Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Test Of Confidence

"I did not get ninety-nine percent," the Nigerian insisted.

"You did, though -- see? This is an excellent result, the highest we've had all term."

"No. Please check it again and I think you'll find that there has been an error."

One thing I've learned from watching people take tests is that I can never distinguish who knows their stuff from who doesn't. People who look calm and thoughtful can turn in sheets of utter rubbish. People who look harried and puzzled can amaze me by garnering top scores. Observing the eight men in front of me, I had no idea knowing who could do what, and this time was no exception. The Turkish boy with the intelligent-looking face scored barely 38% and thought that the noun form of 'receive' was 'Reconnist'. The nervous Kazakh who frowned as he wrote and chewed his pencil down to a stub got 85% of the questions he answered correct. The bored-looking Nigerian in the back got 99%.

I know that tests don't necessarily demonstrate true intelligence, but as someone who has suffered her way through her share of exams, I can't help admiring people who take them with sangfroid and nonchalance -- like this Nigerian who had scored the unprecedented 99%.

And yet he was far from pleased with his result.

"We have checked it!" the supervisor insisted. "Two people mark all the exams to eliminate any possibility of error."

"Check it again."

We did. It was still 99%.

The Nigerian was not impressed. "Then go over your answer sheet. There must be an error somewhere."

Eyes were rolled behind his back, but the coordinators checked the answer sheet: the African's confidence was compelling.

To make a long story short, there was an error on the answer key. The Nigerian's 99% should have been 100%. He did not smile when he received this news from the embarrassed, apologetic supervisor. "Thank you," he said with considerable noblesse oblige.

As it happened, I never saw him again. He passed our test, but I'm not sure we passed his.

Sunday, 27 June 2010


It's summer. The Mediterranean is a sheet of blue turquoise, streaked with azure and aqua. The jacarandas swell with soft purple blossoms, the morning breezes are scented with jasmine and lemon. Birds fill the warm air with their trills, tiny grey lizards scurry in and out of the rock wall that surrounds our house, and the terraced gardens bloom with bougainvillea and wild morning glories. Inside the house, my kids are bored.

I'm not bored. I got up at 6:30 and baked a dozen apple oat-bran muffins and a loaf of banana bread. I've put on a wash, swum 500 meters, cleaned the kitchen floor, and made breakfast. You don't want to know what my kids have been doing. They don't want you to know either. Fortunately, we have books and cards. My kids may get bored occasionally, but at least they know how to divert themselves with books and cards. I breathe a sigh of relief and switch on my computer.

Thirty minutes later, I'm almost bored myself. I'm rewriting a manuscript I finished a few years ago which has subsequently unwritten itself. Scenes which I clearly remember as funny and lively suddenly ring wooden and lackluster. I've rewritten this twice now and it's still not right. Maybe I need to distance myself from it. Maybe a diversion is in order? A little dalliance with Facebook...

I click into my Facebook account. No sooner have I logged in than the following message pops up at the bottom of my screen, from Ahmed, one of my students from last term: Hello my teacher how are you?

I ignore it, but five minutes later, Ahmet is back.

Teacher how are you I miss you?

Aww... I'm touched. How are you Ahmet? I type back. How is your summer so far?

Ahmet's answer takes so long, I'm about to click out of Facebook and get back to work on that pesky WIP, but before I can do this, it comes through: Teacher very borring summer.

Which is what I get for friending my ex-students on Facebook. Read a book, I write back. Get one of those learners' English readers out of the library and get some good studying done.

Ahmet checking out an English reader is about as likely to happen as world peace within the next two years, but I live in hope.

Leaving Ahmet to his own devices, I go back to my work in progress. I read over the Halloween scene, when the bullies from my protagonist's school stumble into the closet where a road-kill deer is dripping into a bucket in the dark. I'm disgusted with myself: this scene isn't funny. How could I have written this and left out the funny? An hour later, I've washed and hung out another wash and the Halloween scene is much better. But my kids are bored again. They're thinking of going for a swim, but they want me to come with them to the pool. "I've already been!" I tell them. "I swam half a kilometer while you were sleeping!"

