Sunday, 29 March 2009

Bad Karma Driving

We were driving along the main road through town a few weeks ago when a woman in a black Toyota decided to turn onto the road right in front of us. There was no break in traffic and no reason in the world she should have thought she had right of way, but then she wasn't really looking. My husband had to slam on the brakes in order to avoid plowing into her. Even with the screech of brakes, the woman didn't really seem to notice us, so he gave her a good long blast of his horn. Only then did the woman glance into her rear view mirror and slowly register our angry faces and rude gestures.

And she did not say sorry.

She could have cringed in her seat in the universal driver's gesture of apology; she could have rolled down the window and acknowledged her potentially fatal error, but no, she just kept driving. Badly, I might add: her road position made us think she might be talking on her mobile, but on closer inspection, she wasn't. She was the only person in her car too, so it wasn't as though she was distracted by a conversation or quarrel going on in the background. No, she was just a crappy driver, and an inconsiderate one too.

Strangely enough, the traffic slowed to a snail's pace shortly after this, and we ended up right behind this woman. She seemed anxious to get away from us. Maybe my husband scared her: with his shaved head and powerful build, he does look a little intimidating. Whatever the case, this woman put on her turn signal at least four times, always in the stupidest possible place to pass, perhaps in an effort to get away from us. There was a solid stream of traffic, though, and it was obvious to anyone that there was no chance to pass, but that didn't stop this woman from trying. At first we thought we must be imagining it, but when the traffic finally picked up and she drove straight past a turn, her signal still blinking away, we were pretty sure she was trying to shake us.

We saw her glance fearfully in her rear view mirror a few times, and we decided that just for the heck of it we would follow her, seeing as she seemed to be going our direction anyway. For a good five minutes, we followed her black Toyota past mosques, shops, and schools, through streets lined with eucalyptus and lemon trees, over pot-holed asphalt and stretches of dirt road. Finally, she hared up a narrow lane that wound itself into the hills, and we decided to let her go; we'd made our point, and we were only five minutes away from home anyway.

As soon as we pulled into our own street, one of our daughters suddenly pointed out the window. "Hey, it's the lady in the black car! She's parking!"

She saw us, too. We finally gave her the fright she gave us, and without even trying. And it's always nice to meet the new neighbors.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Not One Of Those Days

I don't know why it is, but there are days I am the most dynamic, exciting teacher in the world. All my explanations make sense, my voice manages to carry to each and every student in the class, my jokes make everyone laugh, and I get nice compliments on my shoes. When I introduce new activities, my students really hop to it, eagerly opening their books and taking in my every instruction with breathless interest. The light of reason burns in their eyes and in the course of one class period, two or three kids will suddenly get that excited Oh, now I understand! look on their faces that I live for.

Today was not one of those days.

Really, I don't know what went wrong. I did everything I was supposed to do. I went into the classroom with a big smile on my face. I joked with the three somber looking kids who slouched in the back row, regarding me with baleful expressions. They didn't want to be there at eight thirty in the morning, learning about the difference between the present perfect and the simple past. They didn't want to pair up with their neighbors and discuss past trips to Istanbul or how many times they'd visited the Blue Mosque. And boy oh boy oh boy, they sure didn't want to write letters.

It all started the minute the letter writing thing came up.

No sooner do I tell them to take out a piece of paper than mass eye rolling occurs. The ceiling is stared at and minutely examined; despairing looks are exchanged; sighs of exasperation are hissed out.

I decide to bring out my big guns right away. "Last term there was an informal letter on the final exam," I tell them, raising my voice to shouting pitch to drown out their groans and protracted sighs, "so it's very important for you to learn how to write one."

Last term the students were asked to produce an informal letter as part of their final examination. A salutation line, apology for not writing sooner and a brief explanation for this negligence, then a chatty little paragraph followed by an entreaty to write again soon, and best wishes. Piece of cake, right? We've been over this before, and there are several detailed samples to choose from in their textbooks. But for my students, it might as well be War and Peace.

