Sunday, 15 December 2013

Missing Our Girls

I am standing in a mall, waiting for my husband, when I see them: a woman about my age and her grown-up daughter. They are window shopping, their arms linked, and they are deep in amicable conversation. The daughter--she has to be the woman's daughter; they have the same high forehead and wide-spaced eyes--is about four months pregnant, The expression on her mother's face makes me want to cry. She is obviously so happy to be with her daughter, and so proud.

They stop in front of a window display of clothing for toddlers and admire the tiny coats, sweaters and shoes. The daughter laughs and points at a stuffed zebra the size of a panda. 

Suddenly I miss my daughters! My husband and I have missed them ever since we arrived here, in late summer, but at this moment, seeing this woman and her daughter together, I miss them so much I can hardly stand it.

Earlier, I looked for presents to give my girls for Christmas. I browsed through trays of carved hair ornaments, rows of sweaters on plastic hangers, stacks of tee shirts I thought they might like. I found so many things I thought would please them, but I stopped myself from actually buying them. I want to see my girls trying these things on--see them wearing the sweaters, frowning at themselves in the mirror--Do you think this is my color? Would a smaller size be better? I want to drink coffee with them afterwards, take them out for lunch, try on lipsticks and perfume with them that we have no intention of buying.

We are generally happy here, my husband and I. We are doing interesting and demanding jobs; we are struggling to learn Chinese, which is as engrossing as it is frustrating; and we are gradually getting to know this country. But being away from our daughters is so hard!

My husband rejoins me and we take the elevator to the basement. There, we walk past a huge play area where children tumble about on brightly-colored mats and climb plastic honeycombs. One kid is bawling his head off, kicking the floor. His exasperated mother watches him, arms crossed over her chest, a look of irritated resignation on her face. Ever so often, she bawls out something that he is making too much noise to hear.

"Been there," my husband murmurs as we watch the struggling toddler, and I automatically echo, "Done that."  We continue walking, but the toddler's screams are still perfectly audible from quite a distance.

And yes, we feel a little bit better. But we still miss our girls.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Triumph Of Tomatoes

There is a greengrocer's near our apartment. It is a small shop along a busy road, run by a bustling, no-nonsense middle-aged woman wearing an apron. Up until last night, my husband and I have pointed, gestured, and sometimes drawn air pictures of what we want to buy, always to the amused reaction of the greengrocer. Once in a while, we have tried to use Chinese--to the even more amused reaction of the greengrocer.

But last night, a small breakthrough occurred. I went into the shop as usual, picked out the produce I wanted -- apples and pears -- and then I stopped and frowned, unable to see any tomatoes. And I really wanted tomatoes.

"What are you waiting for?" my husband asked, anxious to get home.

"Hang on while I get some tomatoes," I said. He shook his head. "I think you're going to be disappointed." He gestured around us. "Do you see any tomatoes?"

I approached the greengrocer, my heart pounding. "Xihonshi yomeiyo?" I managed to squeal, working hard to get my tones right. At first she just stared at me, then she asked me to repeat it.

I said it again more slowly and she said ah! For a second I couldn't believe she had actually understood. Then she walked over to a box of pears and lifted it up. Underneath were tomatoes. Glossy little ruby-red tomatoes with tiny green tops.

We went home and ate them, along with the apples and pears I bought, which were very sweet. But the tomatoes were sweeter still.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Cracking the Code

Learning how to speak Mandarin, it turns out, is not easy.

Decades ago when I first moved to Japan, I must have gone through the same agony, but however frustrating it was then, I can't believe it was anything like this. In China, I have been in a number of 'situations'. Times when being able to communicate with the people around me was hugely important, but woefully beyond my capabilities. Like when I forgot to weigh a few pieces of fruit at the supermarket and my husband had to run back to do this, aggravating a man behind me who turned red-faced with rage and began to rant. I knew what he must be saying: What happened? How could you possibly have forgotten to weigh your fruit? How dare you keep me waiting? Again and again he seemed to be demanding an explanation which I was, of course, unable to give him. Or, on another occasion, when I tried desperately to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, having rehearsed it at least a dozen times--to find that he still could not understand me. Or when I answered the phone in our office and could not tell the obviously agitated woman on the other end that a colleague was away from her desk. I could manage "not here now, five minutes," but that just didn't cut it.

My frustration at this lack has a lot to do with the Great Expectations I came here with: I thought that given my ability to read some Chinese, learning to speak might be easier for me. But I was wrong--so wrong! Despite the fact that I spent decades in Japan learning how to write kanji, or Chinese characters, learning to read in China is a whole new ball of wax. Characters have been greatly modified here, and the ones I'm familiar with have often been changed beyond recognition. Even simple ones like push, pull, east, and car were mysteries to me at first. Days of the week, pronouns, verbs, nouns--all were woefully mystifying. Then there's the pronunciation. The vowels make me want to weep--no clear, easy-to-follow a-i-u-e-o like there is in Japanese; certain Chinese vowels change with certain consonants, and I can never remember which. And the tones are murder.

