Tuesday, 27 April 2010

A Fatal Encounter

We almost missed it at first. It was trying to crawl over a low stone wall into a field full of weeds, stone and rubble.

"Snake!" my husband yelled, rolling down the car window. My daughter and I leaned over to look and there it was, long and brown, like a ribbon of flowing mud.

"Brown means poisonous, doesn't it?" my daughter said. We nodded, enthralled as the snake fell back into the road, then coiled to try again.

"It's so beautiful," my husband breathed. We all watched, fascinated, as the snake uncoiled itself slowly, trying to feed its body over the wall. "Watch how it climbs up that wall -- amazing!"

It really was amazing. I've had it explained to me -- how snakes are able to climb straight up walls -- but I still find it magical. Once in Japan, I tried to pry a snake off a wall with a stick. I thought it would be easy to wedge the stick under the snake and send it flying, but it was as though the snake, which continued to slither effortlessly up the wall, was welded to the surface. My friend and I watched as the snake -- all of two feet long -- poured itself up the smooth plaster wall, not even seeming to notice my stick. My friend, whose room the snake had just disappeared into, was less thrilled than I was, though she did agree with me that there would be fewer mice to plague her at night.

The brown snake was little over a foot long and it was having less success with the low stone wall it was trying to negotiate. It made a third, then a fourth attempt, but fell back into the gutter each time.

"We'd better leave it," I said. I'd noticed a man watching us, no doubt wondering what we were all staring at.

But it was too late. The man had spotted the snake and he was walking over to it. We heard him call out in Turkish. He picked up a stick and before we could say anything, began to whack at the snake. The snake recoiled and tried to get away, but the man was too fast for it. We watched in horror as the snake made a vain attempt to escape, wriggling wildly every time the man brought down his stick, then finally lay still.

"It was our fault," my daughter said softly as we drove away. "If we hadn't stopped to look at it, the snake would have made it over the wall and the man wouldn't have seen it."

We felt so sorry for the snake, we could hardly respond to this. True, the snake was poisonous, but it hadn't been in the man's house or even in his garden; it had been minding its own business, heading for the field where it would no doubt have lived to a ripe old snake age, feeding on rodents and bird eggs.

A few weeks later, we saw another brown snake as we drove along a mountain road, past a field of granite in an olive grove surrounded by banks of pastel-yellow mustard flowers. There were no humans around, but we slowed down -- just to be on the safe side -- then watched as the snake poured itself into a large rock, disappearing safely into a deep crevice.

We hope it lives to a ripe old age -- and never meets any people.


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Ingrate From The Land Of Dreams

"You're from California?" the girl on the bus says, her eyes wide, her voice thick with admiration. "I've always wanted to go to California! What is it like?"

Questions like this always make me squirm. California is too big and diverse to sum up in one sentence. "Well, my hometown is a lot like this," I say, gesturing at the eucalyptus and pepper trees outside.

"Is Hollywood like this?" she wants to know.

I tell her that Hollywood is hot and crowded, that there are too many cars and too much noise. But I can still see the stars in her eyes.

"You must have been to -- where was it? -- Universal City," she says breathlessly. "What is it like?"

I feel silly. I can barely remember Universal City. "It was very nice."

We pass a sprawling low-roofed house with a tile roof. It's surrounded by a bank of lantana and a bougainvillea with bright magenta blossoms grows up over the arched gateway. If it weren't for the signs in Turkish, we could easily be in my hometown. All of a sudden I feel odd: a little homesick, a little unappreciative. Sometimes I almost feel like I'm throwing away a gift, living abroad for so long when I come from a place that so many people dream of visiting.

I get off the bus and head for my favorite charity shop. The staff here are exclusively expatriate British women and most of the time they ignore me, but today the ladies behind the counter are in a talkative mood. "Where are you from, if you don't mind my asking?" one of them wants to know. I tell her.

"Oh, California! Lucky you!"

Her friend nods. "But I'll tell you where I've always wanted to go: New York."

