Goodbye Grandad

Grandad

We’ll miss your twinkly eyes and trademark floppy hair.
Your inevitable snooze after lunch.
The work ethic that meant you conveniently forgot about being retired.
The impressive community spirit that you built with Barbrooks store and your sporting endeavours. Reydon is going to miss you immensely.
The meticulous way you arranged the fruit and veg.
Your stealing the show by reversing into a bollard at a family wedding.
The beach hut trips and drinking hot chocolate sitting in deckchairs until there were just shadows on the promenade.
The serious way you would consider your team’s below-par performance at the bowls green and your patience teaching us to play once.
The stories from your cricket days where you hit centuries for Southwold.
The uncanny resemblance of Syd to the younger you.
The civilised games of croquet in the garden, and the less-civilised treasure hunts and N64 bouts at your house.
The pride you took in showing us those scary-looking Toby jugs.
Your famous chicken broccoli pasta which had half grapes thrown in for good measure.
Your optimism and the fact you were the last person in Suffolk to lock his car.
Your constant smile that made everyone feel special.
The love you and Nana Anita shared, and the close and extended family that came together often.
The football, hockey and cricket games you would watch to cheer on your grandchildren, despite the weather.
Your overwhelming kindness and generosity, even if it meant driving all the way back to Halesworth Toy Shop!

And most of all, welcoming us into your family. What a privilege to have called you Grandad for the past twenty years.

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Teaching English – one month in

I’ve completed my first four weeks teaching English here in Singapore. I’m enjoying the job, and mostly teaching Kindergarteners (aged 4-5) their phonics to enable them to read, along with expanding their vocabulary. However, I have some older groups up to Primary 3 level (8-9 years) which focus on comprehension and honing productive speaking and writing skills. I also teach some intensive lessons where the children are likely to be ESL (meaning English is their second language) and need to brush up for school. 

I’m very proud of the fact that I have now mastered the names of all 80 of my students (although pronunciation on a couple may be a bit off). Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

Creativity There is a general perception that Asian students are not as creative in their thinking compared to the rest of the world, but given some visual or audio prompts, I’ve found that my classes can easily tap into their imaginations when writing narratives. Especially if you happen to mention Pokémon.

Lost in translation When I’m teaching my younger reading classes, I have a tendency to enthusiastically say “Keep going!”. Then, if I say “Keep your book on the table” I’m met with a blank expression from the class. For children here, ‘keep’ means put away. So telling them to keep something out is an oxymoron, resulting in a comic to and fro as they process the instruction. I’ve learnt to say “Carry on reading” and, “Put this on the table”. 

Say it don’t spray it Phonics, with the plosive sounds of ‘p’, ‘t’ and ‘k’ mean that the children are getting their mouths around these sounds for the first time. This can invariably result in a lot of spit flying about. Particularly when we practice sounds that don’t come as naturally here such as the digraph ‘th’. Repeating “th-th-three” and “th-th-thumb” can get quite messy! It also requires some explaining on how to stick your tongue between your teeth without biting it. 

It’s in the detail I’ve found that the students are far more engaged when they encounter something out of the ordinary. This might be googly eyes on the ‘sound sticks’, or a genuine postcard from England, or fishing for answers with magnets fixed to lolly pop rods. 

Songs and rhymes save time This is hardly a revelation, but I’ve found that drilling sounds and expanding vocabulary is easiest though singing songs. Together with funny mimes, the children  are able to understand the meaning and practise the target sound extensively. In my ‘under the sea’ week focusing on the long ‘e’ sound, I adapted ‘A sailor went to sea’ which featured verses with seahorses that drink green tea, seaweed that waves at me, and a pirate with a leg wooden from the knee! 

Grammar games Although our pre-made materials offer comprehensive activities to test grammar, some constructs seem a little more tricky for the students to remember. I made a couple of superhero inspired cards to help them remember how to change third person verb endings (usually add ‘s’ – hello Superman!), and how to recognise an infinitive verb (hi Buzz Lightyear). 
 

The writing is on the wall It’s important to motivate students to produce good work by displaying pieces in the classroom. My 7 year olds were given different coloured paper and asked to write down their haikus. Their final work was more polished and creative than the version they wrote in class, because it comes with a sense of pride to have your name on the wall. I say the same to my younger classes to encourage them to colour neatly to improve their motor skills. It works! 

