25 November 2010

Making a mountain out of a molehill

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We were studying the perfect tenses in class yesterday and as part of that I gave my students an activity based on a small sampling of the thousands of proverbs we have in the English language. 

As we checked the answers, I questioned whether they had similar sayings in their languages. They do, of course, and it was interesting to learn how the sayings change as they cross cultures.

For example, the mountain in our proverb ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’ morphs from a mountain to a bull to an elephant to a stallion, a donkey, a camel and a hen. And the molehill becomes variously a mouse, a fly, a flea, a mosquito and a feather.

Here are some of the variations I discovered:
§         to make a mountain out of a molehill – apparently English people were using this expression as early as the mid-1500s
§         to make a mountain out of a mouse – Hebrew
§         to make a bull out of a fly – Finnish (because, in Finnish, bull rhymes with fly)
§         to make an elephant out of a fly – in Portuguese, French, German, Russian and Estonian
§         to make an elephant out of a flea – Hungarian
§         to make an elephant out of a mosquito – Dutch and Afrikaans
§         to make a stallion out of a mosquito – Romanian
§         to make a donkey out of a mosquito – Serbian
§         to make a camel out of a mosquito – Icelandic
§         to make a camel out of a flea – Turkish
§         to make a hen out of a feather – Swedish
§         to make five hens out of a feather – Danish
§         to make a garden fork out of a needle – Polish (no animals)

There were other interesting proverb alternatives too. The English ‘storm in a teacup’ becomes ‘a storm in a glass of water’ in Italian, Swedish, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Turkish, French, and Catalan, but in Arabic, it’s ‘a storm in a coffee cup’.

And then there’s the Turkish equivalent of our ‘Don't count your chickens before they hatch’: ‘Don’t roll your pants up before you see the river’.

Language, and how we use it, is truly fascinating!

21 November 2010

25 more sleeps

I‘ve spent a little time this af’noon reading my recollections from my last trip to Cambodia, to whet my appetite for this year’s – as if that was needed. I’ve been looking forward to going back since I stepped on the plane to leave!

Some of my impressions, in no particular order:
©     the HEAT!
©     my room’s resident gecko entertaining me with its amusing antics, racing round the walls and serenading me to sleep with its chirruping.

    ©   teaching Buddhist Khmer kids Christian Christmas carols about sleigh rides in the snow, and a Christmas eve party with them singing those carols to the American Mormon family who sponsored the party
    ©   cute kids with big eyes and even bigger smiles
    ©   signs of a small world: a Kiwi having Mexican enchiladas for dinner with Irish, English and Japanese women in Cambodia
    ©   my friendly, like-minded, dedicated, international, fellow volunteers
    ©    the wildlife: tree frogs on doorframes, locals eating deep-fried crickets, lizards with bright orange spots
    ©    villages where everyone weaves baskets, villages on stilts, villages floating on Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Asia
    ©     the end-of-harvest wedding season, with bunches of bananas decorated in silver and gold, and loud speakers blaring out till the wee hours
    ©     incredible ancient temples, amazingly beautiful sculptures, unforgettable Apsara dancers
    ©     the kids’ constant chatter, Khmer’s constant smiles

You know your holiday is getting close when you get your suitcase out of storage and start making ‘To Do’ lists!

19 November 2010

The way to Paradise

Yesterday we held a debate in my Upper-Intermediate morning class; the topic was: ‘It is better to be a man than a woman’. As you might suspect, this prompted some interesting arguments.

The team arguing in favour of the topic presented some good points about the predominance of men in business and politics, about men’s superior physical strength and spatial abilities, and, one argument that provoked a lot of laughter, how it was easier for men to save money because women have to spend a lot of money on clothes and matching accessories, cosmetics and hair care!

From the team arguing against, and so arguing that it’s better to be a woman, we heard well-researched statistics about life expectancy, and the importance of women’s nurturing and communication skills. One student spoke passionately about the importance of his mother in his life, and another provided us with an old Turkish proverb: ‘The way to Paradise is through the bottom of your mother’s feet’.

Though I didn’t quite understand it, I thought this was a lovely sentiment, so I later googled it. The meaning had got a little lost in translation; it seems usually to be translated as ‘the way to Paradise lies under the feet of your mother’ and appears, in fact, to have come originally from the teachings of Mohammed. In one version, reported by Ibn Majah (Sunan, Hadith no. 2771), it is said that the Prophet told someone, ‘Be at your mother’s feet and there is Paradise’.

