Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Missing Japan

"Teacher," Mehmet whispers conspiratorially just as I push open the door to the classroom, "I think you speak Turkish."

I've told Mehmet and the entire class that I don't speak Turkish at least two dozen times, but I smile mysteriously and lift an eyebrow. "Do you now?" I murmur, juggling my CD player and stack of books.

"You speak Turkish?" he nudges me. "I know you speak Turkish."

"Sure, I do," I say enigmatically, frowning as I plug in my CD player and slip in a disc.

Mehmet leans closer and says something to me in Turkish, then gives me a meaningful look. God knows what he's saying; I sure don't.

I'll play along, though. "Okay, you want me to speak Turkish? Bir, iki, üç, dört, beş," I count in a sing-song, pulling out the attendance sheet. One, two, three, four, five -- Whew! I've just exhausted a significant chunk of my Turkish right there.

Mehmet rolls his eyes and knits his eyebrows. "You speak Turkish!"

I oblige him by reciting my list of fruits and vegetables. My daughter, whose Turkish is a lot better than mine, has grilled me on these endlessly and I am very proud of my ability to pronounce fruits and vegetables in Turkish. I nailed persimmons at the greengrocer the other day and it was the high point of my week. (It's hurma, in case you're interested. Feel free to learn it: you never know when that might come in handy!)

Mehmet lets out a sigh and goes to sit down. Good: maybe he'll stop asking me Do you speak Turkish? now. Maybe he'll even try to learn English instead of pestering me for Turkish.

My students aren't the only ones who think I speak Turkish. At the airport, the man in passport control thought I was Turkish; the lady at the drug store talked to me in Turkish; fully half of the kids and their parents who come to our program to be registered walk right up to me and start speaking in Turkish.

The sad truth is that I really don't speak Turkish at all.

Ironically, when we lived in Japan, I had exactly the opposite problem. I speak Japanese very well, but no one who didn't know me ever assumed I could. Whenever I went somewhere for the first time, I used to spend ages trying to convince people that I really understood what they were saying. I once spent an afternoon showing a Chinese-American friend around Yokohama. Towards the end of the day, I felt like a ventriloquist's dummy: every person we met directed their questions to my friend, who would then look helplessly at me until I supplied him with an English translation.

In Japan, it used to take ages to get people to accept what I could do. Nothing I say seems to convince some people I can't speak Turkish.

I can't help but find it frustrating: in Japan, where I could do plenty, I despaired of ever establishing the kind of credibility I've managed to effortlessly -- and erroneously -- acquire here. I'd have given just about anything to be taken for a native in Japan. In seventeen years in Japan, it happened to me exactly once, when a blind woman at the station asked me to help her pay for her ticket.

As we file out of the classroom, Mehmet and his pal, Osman, bid me goodbye in Turkish, grinning impishly. They're positive I understand what they're saying: hope springs eternal.

I sneak up to the computer room in order to write something I can post on my blog. Bloglarınıza erişmek için Google Hesabınızla oturum açın, I read on the screen. I'm pretty sure this has something to do with writing a new post, but who knows for sure?

Someone is talking to me: it's one of the African students. "İngilizce biliyormusunuz?" he's asking me. Good grief: even the African students think I speak Turkish!

One thing I've learned here: it's better to be capable and thought incapable than incapable and assumed capable.

I miss Japan with all my heart.


Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Devil You Know

"Are you sure you aren't supposed to be doing academic skills?" My voice sounds awfully feeble and wimpy.

A sea of faces stares back at me -- or at least the ones that are actually turned my way. A full quarter of this strange class isn't paying the slightest bit of attention to me. Half of the kids who aren't yakking away shake their heads.

I hold up the book. "But you do have this book?"

"No book!" they practically chorus.

This is a real blow. "You don't have the book?"

More frowns and wiggled heads.

I'm beginning to panic now, so I hold the book high and walk down the aisle. "Does anyone have this book?" I roar at the top of my lungs. Foreheads furrow and lines appear between eyebrows.