Watch them grow One idea I stole from Pinterest (a goldmine for teaching ideas) is a vocabulary tree. I made one which includes spelling test words from each of my Primary classes. I quiz the students on the definitions and check they can use the word in a sentence. I also have some synonym flowers to help them find other words for ‘nice’, ‘cold’, ‘big’ and ‘good’. Their antonyms are featured on the back, and the kids enjoy reading a petal and discovering new words. I’ve made some for the verbs too so that we can avoid a tsunami of ‘I/he/she said’;

Chop chop Stamps are called ‘chops’ here and kids will do ANYTHING to get a chop. Stickers are also a great way of setting boundaries and expectations of the students in class. Our centre has kindly provided us with some, and from the age of 7 up the children only want the more academic ones, which range from ‘Good try’ to ‘A+’. There would be a fight if they were to choose their own stickers.


Finally, if you have any tips or would like to nab anything from here, feel free to share! 

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Searching for elusive birds of paradise

As we entered the MacRitchie reservoir park, we couldn’t help but notice the signs warning us about the resident macaque monkeys: ‘Do not feed, do not carry plastic bags, do not make eye contact, avoid wearing sunglasses.’ We began walking around the large reservoir and spotted small sunbathing terrapins sat near the sludgy shallows. They raised their pointed snouts at us as we passed. The water was still except for the small fish that dashed through the feathery algae.

We hadn’t just come to see the opportunistic monkeys, though. Like Victorian explorers and ecologists before us, we were searching for the pinnacle of feathered beauty. The most impressive specimen of the local birds of paradise – the greater racket-tailed drongo.

These are rare creatures which attracted the Victorian explorer Alfred R. Wallace, who was studying the variations between bird species, from plumage to beak shape. It was his curiosity and passion for finding birds of paradise, or what he called “the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth”, that made him one of the most profilic and celebrated minds of the Victorian era.

The beauty of exotic birds was highly desirable and fetched an even higher price, so many explorers, Wallace included, attempted to capture specimens to send back to menagerie displays and collectors back home. This additional venture enabled travellers the funds to be able to continue their work.

Wallace was a successful field biologist, spending twelve years in jungles in the Amazon and then island hopping around the Malay archipelago. His interest was mainly in birds, and his observation that individual islands had their own unique species led him to the theory of evolution, around the same time as his contemporary Charles Darwin. You can read more about his life and accomplishments below*, but for now, let’s retrace Wallace’s footsteps into the jungle 150 years later.

We stepped into the treeline and out of the sudden downpour. A shower of heat dripped down our arms as condensation. The cicadas filled our heads like tinnitus, and the flashes of sunlight through the leaves distracted our eyes from the fast flittering movements of the butterflies. Dead leaves larger than our heads were caught in rigor mortis on the large vines that swept down from the canopy in dizzying spirals. 

Yet there was so much life. The prehistoric-looking common mynah birds hopped before us, their movements reminiscent of two-legged raptors. Rustles in the leaves twenty feet above announced the arrival of a troupe of rhesus macaques, lured close by a fellow walker rustling for food. Their smiles and keen eyes were not to be mistaken for friendly, and mothers with bald babies clinging to their bellies clambered down towards us. Many others watched from the branches, before leaping across the path above us to continue their hunt for food.

Following the boardwalk by the water, giant ripples from bobbing catfish the length of my arm disturbed the surface. A flicker of a tongue revealed the otherwise statuesque 5ft monitor lizard, who on being discovered, plodded away on his sharp claws in search for another sunny patch to recharge. 

Yet we still had not found our prize: the coveted greater racket-tailed drongo birds. The call of a drongo is difficult to recognise since it is a master of mimicry, copying not only other birds but other animals too. One theory behind this feature is that it enables these particular drongo birds to distract smaller birds and steal their hoard of insects – they are the pirates of the high trees. 

The most distinctive mark of the bird is its unique elongated tail feathers, which are shaped as delicate bows, or twirled rackets, only at the end. It hangs down from the bird at an impressive length, and seems to pose a hazard as the bird flits between dense branches. Perhaps for this reason, it mainly occupies the higher echelons of the jungle.

“[Drongo birds] have long forked tails, and some Asian species have elaborate tail decorations. Racket-tailed drongos are the mimicry artists among birds. They can mimic the sound of other birds and some animals.”

Looking directly up at the silhouetted branches, we strained our eyes to see what was calling in a nasal whistling sound. The speckled leaves exposed pinpricks of light, having been ravished by hungry insects. It was then I saw it. A medium-sized bird, unremarkable in colour with its black/blue feathers that reminded me of blackbirds in my native England, but with a show-stopping finalé. The long tail swept behind it before settling down gracefully below its owner. The tufts crown moved as the bird surveyed its surroundings. These birds are well-known for their bravery on taking on larger birds in competition for food, and it was likely searching for an easy meal. It was a magnificent sight, and the experience only lasted half a minute. Yet the appeal of seeing these birds has lasted centuries.

