Saturday, 31 January 2009

A Few Precious Treasures

Marcia Hoehne has kindly given me this nice new award which I am to display along with a description of a few things I love.

Now, I am spoiled for choice when it comes to things I love. I am crazy about music and art and cats and books and plants, and above all, my dear family. I would find it hard to live without onions and garlic and cheese and chocolate and fresh coriander and chili peppers and beans and just about every kind of so-called ethnic food you might care to mention. But I would like to use this opportunity to talk about a few seemingly insignificant things that have become huge since moving here -- things I might not have given a second thought, back home in Scotland.

1) My old black shoes. I bought these frankly ugly shoes about six months before we left. They have a Velcro strap across the front and flat heels, and no fashionable woman in her right mind would be caught dead in them. But my feet have high arches and these shoes have built-in arch supports, and every time I hear one of my colleagues click-clicking along the corridor in her rat-stabber stilettos, I bless these shoes. I don't know how my colleague copes. We're on our feet up to six hours at a stretch, and in her shoes, I am convinced that I would become a homicidal maniac.

2) The two tiny sewing kits I got on Turkish Air. Somewhere in storage, I have a good-sized sewing box filled with different colors of thread, a selection of needles, scissors, a seam-ripper, tape measure, and pin cushion. Here in our little southern outpost, I have two tiny sewing kits and in the past five months, I have used them to 1) sew a torn pocket on a sundress, 2) mend Eldest Daughter's jeans, 3) fix Acquired Daughter's broken shoe strap (courtesy of Eldest's big clumsy feet), 4) sew two buttons back on husband's shirt, 5) hem up Youngest Daughter's shirt and -- well, you get the picture. I do believe in five months I have done more needlework than I did in an entire year back in Scotland, and I even have a good twenty inches of purple and orange thread left over.

3) My tatty old leg warmers. Way back when, after the movies Fame and Flashdance, every girl and her sister had to have a pair of leg warmers. Even non-dancing girls and women in places like Los Angeles and Florida could be seen sporting big, fashionable-looking leg warmers over their skin-tight blue jeans, sometimes spangled with bits of metallic thread or studded with sequins. Please don't imagine that my leg warmers, kindly sent by my friend Dina, are anything like those. They are black and plain and without them I would no doubt have lived through January, but it would not have been much fun.

4) My secondhand clothes shop lined trousers. We came here with a baggage weight limit of just under 20 kilograms per person. That meant that none of us could bring more than a few articles of winter clothing, and though clothes in big cities like Istanbul are well made and cheap, in our town they happen to be expensive. I bought my nearly-new fake moleskin lined trousers at my favorite thrift shop, run by the Cats Protection League, and I daily bless the woman who was crazy (or rich) enough to get rid of them.

5) My travel flashlight.I have a poor sense of direction and bad night vision. We live in a neighborhood sorely lacking in sidewalks but well supplied with potholes and missing chunks of asphalt. Every time I go walking at night, my trusty travel flashlight keeps me out of ditches -- and other people's driveways and entrances.

6) Our internet connection cable. Every time I plug this into my computer, I marvel at its power. It is half the width of my little finger, but it can connect me with people all over the world. It is such a compelling object that it commands the attention and respect of every member of this family, and -- even as I write this -- is an object of hot contention. I am being reminded that my turn with the cable is now over, so I'll pass this along to a few fellow writers who might be game to play along: Merry and Eryl, and Charlie, and Ms A. Paperback Writer, over to you if you're interested!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Holidays From Hell

It is a paradox that one of the nicest things about moving from country to country is also one of the greatest headaches: holidays.

Now, I don't want to sound like a spoilsport, but holidays, for all that they are loads of fun, are also a big pain in the neck and, for some reason, seem to be viewed in our family as my own particular responsibility. For quite some time, I was dumb enough to play along with this, then something snapped. Last year, I left our Christmas tree up until Easter, when the rest of the household decided that they had better things to do than help me take it down. I called their bluff and they called mine, and by March, none of us could bear to go into what we began to call 'the Christmas room'. It helped that we were living in a large Victorian flat at the time and had more than one lounge. It also helped that the tree, for all that it posed a fire risk, smelled great and ended up burning beautifully in our wood-burning stove. But I can't say I was proud.

In Japan, the kids were eager to have it all. Japan has a whole lot of holidays and their friends at nursery school, then elementary school, celebrated them, so we had to as well; our kids stood out enough as it was, and we hardly wanted to give them another reason to be different.

"You didn't get to have shichi-go-san, did you?" one little girl said to our eldest daughter when she was five, "'cause you're a foreigner." Shichi-go-san is a traditional rite of passage celebrated in mid-November for little girls who are three and seven years old; boys usually only get to do it once, when they are five.

"Oh yes I did!" Eldest retorted, and the next day, she took in a photograph of her little blonde self fully kitted out in a kimono. This exchange was witnessed by two nursery teachers who gleefully reported that the little Japanese girl, upon being shown this, immediately said, "Gosh, you really are Japanese! I'm sorry I called you a foreigner!"

Getting Eldest dressed in that damn kimono took half an age, and making sure she didn't mess it up later when we took her out for the obligatory fancy meal and walk around the town, was a hassle of massive proportions. But her little friend's reaction made it all worth while, and even to this day, we love looking at the photographs.