They grumble a little, but at least they go. I go back to my work in progress, but I'm tired. It's time for another break, isn't it? After all, I've baked muffins, cleaned the floor, put on two washes AND coped with adolescent ennui; I'm owed a break, aren't I? I click into Facebook and spend an amusing ten minutes, and once again, just as I'm about to click out, another message pops onto my screen: Hello how are you my teacher? You don't go home American? This one is from Gökhan, another ex-student.

Oh, what the hell. Hi Gökhan, how is your summer?

There is a long pause. Teacher this summer very bored.

I take a deep breath. Are you back home?

There is such a long pause that I'm sure Gökhan has either gotten involved with a more interesting interlocutor or given up, but before I can click off, his reply comes through. Teacher I am here I donot pass professcency exam.

You didn't pass the proficiency exam? This doesn't make sense. Gökhan wasn't a brilliant student, but he should have passed the proficiency exam.

Another long pause. I mistake writing composetion. Write futur, not past. I stay here take exam again after summer school.

By Herculean effort, I resist the urge to write I told you to read the instructions carefully! and write I'm so sorry. And then because I can't help myself, Practice your writing with me any time! Gökhan assures me he will, but I know I'm safe in volunteering my time. If I couldn't get him to spare fifteen minutes on exam review, there's no way he'll take me up on this.

My kids are back from the swimming pool by the time I get on Facebook again, and they're already looking for something else to do. Before I can talk to them, this message pops up on my screen: Hello teacher you are well? It's from Ümit, another ex-student.

I'm fine, Ümit, how are you?

Teacher, Very boring summer. this island very boring.

Oh, for pity's sake! Why is it my fault if they're bored? What can I possibly do about it? Go out and read a book or write to your friends or go fishing. Climb a mountain, volunteer at the local animal shelter, or raise money for charity. But don't tell me about it. I've had enough. I am officially bored of being bored.

Teacher I see you yesterday near harbour!

I ignore this and comment on a friend's post. Let Ümit go and find himself a girlfriend! When I was his age, my friends and I wouldn't have dreamed of chewing the fat with our teachers this way. We knew that we had to make our own fun; that it wasn't up to our parents or -- God forbid! -- our teachers to supply it.

You were shopping!

Yes, I was down at the harbor yesterday, shopping with my daughters. And Ümit's writing has certainly picked up some speed. Before I can write a reply, he adds: You are with very beautiful girls!

Uh oh.

Got to go now I quickly type. Hope you have a good summer!

Let them find their own diversions. Parents and teachers should only do so much.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Wrapping It Up

I learned how to make stuffed cabbage rolls in Miami, in the kitchenette of a woman called Ruth. Ruth was in her sixties, recently widowed, and a little lonely, as I was. She showed me how to steam the cabbage first, then peel off the leaves, being careful not to tear. We stuffed them with a mixture of beef, rice, onions, and seasonings. Each cabbage roll was then placed seam-side down in a heavy-bottomed skillet, then topped with tomato sauce simmered with brown sugar, carrots, parsley and raisins. We sat in Ruth's kitchenette and ate the steaming cabbage rolls on a rainy November day. They were the first thing besides Kraft macaroni-and-cheese dinners I learned how to cook, and I couldn't believe how easy they were to make.

I rolled my first sushi in a Victorian flat in San Francisco. My friend Atsuko showed me how to season the boiled rice with vinegar and sugar, how to scoop it into a flat, shallow wooden dish and fan it until it cooled, then spread it over a sheet of nori, add a variety of condiments -- egg pancake cut into ribbons, shiitake mushrooms and carrots cooked in soy sauce, broth and sugar, and finely chopped strips of salted cucumber. We rolled it all up and sliced each roll into savory circles which we ate with soy sauce, pickled ginger, and cups of green tea.

A Chinese engineering student called Li taught me how to make jiǎozi in Japan. My friend Wendy and I peered over Li's shoulder as he mixed flour and water and kneaded it into a ball of dough. We scrubbed the surface of my table and rolled out a hundred little circles, patting each one with flour. Then we watched as Li chopped hakusai (Chinese cabbage) and salted it. I couldn't believe how much we needed: the mound of chopped cabbage was massive, but Li assured me we would use it all. We chopped spring onions and ginger, adding them to chopped pork, then took turns squeezing the moisture out of the salted cabbage -- which had miraculously been reduced to 1/5 of its bulk -- and added that too. We put a mound of the pork mixture onto the middle of each circle of dough and crimped the edges, then steamed the jiǎozi and ate them with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, vinegar and finely chopped garlic.