Photos courtesy of Tom Gibbons

* Alfred R. Wallace was a self-taught naturalist, who spent eight years hopping around the islands of the Malay archipelago to study and collect a range of specimens. As New Scientist writes, ‘Most famously, when [Wallace] crossed the narrow but deep channel between the islands of Bali and Lombok, he discovered strikingly different sorts of birds and other animals. He realised he had crossed a boundary between two major zoological realms; on one side, the animals were typical of Asia, on the other of Australasia. The boundary is known as Wallace’s Line.’

Back in England, in haste to publish these significant findings to the scientific community, it was agreed that Darwin and Wallace would publish their theory of evolution in a joint paper in August 1858. At the time, Wallace was still out in the field, suffering with fever in New Guinea and did little to celebrate his success. On his return to England, however, Wallace was awarded with the Order of Merit, the highest honour bestowed by any monarch. His travel memoirs, The Malay Archipelago was published in 1869 and has never been out of print. 

Although Wallace published subsequent books on his theory, it was Darwin’s book in 1859, On the Origin of Species, that ignited the imagination of the public. The evolution argument fell out of favour towards the end of the 19th Century, and on its revival in the 1930’s, it was Darwin who received the sole credit. 

However, on the centenary celebrations of Wallace in 2013, a portrait was hung in the Natural History Museum in London to commemorate his achievements, albeit dwarfed by the impressive marble statue of Darwin seated on the stairs. Finally, in 2015, the first full bust of Wallace was presented to the Linnean Society, where his joint paper on evolution was first read in 1858.

Notes

‘Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero’, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0160nxk

‘Tricksters’, BBC Wildlife, http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Drongo

Greater racket-tailed drongo bird, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_racket-tailed_drongo

‘Why does Charles Darwin Eclipse Alfred R. Wallace?’ by Kevin Lenoard, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-21549079

‘Alfred R Wallace: A Very Rare Specimen’, by Stephanie Pain, New Scientist, https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029421-100-alfred-russel-wallace-a-very-rare-specimen/amp/?client=safari

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Lah Lah Land – Singlish in Singapore

One month ago, I flew to Singapore. I had resigned from a good job in London to come teach English, having no real experience of teaching beforehand and only a TEFL certificate and English Literature degree to back me up.

I was one of seven new teachers undergoing training, and it seemed that this was the first teaching job for many of us which was encouraging. We represented a mixture of English dialects, from American to Kiwi, from Scottish to a Yorkshire accent. 

We made our way through the materials and learned how to teach phonics to kindergartens, with only a few minor disagreements of whether the American way of saying ‘banana’ was correct compared to the English /ar/ sounding vowel. Of course, both are correct and it’s important to give the children exposure to different versions of English as they will encounter various forms in their lives.

We also delved into the kiasu mindset of the parents who want to give their child a fighting chance to succeed at seemingly any cost. Most children will participate in music, sports, language and extra tutored lessons after school and at the weekend to achieve an edge when it comes to the all important Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). Taken at the age of twelve, the results of these tests determine the future of the children in terms of which secondary school, and ultimately which college or university they attend. 

As the whole curriculum is taught in English except for a lesson in the mother tongue language (which ironically is the language that the child’s father speaks), it’s our job as English teachers to ensure that it is not their understanding of the language that holds them back. In fact, English is a compulsory subject as it is considered a joint first language in this country, with the government recognising the importance of being able to communicate with the business world in English. 

It’s impossible to be in Singapore and not come across the hybrid language Singlish. Although English remains the official language, since the country’s independence over 50 years ago, it is Singlish that you will hear being spoken by locals on the streets. Ordering food at a hawker centre, or trying to follow the local soap operas is much easier if you know a few phrases. Singlish does away with many grammar constructs such as prepositions and verb inflections, and in that way resembles other regional languages such as Malay. 

As a nod to the immigrant roots of the country, Singlish borrows words from Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese languages, as well as Tamil from southern India. It was previously seen as a lesser educated form of communication, but since government campaigns to stamp it out in favour of ‘better English’ have failed, the country is now embracing its hybrid tongue but insists that Singaporeans are able to switch between Singlish and English in the appropriate contexts. Read this informative BBC article for more examples.

In my classroom, I often hear ‘can’ as a positive response to a question accompanied with fast nods, often with the nuanced addition of ‘lah’ at the end which, depending on the tone, can change the sentiment of the sentence (although I couldn’t yet tell you how). 

