Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Topping It Up

The top-up woman has an unctuous, hyper-friendly voice, and everything she says has an exclamation point on it. "Welcome to the XYZ mobile top up service!" she gushes. "If you wish to top up by voucher or credit card, press one!"

I've asked my daughter to be nearby because I didn't trust myself to do this alone. "Okay," she says from across the room, "what you have to do now is--"

But I've suddenly noticed that my phone's touch screen is blank. "There's no keyboard!" I cry. "How can I press one when there's no keyboard?"

"Please press one!" the lady repeats in her smarmy voice, blocking out what my daughter is trying to say.

"But how!" I yell at the phone and my daughter. "There's no keyboard!"

"Mom! There's no keyboard because they know you'll be holding your phone against your ear and you might accidentally press the wrong number!" She leaps up and takes my phone from me, presses a series of buttons and hands the phone back. "Now, when the lady tells you to press one, you just hit this button first -- are you looking? -- and your keyboard will pop up."

I glare at the phone. "It's intelligently done," my daughter adds. "They've thought of everything."

"Yeah? I didn't hear them saying anything about what buttons to push to make the keyboard return. That would be a lot more intelligent."

"They expect you to know," she says crisply. "It's lower common denominator stuff."

The top up lady is back. "Press one!" she gushes, a smile in her voice. I press one. A one lights up on my screen but nothing else happens.

"Did you press one?" my daughter asks, leaning forward.

"Yes, but it's not doing anything!"

"If you wish to pay by pre-paid voucher, press two!" the lady says. I picture her as a combination of my junior high school science teacher and Betty Crocker. I'll bet she's got polished fingernails, fire engine red lipstick, and ironed skirts.

I press two and my one becomes a twelve. This is so obviously an error, I hang up. "What did you do that for?" my daughter demands.

"My one became a twelve!"

"It wasn't a twelve!" my daughter groans, "it was a two next to a one!" She presses a bunch of buttons and we go through the whole rigmarole all over. "Now press one, then press two, and don't hang up!" she scolds.

This time, I press one, then press two. The woman doesn't react to this. She doesn't seem to know what a monumental thing I'm attempting to do here. Insensitively, she launches into a sales pitch about all the cool things I can do with her top-up service. "What's going on?" I whisper. "Shouldn't she tell me what to do next?"

"Mom, they've got you where they want you. You just have to be patient and hear her out," my daughter advises.

"This is ridiculous! I don't need to know about their stupid services, I need to top up my %$£"!@-ing phone!" I say, ready to launch into a full rant but my daughter holds out her hand to stop me. "Read me out the number NOW!" she shouts.

I read out the number in a stiff, clench-jawed voice. My daughter finishes punching in numbers and hands the phone back to me. "There you are, you've got £20 of credit on your phone now. Congratulations."

"It's so complicated!" I fume, staring at my phone. "I'll never be able to do that on my own!"

"I told Dad not to get you a touch screen," she hisses, throwing back her head and rolling her eyes. "They're not adult friendly!"

I take a deep, sustaining breath. "I changed your diapers," I tell her. "I had to remind you when you needed to blow your nose." My daughter flashes me a brief, pitying smile. "Which was all the time!" I can't resist adding.

"Come on, Mom," she says in her perky, helpful voice. "It's just a matter of practice. Topping up really isn't all that hard. Even Dad's learned how to do it."

"I used to have to take you to the toilet at night!" I say. "You used to beg me to!"

My daughter pats my knee in an infuriating way. "Mom, you're a perfectly competent human being. But you know you're seriously technically challenged."

Somewhere I've got a picture of her in a big, saggy diaper, with pumpkin all over her face. If I ever figure out the technology, I'm putting it on Facebook.


Friday, 24 December 2010

A Merry Whatever!

Bits of torn wrapping paper, fir needles, and balled-up Kleenex decorate the carpet. The holiday tang of Vape-o-Rub fills the frosty air of our halls, and the merry echo of deep, bronchial coughs reminds us that it's that time of year again!

Our cats are racing up and down the stairs, excited by all the packages coming in, the crinkle of foil and wadded-up paper, the smells of baking, the crisp tsk-tsk-tsk of scissors, the stressed-out, sometimes panicky voices: "Have you written one to Auntie Freda?" and "Are you sure you wrapped the ones for my cousins?"

