Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why I Blog

I certainly have no ambition of any kind to be the next J.K.Rowling or Arundhati Roy or anyone else famous for that matter. I have nothing earth-shaking or mind-blowing to say, nor do I feel compelled to show off my knowledge or flaunt my language skills here. This is not a Ph.D. thesis of academic value displaying my literary bent or a dissertation to showcase my vocabulary or flair for English. My posts are just my random thoughts on various subjects, things that I see and hear around me, things that fascinate me, and those that I feel an urge to comment on. Above all, I, for sure, do not write to impress others, but merely to share my thoughts in an understandable way with my students who happen to read what I write.

It all began when I signed up for a six-credit online course in Advanced Writing at the University of British Columbia two years ago. This was no job requirement or anything of that sort, but one that I voluntarily got myself into, just for the challenge and fun of it all. And boy, sure it was both, a veritable year-long challenge juggling a full-time position teaching at college and churning out assignments day in and day out, and a lot of fun critiquing each other's writing as well! My Professor, Dr. Barbara Siennicki, reminded all of us time and again to write for our audience and make sure we modified our register to suit our readers. She also motivated us to have our articles published, and so it was that one of my pieces was published in the Zoni Voice, the journal of the language college where I was teaching at that time, kind courtesy of Mr. Zoilo Nieto.

I decided that the skills I'd picked up in the writing class had to be honed constantly, and thus was born the blog last summer, so my students could continue reading whatever I wrote. My students come from all over the world, and because English is their second language, I have to tone down my writing enough for them to understand, just as I have to modify my "teacher-talk" in the classroom. It has been a pleasant ride so far, I must accept. Sometimes they do comment/complain that this or that post was too dificult for them to comprehend, so back I go again to my Professor's reminders and advice about writing for my audience. I urge my students to write as well, one journal a week, and to be a role model for them, I write one extra post a month, just to inspire them and keep them motivated! If their Instructor can do it, they can too! I find the entire experience truly gratifying and I hope this whole blogging thing will continue with the same enthusiasm and gusto.

Happy Writing, Folks!!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cultural Faux Pas

Focusing on settlement issues while teaching my class of immigrant students from all over the world, I often address social blunders many of us make in an alien land. What is culturally acceptable in our own countries may not be so in yet another country, but many of us commit so many cultural faux pas stemming from our ignorance of acceptable local behaviour that we leave the locals reeling from shock and disbelief at our abominable behaviour. Social acculturation is a very important thing we have to learn consciously when we're trying to settle down comfortably in a foreign land. As long as we live in our ethnic silos and persist in following our own ways regardless of what is acceptable in the country of our choice, then assimilation into society becomes a very difficult task.

People from most Asian cultures, in my opinion, have no distinction between the private and the public, and ask way too many inappropriate, personal questions that can leave the other person squirming in the seat. During a session on family law related to abuse and divorce and all that, I was mortified when an elderly Asian student of mine asked the guest speaker if he had ever beaten his wife. During yet another session on banking, another student asked the speaker how much money he made in his job. Sometimes, as their Instructor, I too get asked how much salary I am being paid, which is not something I'd ever disclose to my students. Or when someone tells them he/she has bought a house, pat comes the next question, "How much did you pay for it?" Also, when someone answers in the affirmative about their marital status, and in the negative about having children, almost always the next question is, "How long have you been married?" As if it's any of their business! And more often, they follow up with probing questions about the couple's medical history, offer fertility advice, and so on, completely unmindful of the fact that none of these should ever be addressed in the first place because these are very personal matters and that these are practically strangers they're offering advice to.

Recently, I happened to throw a party where the time was clearly mentioned as 6 PM for the guests to arrive. I had been standing for nearly ten hours in the kitchen lording over the stove, and was putting the finishing touches to the food, when the doorbell rang. The husband was vacuuming the living room one final time, and to our consternation, we discovered that the first of the guests had arrived, almost an hour and a half earlier than the said time. They had no thought if the hosts would be ready to receive them so early, or any consideration at all that they should give us time to get ready. Anyways, their reason for the early arrival was that they had to go to another birthday party, so they thought they should stop at our place on the way. To be honest, I was livid about their insensitivity, and I had to run to the bathroom for a shower, leaving my task in the kitchen midway and asking the husband to complete it. They walked right in, with the vacuum cleaner still sitting in the middle of the living room. These were people I had never met, who were coming to our place for the first time, so not a very good first impression I had of them! And horror of horrors, the woman nonchalantly wandered into the kid's room without invitation and completely took him by surprise ...and worse still, was about to enter the master bedroom where I was having a shower in the adjoining bathroom. The husband had to literally grab her hand and pull her out of the bedroom with a loud , "NO, NO!" Perhaps this was something she could have done in her home country, India, and not much fuss would've been made about it, but not here in North America, for sure! Privacy and personal boundaries are very important here, and one doesn't just wander into someone's private rooms uninvited!

