Seven Quick Takes

  1. We finally got wifi this month, after a month of frustrating bureaucracy, and it’s been really nice to feel somewhat connected again and be able to work. I’ve got to admit it’s also nice to be able to watch a movie without finding it in advance and downloading it too (I know, spoiled millennial here!). Netflix here has most cartoons dubbed in Chinese too so occasionally we let JQ watch one for 5-10 minutes in the hopes that he’ll pick up on some Chinese. Easy bilingualism, right? wouldn’t necessarily learn Chinese in five minutes three times a week, but kids’ brains are supposed to be porous so I’m sure he’ll get it in no time.

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    He thinks so too, and is wearing Chinese
  2. Of course, it should help that JQ has started getting babysat for three hours a day, five days a week, while I teach. We’ve asked his babysitter to speak Chinese around him so he’ll pick up on it–but it’s still a little early to tell whether it’s working yet as his go-to word is still “Maamaa” in various forms. He seems to be enjoying it (as in, not screaming the entire time), though he has been a little more clingy when he’s at home. Hopefully it won’t take him too long to adjust.
  3. It’s been interesting living in a basically bilingual country. Kids on the playground switch between English and Chinese without thinking; they study both in school and probably hear both at home. It does lead to some rather thick accents (it’s really hard to figure out what people are saying!), and their English is definitely colored by Chinese-isms (like using “lah” at the end of every sentence). It also makes for some humorous moments, like when the Singaporean man at Bible study gravely started explaining the spirit of peas (he meant peace) and how it could only be explained by the love of the cross.
  4. I haven’t taken any pictures recently because we haven’t really gone anywhere in the last few weeks, but I still have some neat pictures of downtown Singapore that I haven’t shared here.
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    This is the piano that Lang Lang played on….maybe on a visit to Singapore? I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but it got its own exhibit. Shiny, huh?
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  5. I’m finally figuring out grocery shopping/cooking here and remembering how to cook without an oven. We got spoiled by having an oven in England! Now it’s back to stovetop and toaster oven cooking, although the previous residents of our flat left us their rice cooker, so I’ve been experimenting with one-pot meals to the tune of–chopping up ginger, garlic, and yellow ginger (turmeric), throwing in rice cooker with rice and water and any other vegetables I feel like, putting a fish on top, and cooking away. Jared loves it and it’s awfully easy, though rather uninspired. It also stains my fingers and cutting board a bright yellow so I look somewhat jaundiced on my left hand.
  6. We got our boxes yesterday! So nice to unpack all the things we packed up in England–just like sending a present to ourselves to open in six months. Untitled Now we have a couple pictures to put on our walls and more stuff to clutter up the house with, like books..and…well…more books. UntitledAnd we still have most of our books packed in boxes in the U.S. When we finally move back, I’m not sure I’ll even know how to deal with multiple (as in, ten or so) shelves full of books any more–I’m already envying my future self.
  7. Around where we live, there’s very few white people, so JQ’s hair and skin draw lots of looks and admiring comments. They’ve also prompted several old men to start conversations: “Where you from? You American?”

“Yes, we’re American,” I reply.

“What you think ’bout Trump?  How could so many Americans vote for him?”

“Well, it was a hard election,” I say, evading the question. “Neither candidate was exactly great.”

“Well, I think Bill Clinton’s wife should have won. She’s much more experienced!”

And delivering this zinger, he walked away. Many Singaporeans feel compelled to state their opinions on American politics, and they all think I should have something to do with changing them. Sorry, but democracy doesn’t actually work that way.

Linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum!

One Easy Step to Foolproof Humility

You wanna know how to get humble quickly? Teach English as a foreign language.

The instant you step into the classroom and open your mouth and are greeted by blank stares from at least half of the class, you will feel like a failure. After all, communication is one of the most basic things in life. You learn to talk in your native language when you’re so little that even jumping is an accomplishment. Speaking is something we all do as easily as we breathe, and we just assume that people will understand us and know what we’re saying.

All of that changes when you move to a foreign country. Suddenly, your language is no longer the dominant one, and the people who speak it may have never even seen a foreigner before, much less heard the strange accent with which you speak. And your vocabulary–when you think you’re using simple words–may be even more of a headache. Simple idioms that everyone uses where you’re from (think “happy as a clam” or “so far, so good”) may (and probably will) stymie foreign speakers.

Add the language barrier to the fact that you’re unsure of what you’re supposed to teach and when and suddenly your stress levels become much higher. If you’re like me, you’ll worry about whether your lesson plans can possibly be organized enough for the students to know what you want them to do, if maybe you should have covered other aspects of argumentative essays in your last PowerPoint (which, by the way, I EXTREMELY dislike using. . . but it saves me money on giving out handouts. . .). You’ll wonder if they will end their semester knowing only vaguely more about writing than they did when they went into it. But since there wasn’t anything more you knew how to do, you figure they’ll probably know a little more. . .and you haven’t ruined their English speaking skills yet, so maybe it was all right. Although some of them still struggle with subject-verb agreement and using articles.