This morning, I fished an old used tea bag out of a corner of the kitchen. God knows how it got there, but in the dark room, without my glasses on, it looked exactly like a dead mouse frozen in rigor mortis, deposited there by my cats as a gift. I let out a scream as it flew from my hands. And then I saw that what I'd mistaken for the tail was really the string, and what looked like the body was really the almost-dry clump of leaves -- and that the dead mouse was nothing more than an innocent tea bag.

The mice are all outside, safe for the time being in their little mice beds under piles of leaves in the icy hedges. The birds are nibbling at the seed in the feeder: the cats have left them to it for a change. Small miracles around here. May I now hope for peace on earth, goodwill to men?

Whatever the case, Merry Christmas to all of you and your families, a very Happy Hannukah, and the best of holidays to every single one of you, whatever you believe!

Please join me in praying for a more peaceful and prosperous 2011 for the whole world.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

What Are You Like?

My first week in Scotland, a woman in a shop asked me where I was from. When I said California, she gestured at the rain spattered windows. "I'll bet you're sorry you traded it for this," she said.

I was new in the U.K. and unfamiliar with the unwritten rule that you have to hate rain, so I shook my head. "Actually, I grew up in a desert where it hardly ever rained. I wouldn't trade this weather for all the sunshine in the world."

The woman tilted her head and stared at me. The look on her face said You're kidding me, aren't you? When she realized I was dead serious, she narrowed her eyes. "Well now. What are you like?" she said. I had no idea what she meant by this so I had no answer for her.

I heard the expression again a few months later when I told a neighbor I used vinegar to clean shower stalls and composted all my cardboard. She thought it was odd to use a foodstuff as a cleaning product and she questioned the wisdom of using cardboard as mulch. By this time, I was beginning to see that What are you like? wasn't entirely complimentary.

The third time I heard this was after I'd told an acquaintance we didn't wear our shoes inside our house. "What does that mean?" I asked her immediately. "You already know what I'm like!"

"It's just an expression," she said, not quite meeting my eyes. "It doesn't really mean anything."

For some reason, it took me years to look this up, but when I did, I got a shock. Used when someone has said or done something silly, I read on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online site. This rhetorical question is asked of someone who has done something stupid or outrageous, offered another reference.

Silly? Stupid? Outrageous? Just reading these definitions made my eyes flash and my jaw clench. Every time somebody asks me this, I feel my smile go all steely and I have to take long, deep breaths.

And ever since learning what this idiom means, I've heard it dozens of times. I've found that it can be used to refer to genuine idiocy, personal idiosyncrasies, small, perfectly understandable linguistic misunderstandings, or even variations in pronunciation.

For example, I heard this when I asked for ground chicken instead of minced at the butcher's, when someone told me he worked at a bookmaker's and I thought this meant he sold books, when I had a senior Japanese moment at the post office and tried to buy a 30-pence stamp with three 2-pence pieces, which suddenly looked a lot like ten-yen coins. I heard this when I accidentally forgot where I was and called our car's bonnet a hood, or referred to the boot as the trunk. I've even had people ask me what I'm like when I've pronounced oregano with the stress on the second syllable, which is the only way I will ever pronounce it because I am an American. And although I may not wave a flag and brag to all and sundry that I come from the Greatest Country in the World, as Popeye said, I yam what I yam.

Recently we had an American student stay at our house and the What are you like? idiom came up. I confided how long it had taken me to find out the meaning, and I whined about how tired I was of hearing it.

The girl's jaw dropped. "Is that what it means?" she whispered. I nodded and she blanched. "Omigod, people say that to me all the time -- I had no idea!"

What are we like?


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Ecumenical Christmas

About this time last year, my boss came into the teachers' room and frowned. "Where's the Christmas tree?" she wanted to know. "Why isn't it up yet?"

There were only three of us in the staffroom and we were all busy with lesson plans and marking. "Isn't it in the secretary's office?" one of my colleagues mumbled.

But it wasn't. My boss came back and started rummaging around in the cupboards. "It's almost Christmas and we still don't have the tree up!" she lamented. "This just won't do!"

I knew I'd seen it, but I couldn't remember where. "Try the bottom cupboard, just under the dictionaries," I suggested.

There was a triumphant cry and my boss straightened up, clutching a tangle of plastic evergreen. "I knew it was here somewhere!" She gave it a little shake and a cockroach that had been wintering in the branches hit the floor and went scurrying."Okay, let's set it up," my boss said, undeterred by the roach. "And look -- here's a bag of decorations to go on it!"