But lately, I have been having breakthroughs. Tiny ones, it is true, but breakthroughs nevertheless.

Breakthrough 1:  My husband and I are buying persimmons from a man who is selling them from a cart. As we pack them into a bag, the man, assuming that we don't know how to eat them, indicates that they must be peeled first. I take a pen from the counter and scrawl on a piece of newspaper in Chinese: In my country we also have persimmons. I like them very much. He reads this out loud and nods slowly, then gives me a broad grin. Eureka! He understands!  

Breakthrough 2: I am with a Japanese friend, applying for a courtesy card at a local department store. The woman asks my Japanese friend to fill in my address for me, but I shake my head and write my address in Chinese in the space provided. The woman reads it and looks up at me with a hint of respect in her eyes: Oh, she says, you can write Chinese. And eureka! I understand her!

Breakthrough 3: We arrive home from work to find a handwritten note in Chinese on our front door. It has been scrawled in haste and it takes me ages to work through, but with the help of a Chinese-Japanese dictionary and my husband's character-recognition software,  I finally piece it out: I am your upstairs neighbor. Recently my toilet pipes have been blocked. I need to gain access to your apartment in order to fix the pipes. I came today, but you were not home. Can you please phone me to let me know when you will be home so that we can unblock our pipes? Thank you very much. By the time I've worked this out, my husband has already photographed the note and texted it to our real estate agent. She texts back the following message: Your neighbor needs to get into your apartment because her toilet is blocked and she needs to fix it. Sweet hallelujah! I was right!

I'm thrilled with these tiny breakthroughs. So thrilled that the idea of perfect strangers showing up on our one day off to tear up our floorboards and fiddle with the pipes to unclog a blocked toilet hardly gives me a moment's pause.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Duck Eggs

I'm fairly open-minded when it comes to food. Although I'm not crazy about offal, I've eaten a lot of things other people might turn their noses up at. Fermented fish guts, for instance (shiokara in Japanese),  raw onions, inago, or fried grasshoppers (by mistake, but they weren't that bad), and my mother's infamous peanut butter and mustard sandwiches.

So the other day, when I got home from shopping and discovered that we'd bought duck eggs instead of the usual hens' eggs, I wasn't upset. I told myself that duck eggs would be just as tasty in egg salad sandwiches, perhaps even better. As I popped the eggs into boiling water, I marveled at how different they were from conventional eggs: larger, sturdier, and oilier, somehow. It wasn't until I broke one open that I discovered just what we'd bought: preserved duck eggs, the color of dark chocolate.

Unlike chocolate, however, the eggs smelled strongly of sulfur and were intensely salty. They weren't anything I wanted to make lunch with.

I gave up on making egg salad sandwiches, packed the eggs into a bag, and took them to work.  I put them on a counter in the office, wrote Bought by mistake, free to a good home on a piece of paper, and pasted it to the carton.

"Why are you giving these away?" a colleague asked incredulously when she saw the eggs. I explained what had happened.

"I hate to waste things," I said. "And we couldn't possibly finish them ourselves, not even if we had weeks." I grimaced. "And they're not going to last weeks, are they?"

"Yes they will-- they'll keep forever!"

This shouldn't have surprised me--'preserved eggs' must be like other preserved things, after all--but it did. "Really?"

"Absolutely. Just keep them until you need them. Then slice them into wedges and serve them with some pickled ginger." She nodded approvingly. "Delicious!"

In fact, one of my writing pals had said the same thing. Try them with pickled ginger, they're great. And yet at the time, this advice was hard for me to take in. Because I hadn't want pickled eggs when I bought them; I'd wanted eggs for egg salad sandwiches.

Expectations are everything, especially when it comes to food. Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I dropped a clove of raw garlic while I was cooking. I searched everywhere for it, but finally gave up, thinking it must have fallen behind the stove. A few hours later, I was eating sweetened popcorn when I bit down on the clove of garlic. Although I'm a huge fan of raw garlic, on this occasion, it was hardly a welcome treat. My mouth had been expecting carmelized popcorn, not a big clove of raw garlic.

Now, free from my dreams of egg salad sandwiches, I saw the duck eggs in a different light. Not as disappointments that couldn't be mixed with mayonnaise and white pepper, but as potentially tasty appetizers. I could picture them sliced onto a bed of thinly-sliced cucumbers with a garnish of pickled ginger and spring onions, or tossed like anchovies with cold noodles and sesame oil. My mouth even started to water.

Those duck eggs are sitting on my shelves, waiting for their chance. They won't go to waste. Besides, there's always April Fools Day.