My daughter and I learned how to make dolmasi (stuffed grape leaves) from Güzin's mother, a woman called Fatma. Güzin didn't have a pot big enough to cook them in, so I'd brought one of ours, a nasty-looking Teflon-coated casserole with a fitted lid. Fatma took one look at this, noted the fact that the Teflon coating is scarred (I tell my family not to use metal spoons with Teflon-coated pots, but I might as well save my breath), and sent Güzin over to the neighbors to find a better one. We watched Fatma mix rice, chopped tomatoes, currants, pine nuts, and olive oil into a fragrant-smelling mixture. Then we all sat down to roll the grape leaves. You put a little bit of stuffing on each leaf and start rolling from the base, tucking the sides in as you roll. My daughter and I struggled to get just the right amount of filling on each leaf. We each had our respective rolling sins: I put too much on first, then not enough; my daughter didn't roll tightly enough, and even Güzin couldn't compete with Fatma for speed. But gradually the pile of cigar-shaped rolls rose higher and higher until all the filling had been used up and the they were ready to be sprinkled with lemon juice and more olive oil and steamed until tender. We ate them hot from the pot, and later cold, and they were marvelous both ways.

There is something wonderful about food that is stuffed or wrapped. The contrast of the wrapping and the stuffing is a delight, as is the surprise of biting into a savory filling concocted from a number of ingredients. The salty tang of seaweed works beautifully with sweetened vinegar rice; the melt-in-your mouth succulence of cooked cabbage perfectly complements the savory center, piping hot and tender; the gingery, garlicky goodness of jiǎozi is a nice surprise to find in a dumpling; each dolmasi is a juicy little parcel with a bouquet of flavors to make your mouth water.

"Well then," said Scottish friends of mine when I waxed lyrical about all of these stuffed or wrapped taste treats, "you're bound to love haggis."

The blood drained from my face. I am sorry to say that I do not love haggis, that I don't even like it. Yes, I ought to be ashamed of myself. What's not to like about haggis? It is wholesome, it uses up ingredients that might otherwise be discarded, it has onions and oatmeal in it, two of my favorite foodstuffs, and it is so Scottish that Robert Burns actually immortalized it in a poem. But I made the mistake of looking at the recipe first, and I really wish I hadn't: (1) sheep's stomach or ox secum, cleaned and thoroughly, scalded, turned inside out and soaked overnight in cold salted water, and (2) the heart and lungs of one lamb, and (3) stock from lungs and trimmings.

I'll just stick with the teachings of Ruth, Atsuko, Li, and Fatma.

Monday, 14 June 2010


The lady at the bakery takes a steaming loaf from a pile and gives me a shy smile. She doesn't see the cloth bag I'm holding out to her. She whips open a clear plastic bag and pops the loaf into it. "Here you go," she says in Turkish.

My husband cringes: he's been through this with me any number of times. He knows what's coming. So do my kids. If they were with us, they'd be blushing and edging away from me.

I pluck the bread from the plastic bag and transfer it carefully to my own bag. The woman frowns and her mouth drops open. You can see it in her eyes: What's wrong with my bag? My bag is cleaner than your bag! Which it is. Yesterday, I bought lemons and coriander and there are a few leaves still sticking to the sides. I shake my head and smile: I don't want the bakery lady to think that I'm just being contrary. But even if I knew the Turkish for "I'm saying no to your bag because the world is filling up with plastic," I'm not sure she'd be convinced. Only a handful of the shoppers here recycle plastic bags or bring their own cloth ones.

But I persist, and sometimes I know I'm getting my point across. The man at our local supermarket had no idea why I kept bringing my own bags to his store. To my delight, he spoke English, so I told him that the world was filling up with toxic plastic and I was concerned. He might still think I'm nuts, but he heard me out.

I'm not naturally contrary. I really don't enjoy embarrassing my husband and kids. But the world really is filling up with toxic plastic. On the off chance that you haven't read about this yet, please click on the link above. I had a rough idea about how bad the problem was, but after I read Bish Denham's blog post in April this year, I became fanatical about carrying cloth bags with me.

