Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Something For Nothing

My friend Dina is a shrewd shopper and clever bargain finder. Just as there are people who can wear clothes they have made for themselves without anyone suspecting they sewed them, there are people who can buy their Christmas presents at thrift shops and you'd never be the wiser. (Coincidentally, Dina does sew her own clothes and gets compliments on them; on the one occasion I had the temerity to do this, all I got was pitying glances.)

Dina also supports charities -- not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. But at Christmas, she goes all out. This year, everybody in her family exchanged things like contributions toward clean wells and inoculations for people in poor countries, donations to homeless shelters, and meals for the hungry. But they are also overflowing with holiday cheer: at this time of year, their house is full of heavenly cooking smells, beautifully decorated Christmas trees (Dina never settles for just one), and dozens of brightly-wrapped charity shop presents, all carefully and personally chosen. Their doors are decorated with wreaths that Dina made herself, the table is laden with mouth-watering homemade pies, cakes, and roasts -- and if she wasn't such an all-around generous and decent person, I would seriously envy Dina for the unfair distribution of talents she has been bestowed with.

Just before Christmas, Dina went to the supermarket. After she and her husband had paid for their groceries and were on their way out, she noticed a selection of tapas on special offer. A closer inspection revealed that some, which were close to their sell-by date, were going for almost nothing. Dina has a large extended family and she entertains frequently, so she bagged the lot and went back to pay the grand total of 88 pence for a feast's worth of tapas. Just listening to Dina tell this story made me grit my teeth in envy: I love tapas and I like getting a bargain even better. "But I'm not finished!" she said, when I told her as much.

After the tapas had been rung up and Dina and her husband had dug out a pound to pay, the check-out lady frowned at her register. "Hang on -- you get some money back for buying these in bulk."

And she handed Dina and her husband two pounds and 66 pence -- all for the pleasure of carrying off a feast's worth of olives, marinated peppers, sun dried tomatoes and other delicacies.

Dina immediately put the £2.66 into the charity box. Like I said, she's a hard person to envy.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Dumb And Dumber

My youngest daughter is one of the smartest people I know. Whatever genes for intelligence my husband and I had going, she has managed to inherit in abundance. Unfortunately for her, she has also received other traits from us which are not so desirable, including a disproportionate share of my scatterbrainedness and  laziness, which I firmly believe is the only reason she hasn't already gotten into a leading university on a generous scholarship, but you can't have everything. And on that point, I remind myself that having above-average smarts doesn't mean that you are incapable of doing stupid things, and that the good thing about doing stupid things is that it keeps you humble.

Last week, it was bitterly cold here. Icy rain turned into sleet and gale-force winds tore branches off our trees and sent  garbage cans rolling down the street. My daughter arrived at school, only to find out that it had been cancelled due to extreme weather conditions, including possible 90-mph winds and flood warnings. Just after she called me to say that she was on her way home, I stepped outside to collect our rain-drenched welcome mats. Our front door, slightly warped, blew shut and I could not open it.

I was in a bind: our back door was locked and I know from experience that it is impossible to break in. After pushing, pulling, swearing, and finally giving up, I sat down on our damp front step and waited for my smart teenager to arrive home. If anybody could figure out how to get our door open, it was her!

Five cold, wet minutes later, my daughter came home, soaked to the skin. She had 'forgotten' both her umbrella and coat -- in any school assembly she is always the one child who is not wearing a coat, sweater,  knee socks, or any other appropriate winter clothing although at home she is perversely the first person to turn on the heater -- and when I told her what had happened, she did not look pleased.

And then something really weird happened: we fell into a simultaneous twilight zone of idiocy. "Wait there," she said. "I'll go around to the back and let you in."

"But how will you get in?" I asked.

"You'll unlock the door for me," she said, not quite rolling her eyes.

"Of course!" I said -- and wondered why I hadn't thought of that myself.

It took us both thirty seconds to figure out why this would not work.

Fortunately, it took her a mere five seconds to figure out how to unstick our front door and pull it open, and she was laughing so hard by this time, it was a wonder she could do it. We turned the heat on and she spent the next 30 minutes telling me all about endoplasmic reticulum and, I think, various kinds of saturated and unsaturated fats.

My daughter has much to thank me for, especially her well-developed sense of humility.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

White Elephants, Orange Plastic Cats

My mother had a keen wit, a love of good books, reading, languages, and life-long learning, and a generally impeccable sense of justice. She had a number of faults too of course, and one of them was a perverse talent for unwittingly picking the last thing in the world you would want as a gift. Having grown up in the age before plastics were widely used, my mother never got over her fascination for Mellmac, Tupperware, and just about any other plastic product you could mention. "It never wears out!" she used to say, when I expressed my loathing for polyester. "You can drop it and it won't chip or break," she would say when I longed to eat off china instead of Tupperware. "Termites can't eat it!" was her standard line when I wondered why we couldn't buy more furniture made of wood. Over the years, she never quite learned what I liked, so I accumulated a collection of things I could never use or develop an aesthetic appreciation for. I had pink and white keychain decorated with kittens, a hideous lace-trimmed yellow pantsuit made of double-knit polyester that gives me nightmares to this day ("It was on special offer!"), a woven plastic sewing kit, and any number of horrific accessories I quickly consigned to my bottom drawer.

But the one item that really gave me pause was a clear orange plastic cat she sent me one Christmas. My friends and I puzzled over this piece of schlock for days. We'd never seen anything remotely like it and none of us could figure out what it was. We knew that despite its green rhinestone eyes and glittery ears, the cat's function could not be purely decorative: its paws were raised head-height to form an exaggerated W, suggesting that it was for holding something. But what? Rings or other jewelery would not fit over the plastic paws. When I finally got up the courage to ask my mother, she told me that it was something you rested your glasses on when you weren't using them. "But I don't wear glasses," I reminded her. "Well you will someday. And it was on special offer!"

For years, that orange plastic cat rattled around in my bottom drawer. After my mother died, I couldn't bear to part with it; the cat was duly packed into various boxes and moved from flat to flat in San Francisco and New York (though it stayed in Southern California during my second year in Japan where I didn't have room for most of my possessions). During my last year of graduate school, however, I did a major-clean out when my housemates and I had a garage sale, and I decided that the cat had to go.

On the day of the sale, I put out boxes of books, used clothes and bedding, pots and crockery, my seashell collection, some Japanese dolls, and several sticks of furniture. Without much hope, I added the orange plastic cat to this lot, along with other junk I was pretty sure would not sell. The Japanese dolls went first, followed by the seashell collection. The books got snapped up, as did the crockery and furniture, and so did the bedding and clothes. In the end, I was left with an iffy crock-pot and a few threadbare shirts -- and the orange plastic cat.

My housemates and I were just about to pack up our unsold items when a little lady from down the road walked past our house. I'd seen this woman a few times before; a recent Indochinese refugee, she spoke no English and was usually accompanied by a grandchild or two, who interpreted for her. On this occasion she was by herself. She was almost past our house when she suddenly stopped and stared. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and as she moved towards our table of rejects, I could see the longing in her eyes. I knew it had to be the crock-pot, which worked, but not terribly well. I decided I would let her have it for free; it would be too hard to explain what was wrong with it. The woman stared at my table of rejects and looked up at me shyly. "How much?" she whispered. And I noticed that she was pointing to the orange plastic cat.

"Fifteen cents," I told her. The woman's eyes widened. She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a few coins, and held out her hand. "Okay?" she asked in a breathless whisper. When I nodded, she actually snatched the cat up, as though fearful I would realize my mistake and change my mind. Reaching into a plastic shopping bag, she pulled something out to show me: an identical plastic orange cat.

Selling my neighbor my mother's orange plastic cat was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had. There is nothing like pleasing someone else by getting rid of a piece of junk. And it taught me something else: no matter how unwanted something is, no matter how dubious its function or seemingly eclectic its appeal, there is bound to be somebody somewhere who will snap it up and treasure it. Which gives me hope for my  manuscripts.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Poker Faces, Wisdom Teeth, and Rip-offs

To this day, my face gets hot whenever I hear the expression poker face.

I got asked this question in Japan, by a student in my advanced English class: "Why poker face? Why does that mean not laughing, not smiling?"

I grew up in a non-card-playing household and only learned the difference between a spade and a club after I turned 30. Put on the spot, I told the student what I myself had always imagined was the inspiration behind this term: that poker faces were as straight as pokers, with which one stirred fires. I might have gotten away with it too if Etsuko, the classroom know-it-all, hadn't raised her hand.

"Isn't it poker face because when you are playing poker you should not show your expression?"

There is no horror like the horror of being shown up by a student in front of the entire class. At first, I tried to save face by saying that both origins were possible -- before breaking down and telling the class that Etusko was probably right. When I left the class, I was still blushing. What an idiot!

Ten years later, I was working in another school, this time with a small group of native English speakers and a large number of Japanese language experts. "Why do they call wisdom teeth oyashirazu in Japanese?" one of my American colleagues asked a Japanese coworker one afternoon. I listened attentively to the answer -- I'd long pondered this myself. Oyashirazu means, literally, 'not knowing parents', which seems like a strange thing to call teeth.

"It's because you get your wisdom teeth after your parents are dead," our Japanese colleague said.

My mouth dropped open. My parents had me late in life, but they were still alive when my wisdom teeth came in. "Really?" I said. "I always thought it was because your wisdom teeth never had any other teeth come before them. Your other teeth all have baby teeth that come first, sort of like parents. I thought that was what it meant -- teeth that didn't have any parents."