Friday, 20 September 2013

China Snapshots

I'm actually a better-than-average photographer. You'll just have to take my word for that, because I can't offer you any proof, not now. Every time I see something worth photographing here in China--which, when I am outside, is every other minute--by the time I've got my camera ready, it's gone. And besides, you have to keep your wits sharp when you're out and about here. No walking around and staring up at skyscrapers; no goggling at over-loaded rickshaws driven by tiny, weather-worn grandmothers; no swerving around to look back at the entire family of four perched on an electric bike, shopping piled high on the back. In the two seconds it takes to point and focus, you could be flattened by half a dozen cars driving at top speed. California gets a lot of flack for letting its drivers turn right on red lights, but at least there you have to come to a complete stop first, and other cars and pedestrians get right of way. In China, not only do you not have to come to a complete stop, you don't have to stop at all. In fact, you don't even have to slow down. Crossing a street here demands your full attention as does walking along the sidewalk, where you may compete for right-of-way with electric bicycles, motorcycles, bicycles, and even cars. Believe me: I have lost hundreds of incredible, National Geographic-worthy shots, and it is only because I value my own life over art. It is agonizing to have lost so many wonderful photo opportunities, though, so tonight, on my way home from work, I decided to write my photos instead.

I took all of these word photos at six thirty in the evening, in a crowded alley between two narrow rows of  restaurants and bars. In China, there is a lovely custom: people go out in the evening and fill the parks and public spaces, where they chat, play games, dance, do martial arts, parade grandchildren, and generally hang out in the cool of the evening.

Photo 1:  A little boy dressed in a white shirt and blue trousers is sitting all by himself at a table, frowning at a pad of paper. He is chewing on a pencil, his face screwed up in concentration, his  features as serious as a six-year-old's can possibly be. It is obvious that he doesn't see anybody around him--all his attention is focused on the pad of paper. Suddenly his eyes widen and his mouth opens. He grins and pounds his fists on the table, then jumps up and cries out, at the top of his lungs, waving the pad of paper about. He has solved his puzzle! None of the adults around him pay him the least bit of notice.

Photo 2:  Three seconds away from the little boy, six college-age girls in short skirts and tight blouses sit together around a small round table. They are all holding mobile phones, and although their mouths are slightly slack -- they all have eerily similar expressions -- their thumbs are working hard. They take no notice of anybody around them.

Photo 3:  Next to the girls, three middle-aged men sit on park benches, smoking. Two of them have their white T-shirts hiked up so that everything but the tops of their shoulders is exposed. Half-smoked cigarettes hang from their mouths. Believe me, this cannot be described as an attractive look, and it is odd that only middle-aged men here feel the need to bare their chests. The men barely look up as we pass.

Photo 4:  As we turn the corner past the men, two more college-age girls come towards us. One girl is dressed normally, but her companion is eye-popping in a hot pink Minnie Mouse-style short taffeta skirt, fishnet stockings, five-inch heels of some glitzy silver-and-white material, a strapless silver top that seems to defy the laws of gravity, and what looks like half a pound of make-up. As they sashay past, I do my best not to stare, but it's tough. The girls don't seem to notice us, though.

Photo 5:  Around the corner there is a small public square where a CD player is blasting out music. It is so similar to the folk songs you hear in Japan during the summer festivals that I stop, filled with nostalgia. A dozen middle-aged women are dancing together, synchronizing their movements, their arms lifted high one moment, then swooping down in graceful arcs. They strut and dip and turn; they move backwards and forwards and sideways, and it is obvious how much they are enjoying themselves, how happy they are. We stop to watch them and they keep dancing, showing not the tiniest trace of embarrassment. My admiration is complete. One of them flashes me a broad smile, but they keep dancing.

My camera stays in my backpack all the way home.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Quintessential Scottish Experience

We are leaving Scotland again, this time to teach in China. Although we are excited about this move and our new jobs, it is hard to leave this country where we have lived so comfortably and happily for so many years.

When we knew we were going to leave Japan, I began to store up what I considered to be quintessentially Japanese experiences: walking under a canopy of cherry blossoms in full bloom, their pale pink and white petals radiating light; eating sushi and drinking green tea outside on plastic mats, listening to enka blasting from the boom boxes of fellow picnickers; walking with our children through a park full of cicadas whining their plaintive shree-shree-shree.  But the experience of Japan I treasure the most is the one I consider to be the most quintessentially Japanese in that I can't imagine it happening anywhere else. It happened at the Ito-Yokado department store in Abiko, where my little girls and I had been shopping for souvenirs. At some point, my daughters discovered they had lost a bag of whoopee cushions. Blushing, I reported the loss, and the store employee who handled our case treated it with with the utmost gravity and politeness, writing down the details of where we had last seen the bag and assuring my children that she would track it down. How she managed to keep a straight face when I described whoopee cushions in Japanese, I have no idea. I almost lost it when she confirmed what we had misplaced:  I see--a bag of those little rubber cushions you put on people's chairs to make a farting noise. Can you tell me where you last saw them? When we finally recovered the bag, this woman gave every appearance of being delighted that we had regained our essentially worthless purchases. This experience has stayed with me over the years because it is so typically Japanese: the woman's politeness and courtesy; her care in doing her job; her (feigned or sincere) delight in the happy outcome.