"It's not that big a deal," I persist, raising my voice to throat-straining volume. "I'll explain everything again, and you've got good examples in your book to follow--"

"Formal letter, tee-cha?" asks Bulut, mouth hanging open. "Long letter?"

"Informal. Remember, just like the one in your writing bo--"

"Tee-cha," interrupts Ilker, his forehead puckered and furrowed, "what is deal?"

Book in hand, I pause. "I'm sorry?"

"Deal. You say."

"I'm sure I didn't!"

Aysa purses her lips. "You say! Big-adeel."

I could kick myself. Although I monitor my language carefully, I hate the sound of my dumbed-down English -- hate the pedantic teacher-talk quality of my voice -- and when I get nervous, I am all too likely to let loose with something colloquial. Which is really stupid because inevitably a student quotes me out of context, mangling my words just a tad, and I'm damned if I can remember what I said.

"When did I say it?"

"Now!" Aysa and Ilker chorus. "You say big-adeel!" Aysa chastises.

Oh God, now I get it. "Not that big a deal," I splutter. "I said that writing a letter isn't that big a deal."

Every single face stares back at me in confusion.

"What is mean?" asks Bulut.

Why don't I just keep my big mouth shut and save myself some headaches? On the board I write, NOT THAT BIG A DEAL = NOT VERY IMPORTANT

"Letter not very important?" murmurs Yonca. "You say letter important."

"Very important," echoes Bulut, his eyes hard and suspicious.

The others are staring at me too and I can see it in their eyes: Stupid teacher, always changing her mind, telling us contradictory things! The entire back row is now speaking in Turkish and half the kids are surreptitiously checking their watches. Only twenty minutes until break time!

Some days I really am a fantastic teacher, take my word for it. My explanations are concise, my analogies are clear and apt, my anecdotes are succinct and engaging.

But today was not one of those days.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Teaching In The Blood

I come from a long line of teachers. My mother, the daughter of two teachers herself, started teaching when she was sixteen, at a one-room school in the backwoods of Kentucky. Her students ranged from six years to seventeen, and I used to love her stories about unruly boys and girls who came to school with lice and malaria.

"Don't be a teacher," my mother often advised me, "it's a lot more than just teaching people things." Good teaching, she insisted, was all about the ability to read people; it was about classroom control, and more than anything else, the quality of natural authority. My mother claimed she lacked the last two of these. "Unlike your Aunt Anna Mae," she used to sigh. "Your Aunt Anna Mae is a born teacher."

My aunt Anna Mae was a great teacher. She could spend five minutes with someone and know what made them tick; she could walk into a room filled with noisy brats and in no time at all have them panting for her approval and attention; she could calm the nervous and cheer up the brokenhearted, and they never even knew she was doing it. My Aunt Anna Mae taught first grade in Kentucky for over fifty years and Sunday School at the local Baptist church for over sixty. She was remarkably grounded in the present, though still in touch with the past: at the age of eighty, she knew every book in the Bible -- and the names of all the Ninja Turtles.

Sadly, I am not related by blood to my Aunt Anna Mae. And if my mother had a problem with classroom control and natural authority, it was as nothing next to mine.

In my mother's case, the decision to become a teacher was made for her. There were two respectable job opportunities for women back then: marriage and teaching. My mother opted for the latter: it seemed less problematic. Besides, her teaching income was desperately needed and every penny she made was handed over to her family. "If the war hadn't started, I'd probably be there still," she used to say. The war created job opportunities in places my mother had only heard about -- places she had longed to visit, but had few hopes of ever seeing: New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles.

In the late thirties, my mother saw a job advertisement in the local paper. They needed secretaries in Washington D.C. A week later, she saw another advertisement: they needed secretaries in New York City. Then and there, my mother knew what she had to do. She saved every penny she could and signed up for a typing class, then shorthand. With her new skills, she quit her most recent teaching job -- in the backwoods of Georgia -- and left for a world of adventure, excitement and possibilities.

Typing took my mother away from her humdrum life and let her experience the thrill of living in Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Of visiting museums and galleries and concert halls and strolling through parks bigger than her own hometown. Thanks to the war, my mother learned that there was more to life than marriage by age 22, church three times a week, and a life of endless and predictable toil.