My Japanese co-worker's mouth dropped open. His eyes glazed over and his cheeks began to flame. "That's--" he started to say. "I mean, I don't know. I never thought about that. You might be right."

To this day, I don't know which one of us had it right, but this was one of the most satisfying moments in my Japanese-learning life.

Yesterday, poker faces and wisdom teeth came back to me when a student asked this question: "Why rip off? Why mean steal?"

"Rip off comes from the Prohibition period in America," I said, with perfect confidence. "Lots of people used to hide alcohol in their houses and they generally kept it under the floorboards of their kitchens. So when thieves broke into houses, they had a pretty good idea where to find it. They would pull the floorboards off, take the forbidden alcohol, and leave. When the owners came back, they would find their floorboards ripped off and the alcohol gone. It became fairly common and after a while people started to call it being ripped off.

Most of the students were satisfied with this explanation, but the smartest girl in the class narrowed her eyes at me. "Really?" she asked. "Is that really true?" She didn't follow this up with any challenge or alternative, but my cheeks began to burn. I heard this interesting story about rip off from uncles who were alive during the Prohibition. Is it possible that they were only teasing me? Might rip off have a completely different etymology?

Last night when I got back from work, I looked up rip off. I cannot find any mention of Prohibition, ripped-off floorboards, or references to rip off that precede 1969.

One thing I've learned from this: just because we're native speakers of a language doesn't mean we're the final authority on every single word, phrase, structure, or idiom.

But I'm never telling her that.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Glasgow Dreamin'

It is a rainy, windy day in Scotland. The skies are filled with dense, thick, brooding clouds, and driving along the motorway this morning, we could see the wind turbines rotating with a velocity that was almost worrying. On my way to work, I give up and collapse my umbrella: the wind has rendered it useless and besides, I'm already drenched. The rain seems to be coming at me from every angle.

"Hello teacher," I hear someone mutter as I dodge a frozen puddle. Looking up, I see Gao, a boy I taught last semester.

"Beautiful weather, isn't it?" I say, grinning.

Gao gives me a What? look, then manages a grim smile. "This weather terrible," he says.

Poor Gao: when he arrived back in June, I knew he would have a hard time here. When I'd asked the class what they thought of Scotland so far, his answer gave me pause: "It is too cold and rainy! Everything is grey!" That was back when the roses were in full bloom; when the parks were full of late spring bulbs and flowering trees.

"You don't have rain in China?" I say, teasing him.

But Gao is in no mood to joke. "Not have rain like this," he mutters, gesturing at the glistening pavement, the shivering people huddled against the almost-gale-force winds, the sodden newspapers littering the bus shelters.

A sudden blast of wind knocks water off a telephone line onto the back of my neck. My feet and trouser legs are soaked, my hands are cold, and with my umbrella out of service, I'm pretty sure the books in my bag are getting wet too. But unlike Gao, I'm happy.

Why? Because I love rain. I used to think this was because I grew up in a place where it almost never rains, where the earth is parched and hot and dry. But the other day, I ran into a couple from Southern California who were sightseeing in Glasgow. "This is a great city, but it's awfully wet," the husband said, glancing around disapprovingly even though it was barely drizzling. After five days, they couldn't wait to get back to San Diego.

What's your favorite season here? people in Japan used to ask me. When I said it was the rainy season, they always thought I was joking. When they realized I wasn't, they thought I was crazy. "But it's so damp!" they used to protest. "Everything gets moldy!" And they were right. But mold seemed a small price to pay for the sound of rain drumming on the roof, spattering the lush greenery outside. If I ever got tired of wet laundry, I would remind myself of the misery of a long dry Southern California summer. I would remember flipping longingly through National Geographics as a kid, sighing at the photos of places like Macchu Picchu or the Amazon Rain Forest or rain-lashed rice paddies. What a contrast they made to parched earth and tumbleweed baking under a relentless sun. I think I must have been born with a love of rain: remembering my yearning for rain cured me every time.

Gao shivers and I wonder how he'll cope until February. Even hardcore lovers of Scotland have a tough time in the bitter winter months; even I start to pine for the mildness of a California winter, the sweet smell of orange blossoms and the crunch of eucalyptus leaves. A blast of wind hits us broadside and a bus whooshes past, spattering us with icy water. Winter in Scotland is proof positive that you can get too much of a good thing -- especially when you're walking to work or contemplating a week's worth of backed up laundry and no clothes drier.

But as long as my house doesn't flood, I know I'll keep singing in the rain -- and knowing that I'm living the dream.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

I've been tempted to send this story to the local newspapers, but I fear they won't be interested. They seem to prefer sensational pieces like muggings, car accidents, and smashed windows, or yawn-worthy local news, such as neighborhood building projects and where the site will be for the new school and public amenity. But as far as I'm concerned, this is pretty earth-shattering and I have to share it somewhere.


A local teenager was recently accompanied by her middle-aged mother to school. It should be pointed out that this teenager was not injured, ill, socially awkward, or otherwise incapacitated, yet she held her mother's hand. When passing friends on the street, the teenager greeted them cheerfully, but did not pull away, enjoin her mother to release her hand, or otherwise attempt to distance herself. Moreover, when the pair reached the school gate, the teenager requested a kiss, although in full view of classmates. Her mother, it should be pointed out, was dressed in track suit trousers, an oversize men's fleece, stained raincoat, fuzzy socks, and muddy boots. Her hair was messy and her face was free of make up.

After being treated for mild shock at a local cafe, she was able to walk back home.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Operant Conditioning

My cats are neurotic eaters. When I put down their breakfast in the morning (fending off butting heads, leg-tripping body-weaves, last-minute countertop leaps, and non-stop meowing), Maverick will quickly appropriate the first bowl, butting Mitzi out of the way. Mitzi is a slow, fastidious eater. As soon as my back is turned, Maverick, after wolfing down half of his food, will quickly move to Mitzi's dish and gobble up as much as he can. No matter how much more I give him, it is always the same. As poor Mitzi shifts to Maverick's old bowl and takes the first hesitant nibble, Maverick will suddenly decide that the bowl she's eating from is the better one, and he will shove her away. This may happen five or six times until I am almost dizzy from watching Mitzi race from bowl to bowl, frantic to get a mouthful. Although Maverick is generally a shy, gentle cat, when it comes to food, his manners disappear. Maverick had a tough start in life, so for a long time, we put up with his boorish behavior. But as he has gained in strength and confidence, I've decided he has to learn: I bought a squirt gun with a thin, sharp action. I now stand guard over their bowls and as soon as Maverick makes a move toward Mitzi's, I shoot. After a month, my aim has gotten a lot better and Mitzi can finally eat in peace.

The weird thing is that Mitzi doesn't seem to know what to do with herself now that Maverick isn't forcing her into a game of musical bowls. She will take a quick bite of her food, glance nervously around her, then quickly move to the side, as though anxious not to eat too much. Sometimes she will actually wait for him to push her away, standing by her bowl, watching. Years of being shoved away from her own bowl of food have left her emotionally scarred. She doesn't seem to know how to eat without another cat bullying her.

They remind me a little of two people we knew in Japan, Mr and Mrs Ono.

Mr and Mrs Ono were neighbors of ours, a couple in their sixties who ran a small business. I had talked to Mrs Ono on a few occasions before I met her husband and I was always struck by how quickly she spoke and how furtive her speech was, as though she was a political dissident fearful of government spies. I just assumed she was a naturally nervous person with an idiosyncratic way of talking -- until I met Mr Ono.

Mr Ono was a medium-sized man, but his voice was huge and he used it like a blunt instrument. A conversation with Mr Ono generally followed a certain pattern. He would ask you a question which you would then attempt to answer. Before you could get two words out, though, Mr Ono would finish your thought for you, then fire another question before you had time to recover. Around most of the Japanese people we knew I generally felt quite fluent, but around Mr Ono, I quickly turned into a gibbering idiot.

"Cold today, isn't it?" he would bellow. I would open my mouth to agree, but Mr Ono would quickly interrupt, abandoning the weather for a different topic. His garden patch, perhaps? The cold that was going around, and whether my children had caught it? I could never be certain just what he was saying: Mr Ono had a strong regional accent along with his rapid-fire manner of asking questions. He seldom made eye contact, repeated anything he'd said, or waited for a response. Conversations with Mr Ono were surreal -- not conversations at all.

Mrs Ono, a pleasant, sociable woman, got the worst of it. Whenever I ran into them together, a few minutes of 'conversation' with them made me dizzy. "How are your children doing in school?" Mrs Ono might ask, but before I could answer, Mr Ono would come up with one of his thundering non sequiturs. If Mrs Ono wanted to know where my husband and I were going to plant our morning glories this year, say, Mr Ono would begin to talk about the eels in the lake. If Mrs Ono wondered whether our next-door neighbors had come back from Thailand, Mr Ono would suddenly want to know if we were buying our kerosene from the same shop this year. Sometimes, Mrs Ono would begin to ask a question and before she could even get the words out, Mr Ono would bellow out one of his own. I privately began to refer to Mr Ono as Mr Oh No. Mrs Ono's face was always pinched and reflective, and she tended to walk with a slump. I wondered how she coped.

And then, quite suddenly, Mr Ono died. We were away at the time, and I didn't see Mrs Ono for several months. The next time I ran into her in the supermarket, I was astonished at how she had changed. Her furtive way of speaking was gone: she stood up straight and looked you right in the eye. A few times I saw her downtown, usually with friends, but always smiling. "How are those girls of yours?" she would cry merrily, and wait for an answer. We had real, conversations. Years of interruption had not traumatized her: the real Mrs Ono had been released.