"Nobody has this book?" I'm just buying time now. I'm covering for a colleague who has the same horrible flu I have barely just recovered from myself. And I've wasted the last thirty minutes hurriedly planning a lesson that isn't going to happen.

No one, it turns out, has the academic skills book. Not even the keenest, most conscientious, straight arrow among them will admit to having the academic skills book. It's hot outside and the air-conditioner isn't doing its job; I feel sweat beading up on my forehead.

"But you do have your course books, right?"

They all nod. Thank God!

"Okay, hang on and I'll go get mine."

Fortunately the teachers' room is just a mad dash across the corridor. I rummage through my locker with growing panic: my course book is gone! I have a vague memory of someone asking to borrow it earlier. Whimpering, I go skidding into the coordinators' office for a course book, then hurry back to the classroom to take roll.

Good thing I'm back: they're really starting to get restless now. I have to shout to get their attention.

But there is fresh hell: the roll sheet I've been given is not the current one and half a dozen students seem to have been added to the class list. By the time I've cobbled together an attendance record of sorts and dealt with thirty-five strange Turkish names, I'm exhausted. I've had six students spell their names for me and not one of these kids knew the difference between 'e' and 'i' -- in Turkish 'e' is pronounced as eh, while 'i' is pronounced as ee -- so we spent too much time on that. Sure, they'll thank me some day, especially if they ever have to make a phone call in the middle of Grand Central Station and are required to spell their names, but now they're just hot and pissed off.

As I start in on my teaching point, my eagle eye lights on a boy in the back row who seems to be talking. I narrow my eyes: he's holding a newspaper. For the benefit of the class, I point at the offender and mime horrified shock, then make my way towards him slowly, rolling my eyes at the rest of the class. The boy is so busy talking, he doesn't spot me until I whip the paper out of his hands. Everyone else in class is enjoying this too much to spoil the fun.

I don't even have to look at the paper to know that it's in Turkish, but I go through the motions anyway, just for the heck of it. "You're reading a Turkish newspaper," I point out. The boy nods sheepishly. "Although this is an English class." He nods again, trying to smile. I sigh and shake my head. The newspaper goes into the trash; he's lucky I don't rip it in half first. Newspaper boy and his friend are assigned new seats in front where I can keep an eye on them. They blush and drag their feet, but at least they do what I ask.

Now there are only twenty minutes of class time left.

The lesson -- following contextual clues in reading -- isn't an easy one and requires much more preparation time than we have. The class is a typical mixture of keen-as-mustard and don't-give-a-damn. I'd say the ratio was about 1/10. By the time the class is over I have yelled myself hoarse, confiscated five mobile phones and a magazine, and reseated three more kids. I feel like a marginally overpaid babysitter. Are the kids in my class this awful? They can't be -- can they? At the very least, none of my regulars has read a Turkish newspaper in class. Yet.

As I walk out the door, one of my own students, a great, swaggering, sloppy boy who gives me no end of trouble, sees me in the corridor. His face lights up. "Hello Mary Teacher!"

I've told him two dozen times not to call me Mary Teacher. But what the heck, he still looks great.


Saturday, 17 October 2009

Listening From Heaven

In the relative quiet of my classroom, the jarring blast of Arabesque music makes us all jump. I wheel around, narrowing my eyes, trying to figure out where the sound is coming from.

Ahmet might have gotten away with it, but his furtive eyes betray him. So does the telltale movement of hands to pockets.

I sidle over to his desk and stick my hand out. "Hand it over!"

Ahmet cringes, the offending object he is clutching still shrilling Arabesque, the whining, wailing belly-dance music my students all love so dearly. I leave my hand where it is and bend forward a little, fingers outstretched as I drum on the table with the other hand. "Come on, give it to me."