We did them all. We cleaned the house for shogatsu, New Year's Day; on February the 3rd, we put on devil masks and chanted "Bad out, good in!" as we scattered beans out the door for setsubun, to mark the beginning of spring. On March the 3rd, we celebrated girls' day, on May the 5th we celebrated boys' day, and every summer we wrote out wishes on colored paper to decorate for Tanabata, the star festival. (I felt so ashamed of our family's wishes; they must have sounded so pathetically simple, laboriously written out, as they were, with the help of a dictionary.) We were let off the hook during Obon, the Buddhist summer festival during which everyone goes to visit the graves of their ancestors, but every September, before taiiku no hi, or 'sports day', we were forced to endure all-day sports events at our kids' nursery and elementary schools. Not realizing how important these were, we skipped the first one when Eldest was a year old and were roundly told off for it. If I could add up all the time I've sat on the hard ground and watched several hundred kids vault, jump rope, race around a ring, and run relays carrying potatoes on spoons, I'd have quite a tidy bit of time there. Wish I could, too.

Now, I freely admit that I can be lazy. And what I've described here may not sound like a lot. But when you factor in Valentines' Day (also celebrated in Japan, though women give men chocolate there), Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays, this is a hefty bunch of holidays to plan for and clean up after. And guess who got stuck with the brunt of the work?

When we moved to Scotland and the kids still wanted to celebrate Japanese holidays, I did the best I could. I put out our dolls on Girls' Day and nagged the kids to write messages for Tanabata too, though we never managed to find any bamboo to hang them on. On one Boys' Day, I made sushi, and I scrubbed the house from top to bottom for Shogatsu. After a while, I'll admit it: I gave up. And boy, it felt great.

So far, the holidays here have been easy-going affairs and I couldn't be more pleased. Seker Bayram, to mark the end of Ramadan fasting, was no big deal and I even got a free cake out of it. Kurban Bayram was the next holiday, and involved no work for me at all. Christmas went by in a flash -- our car's repairs ate up all our holiday money and spared me having to do anything with a Christmas tree -- and for New Year's, I popped corn, my husband had a beer, and hey, presto, 2009 had been shown in in style.

Then last week, it happened.

"Know what day it is today?" Acquired Daughter asked innocently. And I froze: January 25th -- Burns Night!

Scotland doesn't have a lot of holidays, but this is one that cannot be skipped: Robert Burns' birthday. Back in Scotland, we celebrated Burns' Night in style at my friend Dina's, with the traditional haggis, a sheep's stomach stuffed with offal, onions, oatmeal, and spices, and boiled until palatable (for those who are prepared to eat it, at least). We also feasted on the other indispensable Burns' Night components: mashed potatoes -- 'tatties' as they are called -- turnips, or 'neeps' -- and whiskey. My friend Dina loves holidays and never scrimps or wimps out on celebrations. She would have done splendidly in Japan.

Now Acquired Daughter does not ask for a lot. She finds our weird mixture of nationalities amusing and she puts up well with all of our family's weirdness. But she is 100% Scottish and with her in the family, there was no way we could not celebrate Burns' Night. And just you try describing haggis to a monolingual Turkish butcher sometime and tell me how well you manage.

We did the best we could. Acquired Daughter pretended that the kofta -- Turkish meatballs -- tasted just as good as haggis, and even I enjoyed the mashed potatoes, turnips, and package of Scottish shortbread.

But best of all, my husband cooked the whole thing.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Like That When I Got Here

Onur stands in the hallway, his face lit up by euphoria. He looks as though he could easily spread his arms and fly. Onur has just seen his test results and while they were not great, they were good enough. He has passed. Smooth sailing from now on; no more tiresome sessions with his grammar book, no more slogging through present perfect vs simple past, or first and second conditionals. "Thank you so much for everything, tee-cha," he breathes, practically pumping my hand in a rush of happiness. I am touched by his gratitude, but how can I take the credit? He's a smart kid to begin with, and he got out as much as he put in -- I just wish he'd done more.

Ceyda hangs back, her eyes swollen and red-rimmed, her face the picture of misery. She is usually noisy, boisterous, full of silliness, but today she is dead serious, laid low. The last time I saw Ceyda, she was eating baklava and posing for a photograph with a group of girls as giddy and mindless as she is, utterly deaf to my reminders to study. And I'm guessing she didn't study: Ceyda's score was well below the pass mark. "My father will angry," she almost weeps now. "He will too much angry!" All I can do is give her a sympathetic smile and think Don't blame me. She's not a stupid kid by any means, but she is lazy. She got as much as she put in too -- which was precious little.

Teaching can be so discouraging! I can encourage, provide materials, instruct, advise, remind, chastise, nag, and create a relaxed classroom atmosphere. I can analyze what my students need to learn, distill it until it is fit for their comprehension, and do my best to impart what knowledge needs to be imparted. But what I cannot do for my students is study. And sadder still, I cannot get inside their heads and hearts and fire them up with the passion to learn. I cannot inspire those who do not want to be inspired; I cannot motivate those who want to be elsewhere, doing other things.

All of my students have a clear vision of the carrot -- the diploma, parental approbation, a whirlwind of parties, the sheer joy of no more school, even the hazy promise of employment in these difficult times -- but a lot of them are clueless about what it takes from them to achieve that carrot.

And sometimes you get kids that are clueless, period.

"Tee-cha," wailed two girls with mournful expressions during the first week of classes, "we have problem. Repeat students."