The list of cultural faux pas people commit can go and on, and I can see the value in big companies and corporations offering acculturation lessons for their personnel when they go on trips abroad. It becomes all the more important to learn the cultural do's and don'ts when you immigrate to a foreign land and try to assimilate into society there. It pains me all the more when people from my own country are boorish and behave like uncouth louts and uncivilized morons . Time we all educated ourselves about what is culturally acceptable and not!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

School Day Reminiscences - III

This blog post is dedicated to Mrs. Kamala Jegadeesan, the Teacher Of All Teachers!

"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires," said William A. Ward. In my opinion, the Teacher Of All Teachers influences posterity into eternity, whose influence doesn't stop merely with the students passing through his/her classroom, and who better than Mrs. Kamala Jegadeesan to epitomize this truth! I can say with all honesty that it was my singular privilege and blessing to be taught by this illustrious lady, that today I am who I am solely because of her, that I have continued and still continue to pass on her inspiration and love for learning to countless numbers of students from all over the world. My memories of SDA School, Madurai, have been truly enriched because of my association with her, and I have never failed to tell a single class of mine these past twenty-five years about her extraordinary influence on me as an impressionable child!

Where do I begin? My love for the English language and its literature came from two people in my life - my father, the lover of books nonpareil who could easily put any academic to shame, and my teacher, Mrs. Jegadeesan, who stoked that inner fire in me, lit by my father at home, into a raging inferno of passion for English at school. I remember one particular English Reader I had in Grade 5, English Today, by Ronald Ridout. The book was handpicked by Mrs. Jegadeesan, and the exercises in it were so interesting and challenging that I still remember them to this day. I was introduced to a whole new world of synonyms and antonyms and proverbs and poems and short stories in this one text that has served me well for a lifetime. Words Are Important was another workbook that helped strengthen my vocabulary, as I grappled at home with those exercises that were too difficult for a child my age. Mrs. Jegadeesan would check them right away each day, despite her great responsibilities as the Headmistress of the school, and it gave me enormous pleasure to see my perfect scores for each exercise and her elaborate comments for the sentences I'd made.

Mrs. Jegadeesan encouraged all of us to memorize poems such as "The Cataract Of Lodore" by Robert Southey, "The Daffodils" by William Wordsworth, "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, "Ode To A Nightingale" by John Keats, to name a few, poems that I can still recite without a single mistake after all these decades! It was not just the poems alone, but I remember reading and rereading and thoroughly enjoying the short stories from Norah Burke's Jungle Picture, that I knew whole paragraphs from those stories by heart. She brought Shakespeare alive for us in each class, and we would wait with bated breath for the English period just to find out the suspense in Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, or roll with laughter at the escapades of Pickwick and his friends in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers or identify ourselves with the mischief of Swami in R.K. Narayan's Swami and Friends.

Who can ever forget how Mrs. Jegadeesan directed us in the annual school plays! I vividly remember playing Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice and the very thought brings alive "The quality of mercy is not strain'd/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:/ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes..." speech from Act IV, Sc.I to mind. I also recall in particular a vocabulary contest she held for students of all grades. She had given us a number of categories like flowers, fruits, feelings, etc., and all we had to do was list as many words as we knew under each category. The contest extended well after school hours, and one by one all the children left for home, until I was the only one remaining, squeezing my brain cells and writing away like a maniac. Mrs. Jegadeesan sat with me patiently, not once urging me to finish, but silently encouraging me to go on and keep doing my best. My mother, who taught at the same school, poked her head into the room once in a while to see if I were done, and finally I had to finish only because it was getting late, and my mother and I had to take the bus to our home in Vilangudi, past Fatima College.