I blink at this. "I lived in New York for a year."

She wants to hear all about it, so I tell her a little about the noise, the fantastic restaurants, museums, and shops, the incredible energy, and the three case-hardened locks on my steel-framed apartment door.

The woman who thinks California is swell frowns at that. She says that another place she'd really love to visit is Las Vegas.

At this, I have to smile. "Umm, I once spent a summer in Las Vegas actually."

The woman looks a little skeptical. "Really?"

So I tell her about the big, flashy casinos, the dazzling neon lights, how I was too cheap to gamble, but was thrilled with the all-you-can-eat breakfasts for less than two dollars. Both women narrow their eyes at this. If you could put a thought bubble over their heads, it would read What kind of idiot spends a summer in Las Vegas and never gambles?

"You never gambled at all?" the first woman asks in a voice tight with incredulity.

"Once, but I felt cheated when I realized I'd blown fifty cents, so I never did it again."

They laugh, wrongly believing this to be a joke. "But the Nevada desert is really beautiful," I tell them.

The first woman shakes her head. "If I ever go to Las Vegas, I'll never see anything but the inside of a casino!" she assures me.

Another British woman has been listening to our conversation. "You know the city I've always wanted to visit?" she says breathlessly. "Miami!"

At this, I almost burst out laughing. If I were back home, I'd be looking out for the man from Candid Camera.

"Ooh, I know why -- Miami Vice!" one of the other women coos.

"I've never seen Miami Vice," I tell them, unable to help myself. "But I spent a year in Miami when I was a teenager."

I don't blame them for the quick looks they traded back and forth. If I were them, I wouldn't believe me either.


Friday, 16 April 2010

Passed It

"You've got a new student here for the test," Keiko whispered, "and just wait until you get a load of him!"

I leaned forward. "Why? What's wrong with him?" I whispered back.

"He's eighty if he's a day!" Keiko rolled her eyes. "He's waiting for you in the lounge. Though seriously, I don't know what you can do for him." She handed me a test paper. "Just explain it in Japanese if he doesn't understand."

I found Mr. Yanagigawa in the lounge, wearing a stern expression and a grey suit. Keiko definitely hadn't exaggerated his age: with his wrinkled face and white hair, he looked at least eighty years old. He scowled up at me when I walked over to him. I introduced myself and invited him to come with me to the examination room. He understood me, but once I'd seated him and given him the test paper, he waved away my explanations with a terse, "I understand."

Twenty minutes later, I came back for his completed test paper. The system at our school was that every prospective student took a simple grammar test, then, if she passed it, a harder one. No matter what the student's score was, an interview was then conducted, after which the student was placed in the appropriate class.

"Have you finished?" I asked gently.

Mr. Yanagigawa frowned and handed me his paper. "I'll be right back," I said, and went off to mark it. Halfway out of the classroom, I stopped. A quick glance had shown me that he'd gotten the first ten questions right. I read through the next group of questions and saw that he'd answered every one correctly. "Umm...I think you'll need to take our next test," I told him. Mr. Yanagigawa shrugged and grunted his assent.

Back at Keiko's desk I brandished the paper. "Look at this! He might be eighty, but he's nailed this test!"

Keiko blinked as she gaped at Mr. Yanagigawa's test paper. "My God, that's incredible!"

"Mm," I said. "Looks like he'll need the hard one." Wordlessly, Keiko handed me a copy.

"Interesting man, isn't he?" I couldn't resist commenting. "What did he put down under Occupation?"

Keiko pulled out his application form and frowned at it. "Retired." She raised an eyebrow. "He'll never get through the second half of the test!"

"Well, we'll soon find out, won't we?"

Keiko sighed. "Even if he does pass it, there's no way he'll be able to speak English." She examined her fingernails. "I guess he's retired so he needs some kind of hobby."

