Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nguyen Tuong Van

I have a reason for following the news about Nguyen Tuong Van...

I have a friend who passed through Singapore airport while carrying heroin from Bangkok to Sydney. He was one of the youngest people ever to be arrested for importing heroin in Australia. I assume that those who organised the deal were never caught. I just thank God that he was arrested in Sydney and not Singapore.

His prison sentence was short and he emerged a better person. He is the most loyal person I know, someone I can rely upon completely. When I was sick in Hong Kong, he was the friend I called in the middle of the night to take me to hospital. I have been safe in dangerous situations because he was around.

He still struggles with personal drug use but he would never again traffick drugs. Anybody touched by drug addiction is a victim. Some of he most tragic life stories I have ever heard are those of people suffering from drug addiction. Often the tragedy started before the drugs.

I hate the death penalty.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I went to a West End show for free on the weekend. It had incredible costumes, well choreographed moves and talented choral backing. There were even free refreshments.

The bells and incense were a little too much for me, however. I will try a different church next week.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A greater evil

As of today I am letting go of a prejudice. Since childhood I have made jokes about American people being ignorant. I vow never to do it again. Should I become drawn in to an American-bashing conversation in the future I will interject with, 'but American people are so friendly and polite!'.

Yes, it's official. I am living in the rudest country on earth. Last week I was verbally assaulted by a waitress for rearranging the dishes on a restaurant table. Yesterday I was screamed out of the dry cleaners (sans garments) because it was a couple of minuted past closing time. And the stuff I had came to collect was hanging right behind the staff member as he shouted at me! What's more, it was Friday evening and the shop doesn't open until Monday.

The contrast with my laundromat in Hong Kong couldn't have been more poignant. They were open till midnight seven days per week. If I caught them as they were closing they would open the shop again for me. They were friendly and always rounded down the weight of my washing, telling me that I was a good customer.

But the prize for customer service goes to my bank where I was told the following, 'We can't give you a good bank account because we don't know anything about you. You've just moved here and you don't have full time work. It's better for you to go to another bank because we can only give you the basic account which isn't any good.'

I did try going to another bank but they couldn't schedule an account opening interview until over two weeks later. I gave up and returned red-faced to the original bank for a basic account. Over a week later my account details have just arrived through the post.

My extensive contact with immigrant groups over the last couple of weeks has confirmed my thesis. The longer people stay here the ruder they get. I'm on my guard. Infact, I'm determined my to abuse my position as a language teacher to make this country a friendlier place...

Monday, November 21, 2005


In the past two weeks I've become one of the most networked people in Islington. After contacting most of the community organisations in the area and visiting about half of them, phone calls have come in from six potential students. This is enough to set a start date for the class.

It's taken my knowledge of Sudanese tribes, Ethiopian names, Congolese languges and ability to discuss the Somali diaspora. I even burst into Urdu today to excuse myself for entering a mosque right after Friday prayers. All this in temperatures barely above freezing. I feel like Erin Brockovich.

Oh, I have so much to whinge about but I realised I did that in my last post... I'll try and hold it in till next time.

No please

It annoys me to hear people saying something like, 'in such and such language there is no word for such and such' as if it bears great meaning in regard to the culture of the speakers of that language. It reflects the ignorant assumption that a language is just a collection of words.

A common example of this is a statement I hate, 'a lot of people who learn English as a second language come across as rude because there is no word for please in their language'.

Most English speakers don't realise that saying please is the smallest part of sounding polite. In most sentences, please is just an extra frill which is very liable to sarcastic use. The only time we are genuinely impressed by please is when it's spoken by small children or parrots.

It's a tragedy if people are taught that please is the key to politeness without being taught the importance of:
- tone
- boy language
- modals e.g. could you, can you, would you etc.
- super polite forms - if you don't mind, if it's not too much trouble, if you could that would be fantastic

The reason that some non-native speakers of any languge can come across as rude is that politeness is actually very complicated. This is more true of English (an ugly mess of a language) than it is of most languages which have more organised systems for sounding polite.