Ahmet lets out a sigh and drops his mobile into my hand. I hold it up triumphantly for all the class to see. "Ahmet's phone is mine for the next forty-five minutes!" I crow. "Think I can sell it on e-Bay in forty-five minutes?" Everybody but Ahmet thinks this is hilarious, but he's a good kid and a good sport: he smiles weakly too.

The first day of class, I laid down the rules: No Turkish in class; come on time; do your homework; always bring a notebook and pen; make your calls during break time. I don't take mobile phones off students unless they happen to ring during class time. Ahmet isn't a first time offender and I've got to crack down.

Before I reach my desk, the phone lets out another tinny blast of Arabesque. Getting a sudden inspiration I hold it to my ear and have a pretend conversation. "Hello? Who's this? No, sorry, I don't speak Turkish. Do you speak English? İngilizce?! Do I sound like I speak Turkish? No? Well, then! Now, who is this? Ahmet's father? Mr. Ayaz, I know you want to speak to Ahmet, but he is in class now -- English class. You are spending a lot of money for him to learn English. This is his English teacher and--" I hold the phone away from me theatrically and stare at it.

The class roars as I put it back to my ear. "My name is Mary. Nice to meet you too. Now, as I was saying, you are paying a lot of money so that Ahmet can LEARN ENGLISH and I don't want to waste your money. And the entire class is waiting. So could you please call back during the break? That will be in forty-five minutes. Okay, thank you. Goodbye. Yes, I'll tell Ahmet to study very hard. Please remind him yourself when you call back."

I repeat call back half a dozen times. 'Call back' isn't on our vocabulary list this term, but one of the brighter kids used it the other day when we were discussing phrasal verbs, and I want to reinforce it.

As I put Ahmet's phone down, the entire class practically bursts into applause. They have done something unprecedented: they have listened intently, eyes wide, mouths open, clearly riveted by my pretend conversation with Ahmet's father. Forty-five minutes later Ahmet takes his phone back and I see him furtively checking his sent call list to see if I really did talk to his father. When he comes back after the break, he flashes me a conspiratorial grin.

During the next two weeks, I pocket half a dozen ringing cell phones and indulge in a minute-long conversation with the caller every single time. Usually I talk to fathers, but sometimes I talk to mothers, girlfriends or boyfriends, as the spirit moves me. Once, I actually did talk to someone's friend, who surprised me by knowing a smattering of English. The entire class hushes while I have these 'conversations' -- I don't even have to ask them to be quiet. They probably get more listening practice than they do all week this way; I have to fight the urge to quiz them afterwards on what I said.

I am happy with this discovery of mine. Quite inadvertently I have found a way to get my class to pay attention and listen. Sometimes teaching is all about thinking on your feet.

Last week, Emre's cell phone goes off right in the middle of a role play between two shy girls. I pocket Emre's phone without blinking an eye -- just snatch it right off him before he even knows I've done it. "Go on," I tell the shy girls, giving them an encouraging nod, "finish your conversation." They stare at Emre's cell phone and frown. "Come on," I prod, "we're all waiting." One of the girls bites her lip and smiles. "Talk?" she whispers, pointing to Emre's mobile. "Teacher talk?"

"Talk!" the rest of the class urges, almost in unison. "Talk to Emre father!"

I roll my eyes, but I put Emre's phone to my ear and obligingly go through with the charade. "I promise to tell him," I conclude. "Emre doesn't like studying--" (This is sadly true) "--but I'll make sure he gets your message, Mr. Yılmaz."

Emre has a funny look on his face -- as though he's barely managing to contain himself. The minute I put down his phone after pretending to turn it off, he leaps out of his seat. "No, teacher -- no talk my father! Impossible! Father is died -- ten years!"

I roll my eyes again and give him my best duh look. "I know that," I say pointing upwards. "Where do you think he called from?"

Emre's eyes flicker upwards, then down as he takes his seat again. He smiles a little wistfully. As he leaves the class, I hand him back his phone. "Emre, wherever your father is, I know he wants you to do your best. If he really could talk to you, I'll bet he'd tell you that too." Emre smiles. Thank God. Maybe he'll even study!

