if she can speak English and I can tell her that I cannot speak Turkish. I can say my name and ask for someone else's name. I can ask if there are persimmons, apples, or bread in the market; I can count to 29. I know how to say good morning, good day, good evening, and good night, but the sad truth is that I never remember which is which half the time. I can say please, bon appetit, and thank you, order a cup of coffee or a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I know the words for water, trash, cat, lazy, new, open, closed.

Now, what I know may not be much, but you've got to start somewhere, right? And nothing is as motivating as someone who doesn't speak your own language. My Turkish colleagues all speak beautiful English, but the cleaning lady is the perfect person to start with. And while I can't very well order a glass of orange juice from her, I can certainly wish her a good morning in Turkish. And who knows? Maybe we'll go from simple greetings to brief exchanges about the weather -- and beyond.

So last Monday, I got my Günaydın! ready. I rolled it around in my mouth a few times, repeating it nervously under my breath as I began my ascent, one eye out for the cleaner in her bright red headscarf.

She was not there.

On Tuesday, I was ready for her again, but sadly, our paths did not cross. On Wednesday, it happened: she was there, cleaning pail in one hand, a cigarette in the other, her shiny red headscarf bright under the December sun.

I smiled bravely and took a deep breath. "Günaydın!"

She took a drag on her cigarette and smiled back. "Good morning!"

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

To Teach Or Not To Teach

Heads are rolling here. We are told that this is in light of the worsening world economic crisis, but no one really knows if this is really the case.

Last week, we heard a rumor that a lot of people were going to be laid off. Not long after, one of the senior staff came in, flustered and upset. "There's a crying woman in my office. Would someone please come and help her? She's in a really bad way."

One of us did, subsequently coming back with the disturbing news that this woman was our department's first job casualty -- last in, first out. She'd been given scarcely a week's notice. My heart went out to this woman, a competent and dedicated young teacher, but I found myself very nervous too: as it happens, I was one of the last in myself. Will I lose my job?

I am of two minds about my job right now. On one hand, I love teaching again. I love seeing the light of reason dawning in students' eyes. I love seeing my students' confidence grow as their English improves, and I love teaching English when people genuinely want to learn. But here is the awful thing: I have discovered that I hate teaching people who don't want to learn even more. And boy oh boy oh boy, do I have a lot of them.

"We've got a useful lesson today!" I tell my reading skills class, trying to infuse my voice with energy and enthusiasm. Actually, I'm exaggerating: we've got a dull-as-dust lesson in point of fact, but it is potentially useful. The students have to scan a website about academic subjects to glean pertinent bits of information from it. Sounds boring, right? Well, it's on the curriculum, so I have to teach it. And however boring it might be for the students to learn, trying to teach kids who spend one-third of their time sneaking peeks at their watches, one-third ostentatiously yawning and casting longing looks at the door, and the remaining third yakking to each other in Turkish, is a heck of a lot more boring.

"Ahmet and Tufan, could I have your attention please?" I cry for the fourth time, trying to keep the exhausted desperation out of my voice. Ahmet and Tufan are virtually fused together, their heads touching, deep in conversation -- I'm guessing about football. I thump my book on their desk; annoyed, they barely glance up at me, but the shy, diligent girl from Kazakhstan jumps half a foot. She studies hard, never misses a class, and listens to every word I say. And whenever I yell at the others, she blushes and practically cringes, as though she is the guilty party. I reassure her that she isn't the one I'm upset with and in doing so, lose Ahmet and Tufan entirely. They are back to their engrossing -- and very noisy -- discussion about football and the poor Kazakh girl still looks faintly shocked.

I take a deep, steadying breath and move back to Ahmet and Tufan. It's time for me to roll out my big guns. "If you continue to ignore me," I say in a low, menacing voice, "I will be forced to mark you absent."

This finally reaches them; they know I'll do it. Marking them absent is the one bargaining chip I have, and thank God for it.

"But we are here!" they sputter in righteous indignation.

"Your bodies are here, but your minds are elsewhere."

They sigh and make a great show of rolling their eyes and slumping in their chairs, but they stop talking.

"Now who can tell me if you can study sociology at University A?"

The class stares down at their books, foreheads furrowed. One boy yawns widely, flinging his head back in an exaggerated fashion, and his neighbor jabs an elbow in his ribs. They both giggle. Someone lets out a tremendous burp and half the class titters in appreciation. Several boys in the back row start talking again; I move meaningfully towards the roll book, business in my eye, and everyone immediately shuts up. Pure magic.

"Tee-cha, what means sociology?" the thick girl in the back row asks loudly.

Please bear in mind that I have explained what sociology means half a dozen times this morning. Please also bear in mind that I have drilled What does xx word mean? another half dozen times; it is even on the board.

By Herculean effort, I manage to resist the urge to roll my eyes and sigh. "It's the study of society." I know what the next question is going to be.

"Tee-cha, what means--?"

"People. Culture." God give me strength.

"Tee-cha, what means--?"

But her classmates interrupt her. "Tee-cha, break time!" two boys call triumphantly, in chorus.

The entire class lets out a collective groan. We've been through this easily thirty, forty times. "Tee-cha, break time" is the one phrase that even the most reluctant English speaker will bring herself to utter. My first month here, I got so tired of hearing Tee-cha, break time! that I taught my students the following sentence: Excuse me, Mary, I believe it is time for our break already. If anyone forgets and resorts to the illiterate-sounding Tee-cha, break time, I make the whole class repeat the full version. If anyone forgets the word already, the whole class has to say the entire thing again. I'm sorry to say that I take sadistic pleasure in enforcing this.

"Excuse me, teacher!" roar Ahmet and Tufan in what I am sure they believe is a perfect parody of me. "I believe it is time for our break already!"

Will I lose my job? I suppose it is within the realm of possibility. So thank God for Ahmet, Tufan, and the thick girl in the back row.