When I asked her if she liked secretarial work, my mother would invariably shrug. "I don't suppose anyone really likes it, but it's a means to an end. And the people I worked with were always so interesting."

"Didn't you miss teaching?"

"Not much. I'm good at explaining things, but I had terrible classroom control. And teaching never took me any place interesting."

I was determined to follow my mother's adventurous lifestyle, but in my case, teaching funded my travels. After graduating from college, I saved up my money from a series of secretarial jobs and flew to Japan, where I got my first job teaching English.

"How's your classroom control?" my mother asked me when I got back from my first year in Japan and announced my intentions of pursuing a teaching career. "I can't see you as a teacher somehow; you're too much like me."

My mother was right: to this day, I have terrible classroom control. But I'm good enough at explaining things. Plus, teaching has taken me to all sorts of interesting places: the Near East, the Far East, and Europe. No one-room school for me, though; I've taught in banks, hospitals, factories, junior colleges and even shopping malls. I've seen my share of unruly kids, but I've also taught housewives, retired university professors, bar hostesses, college students, businessmen, and doctors. My students have been Chinese, Hispanic, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Italian, German, Turkish, West African, and Kazakh.

I can't say I always love teaching, but I definitely find it more interesting than typing letters, and far more challenging. My duties change all the time, too. I've taught janitorial skills to Indochinese refugees, beginning Japanese to Welsh violinists and German white collar workers, and English songs to Japanese bar hostesses.

And that is why I teach: I get to go to interesting places and the people I work with are always so interesting.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Self Inflicted

"Tee-cha," hisses Aysha as I am about to enter the classroom, "we wait here, okay?"

I stare in confusion at the three girls huddled together outside the door. "Why? It's time for class--"

Melis and Gamze shake their heads. "Inside so bad smell," whispers Gamze. She leans forward, peering through the open door at the boys in the classroom. "Dis-gusting."

I take a step into the classroom and back out immediately. All three windows are open in the classroom and a strong wind is blowing through, but that still hasn't managed to do the job. The boys won't meet my eyes, and no wonder.

Aysha taps my arm and raises her eyebrows. "You see?"

I nod. It's clear that someone has over-indulged in beans. One of the boys is a chronic offender. It's happened often enough before and he's practically cleared the room every time. You think he'd learn what to avoid eating, especially just before a class!

That afternoon, I'm going down the stairs behind a young teacher wearing three-inch heels. I can only marvel at her speed: the stairs, made of polished stone, are treacherous, and even in my sensible teaching shoes, I take them at a cautious granny pace. Even as I shake my head at her breakneck descent, she trips and goes flying. I watch in open-mouthed horror as the woman's books and CD player clatter down the stairs and she lands in a rumpled heap at the bottom. Before I can offer to help, she struggles to her feet, gathers up her books and clacks off, limping, her stockings hanging in shreds. Poor woman, but really: in heels like that she ought to know better!

Next morning in class, there is a thud followed by a scream. Ilker, a great loutish youth who practically sits on his neck and -- if I didn't stop him -- would try and sleep his way through the entire class-- is clutching his forehead, his features contorted in pain. He rocks back and forth, moaning, and for a brief moment, I panic: this kid is clearly having a stroke! But before I can reach for my phone, Ilker's features relax and his mouth, open in agony, snaps shut, lips compressed. Still wincing from pain, he uncovers his forehead and turns to his neighbor, pointing to his eyebrow and gasping out a question in Turkish.

I put down my book and move towards him. "What's wrong?"

Whimpering, Ilker points to his forehead. A couple of days ago, he had his eyebrow pierced and he's been proudly sporting one of those largish studs that sticks out on both sides. Ilker obviously isn't used to it yet; when he smacked his head down on the desk as he often does, it must have hurt like billy-o. Watching him, I am torn by conflicting reactions: Poor Ilker and Idiot.

The following Monday, Bulut sits in class, looking dazed and sullen. In the back of the classroom, a hinge on one of the chairs is in desperate need of an oiling: every time the kid sitting in it leans forward, there is a high-pitched metallic squeal that makes us all cringe. Every time it squeals, Bulut's face turns pale and he winces.