For the past three months, I have been trying to do the same for Scotland, capturing and treasuring the  memories that I consider to be definingly Scottish. Whenever my husband and I go out for walks, we stop and gaze out on the beautiful scenery around us--the heather in full bloom, the clumps of thistles and ferns, the lime-green moss, the sheep grazing in the fields. I run water from the tap and savor its good, clean taste; I walk down the cobblestone streets of our picturesque little town and admire the flourishing flowers in the window boxes; I listen to the bagpipes playing in the square and do my best to appreciate their shrill whining.

But then the other night I had it: the perfect, quintessential Scottish experience, something that could only ever happen here--an event that in its complete simplicity, speaks volumes about the people, the culture, the entire ethos of Scotland. First of all, it was unseasonably cold, and it was raining, which in itself is utterly Scottish. The wind had a sharp edge to it--again, very Scottish--and it was late at night. My husband and I were on our way back from work, dodging the dog-do and crumpled potato chip packets on the Glasgow sidewalks, when we saw a man coming our way, holding a Styrofoam take-out container of chips (french fries) which he was eating from. The man was dressed in a track suit he had probably slept in, and he did not have an umbrella. From the way he lurched as he walked, he had almost certainly been drinking--again, like it or not, I fear this is prototypically Scottish. As we passed him, I saw the man select a french fry, pop it into his mouth, and squeeze his eyes shut in obvious rapture. And although you might think I am being ironic here, that simple gesture of pure enjoyment filled me with respect and awe. In what other country could someone walking along rain-slicked, trash-strewn streets in unseasonably cold weather eat potatoes fried in saturated fat, drenched in vinegar and moistened by rainwater, in the bitterly, cruelly whipping wind, and obviously enjoy it?

Forget Braveheart, forget thistles and bluebells and shortbread and bagpipes--the real pith of Scotland is in the people, who can derive pleasure from such bleak experiences, and nutrition from such un-nutritious food. I take my hat off to this man in his rumpled tracksuit. The memory of him enjoying his soggy chips will join the rolling hills covered with sheep and heather, the refreshing Scottish summer weather, the beautiful sandstone buildings of Glasgow. In his genuine stoicism and stubborn pleasure against all odds, he is every bit as impressive as the Japanese store employee who could listen to a foreigner's description of a whoopee cushion with an entirely straight face.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Trading Places

I know this classroom well; I've taught at least three different classes in it over the past two years. As I sit here, I remember the time Chen fell over backwards in the back lefthand corner. Chen was a big lad who liked to lean back in his chair and had been warned that he could hurt himself. I'll never forget the split second it finally happened and he went heels over head, how scared I was that he'd broken his back--or how the entire class (including me and, eventually, Chen) roared with laughter when we saw he was okay. There are many familiar features: the place where I whacked my own head on a ledge when I straightened back up after leaning over to help a student; the window I could never manage to get open; the nasty radiators that could not be turned down in the winter when they turned boiling hot. And finally, there is the screen that, when pulled down, is almost impossible to roll back up; it needs to be pulled hard at a certain angle. Perfecting the technique took me a good year.

So it feels weird that here in this very familiar room I am not at the head of the classroom with the attendance sheet and a textbook; I am a student. And it is weirder still that the person teaching us is a Chinese graduate student. For the past three years, I have been teaching Chinese graduate students English. Here I am now, a student, being taught Mandarin by a Chinese graduate student. In fact, although this feels weird, it also feels great. Like being the household help for three years and then, one day, you are the one sitting down, putting her feet up while someone else is fussing around, fixing your meals, plumping up the pillows.

Then the class starts. The teacher introduces himself and tells us all about Mandarin, that there are five tones, 23 initial sounds, 36 final sounds, and a number of vowels. I do my best to listen carefully, but I'm distracted by our teacher's English. It is so good! His pronunciation is excellent, his use of articles is impressive--'the' and 'a' tend to be tough for Asian students-- and he uses stress well. Even as this poor man speaks, I am mentally giving him marks for fluency, cohesion, coherence, and pronunciation. Until he fumbles at the console to turn on the computer and I suddenly realize afresh that I am the student. He pulls down the awkward screen and it goes down too far and he struggles mightily to get it to up again. And, of course, fails, because this is the screen from hell that requires a good ten minutes of sweaty fiddling before it will cooperate. He worries that he has broken the screen, and my husband and I (my husband has taught in this classroom too) try to reassure him that he has not. I fight the urge to jump up and show him how to fix it. Finally, he gets the screen to roll up half a foot and the class begins.

I am acutely aware of several things by the end of the class:  1) I have been overloading my students by asking too much of them too quickly, 2) Sometimes people just need to sit there and not be called on, 3) Screwing up in front of a bunch of people is really, really embarrassing, 4) Chinese vowels are much harder than Japanese vowels, 5) Chinese consonants are harder and more plentiful than Japanese consonants, and 6) I have no concept of tones.