When you begin grading their papers for the semester, it’ll be even worse. You’ll constantly doubt whether you gave a fair grade–maybe so and so really deserved an A, and you gave an A-. Or maybe you’re being too easy on everyone and should give more B- and C grades. On top of that, you feel like you really should give everyone comments on their paper to tell them what you liked and what needed improvement, but then on the 90th paper (out of 110) you have only five minutes before the next class starts so you throw all your careful grading out the window, slap a grade on it, and move to the next. Surely they value actually having a graded paper returned to them instead of one with lots of comments but no grade or one returned a week later!

Anyways, I only have around 60 papers left to grade before 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, when I’ll have another 110 (handwritten, no less!) slung at me. Yes, for finals here (which are 50% of their grade, no less–how am I ever supposed to grade THOSE fairly??), they have to write an entire essay in an hour and a half. Thankfully, they’re generally short essays. And all my objective fairness doesn’t really matter anyways–I can only give 20% As, even if there are more students who deserve an A. But that’s China for you!

Pray for me–I’m off to grade papers! (And I’m sure I’ll become more humble in the process.)

With Grunts and Groans: Attempting to Learn Chinese

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My new wall hanging. If I learn Chinese well enough, I should even be able to read it!

Saying sounds on their own is not a good way to fall in love with a language. I’m surprised it ever worked for me back in kindergarten when I was learning phonics! Maybe it’s just because English sounds are more normal to me. Perhaps I’m even getting as English-centric as the fellow who declared that English was the best and most common-sense language in the world—and his proof was that he thought in it (I pray I’m not that narcissistic, though!).

Chinese sounds, however, are weirder than English sounds. All the zhs and chs and shs and rs (no, it’s NOT said like an “r” in English) are mind-bogglingly similar. And don’t even get me started on the vowel sounds—who knew that the simple letter “e” could make a sound similar to the one you make when you’re punched in the gut? I didn’t. Or that the difference between “chu” (pronounced /tʃu/) and “qu” (pronounced /tʃeu/) is a slight rounding of the vowel sound, which English speakers generally don’t even listen for?

So on the first few days of class, as the teacher went around the room having everyone pronounce all the sounds of Chinese, I have to admit they sounded funny. None of us—all Americans—were good at sounding like a Chinese speaker. In fact, we all sounded distinctly American and out-of-place. Sometimes we sounded like we’d had the wind knocked out of us. Speaking American English doesn’t prepare you well for learning the sounds of a different language, and Chinese has some definitely odd sounds.

On the plus side, though, tones are actually one of the easiest parts of learning Chinese. It’s a built in way to make you start thinking in the rhythm and intonation of the language. Of course they use them differently than English speakers do—instead of rising in intonation for a yes/no question, they rise in intonation for second-tone words. Just listen to a Chinese person speaking English and you’ll get an idea of the differences in intonation.

Language learning is like sanctification—it tears away masks put on by habits and shows you for who you really are. Then it builds you back up till you are, in some ways, a new person. It’s hard. It can’t happen immediately. And you will make mistakes—probably many times. And you will probably never become perfect.

You can’t be a perfectionist either—or you never get anywhere. Whenever Jared or I try to say anything in Chinese to a Chinese person, they laugh. Or look confused. Introducing himself to a random Chinese person in the cafeteria today, Jared tried to say, “Wo zhongye shi guoji zhuanxi” (my major is international relations). The Chinese person replied, “Oh, you study alternative medicine?” Apparently Jared had a tone wrong someplace or another.

To really excel at learning a language, you have to be willing to put aside some things that you think of as truly essential to who you are—you have to totally change the way you think and speak. You have to be willing to speak confidently, even when something as ingrown as your language is being changed. And you have to be willing to try again—and again, and again, and again. Hesitance and pride will get you nowhere. If you say something hesitantly in Chinese (as I tend to do), you will get the tone wrong (unless it’s a fourth tone and falling anyways).

They say perfect fluency is hard to achieve in any second language—the last five percent is the hardest to achieve. Ask anyone who’s lived a long life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing about perfection. Of course, perfection is impossible, and learning a language perfectly is not. But sometimes the hard things are the ones most worth striving for.

P. S. Jared is actively working on his sanctification right now—he’s drawing characters and making pronouncements in Chinese about my family, while singing along to Mumford and Sons (I’m not sure how that really helps him with Chinese!).