Sunday, September 30, 2007

One day I will get a better camera

This picture illustrates perfectly why I want a proper camera one day. Imagine how good it would have been if I'd been able to focus on those amazing eyes! But my camera, with its stupid autofocus, simply refused to do that. No matter what I tried it focused on the wings instead.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The shirt

Another first day back at work today.

A couple of years ago I came across an article about teacher evaluations. I bookmarked it at the time, but just now tried and the link did not load for me. (You can try it for yourself, here.) However, I was able to see the cached version (thank goodness for Google) and find the phrase that impressed me so much when I first read it:

students arrive at opinions about teachers within seconds of being exposed to these teachers.

Armed with this information, last semester I decided that on the first days of all my classes I would wear bright colours and bounce into class being insanely cheerful, to see what would happen. I did not change my actual teaching. Of course my teaching always changes, but I made no substantial changes, just the usual adjustments I make in response to what each particular class needs. I wanted to see if my effort at changing the first impression would change the way the students responded to me and to language learning.

I am fairly sure that it did. Of course the students probably thought I was mentally unbalanced, but that didn't seem to matter. Or maybe it did matter. Maybe that was the point, but whatever the reason, the students seemed to enjoy classes more and participate more freely. I suspect that since for most people speaking a foreign language badly is an exercise in embarrassment, having a teacher who embarrasses herself so freely and apparently unconcernedly makes it easier for them to let down their own hair.

And I am convinced that the bright colours are at least partly responsible. My students paid more attention (perhaps because they couldn't avoid it) and were more cheerful.

I did not have even one negative comment on my evaluations last semester. There is always one, at least, but last semester there weren't any. Even my elective class of third year students, which I had hoped would shrink this semester (I have never given so many well-deserved Cs to a single class before) wrote nice things about my classes AFTER I told them their grades. Annoyingly, most of them have come back for another dose of my demented cheerfulness, too, I discovered on Friday. I'd been hoping for the 'no more than sixteen students, more often less than twelve' classes that all the other teachers who'd previously taught this course had assured me I'd get. "It's fun!" they told me. "You can actually teach because you only get motivated students who are quite good at English! And the classes are small!" Last semester I stupidly based my syllabus planning on this information, and was horrified to discover I had thirty-five students who could barely string two coherent words together but were determined to have a party. I suspect there must have been some kind of scheduling glitch.

Most of the students for the second semester course, which started Friday, turned out to be the same masochists back for another helping. I'd expected a new lot, since I know none of them need more language credits. (It's an EXTRA language class. They have to have done all the required ones to even enroll in it.) I overheard a couple of them talking about their grades on Friday as they were (supposedly) doing a written task I'd given them. (It totally eludes me how they can possibly think they are studying English when they are writing in English AT THE SAME TIME as they are chatting in Japanese. Why are they so surprised when I tell them that what they wrote makes no sense?)

"I only just scraped through," said one. "Giri-giri! Only 62%! I've never had such a low grade!"

"Me, too," said the other. "Except I only got 61."

"Dangerous, eh? Maybe we should have chosen a different class this semester."


(Pause for thought.)



They went back to mangling the English language.

Bollocks! I thought as I moved on. The grade thing didn't work! Maybe I should try wearing only black and never, ever smiling.

But I don't want to do that. The colourful demented thing is SO much more fun.

On Friday I was wearing a particularly bright and almost garish shirt I bought while I was in Malaysia. It is an interesting shirt. It looks like a respectable, nicely designed shirt, perfectly suitable for work, but at the same time it causes people to put on their sunglasses spontaneously without quite realizing why. The colours themselves are innocuous – purplish-blue and a sort of crimson red, and not particularly bright in isolation – but something about those particular shades in combination makes your eyeballs vibrate gently. I think that shirt leaves a psychedelic trail behind me when I walk.

When I first spotted the shirt in a store in Kuala Lumpur it struck me as a perfect first-day shirt, and I am pleased with the effect it has had so far. I wore it again today and my (new) students were, apparently, hypnotized into loosening up and getting playful with English while at the same time being perfectly obedient. Every time I spoke they shut up and paid attention to me, even the notoriously uncooperative I-can't-do-languages science majors. Some of them went a little cross-eyed, but at least they were paying careful attention. It's magic!