There was nothing I could say to that. Keiko was probably right. She wasn't being ageist in assuming that Mr. Yanagigawa's English skills would be limited. Thanks to wartime anti-American and anti-British propaganda, few Japanese people his age knew more than the most basic English. During the war years, English language education wasn't only discouraged, it was strictly forbidden. English loan words were purged from Japanese and people were imprisoned or punished severely simply for possessing English language textbooks. Most of our older students who had been children or adolescents during the war years seldom made it to the intermediate level. The fact that Mr. Yanagigawa knew as much English as he did was amazing -- and intriguing.

I took the next exam sheet back to Mr. Yanagigawa and told him I'd be back in fifteen minutes.

Barely ten minutes later, Keiko called me. "He's finished," she murmured, handing me his paper. I sat down with the answer key and Mr. Yanagigawa's completed test paper. He'd gotten every single question right. Even some of our better students didn't get every single question right.

Mr. Yanagigawa was sitting in the lounge, his back straight as a rod, his white head held high. He looked up as I approached. I held out his completed test paper. "You are obviously very good at English," I began, but he waved away my comments.

"I'd like to ask you some questions now --" I started to say, but Mr. Yanagigawa frowned and jerked his elbow back to look at his wristwatch.

"I'm sorry, but I'll have to come back another day for the interview," he said in perfect, hardly-accented English. "I've got a meeting in Ichigaya and I really have to attend it."

My jaw dropped as I watched Mr. Yanagigawa stride out of the lobby and vanish through the front door past an astonished Keiko. He never did come back for the interview, but he really didn't need to: I doubt there was anything we could have taught him.


Monday, 12 April 2010

The Patience Of A Saint

"Teacher," Sevge asks me after class just as I'm packing up my things. "What is mean Cheeses ebb?"

All I can do is stare, open-mouthed. Sevge has a habit of hitting me with non sequiturs, usually right in the middle of a teaching point. Last week she wanted me to mark an exercise on the conditional when I was trying to explain past continuous and simple past to the class. The week before, she wanted me to explain the lyrics of a particular song just after I'd taken attendance. "Is it a kind of cheese?" I ask her now, stacking my books into a neat pile.

She shakes her head. "Cheeses ebb."

"Where did you find this expression?" I ask, unplugging the CD player.

She blinks. "Teacher, you say!"

Her classroom companion Onur nods. "You say every time," he agrees. "Cheez us webbed."

I wrack my brain for what this could mean. I have no memory whatsoever of any class discussion of dairy products. "Were we talking about cheese in class?"

They frown at me, then shake their heads.

I slide my CDs into my backpack and erase the white board, trying to buy time. I have no idea what they're talking about. It's been a trying day and a very difficult class. "When did I say it?"

Onur looks embarrassed. "You say when ask leave early. When Aziz go toilet three time. When Beyza come lessons late and sleeping."

"When Abdullah forget book," Sevge adds. "You say three times today!"

I shake my head and sidle toward the door. "Could you say it again?"

"Cheez uz webbed!" Onur repeats, wringing his hands and casting his eyes heavenward in a credible, if highly unflattering, imitation of yours truly.

I slap my forehead in sudden recognition. "Jesus wept!"

They both nod. "What is mean?"

I give up and put my books and CD player back down. "Well, you know Jesus, the Christian prophet, right?" They don't understand, so I draw a cross on my notebook and they both nod. I point to the ceiling. "Sometimes when I'm having a hard time in this class, I imagine Jesus is looking down at me and he's crying a little for me." They stare at me, clearly mystified and I don't blame them one bit. My cheeks are flaming at how ridiculous I sound.

"So I say Jesus wept," I conclude lamely. "Sort of the way you say Allah, allah when you can't understand something and you feel frustrated."

"Cheezes webbed like Allah, allah?" Sevge confirms just as Aycan and Abdullah come back into the class for Abdullah's book.

"Teacher, you say!" Abdullah comments, flinging his arms wide apart and rolling his eyes at the ceiling. "Cheezes webbed:What is mean?"

Thankfully, Onur and Sevge explain this time.

"Absolutely!" yells Aycan, whose voice only comes in top volume. "You always say!"

