Summertime (Part II)

On Monday the 27th of June, at 6am, some friends drove outside my house to pick up me and my blue suitcase. They drove me to Buchanan Bus Station, from where I took the bus to Edinburgh, from where I took the plane to Birmingham, then Dubai, then Hong Kong, from there the ferry to Macau, from there the taxi to the University of Macau campus, and at 10pm local time on Tuesday the 28th of June, I dragged my blue suitcase alone in the heat of the night in an unknown country trying to find my dorm.

What was waiting for me was a double room which would end up being occupied just by me, and cockroaches. Big, nasty cockroaches with a vengeance. Now, I had never seen cockroaches before in my entire life, so I didn’t know what they were when I first saw them. There was one on the floor, two in the toilet bowl and one lurking in the mouldy shower curtain. When I first got to my room I moved the bed to gain access to a power outlet to charge my phone, and saw the most horrific insect that I had ever laid eyes upon which was not a spider. It was dead thank goodness, but it had a striped fat elongated body the length of my middle finger, which, believe me, is long. It had legs and two tiny tentacles or possibly teeth in the front. It was a monster. Now, I didn’t realise that it looked nothing like the other insects, which turned out to be cockroaches, but grouped them all together in my head and sent an SOS to my dad in the form of a WhatsApp message asking what on God’s green earth was the unholy creature under my bed. The picture may not have been the best but my dad was so confident in identifying it as a cricket that I started calling all the new big black insects crickets. Needless to say the entomology gene does not run in my family. It took a few days till I was publicly shamed for this by my new friends, but hey, live and learn.

The next few days consisted of intense training and getting to know my new friends (which, for an introvert like me, is equally intense and exhausting). The need to be constantly alert and also the fact that I had been completely burned out by the inbound trip made my jetlag almost nonexistent. However, the culture shocks had been so massive that I was not feeling great the first few days. It was too hot, it was too humid, it was too different. I had thought that living in Singapore had made me more adaptable to Asian lifestyle – it had not, at least insofar as Singapore is a very mild and heavily westernised glimpse of Asia. When I first set foot in Macau I was in a different world, and I did not like it. I keep telling this to everyone who’s kind enough to ask: the strangest thing was that for the first time in my life (well, post-pre-teen life) (post-pre-teen?) I was in a situation where I could potentially not communicate with anyone. This frightened me to no end. I could not longer take English for granted. And my four other languages were of no use. My dead languages sure as heck weren’t. And let’s not even talk about Elvish.

Linguistic application time: I realised that more than anything, it is language that groups people, at least in my head. Of course it was strange being the only Caucasian as far as the eye could see, but that did not make me uneasy. It was the fact that these people and I did not share a language. The faces weren’t exotic; the languages kind of were but that was not the problem; the situation, however, was.

Anyway, once I made friends and settled down and met my students, things started to go very well indeed. I made some amazing friends and the students seemed to like me, and I adored them. Some of them were being difficult in the start just to test my limits, but after swallowing my frustration and being very firm the troublemakers ended up being my best students. The teaching was very free-form and chilled but there were a couple rules that the programme organisers wanted us to follow in our classes: the first one was that the students had to speak in full sentences, and the second one was that no Chinese was allowed.

The first rule I didn’t always bother to follow just because it wasn’t practical, but on a much deeper level I disagreed with it completely. Nobody speaks in complete sentences in informal situations, so why train students to do so? When you are asked a yes/no question, it is perfectly fine and acceptable to answer with a single word. Same goes for other questions. So there was that.