"Pardon me?" I asked, flabbergasted. Neither girl had the accent down pat.

"Last year, this class, fail. This year repeat."

"Why do you have to repeat?" I asked.

"Tee-cha trouble!" they chorused, arms linked.

"Teacher trouble?"

They nodded, faces serious.

I smelled a rat: their spiel sounded rehearsed. And their eagerness to blame their teacher for their poor performance struck a warning bell: teachers know there are bad apples among us, but we're inclined to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt. And all of us with any modicum of experience know that the sure sign of a crappy student is one who blames the teacher for her failure to learn. I'm not saying bad teachers don't exist -- I've had plenty myself. But blaming the teacher straight off the bat is a bad idea.

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," I said evasively. "But all you have to do in my class is pay attention, study, and turn in the assignments. Do that and you will almost certainly pass. Okay?"

"Yes tee-cha, we try!"

Like hell they did. Over the next three months, these two girls huddled together and resisted all attempts to separate them. They refused to speak English, disrupted my classes with their endless chatter, showed up late, concocted an improbable number of illnesses and excuses, and -- on memorable occasions -- slept through whole lessons. More than once I had to send both of them out of the classroom in disgrace; more than once I had to take them outside for a talking-to.

None of it did a lick of good.

Both girls turned in sub-standard homework, at best, failed their midterms and every pop quiz, and out-and-out plagiarized their final compositions, even after numerous warnings about my zero-tolerance policy. I caught one of them climbing out of the classroom window once, and I could not count the times I've arrived back in class after a 15-minute break only to be approached by one or both with an urgent request for the toilet.

I could happily throttle these two girls. They've had every opportunity. I've given them pep talks, nagged them, warned them, coached them, encouraged them whenever I honestly could -- all for nothing. And yet I'm pretty sure that they will write their failure off as teacher trouble.

Still, I wish it were as simple as Study hard and you will pass, fool around and you will fail. In truth, it is more complex, involving things like attitude, aptitude, nerves, and plain old luck.

"Tee-cha!" booms Cenk, my hyperactive, disrespectful class clown and a massive pain in the neck, "how are you?" There is something so hail-fellow-well-met in his tone that I don't have to look at his results to tell he's passed. Not only did he pass, but he did so with a respectable margin. If I'd known he was capable of that much, I'd have worked him a lot harder.

Esra stands behind him, hanging her head in disappointment and embarrassment. She is a shy, sweet girl who has never missed a class; she studies hard, turns in extra work, and never copies others' assignments. Sadly, she tends to panic during tests too; she has failed her examination and will have to repeat the course.

If I can't take credit for Cenk passing, I'm not sure I can take the blame for Esra failing either.

"Tee-cha!" someone behind me calls joyfully, "I am pass!"

It's Özgül, a rather lazy plodder who has spent half her time in class biting the split ends off her long hair.

"Was it hard?" I ask her as we walk along.

"Very hard. But writing part is not so hard."

"Really?" I'm amazed by this. Özgül is one of the kids who could not wait to get out of class. Who would have her sweater on, her bag over her shoulder, and one leg off her chair before I could announce the homework. And she has complained loud and long about the writing assignments being too hard.

"Writing is okay," she says simply. "We did in class so many times."

This one I believe I will take credit for.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Mariya Says I Live In Paradise

Just before we left the U.K., I got a telephone call informing me that I had won first prize in a poetry competition. My first thought was that it was a hoax, but it was not. (The woman who called was well amused by my suspicious reaction to her good news; once I'd figured out that the phone call was legitimate, I had some apologizing to do.)

Folks, I really did win, and I'm posting the link at the bottom of this post. I've still got the check because I can't bear to cash it. The glory means even more to me than the cash (for the time being), and I'm just as fond of money as the next woman. The poem that won second prize is better than mine and I'm not being humble (though you don't have to agree with me). But I'm not giving back the check.

So, my writing friends, if you're pulling an Emily Dickinson and hoarding some of your poems and stories in some back drawer, by all means get them out there. I sent this poem around and it got multi-rejected. And then one day I sent it out again and it did me proud.

(And thank you, miniWORDS people. I need all the encouragement I can get. And once again, I'm sorry about the Irish Sweepstakes comment.)

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Something In Common

Angelina was from Rwanda. Her last name was long, with many syllables: when I first saw it in my advanced English class roll book, I did not read it carefully; my assumption was that she must be the European wife of a Japanese man. I got quite a surprise on the first day of class when I opened the door and saw instead a middle-aged African woman sitting among a group of Japanese students.

One of the first assignments I give my intermediate and advanced students is to tell me how they have studied English over the years, and why they want to continue. I have them do this verbally, in groups of three or four, then later in writing. This gives me not only an understanding of their learning processes and language learning history, but also a good idea of their English proficiency and motivation. It also helps students see how much they have in common: I've seen taxi drivers bond with junior diplomats over the shared experience of how little they managed to learn in their first English classes.

Most Japanese people begin learning English in middle school and carry on through high school. English isn't a popular subject: rote learning with an emphasis on grammar is the norm, and people who enjoy English are sadly a minority. Those who learn enough to hold even a simple conversation are an even greater minority.

Angelina was my first African student in Japan, and I wondered how her language learning experiences would compare with the others'. I divided the class into four groups, making sure to put Angelina in the more proficient group which included an elderly retired professor of engineering, a housewife who had lived overseas for decades, a graduate student, and a freelance photographer. As I moved from group to group, I heard virtually the same story: I started learning when I was twelve. Our classes were not interesting and our teachers were strict, but they could not speak English themselves. It was boring.

