A 40 Year Reunion

I shared my post  about my AFS year a few weeks ago with those very students who were such an important part of my year, and remain an important part of my life. 33 of us are on a Fbk group, and we’re individually in touch with one or two others who don’t “do” Fbk. There are a few who continue to be elusive, having lost touch in the intervening years before the internet reunited so many of us.

As it was our 40-year anniversary, we had talked previously talked about whether there was a possibility of a reunion there. I’d been planning a trip, another person was waiting for a wedding date there before she could commit, but the likelihood of more than one or two of us getting together there was slim. I was sad about that, but resigned to it. It is 2020, after all, and there’s a global pandemic, so travel is pretty much impossible, and if not impossible, then it is definitely unadvisable. But then Sharon B had the brilliant idea to do what lots of people are doing during this pandemic.

“Let’s have an online reunion!” she suggested.

After a little organisation – mostly because the Kiwis complained about getting up at 3 am – we fixed a time. Cocktail hour for many of the Americans on  Friday night, and early afternoon for the Kiwis the next day worked perfectly. Those of us who had never used Zoom downloaded it. We tried to link in a few who weren’t part of the Fbk group too – at the last minute I realised Madeline wasn’t in the group, and linked her into it just in time.

At the appointed time, we logged on. It was fantastic, watching each person sign in to the meeting, seeing their face for maybe the first time in 39 years. Exclamations of delight, helloes, waves, and big grins all round. It took quite a while for everyone to get on, especially as many of us had learning curves. A few didn’t quite realise their discussions with the families would be heard (Jane putting in a crucial beer order, for example), but we all figured it out eventually. And at least we weren’t like the young woman I read about last week, who was on a Zoom meeting with her workplace, took her laptop into the bathroom, placed it on the floor, and sat on the toilet, before she realised they could all see her! We may almost be boomers, but we’re technologically capable, thank you very much.

Fifteen of us signed in, which is not a bad turnout given the circumstances. We had a great catch-up, finding out where people lived and what they’ve been doing the last 39 years, who had been back to Thailand, were still in touch with their Thai families, etc. Of course, we indulged in some reminiscing. Some of us drank tea or coffee or water, others enjoyed wine or cocktails, one fell asleep on the couch after a busy work week, Jen dialled in briefly from her car (when she wasn’t driving) in Australia, and right at the end, Cee cooked her dinner. Gradually people started signing off, all with commitments to do this again, sending love and safe wishes.

When it got down to the last six or so of us, it was a more manageable conversation, and my goodbyes when it got down to three of us were lengthy, as we chatted easily, and didn’t want to sign off, but after three hours, figured it was time.

Technology makes life so much easier, so much richer. Even in times that are hard, when people might feel isolated from others, when people were already feeling divided, technology allowed us to come together. I’m still smiling now as I think about it.

My Year of Mandarin

Week Eight of Blogging with Friends

Twenty-five years ago (and a couple of months) – I can’t believe it has been that long – I started studying Mandarin Chinese. My workplace – a government agency – had advertised two positions based in China and Taiwan respectively, and I had been successful for the Taiwan position. The successful candidates would spend ten months studying Mandarin Chinese full-time, prior to taking up the positions in these countries for a three-year term. The process was rushed, with interviews and assessments occurring in just a couple of weeks, followed almost immediately with the beginning of the custom-made course at Wellington’s Victoria University. My husband and I had some misgivings, but we thought that we could make the position work. We knew we had to make arrangements for work for him overseas, or for how our relationship would cope with a separation.

I had, in fact, always wanted to study Chinese. I had applied to study it at university in my first year, after returning from Thailand. But the professor wouldn’t let me join the class, as – due to the timing of my return from my student exchange – I would be starting two weeks after everyone else, most of whom had already studied the language at high school. The following year, when I wanted to take it up again, he had left the university, and – this being the 1980s in New Zealand – Mandarin was no longer offered. I took up Japanese instead, but pursued it just for one year (despite getting an A).

Several years later, in my first workplace, Chinese and Japanese language courses were offered as part of our career progression. Like my subsequent workplace, we had to apply for the positions and meet language assessments. I sat the Modern Language Aptitude Test (used for the US State Dept), found it surprisingly easy, and scored very highly. But precisely at the time they were to make the appointments, the Trade Department and Foreign Ministry merged, and all appointments went on hold.