If we had to live next door to a vast plastic rubbish heap, I think many of us would start to notice. As it is, this is happening in our oceans where most of us can't see it. Thousands of feet of plastic trash are now drifting about in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

This is a huge problem. It isn't going to go away unless we all start to do something. Like rejecting plastic bags in favor of cloth bags. "Come on," an acquaintance scoffed, "a couple of plastic bags aren't going to ruin the earth." And of course they aren't. But it isn't a couple, is it? What's the world population now -- over six billion eight hundred million, right? If only a modest fraction of that number used only one plastic bag per month, that would still be a phenomenal number of plastic bags to dispose of. And if I insist on plastic for my own convenience, why shouldn't the whole world?

"But everybody uses plastic!" people protest. They complain that the problem is too widespread, that there are too many people who depend on the plastic industry, that individuals can't make a significant difference. Moreover, people who insist on cloth bags and recyclable materials are often depicted as tree-hugging neo-hippie fanatics.

But consider this: fanatics get things done. By the end of the 19th century, slavery had been abolished almost everywhere, and yet this would never have happened if it hadn't been for a handful of people who were seen at the time as real nutters, fanatics who got so worked up about slavery they would virtually tremble whenever they spoke in public. When these crazy men and women first started their efforts, many people laughed in their faces. Slavery was a huge business, but a handful of fanatics brought it down, and without the aid of the internet, computers, or modern transportation. (If you want to be inspired and uplifted by the power of human goodness, just read Against All Odds, from Mother Jones January, 2004 issue.) After you read it, please remember that the fanatics of the 1780s worked their miracles without Facebook, Twitter or blogging.

So if you haven't already, go on and get worked up about plastic pollution. At the very least, go out and get yourself a couple of cloth bags, if you haven't already. Keep them everywhere: in your bag, in the glove compartment of your car, near your front door. Carry them with you, and if your local stores still use non-recyclable plastic bags, be a fanatic and tell them why they should change. Embarrass your children, make your spouse's toes curl up. Be a fanatic. You'll be following in some great footsteps.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Finest Hour

The other day, my daughter and I watched a group of children perform a comedy skit at my husband's school. Four children stepped onto the stage, clutching their scripts. We smiled as a redheaded boy, a blond girl, and a tall brown-haired girl raced through their lines in English that ranged from breathless Cockney to heavily accented near-Turkish.

The first one held the microphone like it was a poisonous snake. The second one yelled her lines into the microphone, making us all jump and grab our ears. The third one tripped up on his pronunciation and had an attack of the giggles. Then we saw there was a fourth boy. He was dark, tiny, and not typically British-looking. He stepped forward with pride and confidence, holding the microphone a few inches away from his mouth. Everyone smiled. But when he delivered his lines in perfect received British English, there was a collective gasp from the crowd. Not only was the kid's pronunciation too good to compliment, he had considerable charisma. As far as stage presence, oratory, diction, and projection were concerned, Winston Churchill could not have done better.

And it took me back...

Over a decade ago, I found myself sitting in a crowd of Japanese parents, impatiently and reluctantly waiting for my eight-year-old to appear in the after-hours group's New Years play.

In Japan, parents are expected to attend every single one of their children's class plays, athletic meets, school festivals, graduation and entrance ceremonies (for every single year of school, including nursery), and school parties. Working parents with children in two schools have it especially hard: not only do you have to go to two sets of events, unless your job finishes before five o'clock, you have to go to the after-hours events as well.

We were working parents with children in two schools that year. We'd already been to the nursery school Christmas party and only got out of the elementary school Christmas party because it had been scheduled for Christmas Day (and don't think they didn't try to change our minds about attending). We'd gritted our teeth through two sports' days, two dramatic performances, two Culture Day festivals, and two jugyo sankans, or class observation days. Going to our oldest daughter's after-hours New Years Party just seemed like punishment. My husband begged off with a cold, but we already felt like we'd won the Crappy Parents of the Year award after refusing to attend the elementary school Christmas party, so I bit the bullet and went.

As I sat on my metal folding chair, waiting, I looked in vain for any familiar faces. The after-hours group included, for some reason, all five schools in the area. Other than a handful of the teachers, I didn't know anyone there and no one knew me. Which meant that none of the people sitting around me realized that I could understand them when they speculated as to why I was there. When my very blonde daughter trotted out on the stage and stood with her friends, waiting for her turn to speak, I felt like laughing when someone behind me hissed, "I'll bet that blonde girl will be the foreigner's kid." Duh.