The elocution contests and temperance speeches she organized opened a whole new world of poise and self-confidence in us children. Thanks solely to her, I was fearless facing an audience and still am to this day! She took me and my classmate Harish Bhat to participate in a speech contest in Chennai (Madras, at that time), and I recall quite vividly our train journey with her, the first ever trip for both Harish and myself out of town, without our parents. I still remember that speech of mine on the evils of smoking ... it began, "The easiest way to commit suicide in installments is to start smoking. Smoking is the No. 1 health hazard of modern man! ...." The laurels I won, the accolades I received, the honours that were heaped on me were all because of my noble teacher, and were it not for her, I could not have excelled in whatever I did!

When I was in Grade 9, Mrs. Jegadeesan was transferred out of Madurai, and what a devastating blow that was to all her students! Noone could fill her shoes, and what colossal shoes they were! My connection to her was not confined to the school alone, but extended to the church as well. I knew her on a personal level both inside and outside of school because of those church connections. She was a big admirer of my father's classes at church explaining the prophecies from the Book of Revelation, and many a time would I sit with them, a mere child listening in on their discussions and debates. At school, she was my beloved teacher, an extraordinary educator who singularly influenced me in choosing my career path, and showed me that I could be whoever I wanted to be in life, and be the best in all that I did!

A teacher is a catalyst who brings about positive change in his/her students, and Mrs. Jegadeesan was the most powerful of them all! We passed through her chaste seminary of education, only to emerge as successful human beings and passionate , empathetic ciitizens of the world. To you, my teacher, the Teacher Of All Teachers, I owe everything in life, and pay my heartfelt obeisance for all that you have been and done for me!!!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Master Manipulators

How well our children manipulate us! They play us like a finely tuned instrument and twist us around their little finger, smiling oh so bewitchingly and talking oh so convincingly while doing so, till it takes us a while to realize we've been had for a ride! But by then it's too late to go back on whatever promise we've made in a moment of temporary insanity and complete trust in our little devils. From seeing them as these helpless infants in our arms to watching them pitch their Machiavellian tricks as teenagers on their unsuspecting parents is a metamorphosis that is unrivalled on the planet. They know exactly what our weakness is, lull us into moments of fleeting ecstasy, and then go for the kill. Sounds familiar, folks?!?

It so happened that I was heading home from work yesterday when the husband called and exclaimed ," Do you know that Dinesh got a 29 out of 30 on that Science poster he submitted on Monday?" "Really? Did he call you? How come he didn't call ME today?", I asked. That was a bit strange, calling the Dad on his drive back home to give this piece of information, I thought. It's usually the Mom he calls in the evenings with a terse "Mom, I'm back home." There is usually no conversation after that, however hard I try. "How was school?" "Good." "Any homework?" "Yeah." "Anything new?" "No." "What did you learn?" "Nothing." Getting more than a word out of the kid is like pulling teeth, hence the surprise on learning he'd called the Dad!

The minute I walked in, there he was, chatting away non-stop - "Hey Ma, did I tell you I got a perfect on that Math test? And oh yeah, that Science quiz I had yesterday, I got a perfect on that too! And you know what, my Planning teacher said I was a vocal leader in class!" - and so on and so forth came a barrage of his accomplishments at school, as he crowded me and followed me around while I was removing my shoes, throwing my lunch box in the sink, taking my jacket off, and heading to the closet to get rid of my work clothes. I guess by then I'd been softened for the kill! "I'm so proud of you, son! Keep up the good work for the next three years, and then your future'll be made!" I went, and just as I was about to enter the bathroom, came the final volley from the door, "Can I have my PS 3 for the next 4 days? It's a long weekend for me, you know. Can you please tell Dad to let me have it?"

The PlayStation 3 is securely locked away on school days, and usually comes out only during the summer and Christmas breaks, but what do you do when your child has just sprung his successes at school on you and how could you be so evil as to deny him the pleasure of videogaming when he's been such an impeccable student till now? So I mumbled something lamely about breaking the rules only because he's done so well at school, blah blah blah, and since the Dad had already been softened as well even before he reached home, out came the PS 3 and hooked to the HD TV in the living room, all in the blink of an eye! Little did we know that nine of his friends were already online, waiting for him! And he had already set up the bluetooth, concealed in his pocket, so supremely confident that we'd give in and he'd have his way after all!!!