Regardless of its origins, the sentiment crosses all cultural, national and religious boundaries: honour your mother, serve her and take good care of her. It may not be Mothers’ Day, but today – and every day since she passed away – I remember, love and honour my wonderful mother.

Mum and I, January 2006

17 November 2010

The rabbit in the moon?

Teaching is a learning experience, and not just for the students. Every single day since I became a teacher, I’ve learnt something from my students. And today was no exception. For the very first time, I heard about the rabbit in the moon.

Like most Kiwi children, I was brought up on stories of the man in the moon, which probably stem from such childhood nursery rhymes as Mothergoose: ‘The man in the moon / came down too soon / to ask his way to Norwich’. But my Japanese, Korean and Mexican students see the moon differently – they see a rabbit, not a man.

In the Japanese and Korean cultures, the rabbit is believed to be pounding the ingredients for rice cake in a mortar and pestle. But the image my Mexican students described was of a different rabbit – no mortar and pestle, just the bunny. Presumably this is because their country is further south, so their view of the dark areas, the lunar seas or maria, and the lighter highlands of the lunar surface is different.

In our class discussion about the different images, we decided the reason was because Japan, Korea and Mexico are in the northern hemisphere, whereas New Zealand is in the southern, so we see the moon’s surface from different perspectives. 

That all seemed very logical at the time. But, of course, the Mother Goose rhyme is a northern hemisphere creation, and the idea of a man in the moon is, in fact, a longstanding European tradition. Roman mythology depicted him as a sheep thief, and Christian traditions variously describe him as a man caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers XV.32-36) and as Cain, eternally destined to circle the Earth.

When I followed up these ideas on Wikipedia after class I discovered that a great diversity of moon characters have been seen and mythologised, including a woman, a frog, a moose, a buffalo and a dragon. Here in New Zealand, the Maori people believe they see a woman and a Ngaio tree.

The next full moon is due on 22 November. I’ve set my class the task of taking a good look at the moon that night so we can have another moon-image discussion the following day. It had better not be cloudy!

12 November 2010

Go fly a kite

In Stones into Schools, Mortenson talks about the Draconian regime when the Taliban held power in Afghanistan. Some of their more bizarre edicts included forbidding people from listening to music, laughing in public, and flying a kite.

To me, these were truly soul-destroying prohibitions. Listening to music can invigorate lethargy, calm anger, cheer sadness, and so much more. And you have only to witness the huge numbers of people walking around with earphones virtually embedded in their ears to know how very important music is in people’s lives.

And who could live without laughter? There is nothing so good as the genuinely overwhelming belly laugh that results in tears streaming down your face and leaves your diaphragm feeling pained, your body exhausted. To be prevented from sharing a public laugh with a fellow human being would be so demoralising, and who hasn’t smiled involuntarily at the sound of someone laughing?

I read Mortenson’s passage about the Taliban prohibitions in bed one night this week and the very next day one of my Facebook friends posted this quote from Ana├»s Nin:
Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.’

The coincidence of the kite image struck me immediately. Forbidding someone from flying a kite seems like forbidding them from following their dreams.

So, my wish for today is for everyone freely to listen to some music, to laugh in public, and – I mean this is the nicest possible way – to go fly a kite!

11 November 2010

Three cups of tea

Anyone familiar with Greg Mortenson's book will realise where the title of this blog originated. My local library's copy of that book (Three Cups of Tea) was out last time I checked so I've been reading his second book, Stones into Schools instead. It's truly inspirational!


Working through his nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI), Mortenson has worked to promote peace through education by establishing over 145 schools, most of them for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Perhaps his success stems from his simple philosophy. He believes young women are the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world, a belief that stems from an African proverb he often heard during his childhood years in Tanzania: 'If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.' (Stones into Schools, p.13)

And he achieves his success through building relationships with the local people. As he writes, the title of Three Cups of Tea refers to a Balti saying: 'The first cup of tea you share with us, you are a stranger. The second cup, you are a friend. But with the third cup, you become family -- and for our families we are willing to do anything, even die.' (Stones into Schools, p.17)

Don't get me wrong here. I have no intention of heading into the back of beyond to build schools. That is for stronger souls than mine. But I do find it uplifting that one man can make such a difference in such a multinational, multilingual, multicultural world.

