Language Learning

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**

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French in New Jersey to English in Kaohsiung

During my brief time as an English co-teacher in the Taiwanese public school system in the rural outskirts of Kaohsiung, I have gone through many emotional stages. Hopefulness, contentment, confusion, exasperation, frustration and now realization. I’m assuming this cycle will repeat itself over and over throughout the school year, but I want to talk about my recent realization.

Few of my students from grade 3-6 have a favorite subject other than “break time” (recess), and most of them disregard and are disruptive in all their classes, not just English. What gives? Is it really the ultimate torture for children to be in school? I’m not being naive. I definitely enjoyed NOT going to school, but my memories of elementary school are about 50% playing, drawing and making projects. It wasn’t until middle school that I remember hating School as an Institution. I had a conversation with two students the other day, one of them was arguably the best at English for her grade and the other was probably the worst. Both felt the exact same way about English: It’s tiresome, it’s confusing, it’s useless and above all if they had any other choice, they would avoid a foreign language altogether.

I tried to understand the students’ opinions on English class by thinking about my French classes from 5th grade to well after college. I would say in the total of nine years that I formally studied French, only the last two were enjoyable. So why did I stick with the French for the seven years before that? Probably because it was my choice to take French. By the end of 5th grade, my elementary school exposed my class to micro-versions of Spanish, Italian, French and German and left it up to the students to choose the class they wanted to take in 6th grade. I picked French, but in any year of middle school (as long as it was during course selection time), I was allowed to switch languages, though, teachers would advise against it. High school was the same, you had to take one year of any language you wanted and after that it was your choice to continue with that language or a new one.

My students have no choice. From first grade, English is mandatory for everyone and students aren’t separated by levels (e.g. like in the U.S. with regular v. honors). English becomes just as intense and as boring as math or science, and its difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that no one in their local community has the practical need for English in their daily lives. Also, English class has higher standards. My students have been asked to read short books on their own, follow along with textbook dialogues in class, and analyze and explain their meanings–this method of teaching doesn’t happen in their Chinese classes so they are doubly lost when they are asked to do a task such as on-their-own reading for the first time in a new language.

Students are not given the opportunity to choose their application of English in school, either, and this becomes a point of tension between students, teachers and administrators if students’ English levels are low. In my opinion, getting the students interested in Anglophone cultures would increase the likelihood that they would actually want to learn English. Also, English Language and Culture Club or lessons teaching culture would serve students better (at least make them associate English with something entertaining) than conventional methods of teaching foreign language because it allows room for students’ opinions and questions. But at both of my schools, I am being urged/encouraged/pressured to coach English Readers Theater and English Singing Contests which emphasize rote memorization and teacher-end production rather than student-end production of English. There is a sense that English class is something for administrators to show off rather than for students to learn and enjoy.

Now, I’m trying to brainstorm new ways to approach English teaching in my classes because the current ones have made students feel like English is this dead-weight they’ll have to carry in their course curriculum for life. I refuse to be a teacher that just goes with the flow and doesn’t give a damn about what my students get from their lessons. Fulbright, IIE, the U.S. government, Taiwan’s MOFA, the Kaohsiung city government, and my schools didn’t fly me out here and give me a year’s salary so I could be a flesh pronunciation machine. In the LEAST, I am here to represent my country and my culture and along with that my language for the benefit for the students. Quite frankly, I don’t like my language being used as a tool of fear or torture when there is so much out there that is exciting and beautiful about it. Like puns and slang and Beyonce.

Obviously, there are economically beneficial reasons why Taiwanese students should learn English. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s educational system for English language learning is falling on mostly deaf ears outside of big cities like Taipei or Kaohsiung City. Though my students might have a mild interest, the enormity and ambiguity of a totally foreign language with no cultural relevance leads them to doubt their teachers’ better judgement.

Back to my experience as a French student. Miles from a metropolis and even further from any Francophone community, a native French teacher desperately tried to get his classes in order and keep his students interested in the French language. Forget learning French, he simply wanted us to learn something. The administration gave him little help and he was the only French teacher for the entire school. Ultimately, none of us left high school speaking French, though many of our Spanish-taking classmates left speaking Spanish. But due to his persistence many of us did leave French class knowing more about the world.

We learned that all continents in the world are more complex than their stereotypes. We learned that the United States is not a unique melting pot country because France has its own unique diversity. We learned that our own country’s history and geography was dotted with the French language (Detroit, Boise, Illinois are all French-origin names), and the legacy of the French culture lived on in the American continent in more ways than we could have ever found out on our own. We even learned that New Jersey was a top tourist destination for French Canadians (go figure), and indeed on the Wildwood boardwalk in the summer time “Bienvenue” signs are everywhere if you look for them. Best of all, we left French class knowing that while the French eat expensive food, it does taste better than the garbage we were used to eating—thank you crepe and Carnivale parties.

Though I do not want to experience the agony my former French teacher so obviously did, I realize there is so much to learn from the way he persisted with us in the face of so many obstacles. My students may never learn to speak English even though they were lucky enough to have learned from a native speaker. But maybe if they learn about where I’m from they will at least keep English open as an option as they get older.

Sunrise, Showers and New Characters

So I’ve just spent my first 24 hours in Taiwan. So far so good.

This morning I woke up at 3:30 not because of jet lag, but because of the sound of the second downpour of the night. It’s rainy season in Kaohsiung (高雄) and the rain drops are fat and heavy, so when they hit the metal cage and awning that protects my window, it sounds like a rain stick being turned over and over again next to your head. But it’s no matter, I enjoyed a second Taiwanese sunrise today and the view of a rainy, sunny morning is new and beautiful.

So far my impression of Kaohsiung is that of a laid back and friendly city. Unlike other Asian cities I’ve been to, the word “chaotic” is the furthest thing from my mind. Even the evening rush hour here seemed mild. In fact, I would say it feels organized just by seeing the way people interact with each other. Absent from Kaohsiung is the urgency, frenzy and confusion of Beijing or Seoul, and that probably has to do with the fact that there is a mere 2.77 million people living here. It’s the first time I will stay long-term in an Asian city that is so small and that contradicts the stereotypical image of Asian cities today: booming construction, loud, overpopulated and dirty. It’s a relief.

After a half an hour of trying to ignore the sound of rain, jetlag eventually kicked in. I’ve been using the past three and a half hours as productively as possible, though, by practicing Chinese. Reviewing some of the basic phrases and grammar rules has been remarkably easy, but the learning curve right now is reading and writing. Switching from Simplified characters to Traditional means relearning the language all over again. To give the non-Chinese speakers an idea of why this is a struggle, I’ve written some examples below:

  • Tīng bù dǒng meaning “I don’t understand” is relatively easy in Simplified, except for the last character: 听不懂, but looks totally different in Traditional: 聽不懂
  • meaning chicken, Simplified: 鸡 Traditional: 雞
  • Zhū meaning pig, Simplified: 猪 Traditional: 豬
  • Hù zhào meaning “passport”, Simplified: 护照 Traditional: 護照
  • Qiānzhèng meaning “visa”, Simplified:  签证 Traditional: 簽證
  • Miàn depending on context of a sentence can mean “surface/face” or “noodle”, they are both written as 面 in Simplified. In Traditional, however, noodle is 麵 and face is still 面

Minor and major changes in a single character makes the adjustment a bit frustrating after being able to function relatively easily on the Mainland. I’m sure eventually I will get the hang of it, I just need to put in the effort.

Dang, it’s only 7:00 A.M.