I'll be wearing it again tomorrow, and after that I'll send it off to the dry-cleaners. My new shirt is hand-washable, but it is hard to iron, and I'm afraid if I stare at it for as long as it takes to iron it properly I'll have a seizure.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Coloured food

Lia wanted to see photos of the violently coloured cakes and drinks I wrote about. Unfortunately I did not get pictures of those particular cakes, which were the most luridly coloured ones we saw on our trip. However, I did get a picture of some others which were not QUITE so bright. As Lynnylchan noted, the green ones are perfectly safe to eat (and delicious, I can attest), but she said she'd love to see blue ones.

Well, here they are:

Blue ones included!

Also, the pink drink is rose syrup? I would never have guessed, even after I tried it. It tasted pretty revolting, although The Man claimed to quite like it.

In this picture the pink doesn't look as revolting as it did in real life, but that is partly because it is beside my watermelon juice, which is also brightly coloured. The watermelon juice colour is, however, entirely natural.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Island life


Last time I was in Malaysia I noticed these scary mannequins, and posted a picture. I took some more pictures this time. In that second one, I think the guy on the right bit off the head of the one on the left, but that's all right. He was provoked when the one on the left bit off his arms.

Bird bath

Remember I mentioned the swallows dunking themselves in the swimming pool on Kapas Island? I tried to take pictures of them. Unfortunately I never quite managed to get one when it was hitting the water, but I got some just before and just after.

It looked like a lot of fun.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Other ways to spork

Today I gave my classes some questions to write answers to while I was filling in forms.* The questions were about what they did in the summer vacation. (Nobody had nearly as much fun as I did, in case you were wondering.)

One of the questions was,

Did you speak English during the summer vacation?

Nobody responded in the affirmative, but one of the students wrote,

No, I didn't. I only spork Japanese.

I was fascinated. I had previously thought it was only possible to spork foring. It seems I was wrong.

*Incidentally, between the email messages about the new forms and the actual new forms that appeared in our mailboxes, someone evidently had a DUH! moment and did some last minute revisions. We only had to write how many students we had, not how many students we did not have.


What do you call that little plastic stick thingy like a cocktail stirrer that chain coffee shops give you to stir your coffee with, instead of a spoon? Because in Japan it's called a muddler, and if it's the same in English I need to update my vocabulary.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Lynnylchan commented on a previous post about the potential danger of train doors closing between, say, a mother and toddler, leaving one or the other stranded on a platform. Is she psychic?

She was referring to Malaysian trains, but coincidentally something similar happened on an Osaka train yesterday. A woman was injured when the door closed on her toddler's stroller. The child wasn't hurt, but the woman was slightly injured.

It doesn't sound like much fun at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More stupid forms

I start back at work tomorrow, but something is wrong. I should have reached the 'needs chemical adjustment' level of panic by now, but I haven't. It must have been a good holiday, because I feel, instead, calm and . . . resigned.

Also, I have not prepared. This is not because I am a completely slack teacher (I'm only completely slack SOME of the time), but because I have finally realized there is no point in preparing a lot of materials I will not be able to use. Tomorrow I will be spending the entire first class sorting out administrative problems and doing the office people's work for them. This is always the case at this particular university. There is no point in even THINKING of starting to teach until the second or third week.

My plan is to get the students writing something, which I will collect to check later. During class I will be far too busy with paperwork to oversee anything more than that. When you get over thirty students turning up, which I do in most of my classes there, just getting them to write their names and student numbers without too many spelling mistakes takes up most of the class time, and I have also learned to send the form around again and get them to double-check their student numbers, because they so often get those wrong too. (The university does not give us the official registration forms until the first third of the semester has already finished, so we make our own.)

I have had three emails from the university already. The latest thing is that the office wants to know, after the first class, how many registered students did not turn up. They have created a special, complicated form for just this purpose, which we are required to fill in right after the first class meeting.

There are two problems with this, but if I point them out I will be told I am being a difficult gaijin part-timer who doesn't know anything, so I will not point them out. Except here.