Years ago, I studied Japanese with three brainy Chinese students who assured me that I would be able to pick up Chinese in no time with my Japanese ability. I am ashamed to say that I believed them. They told me that I would surely find learning Chinese as easy as Portuguese learners found learning Spanish, or vice versa. "The characters are mainly the same," they said, "and the grammar is easy." They said nothing about the pronunciation, and in my youthful naivete, I just assumed it would be no problem.

By the end of the class, I am limp, exhausted, humiliated, and feeling a mixture of compassion and irritation for the teacher--he threw so much at us! Expecting us to get our mouths around all those hard sounds, then telling us that the tones were wrong!  And I am filled with respect and admiration for him too: he taught the entire class using English, a foreign language for him, however good he is at it. I would find it exhausting to teach a class using a foreign language.

"Wow, that was overwhelming, wasn't it?" my husband murmurs as we leave.

I nod. Seldom have I learned so much in such a short time. And very little of it was Chinese.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Cosmic Idiot

I am a naturally awkward person who can stumble over threads on the ground, run right into furniture that isn't blocking my way, and do and say stupid things so effortlessly I amaze myself. So it isn't as though it's hard to catch me doing clumsy things . But there is one woman in this town who has been unerringly (and eerily) present during my many diverse acts of klutzery over the years, and I am beginning to wonder what is up.

The first time I met this woman was in a local shop where I had gone with my kids. At the cash register, I reached into my bag to pull out my purse--and somehow managed to scatter the contents of my bag all over the floor. Half-eaten candies fused to their wrappers, coins, a hairbrush bristling with hair, a grotty-looking lipstick, and several dozen receipts all went flying, covering several square meters of floor. Before I could pick up my belongings, I looked straight into this woman's eyes. Her expression--eyebrows raised in amused scorn--did nothing to make me feel any less clumsy.

The second encounter was in front of the school where my daughter and I were having a spirited 'discussion'. I stopped to take a deep, steadying breath and there my censorious friend was, her eyes narrowed in disapproval as she took me in, in my red-faced, shrill-voiced, fishwife state (this woman, I have since learned, has three grown children.  I wonder: did they never give her a hard time?). Our third meeting was when I was learning to drive and had stalled the car at a busy intersection in a town forty miles away. I looked up and saw those familiar, deeply disapproving eyes frowning at me in my rear-view mirror, and that was when I knew that there were other forces at work--cosmic forces. Since that last occasion, there have many been others. She has caught me in my nightgown and hiking boots, scraping ice from our car windshield with a square plastic flower pot, swearing a blue streak at a split-open garbage bag on the sidewalk, shrieking and in hot pursuit of a cat who came into our house and sprayed three rooms.

But here is the eerie thing: other than on these occasions, I doubt I have seen this woman at all. It is as though she materializes only when I am doing something ridiculous and spectacularly unattractive.

Last night I saw her again. We arrived home late, after a full day of work, learning Chinese, and helping our daughter move, and in the midst of the first good rain we've had in weeks. I was in my pajamas and ready to go to bed, when I realized that I hadn't put down organic slug pellets. I was exhausted, but I could not chance leaving the slugs to ravage my hostas, zucchini, and pumpkins--after that long dry spell, they'd be out there in force with all the rain. So I got up, found a flashlight, and went outside with the slug pellets. And there on the paving stones in front of our entrance, I saw literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of slugs. They were so thick on the ground I could barely manage not to step on them as I made my way across the concrete. I am all about saving, and it was crazy to waste good pellets on all those slugs, so conveniently accessible. So I found a plastic container and embarked on a slug safari. In the end, I scooped up enough slugs to fill a half-liter container. But what could I do with them? I shuddered to think of them slithering up the sides of the trash can, and I couldn't stomach the idea of emptying them onto the pavement and squishing them. Three blocks away from our house there is a creek where ducks often come. I decided to dump my prey there. At least they would have a chance--or make a good meal for the ducks.

I was half the way there, holding my plastic container full of slugs at arm's length--and yes, in my pajamas--when there she was. The look on her face topped any of the looks she has given me before, and believe me, this woman has scorn down to a fine art. I held the slugs out by way of explanation, gave her my brightest smile, and bid her a cheery good night-- in Mandarin.

After all, there are other forces at work here--cosmic forces. And if I'm destined to look like an idiot, I might as well go all the way.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Li's Clever Mother

