Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Yesterday was one of those days.

It started very early. All I wanted to do was write, but instead, I got a head-scratchingly complicated last-minute editing job with a pressing deadline, and it took me ages to finish. During the time I was working, the stray cat who is felina non grata all over the neighborhood because of a spraying problem, got into our flat and let loose. Our own cats, worrying that the overpowering smell of cat pee would tempt us into welcoming this incontinent Wandering Tom into the bosom of our home, thus reducing their daily ration of Whiskas, decided a special gift was in order.  Unfortunately, we weren't quick enough to claim it. When I went downstairs to get the mail, I found masses of feathers, blood, and a few grisly bits of leftover bird everywhere -- especially in all the hard-to-clean places. Later, to further secure my affection, one of my cats topped this treat  up with an entire litter of some kind of rodent, all pink, hairless, and dead as doornails on the porch step.  I thought of the mother-rodent coming home to her empty nest and felt like bursting into tears. Until I saw what I'm pretty sure was her a few feet away -- headless.

The cat pee smell would not go away, no matter what I did. The feathers in the hard-to-clean places stayed right where they were; I reasoned it was just a matter of time before they took down another bird, so why bother cleaning it up?

I was feeling bad enough, but when I started skimming the new textbooks I'll be using this term, I felt even worse. There is no key, I have no teacher's manual, and some of the exercises were too hard for me to do. I sat for twenty minutes, staring at a graph and  feeling colossally stupid. How can I ask my students to do what I personally find challenging?

I went to  bed with a pounding headache, after barely finishing my lesson plans, and the smell of cat pee kept me up. I did not feel one bit like teaching. I did not feel warm, fuzzy feelings towards my cats.

When I got to work, I still had the headache. But hurrying from one class to another, I ran into two students from last term. The minute they saw me, their faces lit up and they shriked my name: they'd passed their exams and they were giddy with joy. Two minutes later, I ran into a few more who had passed too, then three more. I don't know by what miracle I managed not to encounter a single former student who failed today -- I know they're out there -- but I didn't. There is no greater reward than the grinning face of a student who has passed an exam she was positive she'd fail. After that, despite my lack of sleep and cat-pee headache, I was able to understand the new textbooks, and my classes went well.

When I got home and sat down to write, both my cats came into the room. One sat at my feet, the other curled up on my lap. And neither one had a dead rodent or a bird.

Now that is a gift.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Flushed With Pride

I grew up with the standard models: white, shiny ceramic, with metal lever flush. But throughout my childhood, another toilet was always on my mind: the one my mother grew up with.

"You have no idea how lucky you kids are, having an indoor toilet that flushes," she would frequently remind us. She never said this in a You spoiled brats! spirit, though I'm sure she was tempted to, just as I am tempted to say the same whenever I hear my kids whining about computer glitches and I remember having to pound out term papers on a dodgy, sticky-keyed secondhand manual typewriter which weighed a ton.  On the coldest days in Southern California, whenever we complained about the temperature, my mother would recall the winters of her childhood -- particularly the snowy backyard that had to be crossed to reach the outhouse. A Sears & Roebuck's catalogue always  hung from a rusty nail inside, recycling being a necessity of life instead of the virtuous, ecologically-minded practice that it is today. On Halloween night, you had to be on guard for jokers who liked moving outhouses just a few feet beyond the pit. Anyone who wasn't vigilant paid a terrible price in those days before plumbed bathtubs with instant hot water. During the  night, foul-smelling chamberpots were kept under beds, although they weren't called that; they were referred to as 'vessels'.

Having heard my mother's stories, my sisters and I realized that we benefited from state-of-the-art, lifestyle-enhancing, modern technology: no emptying and cleaning out of nasty vessels, no traversing dark obstacle-course ridden yards to get to a smelly outhouse; all we had to do was pad down the hallway, do what had to be done, and flush.

A few trips to rural Mexico and Guatemala only increased my sense of gratitude. There's nothing like waking up in the middle of the night out in the middle of  nowhere, and having to pay for your last (much regretted) cup of tea with a long, scary tramp through onion fields,  past barking dogs to get to the privy, which you could probably locate blindfolded, so horrific is the smell.

In Japan, my first toilet was a standard Asian squat-style number, perfectly easy to get used to, but not for anybody with weak knees or a poor aim. Over my years there, I had a succession of similar toilets, and most of them required squatting, even the ones in posh office buildings. Some of our office toilets were unisex too, and it took me some time to develop the sang-froid necessary to walk past my boss, feigning ignorance of  his presence, and casually enter one of the stalls. Some emptied into septic tanks which periodically had to be emptied by a foul-smelling truck that made the rounds of the neighborhood, with a wide, coiled  hose attached to the side. But they all flushed.

