Culture and idiomatic English

This is a piece that I wrote for my memoir and I am sharing it with you today, timely as the Chinese Lunar New Year is just past.  It is sort of long and somewhat humorous.  I taught in Beijing in 2001 and 2002.  I am currently working on writing a book about the experiences.

 

Many of the students in China who wanted to perfect their conversations skills in various languages went to a place called English Corner, or French Corner, etc.  This was a street corner where, on certain days, all sorts of people met to speak the language of their choice.

My husband attended a couple of these and since he was a native English speaker, he became the focus of these sessions.  No longer were the attendees speaking in conversation to one another, but all were vying for Bob’s attention in order to practice with a real English speaking person. It was tedious and very tiring.

What could we do with our students that would help them improve their English speaking skills?  I used several methods, including debate, tour guides, plays, but the most popular by far was the soap opera.  I have to explain that in Beijing, soap operas are very popular, taking up a good percentage of broadcast time on many of the local television stations.  They are maudlin, with a good deal of intrigue to carry your interest to the next episode.

I used the soap opera was used in my classes for both semesters.  These performances were at the beginning of each class session; especially the ones after lunch, as it excited them and brought them fully awake from their postprandial stupor. I had noticed students in other classrooms sleeping after lunch.

When arriving in class, five students were told they were the stars for the day.  These five would go out in the hall to prepare for their performance.  They had ten minutes to work on their episode. Sometimes I would give a topic and sometimes I would allow them to carry on in their own way continuing the story from the day before.

I wish I had recorded these scenes as they continued to unfold over the term.  It was interesting to see what they would use for their own ideas, but also fun to see what they would do with the ones I presented them. Many had preconceived ideas of “the American Way” and it was interesting to see these ideas in play form.

One class originally started with a Chinese family that lived in the United States.  When I asked them to describe this family, they told me that they lived in a big house, had a red convertible.  This comes from watching too many American movies.  “Well what kind of family do they have?” I asked.  “Oh, Miss Deon, they will have twelve children,” they replied. My response to this was how do we fit them in the little red convertible when it is time to take them to the movies or school?  They hadn’t thought this through.  So in one episode, we went on to find an appropriate vehicle for this family, shopping for a vehicle for a large family.  (The large family is the Chinese couples dream as they have been so limited to one child for so long.)

After we had fashioned the U.S. family, we created a Chinese couple with a child who were coming to the U.S. to visit our newly created family. One episode included piling into the new fifteen passenger van the family had purchased (financing was never figured out) to meet the Chinese family at the airport.

We had engagement of oldest daughter, guys night at the bar watching football (read soccer), one child who wasn’t doing well enough at school, a neighbor whose daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, sightseeing to Yellowstone Park, Grandmother who gambled too much at mahjong, and many more.

After a while they became very talented in creating scenarios for these vignettes.  They were so comfortable doing this that I decided to occasionally throw in a monkey wrench to scenes.  During the one were the guys were in the bar watching football, I had arranged for one of the women in the class to enter the play and go up to her “husband” and say “Where have you been?  It is our anniversary and you promised to take me to dinner and here I find you playing with your friends at the tavern!”  You should have seen the actor’s faces.  They were mortified. The students in the audience already knew this was going to happen as I had arranged it while the actors were in the hallway working on the plot.  We all laughed hysterically.  If course, the carefully arranged plot needed to be modified and the rest of their play changed to an impromptu, extemporaneous skit.  They really had to think on their feet to finish their ten minutes of fame on stage.  I must say they managed to pull it off well.

Toward the end of the term, one group of actors, who now knew that I might throw in something anytime, arrange for a surprise of their own.  The pulled me into their plot from the audience.  I’m not sure they got the responses they wanted, because I made it more difficult for them to hold to the plot by playing around with their addition of me to the game.

Needless to say, this whole exercise really pushed them to learn casual conversation.  After the skit was over, we would talk about the cultural inaccuracies they had portrayed, like fitting fourteen people into a red convertible.  Since I was teaching Western Culture as well as idiomatic conversation, it was a learning curve all around.

My husband’s class decided to put on a play.  They chose, of all things, Snow White. Well, this seemed pretty straightforward and probably not too difficult.  They would practice their parts in class as well as in their dorms.  However, in China, all the important parts should be played by men.  Snow White is an important part; therefore, it should be played by a man.  Chinese men normally do not have much facial hair, if any, but the gentleman chosen to play Miss White had a full beard.

Well, if a man could play the main woman then women could play the men.  The whole play was done with cross dressing! All the dwarves were women dressed as men.  The wicked queen was a man, the prince (another important part) was the only part played without cross dressing.