When I got to Angelina's group, though, a lively discussion was in progress. In any class, there is almost always a brief period where the students get to know each other and establish whose linguistic skill is superior. In this group it was obvious that Angelina had won hands-down; you could tell by the way the others were beginning to defer to her. Kinue, for all her fluency acquired from years overseas, was obviously second fiddle.

"My junior high class was one of the biggest in Tokyo," said Minoru, the photographer. "Over forty kids -- too big for an English class."

Angelina frowned. "There were over fifty in my class."

Everyone turned to look at Angelina. She had certainly done well for herself, considering.

"Twenty years ago, Japanese English textbooks were poor," observed Kinue, the housewife. "My children's English textbooks make me envious: so colorful -- so many photographs and pictures!"

"We had just one textbook. It was adequate, but it was very old," Angelina responded.

I leaned closer. Angelina's English was accented, but grammatically near-perfect; surely she had made a mistake...

"Don't you mean they were?" murmured Minoru, reading my mind.

She looked mildly annoyed. "No. I mean it. We had one book."

"You mean you used one book throughout the course?" I prodded. "But everyone had a copy, right?"

Angelina narrowed her eyes. "No. I mean that the class had one book in total."

Kinue's chin dropped. "But you said there were over fifty students!"


"And you had one book?" queried Akio, the retired professor.

"Yes. We each got a turn copying it. That book was very important to us."

"During the War, we had very few things too," Akio mused. "Books were very important..." Angelina looked at him with interest.

This conversation fascinated me, but I was aware that time was slipping away and I wanted the shyer, less articulate students to get a chance to speak. "What about you, Mayumi?" I asked the graduate student.

She ducked her head. "My family and I lived in Mexico. I studied English there, but I also studied Spanish."

"How wonderful! So you speak three languages?"

She smiled and nodded.

"How many languages do you speak?" Akio asked Angelina.

She pursed her lips, thinking. "Kinyarwanda and French."

"And English," murmured Akio in awestruck tones.

"Yes," agreed Angelina in an offhand manner.

Minoru looked delighted. "Parlez-vous francais?" he quipped. Angelina's smile was frosted with noblesse oblige.

"I wish I could have spent more time on English," said Kinue a little defensively, "but after my children were born, I was so busy!"

Angelina turned to her. "How many children do you have?"

"Three," said Kinue proudly. "Do you have children?"

Angelina nodded.

"How many?" came the inevitable response.


There was a brief silence while we all absorbed this.

"Are they with you here in Tokyo?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Oh no, they are back in Rwanda."

"In school?"

"Yes, the younger ones are."

"And they are okay without their mother?" Kinue wanted to know.

Angelina looked surprised. "Of course they are. They are at school."

"African peoples expect to learn English," observed Akio thoughtfully. "Japanese use their own language, so they do not expect to learn English."

Angelina considered this. "In my country, we use our own language too -- everyone knows Kinyarwanda. But French is our official language now, not English. We know that we cannot speak Kinyarwanda to others all over the world. But in many countries, they do not speak French, they speak English. So we must learn English too."

By now, the rest of the groups had finished and everyone was listening to Angelina. "What were your classes like?" a woman at the next table asked.

"Well, they were large, as I have said. And we did not have a proper classroom. We had to share one book and we also had only five pencils."

"Each?" asked a man. Five pencils didn't seem so bad.

Angelina shook her head. "No, our class had five pencils. We all shared them."

"Five pencils for fifty students?" asked another student in hushed tones.


"What about your teachers? Were they strict?"

"Oh my, yes. They used to beat us when we did not learn." Angelina smiled as though recalling precious memories.

By now, I felt a little nervous. It was true that the entire class was fascinated by Angelina: given her background -- so much more deprived than anyone else's -- her superior English fluency was staggering; you could see this reflected in every face. But she was so completely out of their realm that I feared they would never bond with her. She was far and away the most fluent English speaker in the class, she spoke two other languages, and she had raised eight children who were obviously self sufficient. Superwoman might be interesting, but who wants to be her buddy? For the rest of the class period, I worried about this, watching as the others treated Angelina with cool deference.

A few days later, I walked into the class and interrupted a conversation between Akio and Angelina. "...never enough food to eat," Akio was saying. "We were always so hungry! And if anything broke, we had to fix it. And my grandchildren, if they break something, always buying new one!"

"Children today do not understand," Angelina commiserated, "even in my country."

Thank God they had found something in common.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

English Broken Here

Yesterday was rainy day and I have sick, writes Asya. But I also have test and must come school. But I forgot purse and my room friends has no money, so I cannot eat to lunch. I feel very soreful.

I smile. Soreful -- what a great word. So what if it isn't necessarily in the Oxford English Dictionary?

But the next student's essay on her family has me stumped.

My sister does not like she's mother-in-love. I have no idea what in the world this means, but I press on. She's mother-in-love house too clean. She's mother-in-love hobby is for make she's house clean.

Okay, now I've got it: she's must mean her (remind me to review possessive pronouns), and does mother-in-love mean mother-in-law?

My sister says her husband that she has got job like she's husband. So she cannot clean house all day as she's mother-in-love.

Bingo! Mother-in-law it is. But I much prefer the term mother-in-love, and maybe we'd all love our own more if we called her something so nice...