The other rule was a good one but very difficult to make the students follow. I don’t blame them, they had differing levels of difficulty in expressing themselves in English, and obviously Chinese came naturally to them all. For a week or so I tried my best to call out the use of Chinese, but it was largely fruitless. Then I came up with my masterplan. In one class the students were divided into two teams and competed for which team could come up with the most food items in English. One category was drinks, and a group of smart-alecks started listing different kinds of juice: apple, orange, mango, pear, lemon… Lemon? I asked them if they seriously thought lemon juice was a thing, and ever the integrous students, assured me that lemon juice was definitely a thing and that I should certainly award them a point for it. So next time we met I decided to put them to the test and brought with me some delicious lemons. I sat in the front of the class, pulled out a lemon from my bag, and started peeling it as you would any citrus fruit, without saying a word. Some students were confused, some amused, and the group of ‘lemon juice’ fame caught on and started laughing nervously. I then separated the lemon into segments and put them into a bowl in the middle of the students’ table and told them that as a reward for speaking Chinese you get to eat a segment of lemon which you so seem to enjoy. The students absolutely loved it. There was next to no Chinese in my classes after that, and even when there was, the other students were sure to call him or her out just for the pleasure of seeing them suffer.

So yeah, I enjoyed getting to know my students, but I also realised through this experience that I did not want to become a teacher. I always thought that being a teacher meant being someone who is knowledgeable in a particular subject and who passes on that information to others – however, on school-level anyway, the subject you teach is pretty much immaterial (pun intended, Italian speakers). You are not a teacher of X. You are a teacher. That is the profession. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes, the classes themselves are just what the students see. And even there it’s not really about what you teach, it’s about management of class dynamics, it’s about interpersonal relations, it’s about balancing democracy with benign tyranny, it’s about solving administrative problems that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject itself. And I’m not cut out for that. Or if I am, it’s an ill fit. I care too much about my subject to let classroom management get in the way of sharing my knowledge. I don’t have the necessary skills or patience for dealing with troublemakers. Other people are called for that, but that’s no longer in the realm of linguistics, it’s something completely different, and I’m not good at it. Of course I could learn. But why try to correct an ill fit when you already have a perfect fit?

This is turning out to be a book I’m writing, but I’ll just get most of it out. Apart from teaching there was a lot of touring around Macau. The bus service is excellent and it’s dirt cheap – not just the bus but everything, eating included. I ate out a lot and tried such exotic things as chicken feet and jellyfish. The former was actually delicious if you didn’t think too much about what it was. The latter was fine, the taste was that of fish so it wasn’t too bad, but the consistency was too weird. I was almost – almost – sick that night, but my iron-coated stomach handled it just fine. I also had the most epic eating sessions with an Australian girl who I shared a room with after we were all forced to change dorms, and we had the most amazing time devouring watermelons and packets upon packets of Oreos and Timtams while watching Bridget Jones.

Macau was also really safe for solo travel, as I experienced one Saturday when I went out walking for the day on Macau Island (we were based in Taipa). I walked from the new Grand Lisboa to Largo do Senado to the Ruins of St Paul and finally to A-Ma Temple. It’s fine as long as you keep hydrated. I explored Taipa too with friends, and went to both Hac Sa beach (with a larger group of friends for barbecue and a swim) and Cheoc Van beach (with just two other friends). The trip to Cheoc Van beach was magical – first we walked around Coloane in the evening, went for a bite of something, and then for a night swim under the stars. There were flying fish all around us and so many seashells to be gathered. We continued our walk even after the swim in the dark with bats around us and crickets (actual real crickets) chirping the night away. At midnight we returned to Taipa for some barbecue before returning home. It’s still one of my favourite memories.

As a final note before I sign off for now is that I ended up picking up Mandarin. The group was small (we started out as five but ended up as two) and we had a lovely time learning to speak. I even got given a Chinese name, Ai Miao Ke (fourth tone-fourth tone-third tone) and my three weeks of learning Mandarin culminated into ordering soy sauce in Chinese on my last day – and I received soy sauce!

 

Summertime (Part I)

What a summer.

I finished my exams in the 18th of May and holidayed for the remainder of May. The exams were incredibly draining emotionally. First I handed in an essay portfolio which I thought was actually pretty good, but it did a grade lower than what I had hoped so that was a bit of a disappointment – it was the first B in my otherwise unblemished record of straight As. Keeps me humble, I guess…

I didn’t have much time to worry about it, however, because up next were my three phonetics exams: written, transcription and production. The last one, production (in which I get shown phonetic symbols in isolation and embedded in nonsense words and I have to pronounce them), went incredibly well, but that is coming from a person who once crafted a handmade A3 reproduction of the IPA chart in her free time, the one which is now hanging to my immediate right from where I’m sitting. So yeah, I had fun. Transcription (in which the professor produces sounds and nonsense words and we have to record them using phonetic symbols) went alright, although I’m pretty sure I made a few mistakes.