In Cyprus, we had a  modern flush toilet too, but there was not always enough water to flush it with. With three teenage girls in our flat, we always seemed to run out of water quickly, so my husband and I soon learned to fill plastic bottles with water from the nearby swimming pool for emergency situations. My very first day of teaching, I went off to work after a quick, unsatisfactory sponge bath with pool water and I was grateful that our school had a bathroom. But the university toilets used to run out of water occasionally too, so  I took to recycling the water from the students' plastic bottles.

In the Netherlands, I lived in an artists' colony for half a year. Every week it was my turn to clean our communal toilet -- an ancient old thing with a chain you pulled, but nevertheless a flush toilet. The first few weeks there, I was puzzled by a jam jar filled with water which was always on the left side of the toilet, on the floor. One day, someone emptied it and threw it away, and I learned its function when another artist, a Dutch-Indonesian woman, protested. "It has a hygienic purpose," she told me. "It does what paper alone cannot, and if it is not there, I feel very uncomfortable."  I've adopted this custom, and although I'm sure guests here wonder what a pitcher of water is doing on our bathroom floor, I wouldn't be without it.

That pitcher of water froze the other night. We can only afford to heat two rooms, the kitchen and our living room, and our bathroom is like a freezer. When it's below zero inside, getting up in the middle of the night to do what has to be done is a character-building test that takes great courage and fortitude. But I tell myself that all I have to cross is a carpeted floor, not a cold, dark farmyard, that I'll never have to empty or scrub out a 'vessel', and all I have to do is flush -- with gratitude and pride.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Treachery Of Things

I love soft-boiled eggs with gooey yolks, and I'm generally good at getting them just right. Yes, I know there's a risk of salmonella, but for the pleasure of eating a runny yolk, I'm prepared to live dangerously and take a walk on the wild side. So last week, I boiled four eggs, following my normal soft-boiled protocol: I put the eggs in a small, deep pan filled with cold water which I slowly brought to the boil. Then I turned off the burner and let the eggs sit for a few minutes.  To my great disappointment, three of the eggs, when opened, proved to be hard-boiled, the yolks as tough as shoe leather.

My husband and kids ate them. They aren't as fussy as I am when it comes to eggs.

There was no way I was going to eat a hard-boiled egg, so I put my egg, uncracked, back into the refrigerator. The next day, I decided to make egg salad for sandwiches, so I took out my hard-boiled egg. I also boiled two more eggs; if you're going to make egg salad, go whole hog, right? I boiled these two eggs for a full five minutes, even setting the timer. I know that you're supposed to boil them for ten minutes, but all my life, I've settled for five and the eggs have generally come out hard-boiled.

When the timer went off, I pulled out one of the eggs and peeled it, but I could tell that it wasn't properly hard-boiled yet, so I popped it back into the boiling water and boiled both eggs for another three minutes. By which time, the yolks should have been hard enough to bounce off the floor, but no: when I opened  them, I found that the yolks were gooey. And even more surreally, the egg which had been in the refrigerator had a gooey yolk too. All of the eggs were the same size: I swear it. The altitude of our house has obviously not changed, and I can't imagine the chemical composition of the water was significantly altered in 24 hours.

When I wanted gooey yolks, I got hard. When I wanted hard-boiled eggs, I got drippy. Call me paranoid, but I put this down to the Treachery of Things.

Have you ever noticed that when you drop something, it quite often skitters out of your range of vision and disappears?  Moreover, the distance the dropped item travels and the time and difficulty involved in tracking and retrieving it will be directly proportional to the importance of the item. If, for instance, you drop a paper clip you don't particularly need on a floor that is already cluttered, it will be right there at your feet. If on the other hand, you drop a paperclip you do need, or the back of one of your favorite gold earrings, say, or the cap off a tube of expensive super-glue, or the tiny screw you need to repair the only glasses you have with you on a vacation when you are intending to do a lot of reading -- it's a different story, isn't it?  A great deal of time will be spent on all fours, bent over awkwardly, your questing hands coming into unpleasant contact with icky things stuck to the floor as they grope around, vainly, in spider-lurking crevices and corners.

Some people call this Murphy's law, but I call it The Treachery of Things. The laws of physics can be bent, and they are bent by things, quite capriciously. Things know when you want them a certain way -- or when you just plain want them -- and they can't resist toying with you. This is why the needle and thread you always carry in your backpack will mysteriously vanish on the one occasion you need them to tack up a hem that has decided to unravel when you are due to give a speech in front of 200 people, only to be found when you are searching for the missing VCR, under the cushions of your sofa. This is why the magic marker you finally locate on the one day your class is being observed, will turn out to be the indelible sort that cannot be used on white boards -- even though you generally have so many perfectly useable markers that you are spoiled for choice.

