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.