Thank you for letter. I hope come your hotel two week time. I need single room with good view, writes Seda, a shy 17-year-old girl. So far so good, but the next line has me in tears: I hope you pleasure me. (How can I possibly tell her?)

"Sorry for late, service did not come again!" Kemal tells me breathlessly, shutting the classroom door behind him.

All I can do is shake my head in bewilderment. "Service?"

Kemal stops to catch his breath. "I wait too long time -- and Mustafa and Yonca from next class is waiting too -- but the service too long time come. Also very crowdy so we cannot sit."

Hooray, I've got it now: service has to mean bus.

"Yesterday," Ibrahim burbles eagerly, "I did auto-stop and I met U.K. woman. I could understand everything she said, thanks to you, teecha! Everything! "

Ibrahim, one of my best students, has excellent English and I understood the last highly gratifying part, but what in the world is auto-stop? "Could you repeat that?" I ask, and he does.

Nope, I still don't get it. "So, auto-stop -- where is it?" It's got to be a coffee shop.

Ibrahim flashes me an incredulous look. "Tee-cha, you know auto-stop, it is everywhere!"

I frown. "But I mean specifically. Is it downtown, near the harbor?"

By now, Ibrahim looks as bewildered as I am. "It is everywhere, when you need it."

"Auto-stop very convenient!" agrees Cenk, his companion.

"Is it expensive?"

Ibrahim laughs. "It is free!" He sticks out his thumb, giving me a duh look. "Auto-stop!"

Oh for God's sake... "You mean hitch-hiking," I tell them, feeling foolish. (This is my native language we're speaking here, isn't it?)

"Tee-cha," says Ahmet admiringly, as I open my roll book and take out a pen. "Today you are very elegant."

"Why thank you," I murmur, preening. I'll have to let my daughters straighten my hair more often!

Ahmet licks his lips and leans forward, his eyes bright with curiosity. "How old are you?"

"Ahmet, you know better than to ask that question!" He really does, too -- I've had to tell him this half a dozen times. I don't so much mind telling them how old I am, but I'm not big on the idea of them thinking this is an okay question to ask mature women.

"Okay, okay." He regards me for a moment. "Teecha, may I ask you question -- frank question?"

"Of course." Though I may not answer it.

"How much money you make?"

Siiigh... sometimes not understanding is better.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Citizen Of The World

I did a double take the first time someone spoke to me in Turkish. I was sitting in the teachers' room at the school where I teach and a kid walked up to me and began what sounded like an anxious pitch. I caught one word -- someone's name -- but that was it.

"Sorry," I spluttered, interrupting him mid-flow, "I don't speak Turkish."

The kid took a step back and stared at me, as though taking in my foreignness for the first time. I don't feel Turkish either, I felt like saying. How could I look Turkish when I don't feel Turkish?

On one of my last trips back to California, my sister and I had lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place in our hometown. I haven't lived in California for ages, but this restaurant was one that my family used to patronize frequently. When we were finished, I asked if I could pay with traveler's checks. The waitress asked me for I.D. and I handed her my passport. She looked at it with great suspicion.

"Where are you from?"


"No, I mean, where are you from?" she repeated meaningfully. "Your place of origin."

I stared at her. "Right here! California."

She tilted her head. "Really?"

"Really! I went to North!"

She narrowed her eyes. "So where were you born?"


But she wasn't going to give up. "And you've lived here all your life?"

Ah, now there she had me. "I've been away for a while," I admitted.

"How long?"

"Well -- a long time." But I'm still American.

In fact, my father and the previous owners of this restaurant had known each other professionally, and the last meal my father ever ate had been in this very restaurant. I can't open my mouth around a British stranger without seeing American dawn in his eyes, and yet to this woman, I did not sound like an American. How could I seem like a foreigner to her when I still felt American?

My sister claimed that I still sounded like an American to her, so whatever acquired foreignness I had was an elusive, hard-to-pinpoint thing. My accent hasn't really changed. I'm not one of those Americans who actively seeks to sound like something else; I persist in using my own dialect and pride myself on spelling 'check' without a Q and 'color' without a U. I still say 'gas', 'hood' and 'trunk' when I'm talking about cars, and a parking lot will never be a car park for me. But this same experience was repeated throughout my stay in America. No doubt about it: I've changed.

In Japan, very few strangers ever initiated conversations with me in Japanese. For several decades, I studied Japanese, both formally and informally; I worked for a Japanese company, attended a Japanese university, got married in a Japanese ward office, ate Japanese food, had Japanese friends, gave birth in a Japanese hospital, and raised Japanese-speaking kids. I've been told that my Japanese accent is close to native; on the phone, people often assume I'm a long-term Korean resident. But I could still go into a store, ask for something in Japanese, and get back Sorry -- I don't speak English. It's not really my accent, I just don't look the part.

After seventeen years in Japan, I never really felt Japanese -- but I have come pretty close. Whenever I hear criticism of Japan and the Japanese -- however well deserved -- I instinctively flinch -- I can't help myself. Once, while doing a part-time job in Scotland, I saw Japanese scrawled on a box of computer parts and I almost burst into tears, it was so nostalgic.