The exam, however, was a blooming disaster. Or so I felt. We even had the fire alarm go off in the middle of the exam (a one-and-a-half hour exam!) and my coursemate spoke for us all when he said he hoped his exam would burn. I don’t know what distorted version of my paper the examiners ended up reading, but as it happens I did fantastic in the exam. As much as I loved phonetics, it did rather show me that the mathematics-y side of linguistics is really not my forte and that I should just stick with my mouldy paradigms.

I was very well prepared for my philology exam and rather enjoyed the exam. We had to write three essays and I had a great deal to say in all three, and I did do fantastic in that exam too. I got out of my second-to-last exam at 2pm on Tuesday, and my last exam was to be the next morning at 9am. It was to be the last exam of five in the space of eight days. I was not very well prepared, not at all.

That Tuesday afternoon I came back home and collapsed into bed. The next day’s exam was Old English literature (that is, Anglo-Saxon literature). I had loved the course, but we would have to do translations and essays and commentaries in the exam, and I was terrified. We had studied about a dozen poems and bits of prose (some a couple hundred lines long), and although I had translated all of them at one point in the past nine months, I could not remember anything about them. My mind was blank. I was ready to panic.

In a brief moment of unexplained lucidity, I devised the following battle-plan: I was only going to cram in about ten percent of a year’s worth of material, all at the very last minute. Don’t get me wrong, I had studied hard for this course the whole year. But I was overwhelmed by the amount of things I’d have to commit to memory, although I understood everything that was taught. I carefully chose three or four poems which I translated and then memorised the translations (having an incredibly good memory does not hurt in situations like this). I briefly annotated the poems as well as I could, and colour-coded everything so that I’d be more likely to remember it. And then I went to bed.

The ten percent that I had studied? It was all in the exam. Every last bit of it. For the translation I had prepared in a different way, but making hundreds of flashcards and testing myself on vocabulary every single day. So the translation pretty much wrote itself. The poems were a piece of cake too – I remembered the translations perfectly and had intelligent things to comment on them. And then the essays – we had to write two (this was a three-hour exam). For one of them I really had to think hard about all the criticism I had read. I think I wrote it on The Wanderer, and lucky for me, I had read a killer essay on it for preparation. In fact, I’d been so captivated by the poem and its Biblical allusions that I even memorised the Bible verses that the poem draws on. Let’s just say they came in handy.

And for the other essay… For the course, we had one big assignment in the autumn term and one in the spring term. The way it works is that the better one of the two is counted towards your mark. The autumn one was a grammar test on Old English while the spring one was a critical essay. I did slightly better in the grammar test (because, of course) so I was free to use anything and everything that I wrote in the essay again in my exam. Well, it so happened that in the spring I wrote an essay on reading the poem Deor as a consolation. And what did I find in the exam as a possible essay topic? To what extent can Deor be read as a consolation? Bam. Essay done. And did I mention that I had miscalculated the time allotted for each section and ended up with a mysterious extra 45 minutes in my hands?

June was the first June that I had ever spent in Glasgow and it was glorious. I had never really lived in Glasgow outside of term time, and it was wonderful to find that my friends had not forgotten all about me and were willing to hang out. I also spent my first ever birthday in the UK and also my first birthday away from my family, but I had an incredibly good day and I was moved to find how many people did indeed take the time to wish me well – a family even invited me over to watch the Italy game that evening, and although we sadly lost, it was a wonderful day.

And then I flew off to China. I think this post is getting out of hand so I’ll tell you all about China in the next installment, and maybe spare a thought for America too. Suffice to say for now that I had an incredible time but it’s good to be home. Glasgow’s home.

In the Thick of It

I hadn’t planned on starting my blogging summer holiday quite yet, but it just so happened that last week there was no time for writing anything or even thinking about writing anything. This China business is taking up all my time and energy, and I have a few other activities that have kept me very busy indeed. I also downloaded Netflix – yes, finally – but only to redeem the free trial month. I thought if I don’t do it now, I never will, and it’s quite nice having something a bit different to entertain me while I’m working on my cross stitch or cooking or whatever.