So, about seven years later when the opportunity to study Chinese came up for the third time, I applied again. I’d spent six weeks in Taipei the previous year relieving in the position that was available, and found it fascinating. Taipei reminded me a lot of Bangkok, and I liked it and knew I could cope with it. So when I was offered the position, I took it up.

There were four students undertaking this special course, two from our organisation, and two from another (ironically, one I had left just a year or so earlier). We started studying about a month before the university academic year began, and concluded about a month after the year had closed for other students. For five hours a day, five days a week, we studied Mandarin. I’d then go home every afternoon, and study some more. We couldn’t afford to slip behind even for a day, given the pace of the course. We spent our time in a little bubble, four students squashed into a tiny room in a little old house that had been converted to part of the Asian languages department. For five hours a day, we watched the teacher and the whiteboard, both only a metre or two away from our desks. This is the year my eyesight deteriorated, the year I needed to wear glasses full-time.

We had two native Chinese speakers teaching us, with oversight from the Kiwi Head of the Chinese Language Department at the university. His input for an hour once a week was useful, as he was able to explain particular issues from the perspective of an English language speaker. After struggling all week with certain concepts, suddenly he would show us the light.

Our Chinese speakers came from Beijing and Shanghai respectively. We struggled with their accents. One in particular was very pedantic about how we should pronounce words and tones, but was completely oblivious of the fact that she pronounced words differently than she thought she did. So mimicking her was at times fruitless! We learned Chinese with a Beijing accent, which was appropriate I guess because three of the four of us would end up living and working in Beijing. Consequently, I speak Mandarin with a completely different accent to my Malaysian sister-in-law, who speaks with a southern Chinese/southeast Asian accent. I guess it’s the difference between British or Kiwi or American English.

We also learned the simplified Chinese characters – used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia (promoted by the Chinese government in the 1950s and 60s to improve literacy) – rather than the traditional (and much more complex) characters that were still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Once we became more proficient in reading and writing, I had to start learning not just the simplified characters so I could be involved in the course work, but the traditional characters as well. This required a lot of extra work. You can see the difference here. I also tried to bear in mind the different pronunciations, but I figured they would come once I was immersed in it.

Traditional and corresponding simplified characters

Traditional character on left, and its simplified version on the right. From http://www.hackingchinese.com/media/pictures/simptrad.png

As I mentioned above, I had studied Japanese in my first year at university many years earlier. Although I couldn’t remember any of it, I could remember the feel of writing the characters, making the shapes. This helped. Maybe too the fact that I could speak, read and write Thai meant that I was used to seeing odd symbols and interpreting those as language, or to go back even further, reading symbols as music. They do say that language, music, and maths abilities all go together. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I was diligent, finding the idea of studying as my job to be motivating, and it was easy to be disciplined. It was a very different experience from studying at university the first time! I realised why adult students often get so much more out of their studies than young, fresh-out-of-high-school students.

By the end of the year, we had completed close (but not close enough) to a full undergraduate Bachelor’s degree course in Mandarin Chinese. I was able to read simple articles in Chinese language newspapers, and we could hold conversations in Mandarin, but was still far from fluent. (Two of my colleagues went on for another full year of study in Beijing, before beginning work there.) I found that Mandarin had chased out any other languages I had locked away in the language-centre of my brain. Going to a Thai restaurant was very confusing, as I would start to speak in Thai, but the Mandarin words kept getting in the way.

Unfortunately, at the end of the year, and as a result of a key personnel change in HR, my agency reneged on agreements – sadly unwritten – made earlier in the year, and on which basis I had agreed to spend the year studying. This change in terms of my appointment meant that it was no longer viable – financially or in relationship or career terms – for me to go to Taiwan. It’s a long story! Anyway, they were not prepared to negotiate. I could probably have taken an employment case against them, but I didn’t want to go on that basis. Foolishly, my employers threw away the commitment of a dedicated staff member who had spent a year working very hard to come top of the class. They wasted the salary they had paid me for that year, the salary they paid for the person who replaced me at work, and the fee they’d paid for the course to be delivered. All to allow one arrogant and unprofessional HR manager to save face. So I never went to Taiwan.