I wonder if the squirt gun will eventually work for Mitzi? It's a pity Mrs Ono never had one.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Committed To Memory

I don't know how it has happened, but I have a class in which over half a dozen students have the last name Li.

Li, or Lee, is the most common last name in mainland China, like Smith or Jones in the U.S. A lot of people find common names easier to remember than hard ones, but they are the bane of my life. When I was teaching in California many years ago, I had a class with an abundance of Wangs, and one of my colleagues almost burst into tears when the seventh Zhang turned up in her class. Teachers seem to get students in last-name batches, and this semester the Lis are mine.

Chinese first names are mercifully (for me) more varied than Chinese last names, but they can be a bit mystifying at first. Like Chinese surnames, they have tones which I never fail to get wrong, and they include vowels I'm not yet familiar with, plus a lot of puzzling Qs, Zs, Ys and Xs. I'm slowly learning how to pronounce them, but even my students seem to prefer using Western names for each other. The first day of class, they happily give me their 'Christian' names (their term, not mine) and clearly expect me to use them. The names they choose are invariably extraordinary: Frederick, Lionel, Florence, Amelia, Ivy, Belinda, and Reginald. They seem to have been mined from some rich seam that hasn't been tapped in the last fifty years.

Throughout the first week of class, I used my students' Chinese names, stumbling through them gamely, determined to make a go of it. If I thought this might be appreciated, I was wrong. "Priscilla!" Hui Zhong reminded me with a pout, making me applaud the suitability of her choice. "Call me Harold," one boy told me firmly after I'd butchered his name for the third time. So I use the Western names that they have chosen for themselves, but even this isn't foolproof, as I am name-challenged even when the names aren't Chinese. I'm especially name-challenged when I have several names that are almost exactly alike, but my students have not yet grasped that the source of my confusion has more to do with my general name imbecility than my inability to understand Chinese. They can understand me being thrown by half a dozen Lis and a Liu, but they can't for the life of them understand why I get Jonathan, John, and Johnnie mixed up.

For me, the best way to remember names is by association or distinguishing features. I'm always delighted when my students remind me of other people; all I have to do is make a quick note on my roll sheet -- Liu Chengli: Uncle Roy! or Fang: tall, pale Bob de la Rosa -- and in no time at all, the name is fixed in my brain. Distinguishing features are extremely helpful too: taller Zhu, broad nose or Ping,v. thick hair, John Lennon bangs. Best of all is when a student does something to distinguish herself from the pack, and the more memorable, the better: Tripped over handbag is loads better than Asked about relative clauses.

In one class, I happen to have both a Ricky and a Richard, which on top of the Li problem seems a bit unfair, as does the fact that they are roughly the same height, have thick hair, and for all that they look entirely different, don't wear glasses. The other day, after mixing up their names half a dozen times, I started addressing them as Richard-not-Ricky and Ricky-not-Richard. Then something wonderful happened. As I strolled down the aisle, looking at their work, I tripped over something on the floor. Bending down, I picked up a wallet which was fairly bulging. "Whose is this?" I asked. It belonged to Richard, who paled the minute he saw it in my hand. He opened it briefly, checked that all his cards and money were still there, and let out a long sigh of relief. And no wonder: I'd had a quick peek, and I'm guessing he had enough money to pay his rent for the next three months.

What a lucky break for me, too! I'll never get Richard's name wrong again: on my roll sheet, I've underlined the first four letters of his name.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Leftover Magic

Recycling leftovers is a skill worth developing.

A few years ago, I had a problem: the house was filling up with teenagers and I had nothing to feed them. So I opened my refrigerator and took stock. There was half a pint of milk and a couple of chunks of cheese, hard and stale, but fortunately not moldy. In the vegetable bin I found a cauliflower that was rapidly approaching its use-by date, half a dozen overripe pears, and a ton of leftover mashed potatoes. In one corner nestled a couple of sad-looking onions. I stood there, puzzling it out. And then suddenly I knew what I would make: Soup!

I took a quick look around to make sure there weren't any teenagers in sight. They say laws and sausages are two things you don't want to watch people making, but in this house, soup is another. Once it's made it's perfectly tasty and wholesome, but for an optimal dining experience, it's best not to witness the creative process.

I sauteed the onions until they were brown, then popped them into a kettle of boiling water with the cauliflower. When it was tender, I peeled and cored the pears and dropped them in, then blended the whole thing together in my food processor. After adding some stock, I put in the mashed potatoes and simmered the whole lot with the milk, then grated in the cheese and added some curry powder and white pepper. Perfect: a big pot of soup and no pesky leftovers around to make me feel guilty and wasteful.

Just as I was serving up the soup, ladling it into our best bowls and swanning around the kitchen like Martha Stewart, in came my daughter's pickiest friend. This was a girl who, until she visited our house, had never heard of let alone tasted avocadoes, mangoes, papayas, kiwi fruit, or kidney beans. Who'd had no idea what a tortilla was, or that refried beans were actually tasty. Who actually turned her nose up at tomato sauce made with real tomatoes in it.

I was feeling lucky, so I served her a bowl too. With a flourish.

To my utter amazement, she loved it. Not only did she finish her soup, she wiped the bowl clean with a stale tortilla. Then she asked for seconds. A week later, she asked me for the recipe. A month after that, I ran into her mother in the store and she asked me for the recipe. I felt like an idiot telling them (leaving out certain details, of course), but I learned something from that experience: even junk is acceptable if you arrange it right. If you serve it up well, artfully packaged, with pride. If you select your leftovers with care, spice them up perfectly, and present them with confidence, they aren't junk at all.

I'm rewriting my latest work-in-progress, yet again. It's been hanging around like leftovers for ages, but for the umpteenth time, I'm trimming off bits, tweaking others, rearranging, and discarding. Who knows? Maybe I'll manage to make it so palatable my pickiest readers will lap it right up.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Clint And Me

Have you ever had a dream so surreal you just can't account for it?

It was bitterly cold and windy here last night. My husband and I got home from work late, bone tired. I fell asleep just before midnight after marking sixteen tests and three compositions.

And in my dreams, I met Clint Eastwood.

I doubt I've spent more than fifteen minutes of my entire life thinking about Clint Eastwood. Although I know he's considered handsome, even if he weren't way too old for even me, he's not my type and I've never been a fan, so why he should have shown up in one of my dreams beats me. But there he was. He'd taken over the vacant lot opposite our flat, where he was planning to start a small farm. As a fellow American, I decided I should go over and welcome him to Scotland.

"Don't go," one of my friends cautioned me. "He'll be full of himself, being so rich and famous."

But I ignored her. I took him a gift of a bag of pine cones and some banana bran muffins made with garam masala, fresh-grated ginger, and extra cinnamon. And you may be interested to know that Clint Eastwood was as friendly and down-to-earth as the next guy. We were having a long chat when my daughter showed up. This worried me: everybody knows that famous movie stars are all born womanizers. But again, Clint surprised me. He was friendly but respectfully distant and showed no untoward interest in my nubile daughter.

As soon as she left us, however, he commented on the fact that her hair appeared to be of different lengths. I owned up to having cut it for her to economize, and Clint (we were on first name terms by this time) shared a new business venture with me: he was opening a string of low-cost hairdresser shops for women and girls of low means. I pointed out that I was not poor, but simply wished to save money; he assured me that my daughter and I would still be welcome at his shops.

After this, we got to talking about teaching. Clint was very interested in my accounts of my students' many strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. He listened attentively as I described their most recent composition attempts and how frustrated I was with them, never once glancing at his watch -- Clint has a proper wristwatch, by the way; he doesn't rely on a cell phone -- and asked pertinent, relevant questions about their progress. What a great guy!

Then we started a new topic of conversation about cows and the advantages and disadvantages of raising Holsteins versus Jerseys. At some point, I realized I had misled Clint, who somehow believed that I knew much more about cattle raising than I do. But before my ignorance could be revealed, my cat took her customary early morning stroll across my face and woke me up.

I was filled with overwhelming regret and relief. Regret because I had never managed to discuss the long, hard business of getting published with Clint, or get one of his hairdresser chain cards with a telephone number on it. Relief because he never found out how next-to-nothing my knowledge about cattle raising happens to be.

Tonight, who knows who'll I meet in my dreams? I hope it's somebody I like this time. Just in case, I'm locking the cat out of our bedroom.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Good Old Days

My students are reluctant to buy their textbooks.

"Too expensive!" they wail. And yes, £20 might seem a lot to pay for a book if I didn't know how much had gone into writing it -- the years of close collaboration, the research, the thought. I tell my students about the textbook authors I've met, how hard they work, how little they profit from their labors. Unfortunately, my students are not sympathetic.

When I mention the students' reluctance to buy textbooks to my colleagues, they are not sympathetic either. One of them tells me about a Chinese student in London who illegally photocopied all of her textbooks to save money, adding "It wouldn't have bothered me so much if she hadn't come to class with a Ralph Lauren handbag."

It may be a mark of advancing age that I compare these kids to their parents and find them lacking. Over twenty years ago, I knew their parents' generation, and what a contrast. They were leaner, more intense, and tougher in every way, but more than anything else, they valued books. I know I shouldn't make the comparisons I'm making, and I know that I'm comparing apples with oranges. The overseas Chinese students I knew in the eighties were not just a whole different generation, they were the cream of the cream. Few Chinese students were allowed to study abroad back then, and those who did were generally hand-picked or had won scholarships, having competed with thousands to get them. When they got to Japan, the first thing they did was buy books. They couldn't get over the fact that nothing was censored, and they were staggered by the variety. With the internet just a glimmer in the horizon, you had to get your books the old-fashioned way back then: already published and printed for you.