Sometimes teaching is all about thinking on your feet.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A Gown, With Hugs and Kisses

"Mary, do you have your gown?" one of my colleagues asks me.

"Of course I do," I am able to answer with a touch of smugness. I know why he asked me: last time we had to parade through town in our academic gowns, I happened to forget mine. No way am I going to get caught without it this time, though -- I'm on top of things! This time I'm going to be all cool and calm composure. This time I'm going to get it right.

My colleague cranes his neck. "Where is it, then?"

"It's in the car," I tell him. "I'm going to change into it this evening, right before the parade."

Some years back, the powers that be at our university decided that it would be a fine thing for all the faculty members to parade through the town in academic gowns with collars, just like the dons at Cambridge and Oxford. Our university is such a far cry from Cambridge and Oxford it just isn't true, but nevertheless, the entire teaching staff has been required to do this. The university has considerately provided each one of us with a voluminous black polyester gown and fancy collar. Every faculty's collar has a different color scheme; ours is maroon and blue. We go downtown in these hideous garments and swan around in a parade for all the townspeople to admire. Already hot and tired after a day of teaching, we march all the way down to a statue of Atatürk, where we stand through a long ceremony and sing the Turkish national anthem. Last year, I forgot my gown and ended up having a miserable, sweaty time of it, running back to the office to get it. By the time it was over, you could have wiped the floor with me and I wouldn't have noticed.

My colleague is frowning. "Your gown's in the car? You didn't forget the opening ceremony, did you? You need it for that too, you know."

Oh my God. I feel the blood drain from my head: I did forget! We are supposed to wear it to the opening ceremony too, which happens to be fifteen minutes from now.

"You have time to get it," my colleague says helpfully. No I don't: the parking lot is a good long walk away and it's very hot outside. Moreover, the car is locked and my husband has the key. And he's teaching right now. He would not welcome a sweaty, panting wife turning up in his classroom, asking for the car keys.

"Why don't you go to the book store and ask them if you can borrow one?" another colleague suggests.

"Do you think they'd really mind if I didn't wear it this time?" I say by way of an answer, though I have little hope.

She gives me a hard look and shakes her head. "They'd mind. They'd notice."

So the bookstore it is.

The bookstore is barely five minutes away, but I seem to know half the people who are crowding the walkway as I sprint along. "Mary teacher!" one girl calls out joyfully, grabbing my hands and kissing both sides of my face. "This is my mother!" A woman who looks far too young to be the mother of a 19-year-old smiles at me. "Hello Mary teacher!" another boy calls out just as I've managed to extract myself from the girl and her mother, "I am happy to see you!"

Everybody is happy to see me, it seems. I wish they wouldn't be: my five-minute walk has stretched to ten minutes and I feel so rude, rushing by grinning ex-students with fond memories. By the time I get to the bookstore, I am a sweaty, huffing, puffing mess. I have shaken two dozen hands and received double that many kisses.

Miraculously, the long line I observe with a sinking heart diminishes quickly and I am waited on almost immediately. I explain my dilemma as quickly as I can, but the kind young man at the counter doesn't understand that I don't want to be issued a gown, I merely want to borrow one. "I'll give it right back," I assure him. "I've already got one."

He has obviously kitted out lots of faculty members today. "Gown," he says smartly. He disappears and returns with a brand new gown and the sign-out book. Uh oh: if he checks this against my department, he will see that I already have one. I will have to try to explain -- again -- that I just want to borrow the gown, and by the time he's figured it out, the opening ceremony will be well underway.

But bless him, he does not check my name, he nods as I sign, and I am now the proud owner of another polyester gown. I quickly put it on, pull the wretched collar over my head, and sprint out the door.