I’ve not been to China yet either. Though I did share a brief conversation with a woman in the transit lounge of Shanghai airport on our way to London. She was hawking a Chinese language course. I told her, in Mandarin, that I had already studied it and forgotten it all. She replied that I clearly needed to buy the course. She was right.

I remembered the head of the Chinese department telling us that the first time you learn a language you forget it. But the second time, it sticks. Here’s hoping I get the chance to test that theory.

A tree visitor

Over the years, I’ve come to be fond of this visitor tree. It’s from Australia, and is a variety of eucalyptus. According to Google, it is Eucalyptus calophylla. When we moved into the house, it was small, below the level of our driveway and entrance, but has grown now, above the window of our guest room. When the tree was smaller, in a strong wind it would aggressively hit the wall of the guest room, causing some of our guests to get a rude shock in the middle of the night. Now that it’s bigger, it doesn’t hit the wall with such ferocity, so they are more likely to get a peaceful night’s sleep! I think. (Maybe one of my readers who knows can confirm in the comments).

It flowers in late summer/autumn, which is now, and the bees love it. It gets sun only late in the afternoon in the summer, so maybe it’s not getting enough to flower profusely. Or perhaps the rest of the flowers are still to come. I took these photos about a week ago – there are a few more blooms there now (as I peer outside my window to check), but it is windy, so I wouldn’t get good photos. The flowers are quite pretty, and it makes a welcoming sight at our front door.

Another in the Thursday Tree Love series – find all the other bloggers doing it here.



Lockdown activities

Things I do that take my mind off things:

  1. Editing photos- and particularly photos of flowers – on the computer: I am doing a series of posts elsewhere in which I’m taking some of my flower photos. They require lots of concentration, and I have to remember to stop and shake out my “mouse” hand, but in many ways its very calming. It’s a good time to listen to audiobooks, or music too.
  2. Painting: When I was going through a tough time years ago, I began painting. I really enjoyed it, found I was moderately good (but not brilliant), and found too that it was very therapeutic, requiring total concentration and absorption.
  3. Exercising: I did a walking workout (courtesy of a Youtube video) this morning. I’m keeping fit, and concentrating on the moves. And in between, I’m still doing Adriene’s Yoga Classes online on and off.
  4. Puzzles: I enjoy puzzles that I get in our daily newspaper – Sudoku, Kenken (a maths puzzle), crosswords, etc. I’m not brilliant at them, but they’re fun.
  5. Quizzes on-line: I like the ones at jetpunk dot com, and it’s easy to become a bit obsessive about using them to teach us more. It’s how I finally learnt where all the states of the USA are (the ones in the middle always confused me), and the counties of the UK (as in the past if a person has mentioned a county, it hasn’t meant anything to me). And I’ll confess it’s a great way to procrastinate!
  6. Baking: Looks like I’ll have a lot of time to do baking, and as we’re going to try to limit trips to the supermarket, it might be useful too.
  7. Knitting: Knitting something easy doesn’t take my mind off things, but I have a complicated pattern that I’m going to make as a gift, and I know it will require all my concentration. I haven’t knitted for a long time, so I’m actually really looking forward to it.
  8. Reading: I have stopped reading the last month, but I have some good e-books from the library, and need to finish them before they expire. As there are no overdue fees from the e-library (the books are just deleted from my device), that’s a good motivation to finish them.
  9. Tidying: I badly need to tidy my office, and also sort through all my clothes, especially as the change of seasons is occurring. Turns out it was a waste of time of getting out most of my summer clothes! And as I feel very satisfied after any cleaning, there’s an added bonus. I just have to start. (Maybe I should have put this as #1!)
  10. Planning: Living in the imagined future – whether it is with a tiled entranceway, a painted roof, a finished garage door, painted window sills, decorated bedroom or a future holiday when it becomes possible again, or any of the other myriad projects I need to plan – is always a great way to thing about other things.

What do you do?


Pink frangipani flower

Here’s a frangipani from Vietnam for you! My latest editing effort.