She dumped everything in the middle of the table, shot us a bright smile, and went off to do more important things. I put down my pen and sighed. One of my colleagues groaned and the other rolled his eyes. Two more colleagues walked into the office, blinked, and smiled. "Oh good, you've got the Christmas tree out!"

As we all started stuffing synthetic branches into slots, I almost burst out laughing. We teachers were a mixed bag of nationalities and faiths. Among us were over half a dozen Christians -- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox (Russian and Greek) and Syriac -- a Bahai, assorted atheists, and many Muslims, lapsed and practicing. Yet here we were, assembling a plastic replica of a pagan symbol manufactured by Communists in China, at the behest of a Muslim, to celebrate the birth of a Jew. How could you possibly get more ecumenical than that, or more surreal?

But as the week went by, I was glad of that tree. Amazingly, it brought back memories of childhood Christmases, the smell of eucalyptus, crushed fir,and cinnamon, the sparkle of glass ornaments, the thrill of finding this green, glittering thing in the middle of our living room.

The more I thought about it, the weirder it was: historically, Christmas trees have nothing to do with Christ, and yet they have become an international symbol of Christmas -- so much so that even in Muslim-owned shops and businesses in Northern Cyprus where few Christians set foot, you could see them. In Japan, where the population of Christians is about 1%, you can see many Christmas trees at this time of year. We had Christian friends in Tokyo who never bought a Christmas tree, but their largely agnostic neighbors dutifully decorated one every year. For some reason, decorating Christmas trees has become a compelling custom. The whole industrialized world seems to own Christmas.

"It's money," scoffed one of my colleagues in Japan. "Money and cultural imperialism. That's why people put up Christmas trees." And I could see his point: when Christmas trees go up weeks before Halloween, it's impossible not to feel cynical. "It has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity," a friend lamented, shuddering at the abomination of a PVC Christmas tree in a window, glittering with fiber optic decorations. Disco carols boomed raucously from a shop while girls in short red velvet skirts pinned shiny garlands of plastic tinsel to the display window.

But although I can't speak for those who are of other faiths or have no religion at all, I think there is something all human beings can celebrate over Christmas, something that has nothing to do with commercialism, the fundamental idea behind even the plastic replica of a pagan symbol: unselfish giving. Whether or not we believe that Jesus was the son of God, almost all of us have been lucky enough to experience this at some time or other -- a gift offered to us freely, given from the heart, with no strings attached. Yes, it takes a lot to see it there in an aluminum tree festooned with baubles, but have faith: the love is there. And faith and love are what Christmas is all about.


Saturday, 11 December 2010

Helping Hands

The snow and ice are finally thawing. All around us, there is the sound of dripping water and birdsong. For the past several weeks, our town has been covered in ice and snow, but now you can see grass and green leaves emerging from their mantle of frozen white.

We were lucky here: up in Glasgow, temperatures went as low as -17 C (1.4 F) and the snow and ice were so bad that schools closed down, businesses and shops sent all their employees home, and thousands of commuters were stranded on the motorways for as long as fifteen hours, waiting in endless lines. The snow and ice were so bad in some areas that they broke the blades of the snow ploughs. And the streets were treacherous to walk on too as the wet snow became impacted, then froze over. I've heard stories about people slipping and falling just stepping outside their houses. My husband, the most sure-footed person I've ever known, came home bruised and sore after slipping and falling on ice.

I am not sure-footed. In fact, I am spectacularly uncoordinated when it comes to walking on slippery surfaces. I don't think I could count the times I've slipped and fallen on virtually nothing, so what I can get up to on ice and snow has to be seen to be believed. My kids have inherited their father's So what? attitude to slipping and falling. They happily walk, skip, and even run on icy surfaces. I can't bear to watch them; I can't even watch people ski or ice skate without wincing.

So for the past two weeks, I've stayed inside whenever possible, venturing outside only to throw out the trash -- quite a feat as the lid freezes shut every night -- collect my daughter from school, or make the odd totally necessary trip into town to buy something. When I go out, I'm kitted out like Tenzing Norgay or Edmund Hilary preparing to tackle Everest, wearing many pairs of socks, legwarmers, and mittens, and on my feet, hiking boots with the deepest, sharpest tread I could find. The extra clothes aren't just for warmth, they're for padding. With all the compacted ice and snow, just making my way down the street took me ages and it got harder and harder to work up the courage to go out. Until the other day, when I saw that some wonderful person had decided to grit the road.