The five-minute run from the bookstore to the assembly hall is not a pleasant one. On a hot day, a full-length black polyester gown is not a comfortable piece of clothing, especially when it's worn over your own clothes. When you're running in it, it's even nastier. I'm not a naturally sweaty person; I can run for a mile before you can tell on my clothes, but even a soda cracker would sweat in black polyester. When I finally get to the assembly hall, I am a sweaty, miserable mess. You could wipe the floor and clean your car with me and I would not bat an eye. But -- hallelujah! -- I am on time. And I'm wearing my gown.

Too bad we're not going to be here next year. I'm sure I'd get it right.


Friday, 9 October 2009

A Lesson Learned

I helped rescue a kitten yesterday afternoon. I was waiting for my husband when I heard it yowling. It was so loud, my first thought was that children must be teasing it; there is an elementary school nearby and kids were everywhere, having just gotten out of class. When I looked out the window, I could see children running back and forth to an air-conditioning unit outside, calling out excitedly. But when I went down to investigate, I saw that the children weren't tormenting it at all: they were trying to free it.

"Poor little thing!" one thuggish great boy with a strong London accent said. He and a friend were trying to move the air-conditioning unit out of the way to get at it. It wasn't easy: it was in front of a strip of paneling that was screwed in. Behind the paneling was a metal vent about half a foot long with a tiny gap where the kitten had probably gotten in.

"It's been in there for a long time!" the boy told me.

"How long?"

He screwed up his face. "Maybe two days. Nobody can get it out. It's scared, like."

"How'd it get in there?" I asked.

A little girl shook her head. "Maybe someone was trying to play with it," she said shyly. Another little boy joined us. He said something in Turkish and the Londoner translated. "Maybe it was trying to get away. Maybe it thought somebody was going to hurt it."

I fumbled around in my bag for a nail file. "Can someone help me move the air-conditioning unit? Maybe we can get this paneling off."

Three little boys immediately volunteered their services. With their help (and a little interference) I managed to get two screws out, but it was impossible to get purchase on the others. Fortunately, they were all rusty and fairly loose: the big boy with the London accent managed to pull the paneling off and another dragged the air-conditioning unit right back, revealing the tiny gap the kitten had managed to squeeze into.

A mother who had come to collect her kids watched us surreptitiously, a look of deep suspicion on her face as we pulled the paneling out of the way. I did my best to ignore her.

"Your arms are long," another little boy said. "Maybe you can reach it."

I did manage to get my hand through the gap, but when I tried to pull the kitten out, it hissed and spat. All I could see of the kitten was its whiskers, and -- occasionally -- its tail.

My long-suffering husband had shown up by this point. "They've told the janitorial staff about the kitten," he said. "Someone's going to come along and see to it later."

I wasn't buying this. I know our janitorial staff and their idea of 'later': I'd spent two hours in a hot classroom, sweating it out with twenty-six miserable kids. The janitors had been told that our air-conditioner didn't work. They were going to see to that 'later' too.

After a long day of teaching, my husband was tired and hungry and sorely in need of a beer, but he knows me. When I told him I would stay until the kitten was freed, he sighed a long sigh. "I'll stay with you."

Fortunately, my husband had his mobile phone with him and unlike mine, it still had credit on it. I called the Kyrenia Animal Rescue. This is a group of wonderful people who spend their free time caring for stray cats and dogs. They get them inoculated, arrange for them to be spayed or neutered, and sometimes pull them down from trees -- or out of holes. The woman who answered the phone agreed to come help. She told us she would be there within twenty minutes.

While we waited, one of the well-wishers crowding around, a fellow teacher, told us about a wounded bird she had rescued from her classroom window. She had managed to catch it, take it to the vet, nurse it back to health, and release it, whole and healthy again. The children around us all listened, wide-eyed.

When the animal rescue woman showed up -- with cat box, gardening gloves, and a bag of cat food -- we all practically cheered.

By this time a modest audience had gathered. We all watched as the woman put on an old shirt, crouched in the dusty narrow space in front of the hole, and tried to urge the kitten out. It took ages; I was amazed by the woman's patience.