Onur and Sevge nod. "Absolutely. You say every time, teacher!"

"Cheezes webbed!" shrieks Abdullah in a worrying falsetto. "Absolutely!"

"Teacher, what is mean absolutely?" Sevge hisses. "How spell?"

"A-B-S-- I'll tell you tomorrow," I say, desperate for a cup of coffee and a sit down.

As I push open the door, I hear all four students parroting "Absolutely!" and "Jesus wept!" I had no idea I used these expressions so often.

"Sheet!" Abdullah calls joyfully over his shoulder as they leave the classroom just as my boss is strolling past. "You say sheet every time teacher!" The others echo their agreement.

Jesus wept.


Tuesday, 6 April 2010

A Case Of Mistaken Identity

"Nat saw that the sky was growing dark," Ceyda reads out loud, stumbling over every word and managing to butcher both pronunciation and intonation. I smile encouragingly, but wince internally. I hate having students read out loud; I don't see the point to it. But we are doing an adapted version of Daphne duMaurier's The Birds, and having the students read it out loud is the only way I can be sure that any reading goes on at all.

"The day was cold and bright," Ceyda reads, only bright comes out breet. The other students all smirk and titter. They're no better or worse than Ceyda, but for some reason, they enjoy mocking her. I grit my teeth, thank Ceyda for reading, and pick one of the mockers to read next. He goes great guns until he gets to the word windows, which he reads as wine-does. The others titter.

It's Kemal's turn to read next and he's actually better than the rest, using rising intonation for yes-no questions and sailing through a lot of hard-to-pronounce words. Everyone looks suitably impressed until Kemal gets to a part about the birds flying inland. Three girls smirk and nudge each other and one of them bursts into giggles.

"Just what is so funny?" I demand.

"Hojam," one of the girls laughs, "he say inland!" She rolls her eyes and glances at Kemal. "Pronounce aye-land," she advises him smugly.

I shake my head. "No it isn't. See? It's spelled I-N-L-A-N-D -- there's no S there."

The girls frown at their books. "Hojam, mistake!" one of them tells me. "Island spell S not N."

I go to the board and write ISLAND and INLAND. I draw an island, then next to it a long line depicting a shoreline. I put in waves and the odd fish. "This one is an island," I explain, "and this one--" I quickly draw in arrows to show wind blowing away from the sea "--is inland. In towards the land, you see?"

They frown at the board so I hand them a dictionary and they pore over it until they find inland. Only then are they prepared to believe me.

Things like this happen all the time in my classes. I've had students make wonderfully funny mistakes, insisting that curious meant very angry, that my treasious was what Golum said in Lord of the Rings, and that impotent meant vital. Inland and island are pretty tame stuff in comparison.

I can't help but be amused and sometimes irritated by some of my students' false language hypotheses, but this is a perfectly natural phenomenon. When the brain sees something it hasn't encountered before, it automatically identifies it with the closest thing it remembers.

And if I ever find myself too irritated, I just take a trip down memory lane to the time I first confused the characters 日本 'Nihon' (Japan) and 本日 'honjitsu' (today's).

It was my first week in Japan and I was in a Tokyo restaurant with two fellow fresh-off-the-boat Americans, Mark and Carol. Every beginning Japanese student learns the kanji 日本 for Japan, but 本日 is slightly more advanced and we'd never seen it before.

Mark noticed it first, on a sign on the wall. "Can that be a mistake?" he wondered, pointing. "Isn't the 日 in 日本 supposed to come first?"

I blinked. "You're right! That doesn't make sense, does it?" I said. "I'll bet that's supposed to be 日本, but someone accidentally got it down wrong."

The waiter brought our food just then. He set down plates of steamed white rice, bowls of soup, and plates of broiled mackerel. We started to eat, but 日本 and 本日 stayed in our minds.

After we'd finished, Mark and I stared at the sign, then looked at each other. "Should we tell them about the mistake?"

We decided not to tell him for some reason. Thank God. The term we were so sure was wrong was actually 'Today's Menu' and it had nothing whatsoever to do with Japan.