As I teach the conjugations of different verbs, or introduce plural forms of countable nouns, I am aware that in Singlish it simply doesn’t exist; it’s really a shorthand way of communicating, a more efficient and less decorative form that deserves to be preserved and celebrated, similar to the traditional dialects in England that have resisted the onslaught of so-called ‘superior’ Received Pronunciation (RP) or Queen’s English.

So, while I teach my students English, I will be mindful of conveying it as the ‘proper’ way to speak. I’d like my students to be confident in speaking English at school and later in their professional life, but also to use Singlish whilst they’re playing with friends, or speaking to elders who perhaps only speak Singlish. If the children cannot speak Singlish they may be considered at best, snobby, or at worst, less Singaporean. It’s important to recognise that this is Lah Lah Land after all, and the Singlish language exists to remind us of Singapore’s heritage. 


Image http://cdn.collider.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone.jpg

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5 things travelling has taught me about me

1. I’m grumpy when I’m hot. Living in a frying pan for six months can turn you into a raging Hulk at the smallest things:

“No thanks, I don’t smoke. No I don’t want to buy your cigarettes as I’m not a smoker. No I don’t want to buy your cigars either. I’m sure they’re very good quality, but…That is a good price, however, I still don’t smoke.”

2. I really like noodles. Before travelling to Asia, my experience of noodles was restricted to beef Pot Noodle and two trips to Wagamama’s. Now it’s Japanese oily ramen soup, thin Thai vermicelli noodles in Pad Thai, transparent glass noodles dresses in barbecued meat Korean-style, or cold fat soba noodles in matcha green tea flavour.

3. I can get homesick. Even someone who is uber independent can find being away from home difficult. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate home more, and now it’s even harder to leave. The best remedy is staying in touch with folks back home frequently. I’m old school and prefer sending letters, but the luxury of contacting everyone in 2 seconds through Whatsapp isn’t lost on me. 

4. Squirrels are fascinating in any country. I’m not sure why I find their ragged tails and tiny snatching claws so appealing, but if I distilled every photo I’ve ever taken into a pool of negatives, I’m pretty sure half the goop would be blurry shots of squirrels. Having lived near Greenwich Park in London with almost no income, they became my favourite pastime. Yes, some may call them rodents of the trees, but even pigeons enjoy being revered in India.

5. I behave like a country bumpkin everywhere. After spending nearly 5 years living in London, you’d have thought that I would have stopped trying to make eye contact and trying to talk to strangers. Never! When I’m on the road or even just commuting to work, I’m always open to making conversation. Although it’s easy to live in a capsule glued to your screen, I like to think that we’re all connected and perhaps even interested in one another. Even if that just means saying “Gesundheit!” aggressively when someone sneezes nearby. 


Image – sometimes travelling isn’t straightforward, but by keeping your optimism the journey will be more fun!

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An Unusual Request

“Good morning. Is that Sheffield County Council?”
“Yes, how can I be of assistance?”
“Well…this is a slightly strange request. I’m organising a naked calendar as a charity fundraiser, and wondered whether I need permission for the shoots.”
“Oh, right. [Long silence]. Where are you planning to take these photos?”
“All over Sheffield. There’s around 20 students participating, and the idea is that each month promotes a fundraiser that we have coming up next year. We’re hoping to shoot on the University Campus, but also in local parks and out in the Peaks.”
“I see…well you’d need local permission for each site.”
“Ah, well I’m hoping to shoot in the next fortnight so we can sell copies for Christmas. Can we just do it at the crack of dawn so no-one sees us?”
“Up to you, but you could be arrested for indecent exposure in a public space.”
“I see. Is this the first time someone has called asking about this?”
“Yes.”

It was 6am, still dark. We found ourselves huddled in Weston Park. The cover shot required all of us in the frame, but none of us wanted to remove any layers. Our breath hung in the November air, like the unspeakable fear of what we had to do next. We were only slightly better acquainted than strangers, having just started our fundraising year together.

For the record, getting your kit off is an effective ice breaker. Without giving away too many details, June’s tennis shoot had to be redone as the whipped cream wasn’t high enough. I’ve never seen a man walk his dog so many times around the tennis courts.

Another shoot took us far into the Peak District, clad in walking boots, woolly hats and carrying giant Ordinance Survey maps. It was a foggy damp day, and unfortunately one member of the group had (man) flu and his lips turned an alarming shade of blue. As we found a suitable place to pose and set up the camera, a group of dressed hikers ambled past as we hastily wrapped the maps around ourselves.

