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.