Take my word for it: things know what they're doing and they find our panic, our profound irritation, and our utter humiliation very entertaining.

So be forewarned--and take care. You can bet I'll be watching my eggs very carefully.

Monday, 2 January 2012

All Mixed Up

A few years back, our oldest daughter came home from school one day and, after dumping her backpack on the floor, slumped into a chair and muttered, "I'm nothing."  Before I could open my mouth to protest, she went on. "I mean, I'm not English, I'm not Japanese or... American or Scottish. I'm nothing."

I made her a cup of tea and mulled over all the things I could say. Such as Nonsense -- you've had a good sampling of lots of cultures!  But she was actually right. She was born in Wales, to an English father and an American mother, and she was taken to Japan as an infant. Her first words were in Japanese, the language of her nursery school peers. She has read the first two Harry Potter books in Japanese and can still pass for a native -- but only over the telephone. She can pass for an American too, or a Scot, if she feels like it. Is it any wonder she feels alienated now?

When she was two years old, I took my daughter to America for the first time. When we got off the plane, she shrank back from all the non-Asians around us. "Gaijin!" she whispered at one point, meeting her little blonde cousins. "Gaijin means foreigner," I explained to my sister, blushing. I had to interpret for my daughter for the first three days we were in the States; to this day, my relatives all know the Japanese for Pick me up! and I don't want to, not to mention Can I have a snack? I didn't realize how thoroughly out of her realm she felt until we visited Chinatown in San Francisco. My daughter, who had remained guarded, shy and a little suspicious, suddenly burst out laughing, clapped her hands, and began talking non-stop. I had my work cut out for me, explaining why the people around us could not understand her Japanese.

When she was five, our daughter came home from her first school field trip uncharacteristically quiet and thoughtful. "She got picked on," her teachers told us, clearly embarrassed. "Her friends here accept her -- they've known her since before she could walk -- but the other kids took one look at her and all they saw was  a foreigner."  She'd gotten called gaijin a lot, on this trip. "She's not a gaijin!" her nursery school pals had fired back at the hecklers, "she's our friend!"  To this day, my eyes fill with tears when I remember their words.

"People always want to know what I am," my daughter sighed, sipping her tea. "Then they don't believe me when I tell them."

"You're third culture kids," I tell her. "And don't you think it's pretty interesting having had all your experiences? I'd have given my eyeteeth to learn a foreign language when I was your age!"  Which is absolutely true: I used to pore over books in Spanish and German. When I was nine, somebody gave us a stack of Japanese magazines and I'd never been so intrigued or fascinated in all my life. I'd have done a lot for the chance to learn Japanese back then.

"At least you fit in!" my daughter protested. "At least you were the same thing as everybody else!" I never know what to say to this. I was socially inept and awkward; I didn't fit in, and I never felt like the same thing as everybody else. But I wonder how much worse it might have been if my nationality had been different from that of my peers. 

"It's a unique experience, but not always enjoyable," our youngest daughter said when I asked her to describe how she felt about being a third culture kid. When we first came to Scotland, she used to follow me around. "What are they saying?" she'd whisper urgently in Japanese. "Can you understand?" Now she interprets for me. When we traveled around Turkey, we'd have been lost without her.

"It's weird," my oldest daughter told us last week. "All my friends are all mixed up, like me."

"Even Mena?" Mena is Pakistani and as far as I can tell, thoroughly uncomplicated.

"She's Christian, Mom. That kind of changes her perspective."

She went on to describe half a dozen of her friends, all of them of mixed cultures and/or bilingual. It was fascinating hearing about them: Scottish-sounding kids who can speak Cantonese, Czech nationals raised in Spain, Belgian kids with Turkish roots. My youngest daughter's friends are the same. Here in Scotland, she's pals with a Thai/Chinese girl who swears like a Scot. In Cyprus, she had a Pilipina friend who could write Hebrew and speak Tagalog and Spanish. My daughters' favorite musicians are all mixed up too: a Nigerian/German, a Rwandan/Belgian, and any number of Japanese-born-and-raised Koreans. And the food they like is right off the charts: hummous, sushi, haggis, mabo-dofu, sukiyaki, kabobs, paella, dim sum, pizza, kimchi chige. For Christmas, we had pot stickers, red-cooked Chinese cabbage, sushi, and stuffed grape leaves with filled pitta bread. Dessert was sweet potato pie and tiramisu.

"So," I said to my daughter, "you don't feel like you're one of a kind anymore. Or do you?"

She shrugged and smiled. "I'm used to it now."

The other day, I happened to overhear a conversation between two bilingual women. "You must keep the languages and cultures separate," one of them sniffed. "No mixing up or everything gets very confused, and that is no good for anybody."

She's probably right. But I couldn't disagree more.