"Are you sick?" I ask him, frowning. His face is ash-colored and he looks like any minute he could fill a plastic bag.

Bulut starts to nod, then shakes his head -- and winces. Now I get it: Bulut has a hangover. It's not like it's the first time he's come to class like this either.

Really, some people just don't learn!

That evening after my very last class, I make my exhausted way upstairs to the teachers' room and stop, horrified. The door has been locked; my key is inside, along with my coat, bag, and the key to the ladies' room. At this hour, the janitors don't know who is still teaching and who has gone home, and they are all too likely to lock up before us last stragglers can collect our things. I am joined by one of my colleagues who is also without her key. There we stand with our CD players, stacks of homework, and pile of textbooks, longing for our coats and bags -- and the ladies' room key. And this is the third time this very thing has happened, to the both of us.

Sigh. Some of us never learn, do we?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Told Her A Thousand Times

There is a pile of clothes on the bathroom floor, left there by our eldest daughter. It's all tangled together, the undershirt inside out, the socks still balled up, abandoned there, willy-nilly, for everyone else in the house to step over. There it is, reminding me of my daughter's cheerfully inconsiderate sloppiness. She knows better: I've told her to pick up her clothes at least a thousand times.

Up until yesterday, the pile of clothes would have made me seethe. Just the sight of it would have had me drawing in a deep breath and sighing it out slowly, on a count of ten. This morning, though, it has an entirely different effect on me as I stare down at it: our beloved Eldest Daughter has struck off on her own. She is now over two thousand miles away from us, staying with friends, excited about her new life, waiting to start university in a mere five months.

We put her on a plane to Istanbul yesterday morning. We waited in line, all of us tense and tearful. To distract myself, I studied the people ahead of us in line: a family of six men, one woman, and a baby. All of the men were bearded and wore scull caps. The eldest man had on a long greatcoat of some thick material that resembled velvet; it was bottle-green with a fur collar and looked about a hundred years old. With his deeply lined face and flowing white beard, he exuded a patriarch's confidence and bearing. He and the younger men were all clutching prayer beads, similar to the ones I'm always snatching away from my students (who tend to play with them, to the detriment of their English acquisition). The woman, young and svelte, was dressed in blue jeans and a jacket; her baby had brown curly hair and reminded me of our Eldest, as a toddler. As a group these people were so compelling that for a moment I almost forgot what we were there for.

"You're sure Lucy's mom is picking you up in Glasgow, right?"

For once, Eldest Daughter doesn't roll her eyes. She knows what the subtext is here: I love you. "Yes. I checked," she says quietly, with remarkable forbearance.

"And you've got all your documents? You don't need us to send anything?"

There's a different subtext here, one she knows well: Are you sure you're really together enough for this? Don't you still need us around, holding your hand, making sure you've got everything you need? My mother used to ask me questions like this too, and it drove me as wild as my questions drive my daughter.

"If I need anything, I'll write to you." Buzz off -- I can look after myself.

In front of us, the bearded men are joined by a tall Asian man with glossy jet-black hair. He greets the patriarch Turkish-style, right hand smacked over the left side of his chest, and they begin a spirited conversation -- in Russian.

"My suitcase is way over the limit," Eldest moans. "What if they charge me?" I may be independent, but I still have some anxieties.

"I've got enough to pay for it," I tell her. "But you'll have to pay me back." I told you not to pack all that crap; you're independent now, so you pay for yourself.

"You'll be in trouble on the London to Glasgow flight," warns my husband. "They're notorious for charging you for extra luggage."I'm not sure you're up to this. There's so much you still don't know.

Eldest takes a deep, long-suffering breath. "If I have to pay for it, I'll pay for it." I'm my own woman now; I'll figure it out.

The young woman ahead of us shifts her baby from one hip to the other. One of the men chucks the toddler under her chin and croons to her, and the young woman smiles, though her face is tired. You've got this all ahead of you, I feel like telling her as the family's luggage is checked in.