So here is Snow White in a dress he borrowed from one of his classmates.  He is wearing Bermuda shorts underneath, thankfully, as he sits with his legs splayed in front of his audience,  the dress being hiked up to a level as to be too revealing. Well the whole play was a riot.  Though they practiced a great deal, the glitches, such as the queen tripping over the hem of his gown, and the dwarves singing “hi ho, hi ho” off-key, it was wonderful.  They invited all my students to come for the audience as his students all had parts and they needed an audience.

My students chose an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice, so abbreviated that it was a little hard to follow and the audience, Bob’s students, got a little bored with the whole thing. They had a good time doing it and developed elaborate costuming from their limited wardrobes, but they did get a chance to practice their English Conversation.

Needless to say, this was just a couple of more examples of my quirky way of teaching conversational English and Western Culture.

 

Enjoying the Harvest

img_3498Being an avid vegetable gardener, I was very interested in a program that the local school district is doing to help children learn about food production and preparation.  It looks like it was a great success.  Go to  https://whidbeyschoolgardens.wordpress.com/ to see the results.

We did have a wonderful year for the vegetables.  We have been giving lots to the local foodbank and friends. The tomatoes were especially productive and we have definitely eaten our fill.  We also have several dozen bottles of various tomato products sitting in the root cellar shelves.  The Brussels Sprouts are just ready now as we have just had our first frost (a very late one this year) and now they will be sweeter to eat.  The leeks are wonderful too.  We will have those fresh all winter.

The gold nugget squashes are sitting safe from mice and rats and we can eat those for the entire winter.  They will probably be gone by spring and we must have had about fifty of them.  Gave quite a few away too.  We like these in particular as they are just the right size for two people.  Though I like baked squash, hubbards and their kind are just too big.  I have tried baking them and putting them in the freezer, but it is just too much, so we have settled on the gold nugget.  They are sweet, very yellow and are also suitable for making pies.  I cut them in half and fill with sausage or sausage and cornbread dressing, or just with butter and brown sugar. Yum.

Well the dark days of winter are here and some days I am not sure the sun has even come up.  Today we will have sunrise at 7:48 a.m. and sunset at 4:15 p.m.  Not a very long day, especially when you almost need flashlights during the day.  All the lights are on in the house just to help us stay awake.

I am on my way out to chop firewood again.  With this cold snowy weather, we have burned quite a bit of wood to keep warm.  Now it is time to warm myself working outdoors splitting it.  It is something I have written about previously in this blog and something I do enjoy.

Happy Holidays and keep warm!

 

Going the Distance

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It is just over six months since I started this project.  I am trying, on another venue, to work on my memoir AND to rewrite a seven hundred page journal into something that can be used as a book.  That journal was written when I lived in China and taught Western Culture and idiomatic English to scholars who were preparing to study overseas.  Both of these projects are a big and long row to hoe (a farm idiom).

I only started writing about two years ago.  I am an old woman and writing never came easily for me.  I can remember in high school English having to write a 200 word paragraph describing something.  I managed about two sentences and then I was lost. In college, the research paper on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a totally incomprehensible dialog.

I didn’t discover, cognitively, until I was a couple of years out of college, that I had a reading disability.  I couldn’t get it the first time I read it, or the second, and sometimes, not even on the third time through. I just couldn’t understand what the words on the page meant.

Maybe it was because my family moved many times in primary school.  I am unsure as I was really a good reader in first grade, but things went downhill from there and three moves in second and another in third didn’t help my reading skills.  It also wreaked havoc with math too.

By sixth grade, my teacher told my parents I was lazy.  I tested high but could not perform.  Didn’t anyone realize I had a problem?  Parents, be aware of your children’s progress in school.  Illness, hearing difficulties, eyesight problems, moving, and more can cause problems with learning.  If your child did well and then suddenly has problems, maybe there is an underlying cause.  Try to find out what it is.  Primary school children are building the formative basis for their studies throughout their lives.  I think if my parents had paid attention, they would have found I wasn’t lazy, but had lost the continuity of learning in so many moves from school to school and from teacher to teacher, all with different approaches to teaching.  Just the trauma of changing schools and being with new children so often, having to fit in, can interfere with learning.

When I was an adult and out on my own, I could little afford much in the way of entertainment.  Going to a library and getting books was not a high priority as I hated reading, but, having little money, I needed something to occupy my mind in the quiet times commuting on the bus, and in the evenings without television.  Books that were light and comic were my choice.  I soon discovered that my problem was being unable to read.  I worked very hard at remedying that problem.  After five years of reading as much as I could, I finally learned to read efficiently.  I went from droll humor like The Egg and I to reading texts such as Introduction to Geology and understanding it the FIRST time through.