*** Update
Since I wrote this blog, Greg Mortenson has been revealed as a lier and a fraud. Click on this link to read the latest. SHAME on him!

09 November 2010

Generous friends and strangers

I’ve always been uncomfortable about asking people for money, which may stem from my days as a Credit Manager. In my opinion, there never was a more thankless and soul-destroying job than debt collection!

So, I’ve avoided seeking sponsorship for my volunteer work in Cambodia and have funded my trips from my own savings and from selling personal possessions on Trade Me, New Zealand’s version of eBay. I’ve also been using Trade Me to buy second-hand books for the Anjali kids and to buy embroidery floss for my friendship bracelets project.

And it never ceases to delight me when strangers, upon learning of the reason for my purchases, freely donate additional items. One kind woman, a former teacher, included several extra books she thought might prove useful, as well as Boris, an incredibly cute and hairy hand puppet – I know he will be an instant hit! Another woman sent twice as much embroidery floss as I had paid for; she was clearing her deceased mother’s possessions and felt her mother would approve of the donation.

My friends have also been generous. Sue, and her daughter’s family, have given me a bundle of clothes the children have outgrown, Rosie has donated gold thread to give the bracelets an extra sparkle, and Carol has lent me books from her volunteering days to glean extra craft ideas.

The generosity of these friends and strangers is heart-warming.

06 November 2010

Getting crafty

One of the volunteers’ tasks at Anjali House is to run workshops twice a day, the same workshop each time, once for the morning children and once for those who come in the afternoons.
Anjali kids wearing their crowns
These workshops include arts and crafts, games and activities, and reading time. Much of the time we spent on arts and crafts last time went into making throwaway things, like Christmas decorations, masks and crowns. It was fun and the children enjoy any kind of creative activity, but I’ve been searching for more lasting, less environment-polluting activities for my next visit.

When I was checking out the Volunteer Service Abroad website recently, looking at longer-term volunteer assignments, I came across a news item about Project Friendship, their annual fundraising drive selling friendship bracelets. The seed of an idea was planted!

I don’t want to encourage the children to produce bracelets for sale, as that might lead to their absence from school, but I know their bright, imaginative minds will enjoy choosing the colour combinations and their nimble fingers will soon master the knotting techniques.

However, I had no idea how to make the bracelets, so first I needed to tackle my own learning curve. Googling soon produced some excellent websites, complete with instruction techniques and free patterns. And a trip to my local library produced some excellent books, with easy-to-follow diagrams.

I had some embroidery floss from a long-abandoned sampler, so have been using that for my first efforts. I’ve only mastered two easy patterns so far, but I’m pleased with my efforts to date and I think this will be a winner with the kids at Anjali.
My bracelet-making efforts so far.

02 November 2010

43 more sleeps ...

When I went to Cambodia last December, my motives were many ... I wanted to escape the crazy razzamatazz of Christmas and the loneliness of a season traditionally spent with family, I wanted to pass on to those less fortunate some of my good fortune in life, and I wanted to explore a new country to discover more about its people and culture.

When I was first contemplating where to go and what to do, I had no specific ideas. I googled, checked out various travel company websites, saw something about volunteering in Vietnam and quite liked the idea of that. Then I posted a comment about the ideas that were spinning round in my mind on Facebook. Almost immediately a friend, Christine, told me about a friend of hers, Anna, who was then in Cambodia, volunteering with the UK-based charity Globalteer. Christine put me in touch with Anna, emails were exchanged, Anna recommended Globalteer highly and was enthusiastic about Cambodia.

In just 24 hours my decision was made!

And I knew I'd made the right decision when everything just fell into place over the following few days. I applied and was immediately accepted as a volunteer, my travel agent cousin found me a good airfare, and very soon I began counting the sleeps.

Little did I know then the lasting effect the trip would have on me. I shared delicious meals, incredible sightseeing adventures, and beer-soaked pub quizzes with like-minded fellow volunteers from around the world, many of whom became my friends. The crew at Globalteer impressed me with their affability and professionalism in often-challenging conditions. The people of Cambodia overwhelmed me with their broad smiles, warm welcome and eternal optimism in the face of sometimes extreme poverty. And the delightful children of Anjali House touched my heart, with their incessant chatter, cheeky grins and unstoppable energy.

Even as I stepped on to the plane to come home, I knew I had to go back. And now I have just 43 more sleeps till I once again tread the earth of the Khmer kingdom. I can hardly wait!