Our Eldest sets off the alarm as she walks through the metal detector. She removes the contents of her pockets: Turkish lira, Euros, hair clips. The patriarch, behind us now, sets off the alarm too: he ends up having to take off his hat.

"How cool is it that you're on a flight with guys like this?" I whisper to my daughter as the Turkish-Asian-Russian family reunites and begins a long ritual of chest slapping and hugging. We watch them saying goodbye, prayer beads clutched in their hands as they kiss each others' cheeks. "What nationality do you think they are?" Let's try and pretend we're not really saying goodbye.

"Do we all have our passports?" asks my husband anxiously. "Can we go through passport control to see her off do you think?" Let's put this off as long as we possibly can.

All of us have our passports, but we can't go through. We all take turns hugging her, our daughter, sister, friend.

"Fighting!" cries Acquired Daughter, trying to joke away her tears. She brandishes her fists, attempting to mimic the actors in the Korean dramas all three of our girls follow so passionately. "I'll miss you!" echoes Youngest Daughter, hugging her. I love you, I love you.

"Write to us," says my husband, pressing his lips together to keep from crying as he hugs her goodbye. "Take good care of yourself," I add. We love you.

"We love you!" we all tell her.

But she already knows that: we've told her at least a thousand times.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

That'll Teach 'Em

Cahil sits behind me, coughing. No way is he sick -- I saw him just fifteen minutes ago standing in the courtyard downstairs, laughing and smoking with his pals -- but his cough goes on and on, a real show. Any parent with teenagers knows the difference between a phony cough and a real one though, and this one is as fake as they come.

Just ten minutes ago, we were right in the middle of so and because when there was a knock at the door. It was one of the senior teachers. Would I please bring my students upstairs to a very important lecture on AIDS that all students have to attend? Now, I'm as thrilled as my students to get a chance to escape the classroom, but I still hesitated: this group is way behind their peers, and judging from their most recent compositions, they desperately need to learn how to use because and so. "It's in English," my colleague added, "so it will be good for everyone's listening comprehension."

It could have been in Swahili for all my class cared: they got out of English, so they were all for it.

Several of the students made a beeline for the courtyard downstairs where they immediately pulled cigarettes out and lit up. No way were they going to miss this important lecture on AIDS, but that didn't mean they had to go a whole thirty minutes without a smoke. I ran after them, spitting fire and brandishing my attendance roll. "You three! Upstairs in two minutes or I mark you absent, you hear?"

They were all wounded indignation. "Yes tee-cha! Very important lecture!"

I followed the rest of my students upstairs, leaving the three smokers puffing away. You could show these kids a pair of blackened carcinogenic lungs, half a dozen post-laryngectomy patients and a roomful of people suffering from emphysema and they'd still be out there in the rain, sucking in nicotine. But no way are they going to miss a lecture on AIDS if it means they get out of class!

The lecture is not in English, and it is about more than AIDS. I sit there for the full thirty minutes, listening to a youngish woman delivering a long, tedious spiel in Turkish. I perk up every three minutes or so when she comes up with a few English expressions that I'm sure sail right over my students' heads: taxoplasmosis, opportunistic infection, Herpes simplex, and Chlamydia all get a mention, but they are the only English spoken. Even her audiovisual props are boring: dull-colored charts with squiggly bacteria and photographs of viruses, straight out of medical textbooks. Back when I was in university, a lecture like this would have been given by some hip young medical professional who looked like she had more than a textbook knowledge of sex. There would have been a few jokes, some interesting audiovisual aids -- maybe even free condoms. This is dull as dust and strikes me as a colossal waste of time. My students fidget and whisper -- in Turkish, of course -- and pay about as much attention to the lecturer and her charts as they do to me. I am so bored, I do something entirely out of character: I pull out my mobile and send a text message to my daughter.

Bulut, a hyperactive boy and the class clown, is sitting directly behind me and I can practically feel his breath on my neck as he leans forward to see what I'm doing. Half the time I can't get Bulut to sit still; his handwriting screams dyspraxia and getting him to pay attention in class is like juggling water. But here he is, reading over my shoulder. "I am bored," I hear him whisper, "What are you doing, honey?" I move my phone so that he can see it better: this is the most reading Bulut's done all week, and I can never get him to read out loud in class. What a breakthrough!