Reading is a big part of my life now.  We do not have television and night comes at about 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter’s day in my part of the country.  Reading happens every day.  Sometimes just for a short while when I sit in the sun (if it decides to be present), or for several hours by the fireside on a cold, blustery winter’s night.

Now, here I am, a person who was almost illiterate, writing, writing about my life.  What a change from the sixth grader whom the teacher said was lazy, the college student who needed to read the collateral reading three times to get it.  Now I can enjoy the written word.  Too bad someone didn’t notice earlier.  School would have been a lot easier and more pleasurable.

 

Postscript:  As an undergraduate in college, my grades outside my major were mediocre.  When I went back to grad school, after I had learned to read, I was a straight A student. Too bad it came so late.

It is just over six months since I started this project.  I am trying, on another venue, to work on my memoir AND to rewrite a seven hundred page journal into something that can be used as a book.  The journal was written when I lived in China and taught Western Culture and idiomatic English to scholars who were preparing to study overseas.  Both of these projects are a big and long row to hoe (a farm idiom).

I only started writing about two years ago.  I am an old woman and writing never came easily for me.  I can remember in high school English having to write a 200 word paragraph describing something.  I managed about two sentences and then I was lost. In college, the research paper on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a totally incomprehensible dialog.

I didn’t discover, cognitively, until I was a couple of years out of college, that I had a reading disability.  I couldn’t get it the first time I read it, or the second, and sometimes, not even on the third time through. I just couldn’t understand what the words on the page meant.

Maybe it was because my family moved many times in primary school.  I am unsure as I was really a good reader in first grade, but things went downhill from there and three moves in second and another in third didn’t help my reading skills.  It also wreaked havoc with math too.

By sixth grade, my teacher told my parents I was lazy.  I tested high but could not perform.  Didn’t anyone realize I had a problem?  Parents, be aware of your children’s progress in school.  Illness, hearing difficulties, eyesight problems, moving, and more can cause problems with learning.  If your child did well and then suddenly has problems, maybe there is an underlying cause.  Try to find out what it is.  Primary school children are building the formative basis for their studies throughout their lives.  I think if my parents had paid attention, they would have found I wasn’t lazy, but had lost the continuity of learning in so many moves from school to school and from teacher to teacher, all with different approaches to teaching.  Just the trauma of changing schools and being with new children so often, having to fit in, can interfere with learning.

When I was an adult and out on my own, I could little afford much in the way of entertainment.  Going to a library and getting books was not a high priority as I hated reading, but, having little money, I needed something to occupy my mind in the quiet times commuting on the bus, and in the evenings without television.  Books that were light and comic were my choice.  I soon discovered that my problem was being unable to read.  I worked very hard at remedying that problem.  After five years of reading as much as I could, I finally learned to read efficiently.  I went from droll humor like The Egg and I to reading texts such as Introduction to Geology and understanding it the FIRST time through.

Reading is a big part of my life now.  We do not have television and night comes at about 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter’s day in my part of the country.  Reading happens every day.  Sometimes just for a short while when I sit in the sun (if it decides to be present), or for several hours by the fireside on a cold, blustery winter’s night.

Now, here I am, a person who was almost illiterate, writing, writing about my life.  What a change from the sixth grader whom the teacher said was lazy, the college student who needed to read the collateral reading three times to get it.  Now I can enjoy the written word.  Too bad someone didn’t notice earlier.  School would have been a lot easier and more pleasurable.

 

Postscript:  As an undergraduate in college, my grades outside my major were mediocre.  When I went back to grad school, after I had learned to read, I was a straight A student. Too bad it came so late.

The Dictionary

(Page 1977 from the dictionary.  Note I have used the slug drawing for this as it is the state mollusk.)

When I was in fourth grade in 1953-54, I had this very mean teacher. I had moved to Redmond Elementary School in January 1954.  I was eight years old and a year younger than my classmates. The teacher wanted me to be in third grade, not fourth. At the end of the year she told my mother she was keeping me back to redo fourth grade.  Mom negotiated and if I went to summer school, my teacher would pass me to fifth.

I didn’t care for this teacher at all but I imagine she probably had good points.  She was old, grey of hair and skin, skinny, squint-eyed and all the other fourth grade classes used to feel sorry for us in her class.  I don’t think I ever saw her smile. Later I found out she was a single lady taking care of a single sister with the latter stages of MS.  I guess her lot in life was difficult. Maybe this was why she never smiled and was gruff with us in class.  Since I was beginning to show a reading problem, may have been the reason she felt that I should be held back, taking the same year over.  I don’t remember getting any extra help with reading, however, and we were not divided into groups according to our reading skills.