Politeness is a feature of all languages but it needs to be taught. It's not automatic that a person who is polite in their first language will be polite in a second. If language is a tool to get what we want then being polite (or persuasive, manipulative etc.) is often just as important as being able to clearly express what it is that we actually want.

Friday, November 18, 2005


I think I gravitate towards smelly workplaces. When I was a swimming teacher people would complain about my permanet chlorine odour. While working at Chungking Mansions I exuded CKM One - a heady mix of curry, smoke and incense. I now come home from the farm stinking of animals in general, particularly things that cats and mice do.

Work is going well and the search for a second job is looking okay. My colleagues are nice and weird enough to be very interesting. Today we went to the fish and chip shop to pick up lunch and brought it back for a picnic sitting on the compost bins. The weather was freezing (frost stuck till afternoon) and the bins were the only dry and sunny spot.

Today was my first day working with my co-worker on the asylum seeker project. Her name is Mary and our boss delighted in introducing us to people as 'Joseph and Mary the new staff members'. I'm waiting for more jokes involving us, hay and the animals. It brought back long repressed memories of 'where's Mary?' infants school taunts...

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mujhe maaf karo

I pity anyone in central London today who doesn't like 'Hung Up', I've heard it coming from shops and passing cars and that's without even leaving home!

I too joined the queue of people in the local CD store buying 'Confessions on a dance floor'. The highlight of the album for me is Madonna speaking in Hindi in 'Sorry'.

She does quite well. The first two words, 'mujhe maaf' ( to me forgivness), are excellent and then 'karo' (do) comes out a little weird. It's understandable. The slightly rolled 'r' sound is difficult and it's hard to follow it with an 'o' (as in 'go') without making it sound like 'oo' (as in goo).

Overall a good effort.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Me=cat magnet

I've never been a cat person. So I can't understand why the three cats at work spend so much time crawling over me and my desk.

Yesterday the black kitten spent most of the day in my lap, getting up occasionally to chase my pen (as I wrote), walk across the keyboard or shuffle a mouse's head around my feet. I don't get a shock anymore when it jumps from the top of the filing cabinet onto my shoulder.

The big fluffy cat is less energetic. It slept all day next to my monitor, moving only slightly when I had to retrieve papers from underneath it's body.

The kitten's mother has decided that the top of my monitor is a good place to sit and survey the office.

If they're trying to convert me they're not doing a good job. The kitten had acheived some success but it blew it with the mouse.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


I've been wondering lately about the future of this blog. Since arriving in the UK I haven't had much to write about that couldn't be classified as whinging. I thought about asking Gwyneth Paltrow if she wanted to form a club after she was lambasted in the press for complaining about rude customer service, non-stop rain and dirty streets. I think her outburst was quite restrained, infact I could make a much longer list, beginning with the following:

- the price of everything (with no necessary relation to quality or good service)
- the underground - smell, carriage height, heat, rubbish, getting to the platform...
- the difficulty of opening a bank account (I still haven't managed)
- half hourly marketing phone calls from call centres
- 'assemble at home' furniture that arrives incomplete
- being referred to 'complaints offices' which are only contactable by post
- people eating fast food meals and drinking alcohol on public transport
- delivery people who steal stuff
- having to worry about my valuables everywhere

Okay, I better finish there.

Anyway. I started a new job on Monday and I'm hopeful that it will give me something else to write about. It's in an interesting area, on my way from the tube station to work I passed a vandalised car, a drug deal and a girl running through a park screaming. I read in the paper that vigilante gangs in the area have started going after criminals because the police response time is so slow.

And my job? I work on a farm. An educational farm in the city is starting a basic skills program for asylum seekers. I was hesitant to work with asylum seekers again but the job is fantastic. My hours are very flexible and I will be completely responsible for designing the course and lesson plans. Best of all, there is a limit of six students in the class! Since it is part-time, I'm looking for another job to supplement it.

And there's no need to fear that this job will be tame after working in Chungking. I arrived on Monday morning to find my new colleagues cleaning a mountain of mouse poo off my desk.

Rodents, drugs, insane people... it's all comfortingly familiar.