My first week in the Netherlands, I caught myself tensing as I walked down the street. All around me people were speaking a language I could not understand. I felt as though my foreignness was radiating out of me like it had in Japan; I imagined that the people who looked my way were thinking foreigner, just as everywhere I went in Japan, people saw me and thought gaijin. When I caught sight of myself in a shop window, I realized the truth: that I looked just like most of the people around me. People spoke to me in Dutch and laughed when I told them I could not speak the language. "American?" one woman trilled, highly amused. "Really? I would never have guessed."

"Tee-cha," one of my students told me today, "I think you understand Turkish."

This amazed me. "Why?"

"Because sometimes you look at us when we are speaking Turkish and you look like you know."

I burst out laughing: I couldn't help myself. I can barely count to thirty in Turkish. I still get 'excuse me' and 'have a nice meal' mixed up.

"I think you know what we are saying," he insisted.

Later I told one of my Turkish colleagues this. "Apparently I look like I understand Turkish," I said. "And people have spoken to me in Turkish. Who knows -- maybe they think I could be Turkish."

She laughed. "The first time I saw you, I knew right away that you were American."


"You just look like one."

Sometimes I really do wonder what I am.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Excuses, Excuses

"Tee-cha, I am here?"

Oh God, no, it's Tanol.

I get asked this question almost every day, after class. A cluster of students swarm around my desk; they have shown up late and want to make sure I have marked them down as present anyway. It's a headache trying to figure out who has a legitimate reason for being late and who was outside yakking with his buddies. But Tanol, who is also lazy and irresponsible, isn't just a headache, he's a 24-hour migraine. A few minutes around Tanol and I wonder why I ever went into teaching in the first place: I have trouble suffering fools.

I can't figure out what Tanol is doing in the pre-academic English program. He's slightly older than the majority, already in his early twenties, but otherwise there is nothing to mark him out as different. He looks bright enough, his face is pleasant, even handsome, and he doesn't suffer from any obvious infirmity. But Tanol's ordinary features belie a vacuity that is almost staggering. After repeating the program twice, he still cannot string together an English sentence for the life of him. I am told that he speaks Turkish just fine -- indeed, he speaks it non-stop throughout the very few classes he has managed to attend -- and he seems not to suffer from real learning difficulties. But when asked to do the simplest task in English, Tanol becomes overwhelmed: his brow furrows; his eyebrows knit; his lips pucker. "Whaaat?" he whispers. In Turkish.

The first time this happened, the rest of the class thought it was so funny they shrieked, hooted, and pounded on their desks, and it took me ages to get everyone settled. I repeated myself several times, growing angrier and angrier, but Tanol still pretended to be flummoxed -- or so I thought. It took me a good two minutes to realize that he wasn't pretending anything; he genuinely did not know what Please take your book out meant.

"I am here?" he whispers again, gesturing hopefully at the roll book. He missed the first forty-five minutes of class and sashayed in fifteen minutes late for the next session with no apology, so no way am I going to mark him present.

But try telling him that.

"No," I say, putting away my markers. "You were late." I tap my watch meaningfully.

His brow furrows. "But -- here now."

I put my yoga breathing to good use. Please let me keep my temper! "But you were fifteen minutes late." I pull a marker back out of my bag and scrawl it on the board. "Fifteen minutes. Yeah?"

He stares at me uncomprehendingly and I sigh and erase the board. Others are trying to push past him, demanding to know when their papers will be marked; one boy wants to know what the difference is between almost and mostly and another wants to know what to study for the final examination even though I've explained it in class half a dozen times. Tanol takes a step closer to me, his eyes pleading. Time for tough love. I steel myself not to crack and turn my back on him.

Last week, Tanol showed up in class late after missing two months' worth of school, with no explanation -- though an explanation is no easy thing to get from him. He then proceeded to sleep through inseparable phrasal verbs and I didn't even bother trying to wake him up. The next day, he came to class twenty-five minutes late without his textbook, notebook, or pen. We were right in the middle of a complicated exercise and Tanol's noisy entrance ruined the tenuous order I'd worked so hard to establish. My compassion fatigue strained to the limit, I lost it: I told him to go home.

"Why?" he asked, looking genuinely perplexed. Around Tanol, I always feel so mean.

"You are late, and you do not have your book."

Tanol pursed his lips and frowned.

I took a long, deep breath. "Look, even if you had your book, we only have twenty minutes of class left."

His jaw dropped and he tilted his head, a furrow deepening between his eyebrows.

"For pity's sake, somebody explain it to him," I hissed. Someone did, and Tanoy left with a face like thunder. Ten minutes later, he was back, huffing and puffing -- and clutching his book. I didn't have the heart to tell him to leave. He actually opened his book and tried to follow what we were doing for the last ten minutes of class, making me feel almost as sorry for him as I feel for his parents.

Today, though, Tanol is determined not to be marked absent. The thirty minutes of English he has endured must be counted. No sooner have I sat down in the teachers' room with a cup of coffee than there is Tanol with a friend. The friend speaks good English and it appears he is to be Tanol's interpreter. "Excuse me, teacher," he asks, "Tanol is absent today?"

"Yes," I reply, fighting the urge to scream.


"Because he missed the first session and he was very late to the second."

The friend smiles ingratiatingly. "But it is my fault." Tanol beams at him encouragingly.

I put down my coffee. "Your fault?"

"Yes. I -- kept him."

This is just too much for me -- I feel something inside me snapping. Boneheadedness is forgivable, laziness is probably inherited (if my own kids are anything to go by), but getting your friends to do your dirty work? No, no, no, no, no! My compassion tank has officially run dry.