“Teacher, you are okay?” Li asks me, creasing his forehead and pointing to his chest. Poor kid: right in the middle of his tutorial, I've had a coughing fit. I coughed through part of the first class, my coffee break, and now Li's tutorial.
“I'm fine,” I wheeze, a Kleenex pressed to my mouth. “Don't worry—the doctor says I'm not infectious.” I lapse into another coughing fit. “I just—cough—have a tendency—cough, cough—to cough.”
Li doesn't understand tendency, so I have him look this up in the dictionary. This frees up some more time for me to cough some more.
Li's expression gets even more serious. “You must be careful! When you go home, you must rest.”
I laugh at this. I have another class to teach after this one, plus a long commute, and when I get home, the housework will be all mine.
“When I go home, I must do laundry and cook dinner,” I say. “My husband has a cold too, and his is a lot worse than mine.”
Li's eyes open wide and he shakes his head. “No, no—you must not housework!” he says. “That is very bad for women with cough!”
Much as I'd like to agree with anything that gets me out of housework, I have to question this. “Isn't it bad for anybody with a cough?” I say. “Woman or man?”
He shakes his head. “Especially bad for woman.”
This intrigues me. “Who told you that?”
“My mother,” Li says, his eyes wide and innocent. “She often cough.” He does a good impression of somebody with a bad cough and points to his chest, putting on a pained expression. “So I know that many kind of work bad for woman with cough.”
Thinking that Li's mother could well have a serious illness, I pull out the dictionary again. But after we've gone through asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and tuberculosis, Li shakes his head firmly. “No—my mother just cough, not disease.”
“So what kind of housework is bad for, um, women with a cough?” I ask.
Li frowns, considering this. “Clean floor. Also shop—very bad to carry heavy thing if cough.”
“What about cooking?”
“Very bad.” He furrows his brow. “Also wash clothes.”
“Cleaning the toilet?”
He blinks. “Yes, that is bad too.”
I'm really beginning to enjoy this conversation. I enjoy it even more when Li proudly tells me that he can cook, mop floors, shop for dinner, and do the laundry, that indeed he has become quite skilled at all of these in order to save his mother from the pain of chores that are Unsuitable for a Woman with a Cough. I really want to meet Li's mother. Li may be a bit naïve, but he's not a dumb kid, not by any stretch of the imagination. He studies diligently, is capable of critical thinking, and is almost always the first person in class to answer some of the harder questions. However his mother has worked her magic I have no idea, but I take my hat off to her.
“Take care yourself, teacher,” Li tells me, pushing his chair back and gathering up his books. “Do not housework! Then your cough stop.”
I tell him that I will leave the housework for the weekend. “Thank your mother for me, okay?” I say. “Tell her your teacher says good job.
Li looks puzzled, but he nods.
I watch thoughtfully as Li exits the classroom, his arms full of books that I know he is going to study.
I am seriously considering introducing Li to one of my daughters.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Foot First

Somewhere in Northeastern Japan, there is a twenty-year-old woman who came into this world her own way: foot first, and painlessly. I think of this young woman and her mother from time to time because their story is so extraordinary.

I met the girl's mother at a party when I was five months pregnant with my second daughter. I have since forgotten the mother's name, but I will call her Saeko. Saeko and her husband had brought their firstborn six-month-old daughter to the party, and, as women tend to do, we started talking about babies, then giving birth. There were a few other mothers there, one of whom was also pregnant.

"It didn't hurt!" Saeko told us. "Everybody told me how painful it would be, but it hardly hurt at all!"

We were all astonished to hear this, so Saeko told us the rest of the story.

Saeko's baby was facing the wrong direction--feet-first. Her doctor consulted a very experienced midwife who was able to turn the baby in her womb, but although this was accomplished successfully, the baby always flipped back to her original position by the next visit. Because of this, Saeko was scheduled to have a caesarean  section, which she was understandably nervous about.

As she was lying on the guerney waiting to have the surgery, Saeko went into labor. "Only I didn't know at the time because it didn't hurt!" she said.

Saeko's belly had been painted with betadine and she was waiting for the surgeon to show up when she had a feeling of strong pressure, but no pain. She told the nurses that she needed to go to the bathroom, and before they could help her up, her daughter began to emerge, foot-first. Slowly, but surely.  And painlessly.

"She just kept moving, slowly and steadily, until her head was out," Saeko told us. "Her legs weren't doubled over or anything. The nurses said they'd never seen anything like it. She reminded them of a dancer, or somebody doing t'ai chi"

"And it really didn't hurt?" a woman who'd had a 50-hour labor asked.

"No! All around me, I heard women screaming their heads off, but I never even had the time to," Saeko said. "And I didn't need to either, because I could hardly feel anything. It was so, so strange!"

There was a long silence as we all absorbed this. The woman who'd spent 50 hours in hard labor looked especially thoughtful.

"Is she always this quiet?" another woman asked, pointing her chin at the basinette next to Saeko. Because Saeko's baby had slept placidly through a fairly noisy party.

Saeko nodded. "Everybody says so. I  mean, she cries to let me know she's hungry, but she sleeps a lot. And she's very sweet-tempered."

This, for me, was tough to hear. A few years later, with two non-sleeping children, one of whom was hell on wheels, it was even tougher to recall.

All of us mothers got to cuddle Saeko's baby when she woke up from her long, long nap, and she really was placid and sweet-tempered--no false advertising there. As we left the party, there were murmurs all around about Saeko's luck. One woman commented that Saeko might want to consider having a dozen children. My own personal opinion was that she shouldn't tempt fate.