When I was teaching in northern Japan, I remember two Chinese acquaintances looking around my tiny apartment. "You have many books," they sighed happily. They didn't care that I wasn't wearing designer clothes, that my television was fresh off the junk heap -- or that my books were stacked in piles on the floor and my one small table because I didn't have a bookcase to put them in. The main point was, I had the books: I was rich.

While I appreciate much about China's economic growth, I miss those days. I miss those earnest, make-do-or-do-without bookaholics who burned their candles at both ends. I miss the days when books were precious items you saved up to buy; when you hoarded them, discussed them, and read them over and over. When you wrote your name in them -- neatly, carefully -- only loaning them to friends you could trust to handle them gently. When your wealth was not measured by how fancy your clothes or electronic gadgets were, but how many books you had.

"I don't want other people's things," one girl sniffed when I told her where she could find used books. "I want new things." She has a shiny new mobile phone that looks like it does everything but housework. If I could afford her shoes, I'd treat myself to a whirlwind thrift shop blitz. In my mind's eye, I line this girl up with Yingying, a literature student I knew back in the eighties. Yingying was bilingual in Chinese and Japanese; she could talk knowledgably about modern Japanese writers and the works of Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck. She had a good collection of much-loved books. And she never turned up her nose at used things: she competed with the other foreign students (and me) for good junk heap finds and combed used furniture stores for bargains. Compared to my spoiled princess of a student, Yingying won hands down.

I was wallowing in similar good-old-day musings when one of my students approached me before class the other day. "Teacher," she said, pulling a book out of her bag and putting it on my desk. "I buy used, Amazon." She patted it proudly. "Grammar book too. Almost new, and cheap."

I watched as the other students admired her find, pulling out their mobile phones to record the ISBN of the grammar book. This generation may be vastly different, but a bargain is still a bargain.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Making My Mark

I have left my mark in Glasgow. Dozens upon dozens of schoolchildren will never forget me.

Glasgow is normally a wet city, but yesterday, the heavens opened up and instead of the usual gentle drizzle, we had torrents of rain, rivers of gutter water, and lakes of puddles. At one point, the wind was blowing so hard, it was impossible to use an umbrella. I pulled my hood over my head, prayed all the books in my bag would stay dry, and sprinted out of the cafe where I had been marking papers. I had to walk a mile in that rain and I cursed silently as I found myself in a huge crowd of small children on some sort of field trip. They were all carrying sports bags, and for all that they had enough energy to scream themselves silly, they walked very slowly.

I was in a hurry and desperate to break free of the crowd, but no matter how I dodged this way and that, I could not seem to get through. A few of the teachers leading the group gave me sympathetic looks, but the sidewalks were crowded with other people too, and it wasn't their fault I had left myself only ten minutes to get to my next class.

"Excuse me," I said several times, to no avail.

For the next two minutes, I trudged along, inwardly fuming, getting wetter and wetter as we moved along at a snail's pace. All around me, children giggled and yakked and horsed around, driving me half wild with impatience. And then suddenly, I saw an expanse of empty sidewalk the kids were, for some silly reason, steering clear of. Gratefully, I leapt into it -- and felt my feet sinking into the cement. Wet cement, and not just from the rain. My feet sunk in a good half inch.

I took two, perhaps three steps, the wet cement sucking at my feet and my face flaming. Too late I saw the ribbon with WET CEMENT, KEEP OFF clearly printed on it.

"But that lady walked on it!" I heard a child's voice pipe behind me. "That one there, in the bright red raincoat!" This was followed by the disapproving rumble of her teacher's voice.

I made myself as small as possible and wished to God my raincoat was any other color.

Next week, I'll be back in Glasgow. If it's dry, I'll try to find where I made my mark. Long after I'm gone, I'll bet my foolish footprints will still be there. And the kids won't forget me in a hurry either.

No, it wasn't the way I wanted to do it. It wasn't the way I've dreamed of doing it. But at least I've made my mark.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Wuthering Lows

It rained here the other night, and the wind blew fiercely. The leaves in Scotland have already begun to change and there is a chill in the air. So we lit a fire in the fireplace and the girls and I decided to watch Wuthering Heights. With the wind moaning in the chimneys and the rain lashing the trees, it seemed like good Wuthering Heights weather. The house was cozy, we had blankets and snacks and mugs of hot cocoa, and we were all prepared to be enchanted.

I'm not sure when we first started getting irritated with the characters, but it didn't take long.

"Drama queen," one of my three girls murmured after one of Catherine Earnshaw's tantrums. "Spoiled brat," another one muttered under her breath.

I've read Wuthering Heights at least three times. Why didn't I remember how headstrong and volatile Catherine Earnshaw was? Why didn't any of her reckless bursts of rage stay with me?

"What a jerk," my youngest daughter said as Heathcliff threw his weight around, swearing and tormenting everybody in his family.

And Heathcliff really was a jerk, so why didn't I remember that either? As a teenager, I came away from Wuthering Heights as besotted with him as foolish Isabella Linton, his much-abused wife. How could I have been so stupid?

"He's not even handsome," one of the girls muttered. "And even if he was, he's a total dickwit."

As we kept watching, even less flattering, unprintable things were said about him and his true love, Catherine Earnshaw. I listened to their conversation with interest:

They're such losers. They're totally spoiled and selfish. No wonder they're so crazy about each other, and They ought to just shut up and get married to each other. They don't deserve the people they're married to. And even though I've been a Wuthering Heights fan since the first time I read it, I totally agreed with them.

Heathcliff and Catherine should have eloped and lived a life of blissful poverty until the first baby came along and threw them into confusion. Neither of them being the nurturing, selfless type, parenthood would probably have turned them into the kind of ill-tempered, sour-faced people you see snapping at their kids and each other in public places, but at least they'd have only made each other miserable. There would have been no story then, but after an hour of Catherine's tears and fits and Heathcliff's swearing and cruelty, that hardly seemed like a raw deal.

We watched as much of it as we could bear, finally turning it off just before Catherine Earnshaw-Linton died in childbirth (Good riddance to her, too. Prat.) In the end, the only person we could all stand was Nelly Dean, the housekeeper. We all loved Nelly Dean, a woman who was compassionate, intelligent, and useful. Who didn't make the wrong choices and then spend her life making everybody around her miserable, whining and moaning and agonizing over it. Who didn't destroy a perfectly good pillow and leave it for somebody else (Nelly) to clean up.

I still think Wuthering Heights is a great book. But I marvel that I could ever have been moved by Heathcliff's smothering, destructive, obsessive love for Catherine, or that I could ever have thought her emotional dependence on him was romantic.

We put the Wuthering Heights disc away and watched Up instead. I watched the girls laughing and crying, and I said a little prayer of thanks that my girls are a lot smarter than I was.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Got It All

I stare at our front porch and frown. Someone has dropped a mess of string there, dozens of thin strands of silvery plastic. So I bend down to pick them up, but find myself plucking at thin films of dried slime. Slug tracks. The slugs have been having a field day out here. I meant to put down slug traps last week, but I forgot, and this is the depressing result. The pretty potted flowers I put on the porch a few weeks ago have all been chomped down to the stems. No doubt it's been happening over the past week or so; I've just been too busy to notice. There are dead leaves there too, and weeds growing up through the porch paving, and over a dozen pairs of shoes and boots scattered merrily about, all mud encrusted. When I pass through the kitchen, it helps if I walk fast with my eyes semi-shut. Looking around is risky, though walking without keeping an eye out for obstacles on the floor is even riskier. After all those shoes and boots on the porch, you wouldn't think we'd have any left for the rest of the house, but unfortunately that's not the case.

And of course, that's not all: dirty laundry has piled up waist high. Although we had a good run of dry weather through the week when we were both working, on my day off, the sky is dense with layers of thick grey clouds and rain is pelting down. Our flat has filled up with steaming laundry, on the back of every chair, hanging from every radiator.

I've got four private lessons to plan, all for people of entirely different language levels, with completely different needs. I've got an overworked, stressed-out husband due home from work in a few hours. I've got over a dozen essays to mark; I've already peeked at a few and they don't look like they're going to be smooth sailing. I've got houseguests coming for the weekend, rodent-killing cats that want to eat and play and leave their prey on our filthy floors, and a sick kid coughing upstairs. I've got bulbs to plant in the garden, weeds to hoe, and a tree to dig up. I've got a chapter to translate, two more to edit, and a meeting with my partner to discuss it all. I've got next week's lessons to plan, shopping to do, dinner to cook, and unread library books that need to go back to the library.

And I've got absolutely no time to write.

And it occurs to me: I've got it all, just about, don't I? Well, I don't want it all.

So here's the deal: I'll keep the kid upstairs, and the husband, but leave the cough and the stress -- I don't need them at all. The cats will stay too, but I have no need for their dead mice and voles. The private students will stay as well, but their lessons will be simpler next week, and my students' essays will get a lick and a promise, and my students will learn important self-marking skills. The bulbs I ought to plant can go to a neighbor, the dirty shoes will be swept into one massive pile, and anybody is welcome to my superfluous tree and all my well-fed slugs, as long as they come and collect them. In exchange for all of those things I'm giving up, I'll have a nice publishing contract. Sigh.

Too bad it doesn't work like that, isn't it?

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Pancakes are easy. You can whip them up in no time at all with a minimum of ingredients and a little elbow grease, and the response you get is so gratifying.