Week Seven of Blogging with Friends

Are you free for brunch on Saturday? Weekend brunch is the perfect meal to catch up – it doesn’t take all day, but it can if you want! And, if you’re so inclined, you can have an afternoon nap to recover later. It’s also great if you’ve over-indulged the night before. Skip breakfast, and choose brunch, anytime from 10 am to 1-1.30 pm. We regularly go at 1 pm or just after, giving us time to build up an appetite if we’ve slept in! But if we’re meeting friends, it is often earlier, to give us time to linger and enjoy.

Let’s meet at Taste, our favourite brunch place, in a lovely old house on the corner of the Khandallah shopping village. When we were both earning, we used to go regularly – fortnightly and sometimes weekly – but these days we have to ration our visits. It means that they are appreciated so much more when we do get there.

When we arrive, Gary or David or both will greet us, throwing a bit of shade, making a few quips, making sure they welcome every person in the party, and then show us into the light-filled dining room. We’ll sit in the tables at the end, and half of us will snuggle into the banquet seating, settling in for the long haul. Or perhaps if we’re there on a hot sunny day, we could sit outside on the porch, and not worry about disturbing the other patrons. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any opportunities to do that this windy summer.

This is not a brunch café, with a box of toys for the kids, ordering at the counter, and lots of noise. It is not a child-friendly restaurant, and you see the occasional baby in a carrier, or older children who know how to behave. They’re not unfriendly though. Many children who come see it as the height of sophistication, and choose it for their birthday dinners! Decorated in calm neutrals and white, this is a restaurant inviting you to relax, to enjoy good food and good wine and good company, in a little break from the chaos of the world.

Given the occasion, I think we should start with a pre-meal champagne – or prosecco, given our budget these days – toast. Though they have a few cocktails on the menu, and would love to have the chance to make them. And they’d no doubt be delighted to figure out the recipe of anything that you wanted. Here’s to friendship, companionship at the table, and long-lasting relationships.

Their brunch menu ranges from their delicious pate, a vegetarian soup, or a blue cheese toast on the light side, through to some of the usual breakfast suspects – French toast, eggs any which way, with a salad or roast potatoes, bacon or mushrooms, and a delicious tomato relish – and their own twists. One of my favourites is their seasonal asparagus with poached eggs on Turkish bread, with a cheesy sauce. In winter it turns into a toasted ham and tomato sandwich, with poached eggs on top, with the same cheesy sauce. Some days, when we turn up at 1 pm and I’m starving, that’s all I want! The do a couple of more substantial meals, a chicken and bacon sandwich with a yummy salad and Indian curry-flavoured mayonnaise that is to die for, and a fish dish that always looks good when other diners order it, but which I always overlook for one of the other options always mentioned. And in winter, I adore the creamy sherried mushrooms on Turkish bread, though it doesn’t always appear on the menu. Hint, hint! (Just in case Gary or David see this.) The Husband loves their chunky chips (you might know them as fries), and I’ve been known to eat a few from his bowl too, when he’s looking elsewhere.

When we’re there in a group, the service is unobtrusive, unless we all get chatting to our hosts, or they have a recent anecdote to share. Our hosts are funny, kind, and meticulous, and it always feels rude to ignore them, because they are as much a part of the experience of Taste as the food. When I go here, it’s usually just with my husband, though occasionally we’ll meet up with a group of old friends, or I’ll take guests who are staying with us (when I can’t be bothered cooking breakfast at home). But how wonderful to have you all here with us today!

This is a great opportunity to get to know each other better, meeting in person for perhaps the first time. Any nervousness at this will have been dispelled with that first glass of prosecco, and one of Gary’s jokes, and by the time we turn to the Elephant Hill Chardonnay, Peregrine Pinot Gris, or Bird in the Hand Shiraz (these are our favourites), we’ll be relaxed and old friends. After all, thanks to technology, we’re already old friends.  We’ve witnessed life-altering events, shared happiness and loss, watched kids grow up, and showed each other our inner selves. We’ve just not met yet.

As it’s a special occasion, we might indulge in dessert – profiteroles filled with ice-cream and chocolate sauce, a trifle or white chocolate mousse might take your fancy. We usually share their sweet treats – a tiny triangle of a lemon slice – that goes perfectly with their excellent, strong coffee. But I’m sure they’ll try and tempt us with a dessert wine or port or something stronger! By now, the restaurant is emptying out. They close at 2 pm, but are happy for us to stay longer. It’s a peaceful, happy environment. And we can always regroup down the road at our house, after a post-prandial hike back up the hill to work off the calories. Wine on the deck, anyone?