Another slight oversight was the fact that although the props hid everything from the camera lens, other angles were rather exposed. Our Krispy Kreme shoot on campus – although early in the morning – unwittingly attracted some attention from the office windows above. Luckily, mooning wasn’t enough to get us in trouble!

There was also the awkward exchange with my housemates when I suggested having two of the shoots at our shared house. The Wii competition and clothes swap frames did not have venues lined up, so I waited for a good moment before putting forward the idea. In fact, they were very understanding and allowed us the lounge for a couple of hours, but when the printed copies became available I became painfully aware of which chairs the naked bums had sat on. Sorry, girls.

One very generous pub owner allowed us to shoot in his establishment before the punters arrived. The pub quiz frame was set and he even allowed us to pour a pint to make it more realistic. Pity he then undid all his good work by developing a bizarre wink that saw us scarper out of there sharpish.

In marketing our calendar, I was lucky enough to secure a foreword from the lovely Georgie Glen who appeared in the movie Calendar Girls, along with signed photographs from Dame Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. Both of these were later auctioned off as raffle prizes at a local Christmas fayre.

Overall, we fundraised over £1,000 for the charity Dig Deep. Although it was a source of embarrassment for some, I think peeling off the layers of prudishness is a big achievement, especially in the depths of winter up north, and even more so for us Brits. 

Image – the fundraising group with their clothes on (the Internet does not need any reminders).

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Reconfiguring

Moving abroad can feel like falling into the Catch-22 mechanism where every incremental step forwards relies on something unattainable.

Take my case, for example. I arrived in Singapore with an IPA (that’s an In Principle Approval letter). That’s enough to get you in to work, with an understanding that you’ll obtain the Employment Pass (EP) soon after from the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Manpower (or MoM as it’s well known). 

To get your EP, you need a health check. After a gruelling 5hrs spent queuing in an Argos style ticket system, I finally had my X-Ray, blood sample for an HIV test and quick consultation with the doctor.   

Next on our list was having working phones with data. Easy enough, we thought. Just pop into a phone shop and buy a SIM card. Wrong. For a SIM, you need your passport and IPA letter, neither of which we had on us. 

Take 2: we went to SingTel again and this time were able to purchase two monthly bundles of data. But, the helpful man at the store could not also sell us credit. So, we had to make a trip to 7-11 to buy top-ups in order to send and receive calls and texts from our local friends which seemed a little ridiculous.

Our next priority was finding somewhere to live. After some online hunting and viewings on my days off, Tom and I put in an offer for an apartment. The agent and landlords wanted to see my EP, which I explained was still pending. Tom was still job hunting, so we avoided the conversation slightly by saying we were happy for the tenancy agreement to be drawn up in my name, along with the utility bills. So far, still manageable.

Paying the 3 months deposit was a little more cumbersome. Lloyds Bank’s website crashed for 48hrs which was convenient. Then, using our UK online banking, we hit a rather big hurdle as for any new payee the bank requires verification by calling your registered number. This was my UK mobile number, so I switched sims and waited for the call. Only it never rang. I’d ended my contract and had no credit to receive an international call. Luckily, Tom was able to sort it using his so it meant a quick transfer between us. The landlord withheld the keys until payment was received a few days later, just in time for us to move out on my day off from our AirBnB. Phew.

So we’ve now moved into our new place, and as my pay day is coming up, I need to open a bank account. I failed the first attempt as the bank said they needed my tenancy agreement, even though the website said otherwise. Some of my colleagues were rejected on the grounds that they didn’t have their EP’s yet. Luckily, DBS allowed me to open an account with my IPA, and I also had to supply my tenancy agreement, passport and my National Insurance number from back home. That was a big relief.

Then comes the exceptionally tricky part.

To get a phone contract, you must have an EP or pay a huge S$500-800 deposit. This isn’t something I can do before being paid. To get wifi in the flat, you need an EP too. So that means no catching up on Sherlock or Skyping those back home.

So where is my EP? MoM have not sent my card out yet, despite me sending everything across weeks ago. Chinese New Year means longer delays, and I suspect there may be a larger influx of expats at the start of the year due to employment cycles. 

It’s been a fun first month despite all the kerfuffle of ‘officially’ setting in. Coming back to Singapore is like coming home – it’s familiar after living here in 2013 and we have lots of friends to visit. We’ve also made new expat acquaintances and enjoyed calling at our old haunts as well as exploring new places and trying new dishes at the hawker centres. 

For now, all we can do is wait. And try not to come across a Sherlock spoiler!

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