On Sunday, we had no bread in the house, but we did have a dozen eggs, flour, and a liter of sour milk, courtesy of certain family members who can never remember to put the milk back in the fridge. We also had a house full of teenagers, mainly boys, one of whom was already sitting at the table. Pancakes are always better with sour milk. "Want pancakes?" I asked. He said yes.

What a great word yes is. We don't hear it enough in the right context.

So I cracked half a dozen eggs into a bowl and whipped them into a froth after adding some sugar. I chucked in my sour milk and whipped it into the eggs and sugar, then added a few spoonfuls of oil and whipped that in too. Another boy came into the room and sat down. "I'm making pancakes," I told him. "Want some?"


That wonderful word again!

I chucked in a few cups of flour and half a cup of wheat germ, and I beat all of that in.

"Do you want any help?" one of the boys asked, scraping back his chair.

"Yes," I told him. "Keep me amused with your teenage wit."

The boys obliged me.

I peeled and grated some cooking apples and put them in a saucepan with some blueberries we've had in the fridge for a week or so, still good, but looking a bit neglected. While I shaved lemon peel into the pot and added sugar, more teenagers filled the room. They sat at the table and looked expectant.

"Everybody want pancakes?" I asked.

There was only one no and a whole chorus of yeses. Boy, I love the word yes.

So I warmed a stack of plates and added a dash of cinnamon to my pancake batter. I spooned a dollop of batter into my hot skillet and tilted the pan just so until bubbles formed, then I flipped it over and cooked the other side until it too was golden brown. I stacked up pancakes and poured the blueberry and apple syrup into a pitcher.

I served up plate after plate of pancakes, and every time I asked if anybody wanted any more, I got another yes. It was so beautiful I could have wept. Want some more pancakes? I would ask, or Can anybody manage more blueberry syrup? And the answer would be yes. Not just yes, in fact, but Yes, please! and Yes, I can! or even Me please! I've only had two and he's already had five! When I ran out of pancake batter and blueberry syrup, it was all over, but for a while there, it was pure poetry. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. What a great word. More encouraging than Maybe. And infinitely more inspiring and less discouraging than Sorry, but no.

Cooking pancakes for teenagers is highly gratifying. Writing for them is even more gratifying, you just get fewer yeses.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gender Confusion

Maverick pushed the door open with his nose, slunk into the room, then froze. He hadn't realized the lady from over the road was visiting. Before she could put out her hand for him to sniff, he'd shot back out the door.

"Wow," our neighbor said. "She's really shy, isn't she?"

"Actually, that's Maverick," I said. "Our tomcat."

She opened her mouth, then closed it. "Then why is he wearing a pink collar?"

"Because my daughters have a sense of humor. Before he chewed them off, that collar had pink feathers on it too." I didn't mention the fake pearls that had since turned grey.

Mitzi swanned into the room just then, wearing her dark blue collar with black studs. The neighbor frowned.

"So I guess this one is a girl, then."


She shook her head, clearly disapproving.

And yet Mitzi looks very fetching in her black and blue collar. She's not a girly sort of cat anyway. If she were a human, she'd be a tom-boy, scaling the highest trees, climbing the walls, ever curious and generally fearless.

Our neighbor's dog is black and his name is something like Midnight. When we had a white cat, she kept wondering why we didn't name her Snowflake.

"You shouldn't put a tomcat in a pink collar!" our neighbor protested. "Poor thing."

But the pink collar suits Maverick. He's a big cat, and the collar, which was probably intended for a small dog, gives him room to breathe. Plus, he keeps losing his collars, and it's only a matter of time before this one bites the dust too. At least his pink collar was cheap.

"I'm sure he doesn't care as long as we feed him," I said. "The collar shines in the dark and has his name and number on it. That's all he needs."

"What does it matter if people think he's a girl anyway?" my daughter said later.

And she should know.

Although she has since slimmed down, our youngest daughter was a fat, sturdy, spitfire of a toddler with an iron will. We used to imagine her as an adult, a tough, savvy woman who wouldn't take any nonsense. "Margaret Thatcher," one of her teachers said once, horrifying my husband, who is not a Thatcher fan. We dressed our rough-and-tumble baby Margaret Thatcher in easy-to-wash clothes she could get dirty in: dungarees, sturdy overalls, tee shirts in bright colors. When, against our explicit instructions, relatives sent her gifts of pink dresses with lace trim, we quietly gave them away. Nobody ever realized she was a girl, but it didn't really bother us.

When my daughter was almost two, she was at her noisiest, feistiest best. One day, we took a taxi together. The driver was most impressed with her.

"That's a fine looking boy you've got there!" he said, grinning. "He'll be a sportsman for sure!"

I smiled uneasily, praying my daughter wouldn't correct him. It was funny that he assumed she was a boy: she had on a pair of pink corduroy overalls of which she was inordinately proud. For that matter, she was proud of being a girl too; she probably wouldn't mind being called a boy, but she'd certainly set the record straight if she could. "Thank you," I said, wishing we were closer to home.

"You've got yourself a sumo wrestler there, no mistake about that!" the man went on, making my cheeks burn. My daughter would surely say something.

"You're going to be a wrestler, aren't you?" he said, shifting gears and grinning at us in the rear-view mirror.

"Actually," I put in quickly, "she's a girl. But for what it's worth, we think she'll be a wrestler too."

There was a long, embarrassed pause. The driver's face in the rear-view mirror was ashen.

"That's never a girl."

"No, she really is."

"Why is she dressed like a boy then?"

I did my best to explain even though it was hardly his business. When we got out, he mumbled something about dresses and patent leather shoes.

When our daughter was almost three, we borrowed a kimono and took her around the neighborhood one fine November day, as is the custom. In Japan, there is a special day for children known as shichi-go-san, or seven, five, three, when parents used to traditionally register their children at the local shrine at the ages of 3, 5, and 7. Nowadays, children are registered at birth, but the custom remains. People dress their children in their fanciest clothes and take them around the neighborhood to be admired and receive little presents of sweets and money.

Our daughter wasn't crazy about having to put on a kimono, but she liked all the attention as well as the assurances of candy. Once she was fully kitted out, she let us lead her around the neighborhood, teetering a bit in her fancy lacquer geta. There was a middle-aged policeman who lived down our street, a favorite of our daughter, who was in the habit of waving to him every time we passed his house. He was a rough, gruff sort of fellow, a body-builder who lived alone and liked guns. When we led our kimono-clad three-year-old past his house, his jaw dropped.

"Why've you got a boy dressed up in a girl's kimono?" he asked.

We stared at him. "She's a girl," I finally said.

"No!" The man turned to my husband, incredulous.

My husband nodded his confirmation.

We left the man shaking his head, still obviously unconvinced. For the next four years, I could see him eyeing our daughter every time we walked by his house, his face tight with disapproval. He'd thought she was a great kid back when, for all he knew, she was a boy.

I'll bet he wouldn't have liked Maverick's pink collar either.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Leashing The Tiger

Once, years ago, I saw a group of middle-aged ladies in our neighborhood 'walking' their cats on leashes. Leashes like you'd strap to a dog's collar, but fancier, mostly with rhinestones. The cats, most of whom were the stuck-up pedigreed type I've never been terribly keen on, were nevertheless self-respecting cats: they weren't having a bit of it. If you've ever tried to put a cat on a lead, you'll know what I mean: cats aren't like dogs. Once you've hooked a lead to their collars, they don't yank your arm out of your shoulder socket, desperate to run lickety-split with you chasing merrily behind. In fact, they don't move at all. They allow their legs to buckle under them and they curl up in a ball with a do-with-me-as-you-will look of martyred resignation on their faces. If you want to move them, you have to drag them.

The sight of half a dozen cats curled into balls, clearly on strike was funny enough, but the perplexed looks on their clueless providers' faces was so funny I had to look away fast or I'd have burst out laughing.

I know my cats: they won't be bossed and they won't be led. They won't tolerate being tethered and taken where you want them to go; they are free spirits who will go where they damn well please no matter whether you like it or not.

So imagine my surprise the other day when my daughter and I were out walking. "Mom," she cried, gripping my arm, look at that cat! It's on a lead!"

I looked. She was right. My jaw dropped as I saw that the cat was not only on a leash, he was perfectly happy about it. And even more amazing, he was standing in the midst of a group of dogs. Large typically un-cat-friendly dogs: a German shepherd, a greyhound, and a St Bernard. My daughter and I exchanged a long look.

"I've got to ask," I finally said. And my daughter, who is usually horrified by my American tendency to strike up conversations with strangers, nodded.

The person holding the cat's leash was a teenage boy. When we asked him how he'd managed to get his cat on a lead, he shrugged. "He kept following us when we took the dogs out for a walk. So we just got him his own lead and he's been fine with it."

We pet the cat, just to make sure he wasn't a tiny dog in drag. He did all the typical cat things: he cocked his head to the side to get us to scratch him where he wanted to be scratched, he purred, he pushed his head into our hands. He was 100% cat. And there he was on a leash, happily fraternizing with scary dogs.

"He's okay with these dogs?" we asked.

The boy nodded. "They get on fine. They're pals."

The other day, my husband and I set out on one of our long walks. Our cat Mitzi started to follow us, so I scooped her up and ran back to the house with her. I threw her over the gate and ran back to my husband. We resumed our walk and had gone a few blocks when we heard the sound of a bell tinkling behind us. Sure enough, there was Mitzi again, clearly intent on accompanying us. After five or ten minutes of her slinking along behind us, we worried about her safety, especially when cars whizzed past. So my husband picked her up and stuffed her into his jacket. He zipped her in tight and she seemed quite happy with this arrangement. I'll bet she'd have stayed there too if a tractor hadn't rumbled past and spooked her.