Forty years ago today, I spent my first full day in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with 46 other AFS exchange students for an orientation programme at a hostel in Bangkok, having arrived in the dark the night before with the ANZAC contingent. I remember being hit by the heat and humidity as we left the airport, and later, my diary recorded my disgust that I could feel so hot and sticky immediately after a shower.

As it was a Sunday, there were no classes organised. Instead, we were all sent out to discover Bangkok. The newly-arrived Australians and New Zealanders were escorted by the one New Zealander who was finishing her AFS year. We were amazed at her confidence, her language, her level of comfort in this foreign environment. Would we ever be that relaxed here?

The bus into the city was crowded, and I remember being amazed at the sheer numbers of the road, and the variety of buildings. We arrived at the Sunday Market – which in those days was a collection of stalls under canvas across a large field (Sanam Luang) near the Grand Palace. I’ve written about that day before, here and here.

My diary doesn’t say much, but I remember some things very clearly. I don’t remember having lunch at the Sunday Market, which I duly recorded as consisting of “rice and stuff on top!” I don’t actually remember going on the boat ride, shocked at the poverty side by side with the glorious golden temples. But I do remember going to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, amazed at the beauty and exotic architecture. It was the first place I went to in Bangkok, and was the last place I visited when I left Bangkok 13 years later after my diplomatic posting there. It has etched itself into my heart, or perhaps I left part of my heart there, even on that first visit.

After the grandeur of the Palace and Temple, we went back to the market to explore. It was, I noted, “very dirty and smelly!” I remember that the heavens opened for my first experience of a tropical downpour. I remember the muddy floors.

We were thrown into Bangkok in the deep end. And it set the scene for the coming year.

But how could I know that day that most of those students in the bus with me, or the ones I met at the hostel, would become dear friends? How could I know that Chai, the language teacher we met the next day, would become an important part of our year too, and would still be part of our lives? How could I predict that I would be back ten years almost to the day to live and work for another three years? That I’d get to visit Sharon and Chai in Delaware, and have dinner with Amy, or stay with Madeline in Dayton, when I made work trips to DC in the 90s? How could I imagine that my AFS friends would become part of my everyday life through social media? That Fe would make me a quilt?That I’d Skype with Cecilia on (her) Christmas Day 39 years later? That in February 2020, almost forty years later, I would be thrilled to have lunch by the beach on a sunny day in Wellington with Jane and Vicki (one Kiwi, one Californian), the first time we’d seen each other since 1981!

How could I even have imagined that we’d all have such a strong bond after that year? That love and laughter (sanuk) – with the help of technology – would keep us together, all these years later? I couldn’t imagine it. I’m not sure any of us could. But isn’t it a wonderful thing?



Week Six of Blogging with Friends

Note: My father-in-law is my only living parent or parent-in-law. He’s very different from my parents, so not always easy to understand. Choosing him for this post – when the task is to write an advance eulogy or note of appreciation to someone still living – is actually a lesson in compassion. It requires me to make an effort to remember the man behind the  loneliness, old age, bad decisions, and aches and pains. It asks me to see him as he was, and as he surely still feels he is on the inside.

I’ve known K, my father-in-law, for a long time. I met him a year or so after I first met his son, many moons ago. I was the first young woman to arrive in their family, and I’m sure it took some adjusting, given that they had four sons and I was a vocal (to them at least) feminist. In more recent years, as he has aged and lost his beloved wife of 63 years, I have played more of a caregiver role, and in turn that has taken some adjustment too. It is sometimes hard for him to accept, but I know he appreciates what my husband and I do.

K was raised by hard-working parents, who had come from lesser circumstances, and as a result he always valued a strong work ethic, practicality and self-sufficiency, and education. He has always been a serious man, focused on doing what is right, being frugal, and taking pleasure in hard work. He believed in committing to the good of the community, and voted accordingly. It was a point of chagrin – and much amusement to the rest of us – that his vote was always cancelled out by that of his wife, and vice versa. Perhaps it was a result of being born just before or during the Great Depression, but he shared that strong desire to “do what is right”for the community with my own father, though it manifested in very different ways.