I do remember her punishing students, myself included, for not keeping up in class.  Off to the coat closet.  Yes, we had an enclosed closet that spanned the back of the room where we put our coats, boots, lunches and other things we dragged to school for safe keeping during the class day.  I don’t know how isolating us from the studies helped us catch up. She was also generous with the use of the ruler applied to various parts of our bodies when we misbehaved.  Thankfully, it was never applied to me.  She retired two years later.

She always was harping on my not keeping up, though I don’t remember her helping me to get ahead.  I was just lost amongst a lot of new kids.  My dad had a full time job in town and commuted, something that no other parents did.  The rest of the students came from stump farms that raised a few dairy cattle or from small, low income cottages in town, working at the local ice cream factory, helping on larger farms, keeping small shops in town, though many were unemployed. Maybe she thought I had a more privileged life than my contemporaries.

At the end of summer school, which finished the end of July, the room needed to be put in ship shape for the coming year.  Old unclaimed school papers hauled out to the trash, all the desks cleaned out and washed, all the miscellaneous stuff that was taped to the windows removed and all the seasonal stuff, put up for the approaching summer from last spring’s classes, dumped or stored.  I guess the remedial students in summer school also were the grunt workers too (read janitorial help).

At one point, the teacher told me to take the dictionary out to the trash, they were getting new ones for the new school year.  The dictionary!  This thing was a thing of beauty.  Worn to the point that you could barely recognize the once gold-leafed title on the spine and front. The tobacco brown cover now was missing its shine and was worn through to the cloth.  The spine was still intact, amazingly, considering its size and having been used for eons by careless fourth graders.

Its size–I just weighed it–is fifteen pounds. It is nine by five by twelve inches.  I think we forget about dictionaries these days as we have them online when we use word processing and when we are reading electronic books online.  We don’t look up words anymore; we just point the digital pointer at them and are given the proper spelling and an abbreviated definition in seconds.  If we don’t know how to spell the word, several suggestions are given.

This behemoth book was not a pocket dictionary or even one that was held in your lap.  It was located on a special stand in the classroom so it wouldn’t be manhandled (kidhandled) too injudiciously.

The copyright date is 1926.  Maybe the school district felt it was time for us to have access to more modern words.  Today a dictionary is obsolete in about five years.  By then this one was twenty-eight years old.

Some of the wonderful things about it were the lovely engravings throughout.  Lots of engravings with several on every page.  It also had extensive etymological explanations taking up several inches at the bottom of each page.  It didn’t define words using the same word.

I remember finding, in fourth grade, that the word reach had twenty-seven definitions.  It gives variations and synonyms of the words.  It has a pronouncing biographical dictionary as one appendix. The pronouncing gazetteer, the population of the cities in the US with more than 5000 people, elements of pronunciation of foreign names, and pages and pages of illustrations of botanical, zoological, and mechanical objects are in the back as appendices.

That was why I was so surprised later.  This was truly a wondrous tome.  I couldn’t see taking it out and dumping it in the trash.  I asked if I could take it home.  Knowing the teacher didn’t like me, I didn’t hold out for much hope of a positive answer.  Her response was “How are you going to get it home?” Wow! I hadn’t thought about that but was so excited I could hardly believe she was going to be that nice to me.  It was July and summer school was a half day so we could be home for lunch.  The bus stop was three-quarters of a mile from my house.  Maybe she let me take it knowing the punishment it would give just getting it home.

School was OUT for the year.  It was in the 90s outside.  I trudged to the bus with my treasure.  I was tired when I got there and it was only a few steps from the building to the bus.  I got off the bus at my stop with the scorching sun shining down on my head.  The heat was rising in waves from the ground.  Now the trek.

Down a long ditch, one quarter mile down the railroad tracks, and the remainder down a dusty, dirt track to our farm.  Needless to say I stopped a number of times to rest and set down my load.  I was small for my age.  I probably would have to rest these days too, carrying a fifteen pound book in my arms.  I arrived home red-faced and late for lunch.  My mother saw the obvious reason for my lateness and my red, sweaty appearance.  I did have a BIG smile on my face though.

That dictionary always had a special place in my room.  I used it often and it went to college with me along with a new, more up-to-date version.  It is still with me and I use it only occasionally having succumbed to auto correct and online dictionaries as a more convenient and quicker way to get the right answer.

I still treasure it, though it is pretty battered.  I have tried to smooth out some of the convoluted pages in the front and back, but they refuse to stay flat. Who would have thought that one of my worst memories of a teacher would be associated with my having and keeping such a treasure.

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