"Next time, we lock that *(&$" cat indoors," my husband fumed after I'd brushed him off, staunched the bleeding, and reassured him about his eye.

"I've got a better idea," I said. "Let's get her a leash."

The last time I was in town, I picked one up. It's black, with white rhinestones. I'll let you know how it works out. I know my cats, but you never know.

Friday, 26 August 2011


I am walking down a country road with two of my teenage daughters when we pass a family with two young children. The mother is pushing the youngest one in a stroller while the older one is skipping, holding her father's hand. I smile at them as we walk by and try not to sigh. Seeing parents with little children always makes me feel so nostalgic.

"You two were once that little," I say.

My daughters smirk and exchange looks. This is the kind of idiotic stating-the-obvious comment they have come to expect from me whenever I see little kids.

"We remember," my youngest daughter says.

My acquired daughter nods and they exchange another look. For a few moments, we listen to birdsong and enjoy the dappled sunlight filtered through branches.

"I'm tired," my youngest daughter says, heaving a deep sigh. "Are we there yet?"

Acquired daughter swings our picnic lunch. "I'm tired too and my feet hurt. I didn't know it was this far!"

Before I can say anything, they trade side-long glances and grin.

"Yeah," says my youngest daughter. "If I'd known it was this far, I'd never have agreed to come."

"This is stupid," they chorus. "All this way for a stupid picnic."

"Yeah. I need to sit down. And did you bring Coke? I hope you brought Coke. I'm going home if you didn't bring Coke."

"Are we there yet?"

"My shoes are pinching my feet! Why didn't you tell me it was so far? And I'm hungry."

"I'm hungry too, and I'm cold! Can we eat our picnic now?"

"Yeah, can we? In fact, I'm so hungry I'm about to be sick. Give me a sandwich!"

"Don't take the cheese and tomato! Don't let her have the cheese and tomato sandwich Mom, it's mine."

"Are we there yet?"

I get the joke, but an older couple passing us on the road look horrified. They stare at my girls and shoot me a look of pure amazement. What spoiled brats of teenagers I have!

"Oy," I whisper, "those people who just passed us thought you were serious. You should have seen their faces!"

For a fleeting moment my girls are obviously embarrassed, but they quickly get over it.

"Are we there yet?" my youngest daughter asks again. "This picnic is so stupid!"

We have a great picnic. We sit in a green grassy spot and stare up at the wispy feathers of clouds that trail through the bright blue skies. "It's going to rain," my younger daughter says through a yawn. "Why did we pick a day when it was going to rain? I want to go home."

"Yeah," my acquired daughter says sleepily, closing her eyes and smiling. "This is horrible. Let's go home."

I feel utterly happy. In fact, I don't feel quite so nostalgic anymore: I remember when my kids were like this for real and what a pain in the neck it was. Anyway, who needs toddlers when teenagers are this much fun?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mobile Madness

"All jackets and backpacks on the floor, and turn your mobile phones off," I tell my students, holding up my own so they can see it. "I'm turning mine off right now."

I press the button that turns my phone off and put it on my desk. My students quickly pull their phones out of their bags and pockets and switch them off. I distribute the test papers and the examination begins.

Five minutes later, I am halfway down the aisle distributing extra paper when there is a blast of guitar music and Merle Haggard begins singing California Cotton Fields. This is my ringtone partly because my kids have a sense of humor, but mainly because I happen to love Merle Haggard. I don't love him singing during this examination, though. Cheeks flaming, I race down the aisle and answer my phone, cutting off Merle. It's from my husband. "Mary?" I hear him saying. "Are you all right?"

"Exam!" I whisper angrily. "Can't talk!" I hang up on him and this time manage to turn off my phone properly.

My students grin, but I am incensed. How dare my husband call me during class time? He knows my schedule! He knows I'm giving exams all afternoon today. If I called him when he was giving an exam, he'd have a fit and rightly so.

"Why did you call me this afternoon?" I ask him when we meet up after work. "You knew I was giving an exam!"

My husband gives me a funny look. "I only called to answer the two calls you made to me during my morning class," he says hotly.

I feel my chin drop. I pull out my phone and check my call record. And there they are: two calls I apparently made to my husband this morning. But how can this be? My phone was lying in my backpack all morning; I never even touched it. How could I possibly have called him?

"I didn't call you!" I tell him. "I never went near my phone all morning."

My husband gives me his extremely irritating oh you and your problems with machines! look.

When we get home, I am cooking dinner when Merle Haggard starts to sing again. "Answer that for me!" I beg my husband, but by the time he finds my phone it has stopped ringing.

No sooner do I go back to my pots and pans than it starts up again. My husband groans and picks it up.

"It's from me," he says, wrinkling his forehead as he pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket. "My phone appears to be calling yours..."


Friday, 12 August 2011

What They Said

There is a pretty French girl standing in front of me at the intersection, waiting for the lights to change. She is with a Scottish boy; they have obviously just met and there is some light-hearted flirting going on.

"Have you been to the art museum?" she asks him in charmingly accented English.

"No," he says, grinning down at her foolishly.

The girl smiles and shrugs. "I have not too."

"Either," the boys says. "I have not either."

There is a long pause. I can't see the girl's face, but I can imagine her frown. "Why?" she wants to know.

The boy considers this. "I don't know. That's just the way we say it."

It takes all of my willpower not to butt in here. I'd like to tell her that we use either after negatives, but it isn't my place.

The lights change and we cross the road. Before we part ways, I hear the girl ask the boy about Edinburgh castle. But she pronounces the burgh in 'Edinburgh' like the burg in 'Pittsburgh'.

The boy shakes his head. "Not burgh," he tells her, "it's pronounced burra."

The girl lets out a long sigh. I don't blame her. Cracking the code has been hard enough for me here in Scotland and I'm a native speaker of English.

Two middle-aged women in the market are talking. "That's me done with the messages," one tells the other in broad Glaswegian. This makes me smile. Not so long ago, I wouldn't have had a clue what this meant, but now I know it means she's finished with her shopping. Doing the messages doesn't have anything to do with messages. When we first got here, I wondered why people were so obsessed with passing messages to each other. Couldn't they just email or use the phone? It took me months to puzzle that one out.

In my classroom, the students are full of questions about their coming written presentation. "How long we spend on the bag one?" Michael asks me, raising his hand. Michael is from Beijing, and he has a rather cavalier attitude towards English stress patterns and vowels.

I am completely and utterly thrown by this. "The bag one?" I query, tilting my head.

"Yes, the BAG one," Michael says, nodding. "You tell us we should write BAG one."

Is he trying to say the big one? What big one?

"Do you mean the biggest paragraph?" I say, stalling for time.

Michael shakes his head vigorously. "BACK one!" he almost shouts. "You tell us today. We supposed to write report BACK one, you say."

"Write it down," I sigh, giving up. I really need to work with Michael on his stress and pronunciation.

He pulls out a pencil and scrawls it on the back of his notebook: the word he's been aiming for is background.

Yes, we've definitely got to work more on stress and pronunciation. But all in good time. In the meantime, every day we crack a little more of the code.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Composition From Hell

A few days ago I brought home a large number of student essays on traumatizing past experiences. I finished marking almost all of them except for Student X's.

In many ways, Student X is a model student. She's a sweet girl: bubbly, conscientious, friendly, and hard-working. If I had a whole class full of Student Xs, I would consider myself very lucky -- except for one thing. Student X is a God-awful writer.

There's really no excuse for it. I went over the procedure in class, in great detail. We did a similar writing activity together and I talked everybody through every single step. Moreover, I made sure they had a model they could follow when they wrote their own compositions. I told them not to worry about plagiarizing just this once, that I wanted them to follow the sample text, subsitituting their own experiences in certain key areas. This may not be a brilliant way to learn how to write, but these students still struggle with grammar -- and it's the way I learned how to write Japanese when I was at their stage.

As luck would have it, when I opened my folder of papers, the first composition I saw was Student X's. It was so bad, my head swam. Forget a topic sentence (which she most certainly had), there was no opening paragraph -- in fact, there were no paragraphs at all. Student X had not double-spaced, she had not used her dictionary to check spellings or her grammar book to check irregular past tenses. She had ruled her own paper, in pencil, and she had written her composition in pencil too -- a pencil which she hadn't bothered to keep sharp. And she must not have had an eraser either: she'd scribbled out her changes. Messily. If you took Faulkner, gave him a pencil, and turned him into a low-level EFL student, you'd have what Student X turned in: long, surreal run-on sentences, bewildering turns of phrase, words whose meanings I could only guess at.

I felt like crying, but I went and read a book instead. Later, I opened up my notebook again, putting Student X's paper on the bottom of the pile. I worked through the entire pile, vastly relieved to find that the rest of the class had gotten the idea and more or less followed my instructions. There were misspellings, of course, subject-verb disagreement, and problems with tenses, word forms, etc., but nothing was as bad as Student X's and I was able to work through the lot. The next day I gave the corrected compositions back to my students. I told Student X that I would soon have hers finished. I explained that she hadn't double-spaced and that I was having difficulty reading her writing.

This morning, I took another look at Student X's composition. It was worse, if anything, than I remembered it. I went outside and mowed the lawn. I trimmed the hedge behind our house and weeded the vegetable beds.

Then I went back into the house and took another look at Student X's composition. It was still horrible.