Over the years, I have wondered to myself what sort of toddler this baby became, what sort of child, and for pity's sake, what sort of teenager. Somewhere along the line, Saeko's luck must have run out or there simply isn't any justice in this world.

But occasionally, when I meet women who are expecting babies and some young mother asks me that question--Does it hurt?--I always tell the truth, that yes, it did. And then I tell her Saeko's story.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Class Act

"None of you did it?" I ask, my eyes wide, my hands held out. "Not one of you?"

A few students have the grace to look ashamed. They lick their lips and shake their heads slightly.

"But you do remember I told you, right?"

One girl nods. "Number three, four, six," she murmurs.

"And exercise two," I tell her. "You remember that, right?"

She looks uncomfortable. I turn to the rest of the class.

"On Monday when none of you had done your reading  homework, I told you I wanted you to do two as well as three, four, and six. Do you remember?"

Three of them actually meet my eyes and nod, but I am beyond irritated with this group. This is at least the sixth time they have neglected to do their homework and I've had enough.

"I absolutely told you to do exercise two!" I say. "I even had you say it back to me afterwards. But now you're telling me that none of you did it."

Lips jut out. Brows furrow. Nobody will meet my eyes.

"All right, you are going to do number two right now--all of you, right here."  And suddenly I realize what I've just said, and it is extremely funny. So is the fact that my students have no idea what the other meaning of number two is. I'm still hopping mad, but I snicker--I can't help myself.

The students look alarmed. Clearly I'm disturbed: I've just changed the channel from pissed-off to ha-ha-ha and they can't figure it out.

"Seriously," I say. "Open your books and start doing number two right now--"  I clap my hand over my mouth to stop myself from howling.  This is really embarrassing. I could not count the times my students have yakked away in Mandarin, laughing their heads off while I sit there utterly mystified, but suddenly I'm having my own one-woman giggle party. And there is no way I'm going to share this with them.

One girl casts a furtive look my way and reaches for her book. Now that she knows she's dealing with a madwoman, she's taking no chances.

"When you've finished exercise two," I splutter, "please check your answers with your partner's, then we'll go over them together."  My last words dissolve into a fit of laughter as I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.

And by God, they do it. Exercise two is faithfully if not accurately completed. They sit there, heads down, pens busy, occasionally taking peeks at me to see if I'm not actually foaming at the mouth. Then we go over it in class.

I don't give them any homework afterwards, though. I think they've suffered enough.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Cleaning Fever

I have a fever. It is such a high fever that I actually think I'm dreaming when I hear girlish voices just outside my room. Girlish voices talking about vacuum cleaners.

"You've got to see this!" the first says, and this voice is familiar--it sounds like my daughter. "The suction is incredible--it'll pick up anything." Good God, that doesn't just sound like my daughter, it is my daughter!

There is a roar as the vacuum cleaner is switched on.

"Oh my God, you're right, this is amazing!"  This voice is harder to place, slightly accented. I recognize it eventually: it is Magdalena, my daughter's university friend who is currently visiting us.

"Try it over there, on the stairs," my daughter says eagerly. There is a satisfying sound of debris being sucked up. "See?"

I turn over in bed and blink. No, I'm not dreaming this up: they're actually out there, two eighteen-year-old girls, and they're having at the carpets in the hallway. The cat scurries in and jumps onto the bed, obviously traumatized.

"Isn't that just fantastic?" My daughter again.

"Yes! It doesn't leave anything!"

"Hang on--get that bit of string there in the corner."

The vacuum cleaner roars on.

"Oh my God, it picked that right up!" Magdalena squeals.

"Having a vacuum cleaner like this really makes you want to clean, doesn't it?"

Are my ears actually hearing this correctly? Having a vacuum cleaner like that doesn't make me want to clean one single bit. Obviously, given the state of our carpets.

"Doesn't that look better?" my daughter marvels enthusiastically. "You can really see where we've vacuumed!"

Magdalena makes an equally enthusiastic reply. The two of them could be doing a parody of those over-zealous fifties housewives in cinched-waisted full skirts and high heels you used to see in magazine advertisements, gushing over their brand-new collections of tupperware or gleaming kitchen appliances. I turn over in bed, flushed with fever--and guilt. Magdalena had only been over for two days when I succumbed to the flu. We haven't been able to show her a very good time, and here she is now, amusing herself with my housework.

"Whenever I come back, I always hope Mom hasn't vacuumed," my daughter says.

Bless her: this is true, and she is seldom disappointed.

"With a vacuum cleaner like this, I can see why you want to do it," Magdalena says.

 "Yes," my daughter agrees. "The one we had before we got this one was awful. You could go over a spot a dozen times and not see any effect."

 Ah, I remember that last vacuum cleaner: using it was a long exercise in futility. You could work for hours with very little to show for it afterwards. This is a little like writing. You can slave and soul-search endlessly, to have the fruits of your labors cast aside in seconds, scorned, or worse still, not even noticed.  Maybe I should go back to doing regular vacuuming so that I too can delight in the satisfaction of a job well done. Of course, I abandon this idea as quickly as it comes.