"Tee-cha!" Cahil whispers, his voice hoarse from his fake cough. I hear the rustle of paper and feel something brush against my shoulder: a note is being passed to me. I've been anticipating this.

Sorry Teacher, it reads, I'm very ill I'm going to hospital you don't write me absent please

I pull out my pen and scrawl back How stupid do you think I am? Bring back a doctor's note if you're really sick!

I pass the note back to Cahil and there is a long silence, followed by whispers. I can just make out the word stupid. There is a rustling sound, like someone turning the pages of a dictionary, another whispered conference, and another silence, then the note is finally passed back to me.

Okay teacher see you bye. tomorrow take you (unintelligible scrawl) doctors note no absent

I quickly scrawl back If you don't bring me that note, you are absent! Okay? and pass it back to him.

There is another long silence, and then the paper is handed back to me.

Okay no problem teacher Promise tomorrow take a doctor's note. :) see you

As he scuttles down the aisle, there is no mistaking the broad grin on Cahil's face. He's pulled a fast one on me!

I'm even more pleased than he is, though: that's the most writing Cahil's done all week.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Playing Your Cards Right

My youngest daughter doesn't suffer fools well. This makes it especially hard for her whenever we all play cards together. Other people might play cards solely for diversion, but with us, it's a real learning process. And it's great for character building.

Only this past year, I finally learned the difference between clubs and spades. I learned this when my family taught me a card game that has taken me ages to acquire: hearts.

If you know anything about cards, you'll know that hearts isn't an especially hard game to learn, but I'm as card challenged as Youngest Daughter is short tempered. Suffice it to say, it's been tough going for all of us.

One of the reasons I never learned to play cards was because my mother's family were an old-fashioned bunch who believed that card playing was right up there with drinking and provocative dressing: a major sin. Once you started playing cards, they seemed to feel, one thing led to another until one day you found you'd gambled away the farm and the kids' lunch money.

Paradoxically, if it weren't for a card game, I wouldn't be here. My father served in the U.S. Navy in WWII and although he wasn't much of a card player himself, one night when he was off-duty, some buddies invited him to a poker game. He begged off, but they wouldn't take no for an answer: they needed another hand. An hour later, as they sat playing cards, the ship was torpedoed. Over half of the men on board died; the side of the ship where my father bunked was blown to smithereens and there were few survivors.

But although I owe my existence to a game of poker, I never learned to play. My mother's mistrust of card-playing and her own utter lack of card-playing skill meant that we kids never really learned to play ourselves. For a long time, I used the excuse that my lack of card know-how was down to my weird family background, but I've come to see that this isn't true. I can't play cards because I just don't have the smarts for it. But I have come to see that cards are a great way to learn about the strengths and foibles of others. And whatever my mother's family might have thought about card-playing, it is an excellent means of character building.

My husband is an accomplished card player. Everybody in his family plays cards and he learned over a dozen games as a little boy at his grandmother's knee. His granny was a feisty old lady who evened out my husband's and my gene pool: she liked to smoke, drink, and gamble. Her method of teaching was to cheat until her pupil was sharp enough to figure out what she was doing. The minute he knew she was cheating, she knew her work was done.

Our Acquired Daughter is a fine card player herself. I marvel at her acumen. She can remember who has run out of diamonds; like my husband, she instantly knows that if someone bid a low spade early on, they probably don't have anything higher. Every time we play, either my husband or Acquired Daughter wins: our two biological daughters are somewhere between my husband and me in skill, but far closer to my husband's end. Every single time we play, I drive one of them half wild.

"Mom, it's your turn," Youngest will prod irritably, and I finally plonk down my card after an agony of deliberation.

"It's spades!" Eldest will shriek. "You can't play a club unless you've run out of spades!"

"Oh, sorry! I thought that was a spade." (I've only just learned the difference, after all.)

"Come on!" the two shriek in unison.