Striding confidently along, my feet crunching on fine grit, I wondered who had been out there so early to do this. As I turned a corner, I heard the sound of a shovel biting into sand, and I saw Harold, who lives around the corner from us and is 80 years old if he's a day. Someone once told me that Harold was in WWII. I've never asked him, but I can easily believe it. And there he was, loaded shovel in hand, bending over a wheelbarrow full of grit. "Thank you so much for doing that," I said, thoroughly humbled as I fought the urge to wrest the shovel out of his hands and start shoveling myself. "Well, somebody's got to," he said, shrugging. "Council are supposed to grit the roads, but they just take too long!"

This isn't the first time somebody of Harold's generation has helped me out with slippery surfaces. The first person who did this for me was my mother-in-law. I was pregnant with our first daughter and we were out for a post-Christmas hike in the hills. It had snowed the night before and the ground was icy and treacherous. When we got to a bad patch, I froze, not trusting myself to go on. My mother-in-law has 40 years on me and is half a foot shorter, but she slipped her arm through mine and we navigated the bad patch together. A couple walking towards us shot me an approving look that said Good for you for helping that old lady! I had to look down; my cheeks were burning with shame.

The next time it happened, I was in Tokyo, only 50 meters from my office in Ochanomizu. I had dressed hastily that morning and was wearing cowboy boots with no tread in them. All of a sudden, I realized that a good two meters of black ice lay between me and my office building. People flowed around me as I stood there, utterly frozen in panic. A tiny elderly man dressed in a great coat and a grey fedora was coming from the opposite direction. When he saw me standing there, stricken with fear, a big smile creased his face. He held out his elbow. "Allow me," he said. I struggled briefly with my conscience -- how could I let somebody so old and frail help me? -- but my terror won. I took his arm and did my best not to crush his elbow in my desperation. He walked me baby step by baby step over the black ice, then laughed off my thanks. Over my shoulder, I watched as he walked back over the icy road towards the station. A high school boy only a few feet behind him slipped and fell on the icy patch, then laughed and brushed the snow off his knees as he got up.

The last time it happened was in Cyprus, where there is -- thank God! very little ice during the winter. But unfortunately, whoever designed our university chose a smooth, shiny stone for the entrance. A fine film of dust settled on this overnight and when it rained, the surface became as slippery as oiled glass. On rainy days, most of my colleagues and even a few of my students had to offer me their arms to get me safely across. But early one morning, one of the cleaning ladies, a woman old enough to be my mother, was outside sweeping when I arrived. It had rained and I was stupidly wearing shoes without tread. At first, the woman ignored me, continuing to sweep. At some point, though, she looked up and saw me standing there. She said something that I can only hope was the Turkish for "Go on, you can do it!" I froze until she finally realized that the only way to get rid of me was to give me a hand. As I slipped through the lobby past the great bronze statue of Atatürk, I felt as though he was glaring down at me, disgusted by my klutzy wimpiness.

On the street, I watched Harold fill his shovel with grit from the wheelbarrow and sprinkle it over the icy sidewalk. "We owe a lot to you for taking the initiative to do that," I said lamely. Harold sank his shovel into the grit again, scooped up a good bunch of it, and scattered it over a stretch of compacted snow. "Like I said, somebody's gotta do it. But thank you for noticing!"


Sunday, 5 December 2010

A Few Heroes

I first heard about Donaldina Cameron in a Chinese history class. The last week of the class was devoted to the topic of overseas Chinese, particularly in San Francisco, and we learned how the Chinese Exclusion Act signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prevented Chinese immigrant workers in the U.S. from sending for their wives and families back in China. It also led to human trafficking, as girls and women were smuggled into the States from China by the thousands, many recruited as domestic servants, but in reality sold to work in brothels. Some of the girls were bought outright from poor families, but many were kidnapped.