So I swept under the bed. I put flowers in the bathrooms. I put away the dishes, wiped the crumbs off the counter, and fed the cats again. I translated two paragraphs of the book I'm working on and edited another paragraph of my partner's translations. I read another book. I cleaned the grass out of the lawn mower, scoured the bottom of a copper kettle, and tidied the pile of laundry in our room.

Then I took a deep breath, went back to my pile of papers -- and marked the first ten lines of Student X's so-called composition. In ten lines, there were 33 mispellings, six subject-verb disagreements, and I stopped counting the problems after that because it was too depressing. I could barely understand anything other than the fact that there had been a fire (blasing enfierno?) in her aunt's house. The only thing I didn't have to correct much of was punctuation as she'd used hardly any.

I can't do any more. On Monday, I will have to hand this back to Student X and tell her to try again, in pen, double-spaced, on proper notebook paper, with her dictionary open in front of her. I will say this kindly, but I will be firm.

At least my house is tidy, and I'm caught up on my translating. And if I ever take another Japanese composition class, I've got my traumatic experience all picked out.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

A Tale Of Two Writers

Once upon a time I had a student I will call Chung-ho, an attentive, thoughtful student, if not the brightest, and not shy about speaking up in class. Chung-ho's English language education had been interrupted due to family problems, and he had joined the class late, but he easily managed to catch up with his classmates. In fact, for all that he had missed a lot of classes, he was still one of the best listeners and best readers in the class.

But he was not the best writer.

Because I had many opportunities to hear my students' experiences, I was familiar with Chung-ho's background, so when I sat down with one of his compositions, I already had a pretty good idea what it would be about. Which was a good thing, because at first, his stories were full of muddled, run-on sentences that almost reduced me to head-scratching confusion. Chung-ho left out subjects, verbs, and conclusions, struggled with subordinate clauses, and -- even though he was nagged and constantly reminded -- persisted in using the present when he should have used the past. In fact, he was unwittingly perverse about this: on one occasion, he wrote a long story about how his grandmother chased a snake into the outdoor privy. Throughout this story, his grandmother raced about dizzyingly in the present -- She run outside quickly. She call to the my brother for aid. She tell us keep watch for snake. She strike a snake with using cudgel. But in his last sentence when he should have used the present, here is what he wrote: Everytime we family union I told this story my cousins laughed.

But Chung-ho was a good student, and over the months, his grammar improved remarkably. Eventually it was possible to read his stories without stopping and wondering what the hell was going on. His commitment to learning was incredibly gratifying and inspiring. And yet his stories were real yawners, dry as dust, even the ones I asked him to rewrite, which I knew should have been great. After reading them, I used to feel a combination of irritation and anger: how could anybody screw up a story involving a grandmother, a snake, and an outdoor privy?

In the same class, I had another student, Lu, whose English was considerably less accomplished than Chung-ho's. Lu's problems were manifold: whereas Chung-ho could manage subordinate clauses, however clumsily, Lu could not, and saw no need to change his ways. Lu not only ignored the past tense, he saw no need for it. Auxiliaries struck him as a waste of time. When I gently reminded him once that the correct form was Did you finish? and not You finish? he was all spluttering indignation: "Every people understand You finish? Why need did finish?" My arguments for clarity and consistency did not convince him. Lu breezed through reading exercises, paying little attention to detail or general meaning; he frequently scored zero, but was remarkably blase about this. He did little to add to his vocabulary -- Chung-ho kept long lists of new words he had discovered -- and, when he could not get his point across, was more apt to put this down to his interlocutor's denseness than his own ineptitude.

Lu's writing was, predictably, appalling. But here is the amazing thing: he was a gifted storyteller. Even with his awful grammar, restricted vocabulary, crazy syntax, and ridiculous spelling (he once spelled the word 'apartment' four different ways in a 250-word essay), you could follow what he was saying because his narrative pulled you right along. Unlike Chung-ho, who felt the need to offer a useful moral preamble and ending to every story, Lu would put in a question that led you in and made you want to read more: Why all peoples scare of the darkness? He got right to the point after that, with gripping, fascinating, hilarious stories: about the time he walked through a graveyard drunk with his younger brother, his first visit to an American supermarket, the time he accidentally went into the women's toilet. I read his stories with breathless appreciation, even forgetting the terrible grammar and spelling in my haste to find out what had happened. And his endings never disappointed: American supermarket have many thing some think too much thing, but one thing Chinese market have American market not have: Chinese market interested and exciting. American supermarket not exciting. Also: no bad smell. Chung-ho's ending points got swallowed up in long ramblings about whether snakes were evil or useful, how grandmothers pulled their weight even in this modern age, and why it was best to be on the look-out for snakes even in one's house. (I would give you a sample of Chung-ho's endings, but I do not want to put you to sleep. Also, not enough room.)

It seems so obvious, and yet it's oddly elusive: that the key to telling great stories is learning how to match Chung-ho's diligence and commitment to form with Lu's storytelling genius and pithy prose. Often, the mechanics of writing got in the way of Lu's innate ability to tell a story. As a non-native speaker and writer, he must have felt frustrated when his stories weren't appreciated by people other than his EFL teachers. And all too often, the prosy dullness of Chung-ho's stories must have kept them from entertaining his audience. As a teacher, this drives me crazy. I know how much my students have to offer, and my biggest joy is knowing that they can leave the classroom with enough English to connect with people who aren't English teachers. As a writer, the fact that they could not share their gifts often made me think about my own writing. In fact, it still does. Recently, I revisited an old manuscript of mine and found more of Chung-ho than Lu in the ending. So back to the drawing board until my story pulls readers right in and keeps them gripped. Until it is interesting and exciting. (Also: no bad smell.)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Who's Asian?

In my class, Samah, from the Middle-east, and Bao, from China, are discussing the word Asian and who it applies to.

"But I am Asian," Samah says. "Of course I am Asian! What else can I be?"

Bao can't get over this. He shakes his head. "I think you are like her," he says, glancing at me. "I think you are--" Words fail him. He lifts his hands and lets them fall.

Samah purses her lips. "I am from Middle- east." She appeals to me. "Middle-eastern is Asian, it is true, isn't it?"

I nod. I'm not sure whether Samah is technically Asian, but the Middle-east is still east, after all. "My Turkish students always said they were Asian," I tell Bao. "Some of them had red hair and green eyes, but they were proud to be descended from Asians."

Samah nods eagerly. "It is true! Turkish, Middle-eastern, Indian -- we are Asian too, like Chinese."

Bao's mouth hangs open as he studies Samah. Her skin is whiter than his -- whiter than mine, in fact -- and although her hair is perfectly covered by her hijab, I'm guessing that it's brown, not black. But she insists that she is Asian -- as Asian as he is -- and we have had a fun time discussing race, skin color, and the concept of identity. Bao, who has spent all of his eighteen years in a small town in China, has learned a lot more than English in this class. For the remainder of the class period, I can see him studying Samah surreptitiously. It is clear that he has never realized what a diverse group he belongs to.

Not all of my students have been so eager to be known as Asians. During my second year teaching in Tokyo, one of my Japanese students took me to task for referring to her and her classmates as Asians. "You call us Asian, but we are Orientals," she corrected me.

"That term is dated," I told her. "The expression everybody uses now is Asian."

She shook her head. "No! When I live in London, Asian people are Indian, Pakistani. We Japanese are Orientals."

"Japanese-Americans never call themselves Orientals," I said. "They call themselves Asian." I felt silly arguing with her over what she chose to call herself, but I couldn't help it. I didn't want her to walk away from my classroom using a dated expression. It also irritated me that she was so anxious to distance herself from Indians and Pakistanis.

"Asian people are dark," she insisted. "Different from us."

We finally had to agree to disagree, though I urged her not to refer to other Asians as Orientals if she ever visited the States. And if you do call yourself Oriental and people correct you, would you please tell them your teacher told you not to? I felt like adding.

"Asian people from Turkey," Samah tells Bao, her dark eyes flashing. "From Jordan, from Syria, from Kazakhstan, from Nepal--" She ticks them off on her fingers, one by one.

Bao is impressed. "I did not know so many Asian," he says, shaking his head.

I wish I'd had Samah around when I was teaching in Tokyo.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

A Tale Of Two Chests

In our hallway, there is a wooden chest with iron fittings and handles. It isn't an especially beautiful piece of furniture, but I prize it greatly. Not only is it useful -- you can put clothes into it and years later they will smell as sweet and fresh as the day you stored them -- but it was a real find: my husband saw it on the local rubbish heap between a rusty refrigerator and a set of broken plywood shelves. When he brought it home, spattered with rain and mud, we had no idea it was anything special.

The chest was relatively light but bulky, composed of three parts which could be neatly stacked on top of each other. I didn't appreciate it at first; it had obviously spent decades in somebody's kitchen, and while the wood wasn't warped, it was a dull, drab color from years of exposure to kerosene and cooking smoke. I wrinkled my nose as I opened the drawers, expecting the stale fug of old, damp furniture, but was pleasantly surprised by the sweet-resin smell of fresh-cut wood. Over the next few weeks, the chest only rose in my estimation: although clothes put into our other chests-of-drawers quickly dampened and furred over with mildewed in Tokyo's humidity, whatever I put in this one stayed fresh and sweet-smelling.

One day, a friend came over. As soon as she saw our new chest, her eyes lit up. "Where did you get the Paulownia chest?" she asked. I told her, and she shook her head in amazement. "You were so lucky! Those cost a bundle nowadays."

"Why would someone throw it away then?"