At one point, I didn't think it was going to happen. I was tired, hungry and thirsty too; I'd been on my feet since eight in the morning and all I wanted to do was sit down with a tall drink and a book. And then all of a sudden, the kitten was out, a feisty, blue-eyed little bundle of tiger-striped fur. We all cheered as the rescue woman popped it into the cat carrier.

The story doesn't have a traditional happy ending: the kitten was adopted by a kindly colleague, but he cried so much and so loudly at night, she had to let him out, and then she couldn't find him again. She showed up at work tired and stressed after racing around, looking for it.

But if I had it to do over again, I would do just the same thing. I was heartened by those children and their gentleness with the kitten; I was touched by our fellow teacher who had spent so long over what everyone else scoffed was "just a bird"; I was grateful that my colleague had tried to give the kitten a good home. Not every story has a happy ending, but sometimes that itself is a lesson too.


Thursday, 1 October 2009

Tradition, Tradition

I'll never forget my first Coming of Age Day in Japan. If you don't know what this is (I sure didn't), it's the second Monday of January, the day that all young people who have reached the age of majority (twenty) are recognized and celebrated. Twenty-year-olds come out in kimono, having spent many hours getting dressed and made up, and a small ceremony is held to welcome them into the adult world. It is a big deal, and a very traditional occasion. Oddly enough, what I remember the most clearly is not the kimono-clad young women posing in front of the ward offices, clustered in giggling groups, showing off their fur stoles and expensive accessories (a full kimono and all the bits and pieces it entails can cost as much as a decent car), but a group of them huddled together, wolfing MacDonald's hamburgers and sipping cokes. It was so incongruous, this group of young women in their traditional attire, indulging in an entirely western snack, that it stayed in my memory.

Over my years in Japan, I saw a lot of tradition-meets-the-20th-century clashes. A portable shrine bearer kitted out in a traditional jacket, but wearing jogging shoes instead of the wooden geta his mates had on; a man in a festival done up in Heian Era kimono, but who had obviously forgotten to remove his wristwatch; tonsured Buddhist priests on mopeds, wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

It was funny, but a little sad in a way too: no matter how traditional people might look in their formal or festival attire, almost all of them, it was obvious, found western clothes and accessories more comfortable. The old ways were, it seemed, largely for show.

Last year, I was downtown shopping when a woman sitting in an outside cafe caught my eye. She looked quite young -- perhaps in her late teens or early twenties -- and she was wearing a sky-blue burqa; only her eyes were showing. You don't see that many women here in burqas, so I'm assuming she wasn't Turkish, but whatever nationality she was, she looked bored out of her wits. She had her chin propped in one hand, and in the other she held what appeared to be a Game Boy, her thumb clicking away. I had to look twice to make sure, but yes: she was playing with a Game Boy. And why not, really? Just because she happened to dress traditionally didn't mean she should forgo all the fads and accoutrements of modern youth, did it? After all, the Koran could not forbid people to use things that had not yet been invented.

But after seeing this girl and her Game Boy, I wondered if I would ever see anything purely traditional in this country. Here, like in Japan, westernization had obviously crept in and woven itself insidiously into people's lives. Television antennae, I noticed, bristled out of the meanest hovels; women in shawls and kerchiefs pulled out credit cards in stores; even the local call to prayer closed off with electronic feedback, obviously relying on a computer. Was nothing entirely safe?

And then one day a friend and I were driving through the mountains when I saw a flock of sheep in a field, surrounded by olive trees and thorn bushes. Right in the middle of the flock was a shepherd. Dressed in white, his head covered by a length of cloth banded around his forehead, he could have stepped right out of the Old Testament as he strode along, his eyes focused on something he held in both hands. I gaped at him, thrilled. "Did you see that guy?" I almost whispered, gesturing. "He was the real thing!" I shook my head in wonder. "I didn't think there was anyone like that around anymore!"

The friend I was with smiled. "Mary, he had a cell phone. He was texting on it."