It has to be said, though, that Netflix is utterly disappointing. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff on there, but so very little of what I find interesting even in the slightest. So far, these are the things I watched which I actually went looking for and found:

  • A single Sherlock episode which I missed when me and my family watched the whole thing together. I love Sherlock but I watched it too recently to see it all over again.
  • Grand Budapest Hotel, which was alright. There is something visually moreish about Wes Anderson and I can’t quite put my finger on it except that it’s so picture-perfect to be surreal, and I find it delicious.

 

These are the thing I went looking for out of curiosity and watched a little bit of:

  • One episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I found Kimmy sickeningly sweet and although the concept of the series is weirdly interesting, I find very, very few American comedies funny or even entertaining (The Office (US) is one of the very few exceptions).
  • Half an episode of House. I love Hugh Laurie, and I might yet go back to give this another chance, but I had to pause the episode by the time the doctors were slicing that woman’s throat in the pilot episode. From the little that I saw of the character of Dr House, but mostly based on hearsay, I find his character fascinating – a bit like a medical Sherlock, miserable misanthropes the lot of them. Perhaps I identify with those characters a bit more than I ought…
  • Half an episode of American Horror Story. I have a weird relationship to horror stuff: I creep out very easily, but I find horror oddly fascinating. I had enough of the sexual content after half of the pilot, so I don’t know exactly what levels of creepy AHS is able to reach, but I lost interest and will look for an alternative source of horror in the future.
  • Half an episode of House of Cards. All my friends and their neighbours have been telling me about this series, and I just might give it another go, but American political dramas are not entirely my jam.
  • Half an episode of Dr Who. I had never watched Dr Who before in my life, so I thought it was about time to give it a go. I didn’t hate it, but I felt like I had walked in mid-meeting. If and when I get into Dr Who, I’ll have to start at the beginning, or at least a lot earlier, to get a proper feel of the characters and also compare the different performances for the role of the Doctor.

 

These are the things I happened to stumble upon on Netflix and absolutely loved:

  • The Thick of It. I watched the entire series in a couple of days and absolutely loved it! It was also the first time I saw Peter Capaldi since Local Hero, which was made ages and ages ago. The Thick of It was such a dark comedy, similar in many ways to The Office, and Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker was totally brilliant. I don’t think I’ve heard such creative swearing in my life, and so much of it, come to that. I watched this while going through one of my most intense weeks in terms of work and general admin, and I was absorbing all the stress and making my own life ten times worse – but it was definitely worth it.

 

So this is what’s been going on in the last week. I had hopes and dreams for a well-thought-out post today since my fingers have been itching to get writing today, but there’s too much else on my mind to actually come up with something interesting. I will still try to update before I go to China, so stay tuned in case I drop something marvelous next time.

Back to the Books

People think that I’m a lady of leisure now that my exams are over, but I’m here to tell you that that is not the case at all. When I cram, that’s all I do and that’s all I have time for. But when I’m freed of my scholastic duties, I have to deal with all the responsibilities that have been accumulating over the weeks and months. It’s been a week now since I finished my exams, and I have been cleaning, organising, ironing, cooking, archiving, recycling, shopping, reading, cross-stitching, catching up with friends and generally just doing all the housekeeping and admin. So today’s post is late by a day. You’ll live.

It’s fair to say that I have been loving post-exam life. I feel like I’ve retired. Yes, I’m busy, but I have time to do all the things I usually don’t have time for. It’s wonderful and while I absolutely love studying, the life I’m presently living is truly one of luxury for me. Not leisure – I don’t enjoy being at leisure for more than a few hours tops – but luxury all the same.