The girls' voices grow more distant, along with the drone of the vacuum cleaner. I settle back on my pillows and marvel at my good luck in daughters and their friends.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


The phone rings, shattering my peace and interrupting my train of thought. But I have to answer it: what if one of my daughters is sick or in trouble? What if she needs money? What if somebody I love has died, or a friend just needs to talk? And finally, what if by some crazy quirk a wonderful bit of good fortune is about to fall into my lap? I am both an optimist and a pessimist, so I absolutely have to answer the phone.

And of course it is an annoying telemarketing person, just doing the only job she can find, but still driving me half wild. These people have been tormenting me for years now. They have brought me flying into the house from the garden; they have forced me to scramble down from ladders; they have vexed half a dozen sleeping cats who have been dumped off my lap so I can rush to the phone and be interrupted. Even one or two of these calls a week is too many.

And then a tiny lightbulb of inspiration flashes in my brain. I will have some fun with this call: it is my phone, it is my time, and it is my right.

"Hello?" I say in a low, respectful tone, the kind of tone you would use if there was an elderly invalid in the house and you were a totally out-of-touch menial whose job it was to answer the phone.

"Hello," says a brassy voice. "Is this Mrs. -- uh . . . " There is a long pause and then the lady mispronounces my husband's name.

"I'm sorry," I say in the same quiet voice. "With whom do you wish to speak?" I aim for posh east coast American since I can't do British.

The woman repeats herself, doing a little better this time, but still struggling with the consonant cluster.

"Ah," I say. "Just a moment. Madam is sleeping at present, but I will see if I can awaken her again." I pause. "This may take some time."

The woman apologizes so quickly I feel a twinge of remorse. "No, no--please don't bother her! It was just a courtesy call!"

Courtesy call. My remorse vanishes in an instant. "May I take a message, then--?" I start to say, but the woman has hung up.

I put the receiver back in its cradle and go back to what I was doing, smiling a smile of deepest satisfaction. I'm still nowhere near finished with the chapter, but I have still managed to achieve something extraordinary: in barely 30 seconds, I have managed to get a telmarketer to hang up on me.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

American Beatles

I am collecting homework when I see them, a real blast from the past: the Famous Four. It's the well-known photo of them crossing a road, single-file, mostly long-haired and bearded, and there they are, on the back of Xu's mobile phone. How touching, that today's young people still revere the classics.

"Hey," I say, tapping the phone. "You've got the Beatles on your phone. Are you a fan?"

Xu smiles, caught out. "I don't know," he admits. "Just--famous picture."

"The Beatles," I say, instantly feeling a lot older. "This photo was on their Abbey Road album."

He nods. "Famous American singer."

This stops me in my tracks. "No, not American--British!"

"Really?" Xu asks, looking doubtful.  "I always think American."

"Believe me, you are wrong. They're British. Just ask Patrick."  Patrick is my co-teacher, British, and roughly my age. I smile just thinking about his reaction to Xu's statement.

Now the rest of the class is interested. Weilong, who sits across from Xu, agrees with me: the Beatles are British. Jenny, who sits next to him, however, has always believed they were American.

This is the hardest thing about being old: the things you don't know often render the things you do know null and void. Although my students trust and respect my knowledge of English, my general ignorance of anything to do with IT never fails to astonish them. After all, kids like Xu and Jenny have grown up knowing the difference between DVDs and CDs, that YouTube is not spelled U-tube, and that 'cn' in a URL tells you it's from China. The credibility of people who have demonstrated their ignorance of such fundamentally obvious things has to be suspect.

"The Beatles are British," I tell them. "End of story."

"But one man dead in America," Jenny informs me  pompously. "New York."

"Yes, I know," I say, a little dizzy when I consider that this happened at least ten years before she was born. "But he was still born in England. All of them were born in England."

"Mm," Jenny says, frowning.

Now I get it: they don't really care, one way or another, what nationality the Beatles were. They've got that look in their eye that says What difference does it make? A foreigner is still a foreigner. The look I've had myself when someone has pointed out that a CD is not the same as a DVD.

"Remember what we were talking about earlier?" I say.  "About how you feel when somebody thinks you're Japanese? Or that man you told me about who argued that Confucius was Korean, and how much that irritated Chinese people?"

Xu and Jenny both nod, their eyes open wide. Suddenly they get my point:  every country wants credit for its cultural icons. I will never forget my response to the Japanese student I once had who insisted that Simon and Garfunkel were British. Or for that matter, the spirited, spluttering reaction of a theretofore quiet Kazakh student when a Chinese classmate suggested that the first person in space was American. Xu and Jenny may not believe me, but when they leave, I have no doubt that they will be thinking about this.

And I am right. Three days later, Xu catches me after class. "Teacher, you are right," he says. "Beatles are British. I look in Wikipedia."