We watched as a child took the microphone from a teacher and licked her lips nervously. She took a deep breath and raced through her lines, ducking her head. When she'd finished, she passed the microphone to the next boy as though it were a hot potato. The boy took it, blinked, and garbled his lines, staring at his feet. We all smiled.

"What's the foreign kid going to do?" a woman in front of me wondered. "She's not going to be in this, is she?" "Poor thing," her male companion said. "She sure stands out." She really did, too. Not only was she blonde, but our oldest daughter was a head taller than every single child there. "Maybe she'll say her lines in English," someone else said.

The next child grabbed the microphone, grinned at us, and screamed his lines at such a volume that we all winced. He handed the microphone to my daughter. I took a deep breath and chewed my lower lip.

My daughter shook her hair back, flashed us a dazzling smile, and looked the audience straight in the eye. She read out her lines in a voice that was loud and clear. With feeling. And she didn't make one single mistake.

A man in front of me said, in awed tones: That kid was the very best one. That foreign kid! To this day, I will never forget it. In all my time of being a parent, it was truly my finest hour.

Back in the present, I watched as Young Winston Churchill's parents joined him after the show, grinning proudly. I know exactly how they feel.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

School's Out

When I was a little kid, I generally enjoyed school. I liked the smell of classrooms, the scratch of chalk on the blackboard, the dozens of Scholastic paperbacks our teachers almost begged us to read. But by the time summer rolled around, I was more than ready for it. On the morning of the very last day, I used to whoop and holler and jump around the house like a wild, demented creature. Never mind that a blazing hot summer lay ahead; never mind that the temperature would quickly climb to 100 degrees and higher, that our house was not air-conditioned and the only place I could go to escape the heat was the local swimming pool. Who cared about any of that when the dispiriting routine of getting up, getting ready, and going to school had been replaced by lazing around the house, reading whatever I pleased, and splashing around in the local pool with my friends?

For some reason, my friends and I always pictured that the teachers were sorry to see us go. We figured that teaching was their vocation, that without us to instruct and educate, their lives would be diminished. God knows where we got this idea, but as we left school, singing our silly No more teachers, no more books song, we had the idea that they were watching us go with regret, wishing that September would hurry up and come. And having those three blissful months of freedom was such a heady thrill.

But however a great a thrill that last day of school might have been all those dreamy years ago, it was as nothing compared to the unmitigated joy of my last day of school as teacher this semester. Especially because my husband and I have turned in our resignations and are contemplating another move -- and our next expatriate adventure.

No more students coming to class ten minutes late and asking for toilet breaks! No more risking wrist injury wresting cell phones from the meaty fists of teenage boys! No more students showing up late without textbooks, notebooks, or writing implements! No more students whining Teacher, break time, fifteen minutes before class is up! And -- with apologies to the handful of hardworking students I've been fortunate enough to teach -- no more students! No more Can, Murat, Tanol, Sevge, Fikret, Aycan, Cedyda, Uzay, Aziz, or Hamit.

It's getting very hot here. Our house isn't air-conditioned and the only place I can get cool is the local swimming pool -- and I hate heat. Who cares? Not me. Not one single bit.

Today instead of waking up at six and getting dressed, I woke up at six and went for a swim. Instead of bolting breakfast and heading out the door, I did yoga. Instead of rushing through my lesson plans and getting my teaching materials ready, I lay down on the sofa and read half a book.

Summertime isn't quite as carefree and easy as it was in the halcyon days of my youth. My husband still has a couple of weeks left of teaching. There are chores to be done and meals to prepare. I've got a 15-year-old who's taking her international General Certificate of Secondary Education exams this month and needs the occasional nagging session to get motivated. We've got another moving day looming ahead and moving is never much fun. But cooking, cleaning, nagging and packing up have never been as fun as they have this past week. I've got a stack of books I know I'll have time to put a dent in, two manuscripts to revise, and the glittering pool awaits. And sometimes just for the sheer heck of it, I whoop and holler and jump around the house.

School's out for the summer, folks. And it isn't just the kids who are thrilled.