This morning, as I spent ten minutes to review some Thai phrases from a website, I suddenly remember several strange incidents happened in school when I was learning English as a second language. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but it could be when I was a forth or fifth grader right before middle school.
As you know, English, or any foreign language, is usually taught with phrases plus grammar rules, rarely with content involving different customs or different cultures. Most of us just treated English as a boring subject of memorization and never thought that a new logic or a new way of thinking should be considered. Then one day, the incomprehensible way of the English speaking people inevitably intruded on our simplified way of dealing with its language.
There was the simple problem of giving an answer to a question, “don’t you like this book?” In many Asian countries, this question is answered by “yes” to agree with the question that one doesn’t like this book and “no” to disagree with the question that one does like the book. However to native English speakers, the answers are completely opposite. “No” to indicate dislike and “yes” to indicate like. Most of us didn’t understand how this could happen. The teacher couldn’t explain–she was very young and tried hard to assume an authoritarian tone, especially towards questions she couldn’t answer. “Just memorize it.” She chastised us and teased us for being lazy.
There were also words like “unbelievable” and “incredible”, which puzzled us exceedingly. As you know, the etiquette of many cultures dictates that one has to be very respectful to elders and even neighbors. Even if you don’t believe a person, it is never allowed to say you don’t believe him to his face. Or even behind his back. When the word is used, it is quite formal and very severe. It is beyond our comprehension that English not only creates a commonly used word “unbelievable”, but also makes fun of it to change its meaning to the opposite. Such a transformation from a serious insult to a loud praise is very much against our common sense and daily reasoning. Of course, the teacher scolded us into accepting it. If we ever raised a question, she would question our work ethic and our suitability for advancement.
As you know, many exams are designed to prey on students’ weaknesses and inevitably these incomprehensible items appeared on the important standard exams to decide if a person can go to a good middle school or a bad one. The standard exams are usually harder than the school exam and trickier. If one just remembers the rules, it is very easy to be deceived by the exams’ clever disguise. One of my peers is the son of a farmer. I was attending the affiliated primary school in a small college my mother was working in. It’s a rural college and the farmers’ children in the nearby two villages also came to attend our school.
I already forget the name of the farmer’s son. Let’s just say his name is Hyn Junior and his father’s name is Hyn Senior. Hyn failed most of the tricky questions, which would destine him for a bad middle school in town. There were no middle school in our area and all middle school students had to take public bus to go into the rural town which is located five miles away.
The farmer came to our school to argue his son’s scores and he was distinctively angry about his son’s English exam. It didn’t help that the young English teacher was very arrogant towards the farmer, dismissing him as an illiterate, which just added more fuel to the flame. The farmer was actually very intelligent. He pulled out the exam paper and pointed to the tricky parts and asked the English teacher the dreadful question “why”. The English teacher couldn’t answer and she could only say the farmer’s son was lazy and unmotivated.
The farmer protested by sitting outside our English teacher’s office, but to no avail. The system was unfair and rigid. If one was treated badly by the system, one could only swallow one’s own tears and live with it.
The next Monday, when we came to school, we found that all the desks in our classroom were missing, windows smashed, the door unhinged. And inside the classroom was a huge pile of manure.
The perpetrator was never found although everybody knew who he was.