I frown at his friend. "Did you shut him up in your room?"


"Knock him unconscious?"

He shakes his head.

"Fool him into thinking that it was a different day? Threaten him? Bribe him to stay with you?"

He's beginning to back away, but I cannot stop myself. "Did you enslave him? Did you chain him to his desk?"

He shakes his head again and shoots Tanol a look that clearly says You didn't warn me that I would be dealing with a madwoman.

"Because unless you did any of those things, it's not your fault," I say, standing up. "Tanol is a grown man. He can get to his English classes on time just like everyone else. Tell him that for me, okay?"

The friend nods and gulps. "Okay, okay. Just -- I wanted to know," he splutters, edging away from me. Tanol trails after him, still looking perplexed.

I finish my coffee and put my head down on the desk. Why did I ever become a teacher?

Sigh. I wonder if Tanol will come to class on Monday...

Monday, 5 January 2009

When You're Hot, You're Hot

I grew up in the Inland Empire of Southern California where it only gets cold in the mountains. Friends and family might dispute that, but these are people who need coats when the slightest wind picks up, who start eying the thermostat longingly when there is the tiniest bit of chill in the air. Inland Empire residents could tell you all sorts of things about hot, but don't let them try to tell you about cold -- they will lie and not even know they're doing it.

They say it's cold here. I don't say it's cold here, oh no. It is only cold for the short time I spend in my home; the rest of the time I might as well be back in California. Because almost all of my students are just like those Inland Empire wimps from my past. When I arrive in the classroom first thing in the morning, the classroom temperature is a little chilly, but tolerable. When my students arrive, one of them invariably nudges one of the taller kids, who then stands on his or her tippy-toes and switches on the thermostat. Within a few minutes, we all might as well be in a Turkish bath.

"Will someone please switch that off?" I plead and this is met with a chorus of aggrieved wails -- "Noooo tee-cha -- very cold!"

Minutes pass. I grow more and more miserable. I peel off my jacket, then my sweater. I roll up my sleeves, fan myself, fish around in my bag for an elastic band and put my hair up. I crack open a window and lean out; I grab someone's water bottle off a desk and splash a little on my neck. But God forbid I should suggest that the thermostat be turned down!

I'm a cheapskate and a firm believer in saving energy, but most of all, I warm up quickly when I'm teaching. My students, on the other hand, cannot get warm no matter how hot it gets. The windows steam; sweat beads up on my lip; my face turns a nice shade of rose, but they sit huddled in their sweaters and coats, shivering. I can forgive the handful of kids from Dubai and Nigeria, but not the Turks or the Russians. I've heard that it is snowing in Istanbul right now and it is definitely snowing in Moscow, but here in our little southern outpost it last snowed decades ago, a mere frosting, by all accounts, that barely made it to the ground. "You can't possibly be that cold!" I rave, fanning myself. I see the looks on their faces: You can't possibly be that warm!

Last week one boy narrowed his eyes at me. "Tee-cha, where you from?"


He frowned, and the others gave me suspicious looks. "California hot, right? Surfer place. Swim sea."

"It's hot all right, but I still want that thermostat turned down." What else can I say? I may be from California, but when you're hot, you're hot.

Personally, I think they're spoiled when it comes to room temperature: in September and October, they were quick to turn on the air conditioner. I wonder how they'd cope without central heating and air conditioning, and I find myself wondering what their parents' electric bills must be like.

And I remember Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is the northern-most island of Japan, and take it from me, in the winter it is cold there. There are places in Hokkaido where the snow is two meters deep and the icicles hanging from the eaves are easily that long and as thick as a man's thigh. Now, winters are cold all over Japan with the possible exception of Okinawa, but only in northern Honshu, Japan's main island, and Hokkaido do houses tend to be centrally heated and insulated. A friend from Tokyo once assured me that she could bear the winter cold outside in Hokkaido, but not the winter heat inside. I thought she was exaggerating until I went there one winter myself.

I've gone through some hot summers in Japan. I lived in Kyushu, Japan's southern most island, where the temperatures can reach 40 and feel a lot hotter what with the high humidity; I spent almost ten years in a house without air conditioning when the only way to get cool was to hop in my kids' wading pool in the garden and eat popsicles all day long. But never have I suffered from the heat as badly as I did that winter I visited Hokkaido.

Boarding a train in Sapporo one snowy afternoon, I was grateful for the blast of heat that met me as I settled into my seat. I took off my scarf, then my coat, noticing that all the other passengers still had theirs on. Five minutes later, I took off my turtleneck sweater; the heat was not nearly so welcome as it was when I first got on the train. Ten minutes later, I pinned my long hair up and peeled off my cotton turtleneck shirt. People around me began nudging each other and craning their necks to look at the crazy foreigner stripped down to her undershirt. Everyone else was still bundled up in winter coats and scarves, though a few brave souls had removed their mittens.

Ten minutes later, I was panting and close to collapsing. I'd managed to take off my hiking boots and pull off my leg warmers and socks, and the seat next to me was piled high with my discarded clothing. What could I do? I had another thirty minutes left to travel. Should I go into the tiny toilet and strip down to my long-johns? Or should I sit there until I keeled dead over in a faint? Finally there was nothing for it: dressed in my sleeveless undershirt and jeans, I shoved my sockless feet back into my hiking boots and made my way to the end of the train. Pulling open the door, I stepped into the area between the train cars and stood in the refreshing cold, tasting snowflakes. It was heavenly.