Half the time, I miss clues as subtle as a toilet seat. I unwittingly allow my husband or Acquired Daughter to shoot the moon, thus ruining things for not just me, but my other two daughters.

"Just pay attention!" Eldest will moan, slapping her forehead. Youngest, upon witnessing yet another instance of my card idiocy, will sometimes stomp off after an embittered declaration that no one could possibly be so stupid: I must be doing it on purpose.

But the awful truth is that I'm trying as hard as I possibly can.

"I don't want to play anymore," Youngest hissed through clenched teeth the very last time we played. I'd hung on to my ace of hearts too long, thus allowing her father to shoot the moon and ruining her all-too-rare near-perfect score. "If you can't--" (long, ragged breath out) "--just--" (deep, shuddering breath in) "--remember when to play your high cards!" And off she stomped in a fit of pique.

But nevertheless, I think cards are a great learning tool. Youngest Daughter got through the game with only that one little outburst. I got through her outburst without crying or whacking her.

Like I said, card playing is great for character building.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Human Connections

The other day I could have sworn I saw a former neighbor from Tokyo walking past the mosque on the way to the post office. A thin, frail little woman in slacks and a white blouse, she had her back to me, and as I passed her, I couldn't resist turning around as casually as I could, to see her face. And no, she wasn't Inoue-san; I didn't really expect her to be. But with her slight frame, bony shoulders, greying permed hair and hesitating way of walking, she could easily have been her sister from behind. Her Turkish sister. I've seen the woman a few times since that first occasion, and whenever I do, I think of Inoue san. God knows, she might be completely different from Inoue-san, who likes fishing, baseball, and flower arranging, but I can't help smiling at how much these two women resemble each other.

In one of my classes last term, I had a student who was a dead ringer for George Clooney. His smile -- playful, but a little self-deprecating, a certain intelligent intensity of expression -- everything about this kid reminded me of George Clooney. Thirty years younger, of course, and many shades darker: this boy is from Sri Lanka. I doubt that George Clooney can speak Tamil, but if he did, he'd be a bleached-out older version of this kid.

In an intermediate class I taught in Yokohama, I had both my aunt Alice Jane and my Uncle Leon in the very same class. The Japanese Alice Jane had shrewd, canny eyes and a pretty smile; her male counterpart had my Uncle Leon's keen expression, shock of thick white hair, and biting dry wit. The resemblances were so startling that I had to keep reminding myself that these two people were Japanese; they had never met before this class and could not possibly be my aunt and uncle, a couple of Caucasians residing in San Francisco. And yet it always amazed me that they never sat together. Didn't they know they were married?

One of my daughters' nursery school teachers looked so much like my Sunday school teacher, Mrs Hunt, that it was a struggle not to speak to her in English. Takahashi-san, the nursery school teacher, didn't know a word of English, but her laugh -- low and musical -- her pretty face, her kind, heavy-lidded eyes -- all of her features screamed Mrs Hunt. Mrs Hunt was African-American and Takahashi-san was Japanese, but when they were on the great assembly line that installs personalities and mannerisms, believe me: these two got the same package, and lucky them.

If you've ever seen the movie, Wag the Dog, the actor in it who plays Private William Schumann looks so much like one of my young Turks, a thin, blue-eyed boy with a keen, wild-eyed stare, that it honestly freaks me out. I will catch his eye in class from time to time and have to look away. I can't take any chances: I'm middle-aged and dumpy and, in short, entirely crazy Private Schumann's type.

I could go on and on and on here -- and I will, just a little. One of my daughter's nursery school friends, a little Japanese girl, looked just like Martin Sheen -- it was just so obvious I had to laugh every time I saw her, and yet I could hardly tell this child or her parents how closely she resembled a first-rate American actor -- a man in his sixties. The UPS delivery man from my neighborhood in San Francisco bore a striking resemblance to a doctor I once worked for in New York. And every other year, someone entirely trustworthy will claim they've seen my double somewhere. And given what I've noticed, I believe them: there's bound to be a couple dozen mes muddling around out there, in Bolivia, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Germany, and Portugal.