Thus we met Wily Pete, Four Seasonz, Hyperbolic State, Wakeboarder, etc., etc. - all pseudonyms of some 14 something rambunctious teenagers, ready to plunge headlong into a weekend orgy of videogames and swearing and profanity that comes with the territory! The boys have taken over my house in a sense, albeit from their living rooms, and on my Remembrance Day holiday, I'm confined to the bedroom, a stranger in my own home, blogging away from my bed. At least my son had the decency to mute one of his friends ("He swears a lot, Mom!") when I dared to venture into the living room. Four more days to go as I wonder why we were suckered into this mayhem in the first place! Our children are master manipulators after all, aren't they?!?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Diwali Delirium!

To make matters clear, I'm not your average Hindu wife. In fact, I'm not a Hindu wife at all, but I pretend to be one just because I'm married to a Hindu husband. Tolerance of each other's religion has been the order of the day from Day 1 in the Kanna household, so just as the husband accompanies me to church on Christmas Eve (though I must confess that's about the only time of year I step into a church!) and helps me trim the Christmas tree, so do I jump headlong into the Diwali delirium and madness each year. And why do we bother with this semblance at all? For the kid, has always been our answer. Our teenager has been in India for Diwali just once in his young life, so we try our best to remind him of the traditions from back home. Only, the kid now claims he has no religion at all! And here we are, thousands of miles away from home, pathetically trying to reinforce a cultural lesson and desperately attempting to infuse some excitement into it all!

Diwali, the Festival of Lights, dawned bright and clear here in Vancouver yesterday, but life in an alien land dictates you go about your daily chores with no thoughts of what is culturally important to you from back home. So off we went to work, and the kid to school! It was cereal and banana for breakfast as usual, as I thought of Amma's (my mother-in-law's) "paal panniyaram" ( a sweet lentil delicacy soaked in coconut milk) and "ullundu vadai" (a deep- fried savory snack made of ground urad dal - my favorite!), not to mention the idlis and mutton curry, a staple on Diwali mornings back home. My mother-in-law always ensures that we don't forget the big day by sounding the alarm at least three weeks ahead. It always starts with the question to her son if he has bought new clothes for everyone for Diwali. Last year, despite her reminder, we forgot the clothes-shopping and rushed to the mall at the last minute, which is another story! Anyways, thanks to Amma, I got six designer label outfits for Diwali, and so did the kid.

My mother-in-law then asks me what sweets I plan to make and what's going to be my menu on Diwali day. Good Lord! I'm a career woman in a foreign land whose life's a crazy whirl each day and I have nary a moment to even give such mundane things a thought. However, I've always managed to remember and honour her reminder to me as a young bride that the oil must boil at home on Diwali day to ensure prosperity in the coming year ("Ennai nallaa kaayanum, Olivia!"). After 23 years of marriage, I still haven't made a logical or scientific connection to boiling oil and prosperity, and so it was this Diwali as well. After a considerably long day teaching at college (to which I wore an Indian kurta and jeans, Friday being a casual clothes day, and talking about Diwali to my international students) and then running to the pharmacy to get my flu shot, I rushed home to make the necessary sweet and savoury for the evening prayers. Thanks to MTR, I made the ullundu vadai from the instant mix (since my Ultra Grind has given up the ghost and we've had no time to replace it!), which turned out soft and golden brown, much to my amazement! The shape of the vadai was a different story though ... from a flat, round shape, it slowly turned into a flat, elongated one, then into a round blob like a bonda, but who cares! I still haven't heard the last of it from my men though! I had no time for the gulab jamuns, so made do with kesari instead. The idli batter ground the previous day had risen splendidly, so it was soft idlis, accompanied by mutton curry and coconut chutney, as well. The mixture, kara chev, and the assorted sweets from the Punjabi sweet shop completed the spread.

The kid finished his session with his Math tutor at 7.30 PM, and was asked to take a shower. "But I already did this morning! Aw man, why do I need another one now?" was his annoyed cry. "It's for Diwali," I reminded him. "But I'm not a Hindu!" came the quick retort. "I'm not one, either," I said, "but Dad is!" To make the long story short, we showered, donned our new clothes, offered prayers, and set to attack the food like hungry wolves. If I might add another animal simile here, the men ate like pigs!!! With constant comments from the kid about his not being a Hindu and why on earth (or was it why the hell ?!?) were we celebrating Diwali at 9.30 PM and shouldn't it be celebrated early in the morning, and all that, the Diwali delirium came to an end. One more year for it to start all over again, with my mother-in-law's reminders and questions from way back home! The day after, I now feel feverish from yesterday's flu shot, and I hope I don't go into a delirium of the other kind! Hope you all had a good Diwali, my friends!