Daijobu desu ka? asked the ticket collector, regarding me warily. I told him that I was okay, but I found the heat inside a little oppressive.

"But it's cold out here!"

"I'll go back inside when I've cooled off."

He shook his head. "You must be from one of those northern countries. What are you, Russian?"



I figured honesty was the best policy. "American."

"Ah. Up north?"

"Well... no."

"Which state?"

I bit my lip. "California."


I saw suspicion in his eyes, but what else could I say? When you're hot, you're hot.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

I Say A Little Prayer

Something awful has been happening at our school: we've had aspiring EFL teachers come to observe our classes.

Up until recently, I've been spared this horror, and thank God: the kids I teach are so boisterous, so obstreperous and rebellious and disrespectful and every other bad adjective I can think of, I don't want any observers anywhere within a mile of me to witness my shame and bamboozlement.

The observers I've seen scare me silly: they are all so breathtakingly young and keen looking. And they've got that gleam in their eye. In fact, they look so much like I did back in my student teaching days that I just know they'll judge me as harshly as I judge myself. And frankly, I'd deserve it.

Because I remember being an observer with perfect clarity, and I blush. Armed with my youthful naiveness and the sheer conviction that I knew what was what, I observed seasoned veterans with a critical eye. Were they eager enough or -- God forbid -- possibly jaded after years of teaching? Did they segue from activity to activity with a seamless fluidity or fumble about with their notebooks and hastily-scribbled lesson plans? Did they seem fully committed to spreading the gospel of communication or more interested in getting through the next hour and having that break-time donut? Decades later, I shiver to recall my smug, self-assured pomposity.

A few weeks back, one of my younger Turkish colleagues got observed, but that was okay because I knew that she could take it. She's tough and confident and has an air of quiet, calm authority about her that I utterly lack. Then one of my British colleagues got observed with absolutely no notice, and just hearing her story horrified me: not only had she gotten stuck with a duff CD player, but she'd picked up the wrong CD by mistake. "How often does that happen?" she lamented, but I said nothing: I'm scatterbrained and this is something I manage to do on a regular basis.

On Wednesday it happened. I was running late, stressed out from too much coffee and not enough lunch, loaded down with books, notebooks and CD player, on my way upstairs to teach my Turkish delights. Just before I got to the door, a young Turkish man in the hallway stepped up and introduced himself in credible English as someone who wanted to sit in on my class "to see how a native speaker teaches." I felt the blood drain from my face. I wanted to shriek and tear my hair, but instead I nodded. "Come on in," I said graciously, a thousand excuses springing to mind -- I'm tired, I'm not feeling well, I overslept, They're a little excited because it's almost New Years. I resorted to just one: I'm afraid they're a rather rowdy bunch.

As it was, he didn't hear this: it was too noisy.

I took roll and began teaching, praying that just once my wild, giddy group would mind me and pay attention. Sadly, this was not to be. Neylan, one of my younger students, sidled up to me immediately. "Who is man?" she hissed, shooting her eyes towards the stranger. I told her to sit back down.

Baris, a bright boy who has trouble sitting still, paying attention, and keeping his legs out of the aisle, interrupted me twice during my lead-in, wanting to know if I'd had a good Christmas. I told him I had and hurried past him to break up a huddle of three boys engaged in a noisy Turkish tete-a-tete. Finally, after slamming my book down on the table and waving the class roll sheet in a threatening manner, there was a brief lull. "Turn to page 128 and show me you've done your homework!" I bellowed. Two minutes, one interrupted private conversation, two intercepted paper airplanes and three confiscated mobile phones later, we were all on 128. At least here I was winning: an unprecedented half of the class had actually completed their exercises! I hoped to God my observer was making note of this; I was pretty proud.

The class seemed to last forever, but two hours later, my suffering was almost at an end. And I had a treat to finish up with -- a song. My class loves songs, and this one happened to be one I knew and loved: Aretha Franklin's version of I Say a Little Prayer. Most of the time, just the mention of a song is enough to make everyone hush up, but with New Years looming, the class was in a fever-pitch of excitement. Even my fist on the desk and menacing movements towards the roll sheet could not entirely shut them up. I put the CD into the player, plugged it in, and banged on the desk with both fists, and finally I had their attention.

"THE VOLUME ON THIS CD PLAYER IS BROKEN!" I roared. "SO YOU'LL HAVE TO BE VERY QUIET IN ORDER TO HEAR THE SONG!" The class nodded, I distributed the activity sheets, and I flicked the on button. Aretha began belting out her song and her magic took hold of the room for a good fifteen seconds.

"Tee-cha, what language speak?"

My eyes popped. "English!"

"She is French?" asked Neylan.

No way was I going to let the French take credit for Aretha. "No, American!"

"Tee-cha, we cannot hear!"


But they just couldn't do this.

I turned off the CD player and took a deep breath. "Okay everybody, I'm only going to do this once, so listen carefully." And I sang the rest of I Say a Little Prayer myself.

Aretha may do it better, but I got the laughs. My students even caught one phrase all by themselves with absolutely no prompting -- break time.

As I was erasing the board, my observer came up to me. "They are very noisy," he commented.

I nodded.

"May I make a suggestion?" he murmured.

"Yes." Karma is karma: I knew it was coming.

"The volume on that CD player is broken," he said with no hint of irony. "None of us could hear it."