I still know Mark and Carol and we've never forgotten that awful encounter with 日本 and 本日. To this day, we can't get over how close we came.


Friday, 2 April 2010

Three Little Gifts

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

A few weeks back, my youngest daughter had to take the cat to the vet. Our cat, although really still a kitten, managed to get out of the house the other night. She was gone for five nights and apparently had a wild old time out there, consorting with the half dozen toms who live between the farm and the mosque just behind our house. Our neighborhood -- in fact, the town in general -- happens to be overrun with cats and kittens. On almost any given day, you can see stray cats climbing out of garbage cans, nipping into alleys, racing across busy roads. All too often they don't make it across, and you can see the sad evidence of that too.

Nobody needs any more cats around here, so a trip to the vet's was definitely in order. My daughter put the cat into her carrier, went outside, and flagged down a dolmuş. It was full, so she sat in the back with the cat in her cat carrier on her lap. When it was time to get off, she dug a handful of change out of her pocket and made her way to the front of the dolmuş to pay the driver, leaving the cat in her cat carrier in the back, next to the last remaining passenger. "No!" he cried in shocked tones. "No!"

My daughter turned to see what he was protesting. He was pointing to the cat carrier and waving his hands from side to side in the universal I don't want this! gesture. Apparently, he thought he was being left a gift. "I shook my head and waved my hand," she said. "And boy, did he look relieved when we got off."

Our cat, it turned out, was one week pregnant. Narrow escapes all around.

Spilled Coins

Yesterday, I took the dolmuş home. I like to take my change out early so I can sit back and enjoy the ride, so I pulled out my wallet, but no sooner had I done this than there was the sound of metal pinging on metal and I saw a fistful of gold-and-silver one-lira coins rolling every which way. I stared at my wallet. Did it actually have a hole in it? It didn't look like it did, but I'm a klutz: I've spilled a lot of coins in my time.

There was a student sitting just across from me who had just gotten on the dolmuş himself. I pointed to the coins on the floor and then at my wallet. I frowned and he nodded. Clearly, I must have spilled the coins. The student was fiddling with his own wallet and showed no inclination to help me pick up the coins, so I bent to retrieve them, collecting a total of almost ten lira. I hadn't realized I had that much money in coins! The boy now bent to pick up coins himself, and after the last one had been retrieved, I held out my hand to him. He frowned and opened up his palm. And suddenly the penny dropped, if you'll forgive a bad pun. He had actually been the one who had spilled the coins! How embarrassing! I deposited the handful of coins into his outstretched hand, my cheeks on fire. I hoped he didn't think I was trying to fleece him of his money. What if it got around school that the American teacher was such a tightwad she would stoop to rob a poor student of his coins?

Fortunately, when I got off the dolmuş, the student smiled and winked at me. I hope he understood that it was an honest mistake. Or maybe he'd stolen the money himself and was paying his respects to a fellow thief.

Eggplants from Heaven

My colleague Leonard is from Nigeria. The other day, he and some Nigerian friends were taking the dolmuş home after a trip to the market to buy produce in bulk.

"We bought tomatoes, zucchinis, onions, and beans," said Leonard. "When we got onto the dolmuş there were a lot of other people who'd been at the market too and they also had big bags of vegetables. One man had three huge bags of eggplant. We'd seen them selling it in the market and they were very cheap, but none of us knew how to cook eggplants, so we didn't get any."

When they got to their stop, Leonard and his friends grabbed up their bags, paid the driver, and hopped off. It wasn't until they got back to their shared house that they realized they had one of the bags of eggplants.

"We rushed back to the dolmuş stand," Leonard told me, "but of course it had gone and we couldn't find the man with the eggplants. We didn't want him to think that Africans are thieves, but what could we do? And after all, it was an honest mistake."

I asked him what he did with the eggplants. "We took them back home and cooked them," he said, smiling. "We think God must have wanted us to have those eggplants. Whatever the case, we all know how to cook eggplants now."