The first problem is that, as I mentioned, the office does not give us the class registration lists until well into the semester, so we cannot actually tell them how many enrolled students did not turn up because we do not know how many were enrolled. (I have tried to find out enrollment numbers in previous years, for purposes of lesson planning, but have always been told the lists are 'not available yet.' When I plead for 'just an approximate number,' I am told that nobody knows the numbers yet. This is a mystery to me, because if I ask students when they registered for class it was so long ago they can't remember. This means it was AT LEAST a week previously, and it all goes onto computer. I can only guess that right after the information goes onto the computer it goes into a black hole to mature for a few weeks.)

The second problem is that class numbers in the first week are extremely unreliable. A lot of students miss the first class. There are always a few who go to the wrong class, and don't notice until the next week. And the ones who drop out usually drop out AFTER the first week, in any case.

The reason given for this new form is that the university is getting strict about the 'five student' rule. Previously, if there were fewer than five students enrolled in a class, that class was cancelled (and the teacher was not paid). Now they have apparently decided that they will take care of the problem of students who enroll but do not come to class, by making sure that all classes with fewer than five students ATTENDING are cancelled, rather than all classes with fewer than five students ENROLLED.

So the administration is creating a yet another useless form for the teachers to fill in, and destroying another forest in the process. We will not be able to fill in the column under 'number of students registered,' and I am guessing most teachers will fill in the column under 'number of students attending' by making up an approximate number equalling more than five.

I know I will.

In the meantime, I'd better get some sleep. I have a lot of form-filling to do tomorrow.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Can anybody identify this little bird? It flicked its tail, like a wagtail, and was quite friendly.

(Seen at Kapas Island.)

Added later:

I found it. It's a white-rumped shama. You cannot see the white rump in this picture, but in one of the others (which is not as good) it is clear.

I think this one must be still a baby, because they are supposed to be shy, and this one definitely wasn't. It sang beautifully, though.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sun halo

After we went snorkelling at a little beach on Kapas island, we saw this enormous halo around the sun. I just looked it up, and found a lot of other pictures of the same sort of phenomenon.

It was weird, and beautiful. I wish I'd taken more pictures, and especially wish I'd taken one that included the whole perfect circle, but I didn't really expect them to turn out this good.

Beach volleyball, anyone?

(Picture taken at Kapas Island, Malaysia)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Naughty monkey

Do not feed the monkeys because the monkeys are perfectly capable of feeding themselves.

These (and the previous post's photo) were taken at Bako National Park.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Rude nose

This is a picture from our first week away, when we went to Bako National Park, in Sarawak. This was one of the first things we saw at the park. We assumed it was all going to be like that, but it turned out that our sighting was a lucky fluke. About five minutes after this sighting we came across people tiptoeing around and shushing each other because they had spotted a group of proboscis monkeys way off in the trees. I showed them the pictures I'd just taken, and their guide said he'd never seen such a big proboscis monkey close up like that, and got all excited. I felt a bit embarrassed to tell them we just sort of ran into him before we'd even got to the beginning of the trail, and had stood right under his tree and chatted while taking pictures. I guess that particular monkey hadn't read the guidebooks either.

Although we then walked for three and a half hours, much of it vertical (what WERE we thinking?), this guy and the distant group at the beginning were the only proboscis monkeys we saw.

But you know that old wives' tale about nose size? I think it must be wrong.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thanks, Mum

Hanging in there

We're back. Exhausted, but hanging in there.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


It is our last full day in Malaysia today.

This morning The Man and I were rushing around making sure we had done all the shopping we intended to do, and wore ourselves out a bit (although I am pleased with some of the teaching materials I found). We decided to stop for a break and something light to eat, and since we were close, went to our favourite wantan mee hawker stall. After we'd been eating for a while The Man looked up and said,

"You don't really like me, eh?"

I stared at him. He grinned wryly.

"Pardon?" I asked.

"You didn't really write mail, eh?" he said.

I stared again. He wasn't making sense at all.

"WHAT?" I said, and leaned forward to listen.


I looked down at my bowl.

"NO, IT'S NOT," I answered. "BUT IT'S A GOOD ONE!"

Chinatown is a very noisy place.


In the afternoon we went to KLCC, which felt a bit like culture shock after Chinatown, where we're staying. It is a fabulous place, though.

When we were coming back on the train, at one station a young Chinese couple were running for the train as the doors started to close. They were holding hands. He jumped on the train, pulling her behind, but the doors closed on their clasped hands. To my great surprise, unlike in Japan (where the doors would then open and close again) the doors stayed closed. The couple pulled their hands out of the gap and stared at each other through the glass. Then they waved and shrugged. As the train pulled out of the station the guy pulled out his mobile phone.