Accordingly, K has never believed in putting one person above another. This made him scrupulously fair (perhaps inflexibly so) as a manager, and as a father. Some years ago, when he and his wife were travelling with one of their sons and his family, they stayed in a hotel on an Executive floor. His son had thought it would be a good idea to use the Executive lounge for the whole family to get together at the end of busy days of sight-seeing. Father-in-law told them they were “getting above their station in life!”

K always had an interest in how and why things work, and perhaps being an engineer was inevitable. I love the story from his childhood, when he fashioned a makeshift diver helmet from a bucket (he cut into it and fixed a small window to look through) as a child, weighted his pockets down, and walked underwater on the seabed looking at the fish.

When I first met him, he was still in his 50s, at the top of his profession, taking pride in his technical knowledge, and the city landmarks that he had built and maintained throughout his career. He still takes pride in that, and well into his 80s, he lobbied for recognition of the organisation and its staff (it was privatised after his retirement), resulting in the placing of a commemorative plaque on the waterfront in Wellington.

Whilst K’s work was always technically complex, at home he got his hands dirty, and loved it. His garage was his workshop, and even now he treasures a large set of much loved tools, some of them from his father. He still lives in the home he designed and helped build, back in 1962, and has maintained lovingly and meticulously since then. His practical streak – his ability to figure out how to do or make something – was inherited by my husband, and I’m grateful for that too.

He took great pride in his large garden, focusing on growing food to eat, and leaving the more frivolous (in his view) issue of flowers and beauty to his wife! In their later years, they both enjoyed spending a day working in the garden together. The satisfaction of a day’s hard work outside, and the results of fresh vegetables or fruit, or a well-tended flower bed, were amongst their greatest pleasures. In the last couple of years, as his physical health has waned and he has been unable to maintain the garden, he has – I think – appreciated the fact that my husband has still endeavoured to grow vegetables there.

House-hunting back in the 1990s, we brought K and his wife to see the two houses on our shortlist. After the visit, he sat down and wrote a list of pros and cons for the two houses. We were staying with them at the time (we’d just returned from living in Bangkok), and I don’t think it was an accident that we found that list sitting prominently on the otherwise tidy desk in the study (which we were regularly using to make calls, get privacy, etc). There was a long list of pros for one house, and an equally long list of cons for the other, with only one pro. “Interesting design,” he noted. Reading it, I could hear his puzzled sigh as he wrote it. FYI, this is the house we are still living in! He only saw the practical issues – aesthetics and views weren’t even considered – and couldn’t understand our choice, though never argued it with us. A few years ago, when we had to spend megabucks to strengthen our cantilevered concrete driveway (one of the cons he had noted), he never once said – to me at least – “I told you so.” I appreciated that. Though I’m pretty sure he would have thought it, and probably said it to my husband’s brothers too!

But he enjoys a bit of fun too. Never a fan of travel, he has had no choice when all four of his sons have lived overseas at one time or another. We nonetheless managed to get K and M to visit us in Thailand. I have a happy memory of him playing volleyball with my husband and I in a swimming pool on the beach in Cha-am, leaping out of the water to catch a ball. It was probably the most animated I’ve ever seen him! He played and loved sport as a young man, and that has stayed with him, these days enjoying sport on TV. He’s not very forgiving to the teams when they lose, but has learned over the years to turn the TV off and go to bed if things are going badly, to keep his blood pressure from getting too high. We are all happy for him when they win!

He’s also a fan of puns, but I won’t hold that against him. Much. He does like a laugh, and a happy grin or chuckle from him makes our day. These days his pleasures are small – sports on TV, a visit from us or a favourite niece, a phone call (or rare visit) from one of his sons, a chocolate bar or an ice-cream, and the meat pies my husband buys him for lunch on weekly “shopping” days.

K has struggled for years with retirement, the resulting depression, and ageing. I would never tell him this, but as a result of watching him, my husband and I have learned how we want to spend our retirement. Speaking frankly, he has taught us what not to do. As a result, we have plans in place to try to make our old age (when we won’t have children or even nieces/nephews nearby to help us) easier. I hope we’ll do what we say we’re going to do. And if we do, we can be grateful to him for that too.