I have had my portrait painted …
… or crayoned to be more precise. But it’s a very good likeness, and I shall be keeping it on my fridge.
And here is the artist, displaying another of her latest works –
I am slightly alarmed by the current trend among the children for wearing face masks. If you’ve ever struggled to understand a non-native speaker whose mouth is unfettered and clearly visible, then multiply that struggle by ten and you’ll have some idea as to how much I can piece together from a stream of muffled incoherence coming from somewhere around my mid-thigh level. This child was either rhapsodising about how much she’d enjoyed her milkshake and cereal for breakfast, or confessing that she’d pushed her granny down the stairs and then made off with her life savings – I’m not quite sure which.
And it’s not just face masks I have trouble with, it’s names too … big time. And for someone who has always prided themselves on being good with names, this has come as rather a blow.
The Malay names aren’t too bad – they are at least recognisable as a first name – Nadya, Alecia, Maryam, Danial. It’s the Chinese names I struggle with, as they look to me like a random set of syllables which I may or may not:
a) pronounce correctly,
b) get in the right order, and
c) remember 30 seconds after they’ve corrected me.
The easiest are the names I can peg to a similar English word – so I have students called Onesie, U.N., Highway, See You, Junior, Lazy (and I’ll gloss over the Japanese boy, Kazuki, who I called Suzuki one day).
Then there’s the issue of which part of the name is the surname, and which is the first name, and how on earth to find that out. There seems to be no rule for this, as family names can come either at the beginning or the end. I discovered recently that I’d been calling one small girl by her surname and half of her first name ever since I arrived, and she’d never corrected me.
I asked one child ‘What’s your Christian name?’ and got the entirely reasonable reply, ‘I’m not a Christian.’ So I tried ‘which is your first name?’ and he simply pointed to the one that was written first on the register, obviously wondering how stupid his new teacher was, as she was clearly incapable of reading from left to right.
So I now have a system. Having conferred with local staff in the office, all first names are highlighted on my register, with phonetic spelling written in too if necessary. So Xiao Yi is Chow Yee, Heuyie is Hughie and Zhi Suan is Zee Shwen; the children find it highly amusing to see my ‘version’ of their names.
To complicate matters further, some children only have two syllables instead of three, and I’m still not sure whether they’re like Madonna and don’t have a surname, or whether they have a single syllable first name plus surname. But I do know – thanks to the office staff – that you call them by both parts of the name all the time.
The last problem to crack is the tones in the Chinese names. Some names are made up of sounds that I either can’t hear or simply can’t say – one girl’s name is a deep growl from somewhere in her diaphragm, and every time I try it she winces and the rest of the class guffaw. She’s now started saying ‘just point to me if you want me to answer’ – a very sensible solution, albeit somewhat humiliating for me.