Since I do enjoy studying, I have taken up a few study projects for June, totally self-managed. I think it’s about time I drop the bomb to my readers: I’ll be going to China for the whole of July to teach English. I can’t even tell you how excited and nervous I am! So in June, I’ll be studying two things in preparation to my trip. The first thing is just going through some basics of TEFL – I have absolutely no formal training in teaching English, nor was any required in the job I got. I make no pretenses that I’m going to learn a great deal in just one month, but I think it would be nice (if nothing else) to have at least a glimpse of what I’m getting myself into. If it’s not clear to anyone reading my blog yet, I’m a planner. I prepare in advance. My worst nightmare is anything impromptu. In fact, in high school I had actual nightmares of surprise exams. So yeah, I like to be prepared.

The second (more exciting) thing I’ll be sort of skimming over in June is, of course, Chinese. But I have a dilemma here. Once in China, I’ll have the opportunity to take classes in either Mandarin or Cantonese. Now, Mandarin, it seems to me (and do correct me if I’m wrong), is the language that all foreign learners of Chinese are taught because it’s the more widespread of the two and considered to be Standard Chinese. So given these facts, it would appear that picking Mandarin is the thing to do. However. There’s a catch. The place I’m going is a Cantonese-speaking area.

So my question to myself and the whole world is, Do I pick Mandarin or Cantonese? The reason I’m asking this now is because I want, nay, need, to start prepping. The pros of Mandarin are that it’s more international (I guess?), more widely-spoken in China, access to study materials is easier, and it’s basically the standard form of Chinese that everyone learns. The cons are that I’m not going to a Mandarin-speaking place. The pros of Cantonese is that I’m going to a Cantonese-speaking place, it’s much more niche (a definite pro in my book, #ILearnElvishForFun), and because it’s so difficult to find study materials, I probably ought to take advantage of this opportunity to learn it. The cons are that out of the bigger cities, it’s only spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, so I’m not sure how useful it is in the grand scheme of things. But hey, when did I ever learn a language because it was useful? #ILearnElvishForFun

So I think I’m currently leaning towards Cantonese. I’m hoping that once I get a hold of the whole tone system and the overall structure of a Chinese language, maybe teaching myself Mandarin at a later date will be at least a little bit easier, and I’ll be spoiled for choice in terms of study material. And anyway, since I am going to a Cantonese-speaking locality, it would probably be nice to hear the language I’m learning spoken around me. Maybe even – dare I? – try to say a few words in Cantonese. Call me delusional, but I just might.

Chip in, state your position in this Mandarin-Cantonese dilemma of mine and feel free to share any tips or tricks for learning Chinese.

Stripped Bare

I have just finished my exams and it was really intense, so today’s post is the product of a sleep-deprived under-fed over-used mind. Lower your expectations.

Lower.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago in one of my seminars my tutor asked me to name the first animal that popped into my mind. Bear. She was very surprised. Most people seem to say something like cat or dog, since they are catalogued in most people’s brains (but apparently not mine) as the prototypical animal. A girl came in late to the seminar so the tutor asked her the same question, and she said moose. Our tutor was baffled by this. Now, I think there is a very fascinating correlation in the fact that I was mostly raised in Finland, whereas the girl who came in late is Swedish. Moose and bears are typical examples of forest wildlife, so there’s that.

So maybe my Nordic upbringing has something to do with it. But I gave this a heck of a lot of thought (procrastination, anyone?) and I think I have tapped onto something a lot deeper than that. ‘Bear’ has, as far as I can remember, always been my go-to prototypical animal. And here’s why.

It is the animal stripped of all additional features, all extra bells and whistles. Horns are extra. Long tails are extra. Stripes are extra. Scales are extra. Wings are extra deluxe. It is the animal form in all its simplicity, the mould for all other animals, the basis, the template, the starting point. How do  you define a bear? How would you define a bear to someone who has never seen one, without resorting to negatives? It’s…an animal. It’s the animal.

And when we describe any other animal, aren’t we all really just describing it in relation to a bear? Animal X flies/swims/jumps/swings from tree to tree – implying that the “prototypical” animal doesn’t. It’s time to stop pretending that bears aren’t the stock representatives of the entire animal kingdom.

There’s not much I can write to make this post any weirder than it already is. To sort of quote Bret from Flight of the Conchords but in an entirely different context: I told you I was freaky. You didn’t believe me.