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.