The funny thing, though, was that when the doors didn't open several people around me moaned quietly, "Oh, no!" So did I. It just came out. It was like watching a mini-drama with a tragic ending. We were all involved.

He got off at the next stop, presumably to wait for her. If this were a novel she would never arrive and it would be a great mystery, only cleared up in the last chapter. But since this is real life and I don't know what happened next, you can make up your own ending.


Just a couple of days to go, now. We're back in KL. We've just come back from eating too much (as usual), and I think all the blood from my brain has had to move to my stomach. All I can think of to tell you is something that happened a couple of days ago that is still making me laugh.

What happened was this.

We were walking past a food stall where some guy was cleaning up using one of those hairy brooms (you know the ones, made of some sort of twigs or stiff grass or something). He was sweeping away methodically, and suddenly a ball of fur burst out from under the counter and attacked the broom ferociously. It was VERY SURPRISING. The guy did not seem very surprised, though. He just put a bit more push into his next sweep, and the ball of fur (which turned out to be a cat) got swept away just as suddenly as it had appeared. It skidded under the counter, and as we walked away I looked back and saw it was bunched up for another assault, bottom wriggling furiously.

For some reason we were in a hurry, so I didn't get to see the next attack. I could imagine it, though, and was still giggling a couple of blocks later. It was so surprising.

I'm sure I could think of more to tell you, but I am sitting right under the air conditioner, again. Sorry.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Penang again

I don't seem to be doing very well with the blog this trip. How long since the last time I updated? Oh, well. When I have the pictures to show you as well it will make more sense anyway. And I'll only tell you the interesting bits.

We had a few days on the east coast, three of them on an island and one in Kuala Terengganu. Actually that was where we intended to go from KL, but couldn't because of Merdeka, a few bus accidents and scandals, and the resulting fewer number of buses and greater numbers of travellers. All the buses were full, so we came to Penang first. After Merdaka we flew to Kuala Teranggenu by Firefly, a new little airline, and went from there to Kapas Island.

The island was lovely, as usual, and we snorkelled, and rested, and did not eat as much as usual, because the island food was, as usual, really sub-standard compared to food on the mainland. (I do not know why this is so, especially considering the mainland is just 15 minutes away by boat, but it seems to be a rule here. Perhaps it is just because if you are in paradise there has to be a snake, and in this case, the snake is the food.)

There were lots of monitor lizards (but not snakes) and I got some good pictures, I think. Monitor lizards never fail to amuse me, especially when they run. Their legs go all over the place. The island lizards did not run much, however. I think they have become complacent. It felt a bit Jurassic Park-ish when one went wandering down on the beach and peered out to sea, like it was planning the eventual takeover of the mainland.

I learned two interesting things while we were on the island. One is that swallows like a dip in a swimming pool as much as anybody. At the first place we stayed (because our favourite place was full) there was a little swimming pool, for kids. In the late afternoon The Man and I were sitting in the restaurant looking over the pool when some swallows started circling round, swooping low, doing a little plop! into the pool, and swooping up again. They did this over and over. At first I thought they were trying to catch insects near the water surface, but there were no insects, and they were definitely dunking themselves on purpose. That was really fun to watch. I tried to take pictures, but I am not sure whether they really worked.

The other thing I learned is that when you hear something crashing down the jungle behind your bungalow, if there is cursing it is a person, and if there is no cursing it is a monitor lizard. Monitor lizards are very unsubtle in the way they move around the jungle.

Kapas has the biggest bats I have ever seen, but I knew that already, from last year.

Back in Penang now we are staying in our usual (favourite, cheap) hotel, which has lovely big rooms, air conditioning and ceiling fan, and hot and cold running water (not always at the same time). We got back here yesterday, and are catching a bus tomorrow back to KL, where we have five (I think) more days before flying back to Japan. It all seems to have happened too fast, and I am not ready. I am especially not ready to give up the food, although I am ready to give up the traffic. I like most things about Malaysia, but there are three things I do not like so much. Traffic is one of them.

But I will tell you about the other two later. Right now I have to pick up my washing.