I've been around a little in my time, and it is my firm opinion that we're all related. I don't care if you're from Iceland and every single ancestor you can trace back to Adam and Eve was too; you might just be the dead ringer for someone in Swaziland. If you're from Madagascar, for all you know, your double might be one of my Turkish colleagues. And this is bound to be a widespread phenomenon: if I've seen all these likenesses in my own limited sphere, imagine all the ones I've missed. These resemblances trump everything: race, nationality, class, gender, age. And it isn't just physical features; in fact, sometimes it's not physical features at all. It's the way you talk, the way you smile, the way you duck your head when you apologize or shuffle when you walk. There's no way around it, folks: we are all really and truly one big family.

No wonder we can't get along.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Something in Common

Hallelujah: it's the beginning of the term and attendance is down because of a storm; the classroom is entirely empty. It looks like I'm going to get out of teaching today! I've got coffee on my mind, and the sesame seed rolls they bake fresh every morning and sell in the cafe downstairs...

But just before I can gather up my books, along she comes. She's a sturdily built girl with long black hair, and when she sees that no one else is in the classroom, she stops there in the doorway, one hand on the doorknob, her mouth open in surprise.

"It looks like you're the only one," I say and she freezes, then seems to understand. "Only one," she breathes, entering the class and putting her books down.

"I'll understand if you don't want to stay," I tell her and she stares back at me, stricken: clearly she doesn't understand.

"It's okay if you want to go home," I try again. "You don't have to stay."

Her face relaxes as she seems to understand. "I go?"

"If you want to."

She still looks puzzled.

"Because you're the only one," I say a little desperately. This is supposed to be one of the higher classes!

"Ah." The girl looks uncertain, but she starts to gather up her books. I feel bad.

"If you want to stay, you can," I tell her. "You can have an individual lesson."

The girl licks her lips. "Okay."

I'm bowled over: given this girl's low level of English, I honestly didn't expect her to take me up on this. But this girl obviously needs extra English and a short one-to-one lesson is always interesting. It's always fun to learn what I have in common with each and every student: there is always something.

"What's your name?"


Melis sits back down and we manage a conversation of sorts. Her English is rock-bottom basic: she can't even tell the difference between an information and a yes-no question, so we start there. But it's touch and go. Good thing I've got markers, a whiteboard, and my hands to gesture with.

I do a lot of gesturing. And try not to think about the sesame seed rolls downstairs.

It turns out that Melis and I have absolutely nothing in common. Her favorite food, she claims, is grilled meat; I prefer vegetables. She has four brothers; I have two sisters. She can't stand cats; I love them. Her hobbies are hunting with her brothers and playing football; I'd rather lick the toilet floor than do either. Melis likes Arabesque music and has never even heard of any of the stuff I like. She doesn't like reading, can't stand cooking, and as far as I can tell, her chief ambition is to attend the formula 1 grand prix in Istanbul with her brothers. The very thought of this bores me half to death.

Then the door slams open and two boys peek inside the room.

"Tee-cha, lesson today?" one asks, wrinkling his forehead.

"If you like," I say. "But we're just talking."

The boy mutters something to his friend in Turkish.

"Talking," the friend leers. "Girls talking!"

I catch myself just before I say Oink, oink; I don't know these boys at all. More importantly, this is a Muslim country and I'd hate to have to explain my insult.

"Girls always talking!" the friend laughs back. "Talk, talk!"

"Boys talk too," I blurt out, unable to help myself.

Still grinning, the boy says something to his friend in Turkish and Melis bristles. Tilting her head, she fires something back. The boys protest, but Melis interrupts, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. Eyes full of righteous indignation, she makes a tsssk sound as she jerks her head back -- the Turkish gesture of disapproval. Even I feel intimidated.

The boys back out of the classroom, tails between their legs.

"What did you say?" I ask. Because whatever it was, it had to be the Turkish equivalent of oink, oink.

She shrugs. "I have four brothers."

Melis, the meat-eating, cat-hating, football-playing formula 1 fan, is obviously not prepared to take any nonsense from The Other Side.

I just knew we'd have at least one thing in common.