"It was probably some young person going through the effects of an elderly relative. Somebody who didn't know any better." She ran her hand over the top of our chest. "This is a really good one, too -- at least 60 or 70 years old."

My friend told me that her family's Paulownia chests were sanded down at the end of every year. The iron fittings and handles were removed first. Afterwards, the freshly-sanded chests looked and smelled brand new. "You can keep anything in a Paulownia chest," she said. "Silk kimono, pillows, bedding -- nothing will sour, and the moths won't touch it. Hang onto it." Even if she hadn't admired it so, I was already loathe to part with it. Because if something you pick up for a song is special, something you find on the rubbish heap is even more so: it reminds you of your good luck and your good sense.

We brought another chest-of-drawers back from Japan too, an even larger, heavier one that made us sweat and curse as we heaved it through narrow doorways and up the stairs. We bought it in a used furniture store in Abiko, in the summer of 1998, on a day so hot that the sweat rolled off us as we stood, fanning ourselves in the air-conditioned shop. In fact, the heat made us choose hastily: it was solid and beautifully crafted, but it was far too big for our tiny house. For years, it overwhelmed our cramped little living room.

The clerk who showed us the furniture was a personable young Ghanaian man who spoke English and fluent, unaccented Japanese. "I know he's wasted on us!" the proprietor of the shop told me. "He studies all the time, that's all he does. Up in that little room of his -- you should see all his books! Japanese, law, politics." She fanned herself with a furniture pamphlet. "If he was Japanese, he could be prime minister of Japan in a couple of years, I'm not kidding."

When we left Japan, we brought both chests with us to Scotland. The second year we were back, I took the handles and fittings off the Paulownia chest and sanded it with the finest sandpaper I could find. I like to think about the long life it had before it came to us. I try to imagine it in the kitchen of some Japanese family, where it no doubt saw out the war. I wonder if the family crouched near its bulk during air raids, if the woman who opened the drawers to put things in and take them out was as comforted and cheered by the sweet smell of its wood as I am. And I wonder what she would have thought if she had known the future her chest would have, going off on its own adventure with an an Anglo-American family.

I look at our large, sturdy chest-of-drawers too, and try to remember how hot it was the day we bought it, how freely we sweated, standing in that used furniture shop, running our hands over its wood. I wonder what happened to the young Ghanaian man, whether he is still in Japan, what he managed to achieve. My memory is stretched just trying to conjure up the heat of that day, what a headache it was getting that chest into our house, and how ridiculously oversized it looked in our living room.

And I can't help but wonder: what adventures will my furniture will have after we have parted ways?

Saturday, 9 July 2011


I love teaching this class.

Last week, I got my times mixed up and started packing up thirty minutes early. I stacked my books, snapped my CDs back into their plastic cases, and gathered up all my papers. "I'll see you after lunch," I told the class, popping my glasses and pencil case back into my bag. "We'll be finishing the work we were doing on comparisons."

Cheng, sitting in the back row frowns. "Teacher, no. Not time."

I stare back at him, then look up at the clock. "Oh my gosh, I'm sorry, you're right, Cheng! I made a mistake -- we still have another thirty minutes to go!"

Cheng beams at me.

And here is what is truly amazing: after Cheng says this, the rest of the class don't protest. Nobody elbows him in the ribs or even gives him a dirty look. In fact, they all nod happily. "Not time yet, teacher. Thirty more minute."

When I was teaching in Cyprus, barely three minutes into every class I had students checking the clocks on their cell phones, craning their necks to see the classroom clock, and yawning. Ten minutes into the class, they were ready for a break. If I'd ever gotten the time wrong back then and packed up half an hour early, anyone who pointed it out would have been risking her life. I always planned my lessons carefully and worked hard to make them meaningful and entertaining. But staring at a classroom full of yawning, miserable students, I used to feel like the worst teacher in the world. I'm not teaching any better now than I was then, so what's going on?

Here's what's going on: these students I'm teaching now have great attitudes. Even the ones whose attitudes aren't perfect, are way ahead of the game because they all want to learn. Sometimes I look out at their sea of earnest, hungry-for-knowledge faces and I could weep for gratitude. What a huge difference a good attitude makes.

"Okay," I say, "we've got thirty more minutes, so let's carry on with page 81."

Everybody looks back down at their books.

We're studying the difference between contractions and possessives. It's not a thrill a minute, but several people in this class are keen to learn grammar -- they have actually asked for more of it. The only one who actively doesn't like it is Cheng. But even when faced with the prospect of another thirty minutes of loathed grammar, he reminded me that I was jumping the gun, that we had another thirty minutes of class. He may be regretting that now, but he's doing a great job of hiding it, and good for him.

Like I said, I love teaching this class.

Saturday, 2 July 2011


Right from the start, I had trouble with Sugiyama-san. We first crossed swords over my refusal to attend open house day at my daughter's nursery school. My daughter, at the time, was all of fourteen months old.

"We can't have your husband missing work!" Sugiyama-san almost shouted when I suggested he go in place of me. She looked astonished that I could think of such a thing. What kind of wife was I?

"But he wouldn't be missing work," I repeated. "Like I said, Tuesday's his day off, but it's my busiest--"

Sugiyama-san shook her head. "Impossible! On his day off, your husband must relax." She gave me a hard look. "Men need to relax, you know. They work so hard."

I bit back my irritation. We'd already established that I didn't have a day off, but it obviously didn't occur to Sugiyama-san that I might need to relax too. Or that I worked every bit as hard as my husband did.

"You're the mother so you should come," she repeated. "Your employers know that you have a baby. Can't you tell them it's important?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it. "But you just said it wasn't important--"

She gave me an exasperated look. "It's not important enough for your husband to miss his day off."

I stared back at Sugiyama-san, one of the middle-aged women who looked after my daughter all day while I was at work. She seemed to keep contradicting herself. When she'd initially told me about this open house day, she'd claimed it was very important. But as soon as I'd mentioned that my husband had that day off and could come in my stead, she'd decided it wasn't really that important. Or rather that it was, but only for me, the mother. She'd also initially said that the parents wouldn't have to talk much, just observe, but now she felt that my husband's lack of Japanese would be a problem.

"I have a meeting at work that day," I told her. "I'm expected to attend it."

"Perhaps they could find a substitute. If you asked--"

This was the last straw. "Let me get this straight. You want me to miss a day of work to come and observe my one-year-old's class because it's important -- but not important enough for my husband to come even though we live only five minutes away and he isn't working today." I felt like kicking a fence. I'd already missed several days of work over the past month to take my baby to clinic appointments as my husband's Japanese was not up to this. In fact, I'd missed so much work ferrying my daughter (and sometimes my husband) to the doctor that I couldn't afford to take time off when I got sick myself. I went into work half a dozen times when I'd have been better off in bed. And yet as the mother, I was still required to take time off work although my husband's day off was sacrosanct.

The irony of this escaped Sugiyama-san, but my anger didn't. Over the next year, she gave me hell. Every week, parents were required to wash and change the sheets on their children's futon. Every Monday, my daughter's futon would invariably be at the bottom of the pile and impossible to retrieve without maximum effort. As I struggled to put it back in the cupboard, Sugiyama-san would gleefully point out what I was doing wrong. One day I made the mistake of telling another mother there that my husband was better at changing the sheets on our futons as it was a job he didn't mind doing. That was a big mistake: Sugiyama-san overheard this and the story of how good I had it quickly made the rounds of the nursery school. You're so lucky that your husband does your work for you! was something I grew weary of hearing, especially since my husband and I split housework, bread-winning, and childcare 50-50.

Over the next year, I bit back many angry retorts when Sugiyama-san took it upon herself to criticize my mothering skills. My daughter's refusal to take naps had caused me no end of grief, but Sugiyama-san was certain that I was causing this problem. Was I letting her sleep too much at home? No matter how many times I explained that my daughter had always been a poor sleeper, Sugiyama-san remained suspicious ("You working women are so busy with your jobs, you let your babies sleep far too long!"). Likewise, my baby's dislike of leafy greens and her loathing of mushrooms became controversial issues. Didn't we eat spinach and mushrooms at home? Yes, I assured her through gritted teeth, we did, but I could still see the doubt in her eyes. Sugiyama-san also insisted that my daughter's bright red mosquito bites were an infectious skin condition (this required a signed letter from the local dermatologist, stating that Caucasian skin often reacted differently to mosquito bites, after which she was still not satisfied -- "Heh! What does he know?").

Japan is now suffering a decline in the birth rate as more and more young women decide not to marry and have children. Unless Japanese people start having more babies, their population will almost certainly shrink more than 20% by 2050. This will have terrible repercussions on the health and pension systems and the economy of Japan as a whole. Personally, I think people with attitudes like Sugiyama-san's don't help a bit. Her attitude -- that mothers should happily bear the brunt of the labor and responsibilities of parenting -- wore me out. Her strong bias towards men -- she was as kind and considerate towards my husband as she was bitchy and fault-finding with me -- was infuriating. I can see why young women in Japan might want to opt out of motherhood. Given the choice between a life of endless toil and servitude one of relative ease and freedom, who can blame girls for deciding not to marry and have babies? The day Sugiyama-san switched nursery schools was one of the happiest days of my life.

I didn't see her again until almost the last month we were in Japan when my daughter and I ran into her in the park. She looked happy to see us. "You remember your old teacher, don't you?" she said, prodding my daughter. "You're lucky to have girls," she said wistfully. "All I've got is boys and they're all grown up now."

As I waved goodbye, I felt a pang of pity for this woman who had made my life so miserable. But I also felt a wave of sympathy for the daughters-in-law she will one day have.