In 1895, Cameron went to work as a sewing teacher at San Francisco Chinatown's Occidental Mission Home for Girls, a charitable institution run by the Presbyterian Church. While working there, she began to expand her duties, helping the police rescue women and girls who had been sold into slavery. She had a reputation for fearlessness: she took an axe with her on nighttime raids at cribs and brothels, and she wasn't shy about using it. When she became superintendent of the home in 1900, the girls she rescued began to call her 'Lo Mo', or Old Mother; the people she rescued them from called her 'Fahn Quai', or White Devil. Over the decades she was active, she is credited with saving almost three thousand girls and women, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Our professor became very emotional talking about her. "Her life was not easy," she told us. "For many years, there was a price on her head." A week after hearing about Cameron, I happened to talk to a woman I knew who had grown up in Chinatown. When I asked her if she'd ever heard of Donaldina Cameron, she laughed and rolled her eyes. "Everybody's heard about Donaldina Cameron!" She assured me that you could walk down a street in Chinatown and find half a dozen people with an ancestor she had liberated.

I learned about Saburo Ienaga when I was studying Japanese in Tokyo. Professor Ienaga was a Japanese historian and former high school history teacher who tirelessly campaigned against the Japanese government's censorship of high school history textbooks. Over the course of thirty years, he filed a number of suits against the Japanese government, arguing that their censorship of his history book was unconstitutional. His books covered subjects that the government hoped would be forgotten: atrocities such as the 1937 Nanjing massacre, in which imperial army troops brutally slaughtered 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and the horrendous medical experiments carried out by Unit 731, the Japanese army's germ warfare unit, on mainly Chinese prisoners. During the war, Ienaga had been a high school history teacher himself. Although personally against the war, he still toed the party line, teaching imperial divinity myths to students who would soon become soldiers. Like many people in Japan, he did not dare to publicly oppose the war. It is easy to judge him now, but during the war, people could be imprisoned simply for owning books in foreign languages. Habeas corpus had been suspended, and civilians arrested by the Tokko, or 'thought police', might not even know why they were being detained. After the war, Ienaga greatly regretted the role he might have played in sending boys to their deaths. His tireless pursuit of justice helped him appease his sense of guilt. He didn't win all of his legal battles, but he never gave up.

I first heard about Chiune Sugihara from a Japanese friend who lives in Edinburgh. She gave me a biography about him in Japanese, which it took me ages to read. But it was worth it.

In early 1939, Sugihara was sent to Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, to serve as Consul General. He had barely arrived there when the German army invaded Poland and waves of Jewish refugees surged into Lithuania, bringing terrifying tales of German atrocities against Jews. Many of them had escaped with no possessions, money, or official documents. After the Soviets invaded Lithuania in June, 1940, they asked all foreign embassies to leave. Sugihara managed to get an extension. During that time, he and the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, worked out a plan. Zwartendijk would stamp Jewish refugees' passports with entrance permits for two Dutch colonial islands; Sugihara would issue them with Japanese transit visas. Over the next three weeks, Sugihara and his wife worked feverishly, writing and signing visas by hand. In those days before word processors, they worked all hours, managing a month's work in one day. They were still throwing visas from the windows of their train when they finally left in September 1940. Sugihara and his wife are credited with saving the lives of six thousand Jews.

I first read about Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish in the Guardian Weekly. Dr. Abu al-Aish is a peace advocate, a Palestinian gynecologist trained in Israel who lived with his family in the Gaza Strip. Having worked at Beersheba's Soroka University Medical Center, Dr. Abu al-Aish had many Jewish friends, acquaintances, and patients, and speaks fluent Hebrew. On January 16, 2009, his house was shelled by the Israeli Defense Force and three of his daughters and a niece were killed instantly; two other daughters were seriously injured. Dr. Abu al-Aish, who regularly reported on the medical crisis on Israel's Channel 10, was able to call an Israeli journalist friend to report what had happened, prompting a huge response from many people who knew and liked him. You might imagine that anyone who had been through such an experience would be filled with thoughts of revenge, but Dr. Abu al-Aish continues to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. "I had two options," he has said, "the path of darkness or the path of light. The path of darkness is like choosing all the complications with disease and depression, but the path of light is to focus on the future and my children."

You may have watched the television program Heroes, about a group of people who all have special skills such as the ability to fly, to bend time, to start fires by flicking their fingertips. Although skills like that are wonderful to imagine and entertaining to see performed, what I find far more heroic are the sorts of things these four people managed to accomplish. Bravery, dogged persistence through defeat after defeat, the moral courage to break the law and do the right thing, and finding the strength to forgive a terrible wrong -- those are more incredible to me than the ability to lift great weights or soar through the air.

People like that might not make it into a popular television series, but they are the sort of heroes I'm happy to have in my world.