I got a letter from a former student today. Landon has been corresponding with me since Ruth and I returned to Canada.
Here’s my response to his latest communication, reorganized with names for clarity.
Landon: Hi David,It’s been three years since last time I wrote to you.
Zale: How wonderful to hear from you, and to hear that you are still working at improving your English. The truth is, your English is already very good and the things that confuse you are mostly English idioms and phrases that I use in an unconventional way.
Landon: I have to say the time is flying so fast, especially during past two years with COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t travel frequently, we were busy for working, we were even asked to work for home when there were COVID-19 test positive cases occurred around my area. It’s like I don’t have much memories during past two years. As one of my colleagues said “year 2019 suddenly jumped to 2021”. And now it’s 2022 already, I wish you can have an enjoyable year in the new year.
Zale: Yes, time is flying very fast. I also find it hard to believe that it is 2022 already. Actually, I find it hard to believe that 1984 is no longer in the distant future, or that I am now considered elderly. In mind, heart and spirit I feel like a man in his thirties, and it’s rather disturbing to find myself with all the physical limitations of advancing age. I’m fortunate that Ruth has done such a great job of documenting most of our time in China, and our lives during spring and summer vacations. Without those photographs that great stretch of time would be just a blur. https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/ is where you will find her most recent pictures. But going into her albums is truly amazing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums
Landon: My son got started primary school from Sep, 2021. He behaves just well at school. He is cooperative to teachers’ guidance, and consciously get homework done every day. But meanwhile, he is not willing to do what we, family members, told him to do, even though the thing is really good for his study. It’s like a common problem in China that a child listens to teachers, while opposes to families. The problem is there, but we still manage to improve the situation from time to time.
Zale: This is good to hear. But please keep in mind that a child needs a childhood. If he is paying attention to his teachers and doing his homework, that should be enough. After that, I think you should just expose him to as many different activities and ideas as you can and see what sparks his interests. Have you taught him to play xiang qi? Can you find any magic tricks online to teach him, especially tricks that show a scientific principle. Does he have an interest in music, not just listening to it but also making music. Does he like fishing? Does he like to make things? There is so much instructional material online that any interest he has can find help to go deeper. Maybe he’d like to build a robot. Or a rocket. Does he know the names of all the birds in your area, or all the different trees, or the different food crops? Does he know how to cook? Does he know how to sew? Can he type with all his fingers on a QWERTY keyboard? (If not there are great typing games and apps available to help him build up speed and accuracy.) Whatever he shows an interest in, encourage him. Even if all he wants to do is play computer games, encourage and support him. There are people today making a good living playing computer games, or commenting on computer games. You have an interest in English. Maybe challenge your son to keep up with you, talk to him in English, see if he can teach you any English vocabulary. The things he learns in school – mostly how to sit quietly, be obedient, and repeat what the teacher tells him – are not nearly as important as the things he will learn by following his own interests.
Landon: I occasionally logged on Facebook yesterday(because you know the website is blocked in China unless using proxy), and just noticed what you said on Facebook that your friend has passed away. And I am sorry for hearing that. I then read your whole blog for missing your friend. I could feel the friendship of you two, the memory you have for your friend, even though you two had many disagreements before. I hope you could recover from sorrow soon.
Zale: My father talked about reaching an age when he seemed to be going to a funeral every few days. I’m now at that age myself, and must simply accept it as a natural part of life. Over the Christmas holidays, my friend, Bernie, in Australia died. My cousin Billy, my childhood hero, died. You know about my friend Rob. One of Ruth’s friends and associates died of a brain tumor. Worst of all, my daughter in law is very likely to die of terminal cancer, although there is still hope. (we attended her fairy tale wedding just two years ago and you can see the pictures in one of Ruth’s albums https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums/72157710271821806 ). You can read her story here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-lennea-get-uncovered-treatment?
Are you familiar with the stages of grief first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying”. The stages are:
Most people have to work through these stages in order to accept reality. For example, when given bad news from a doctor about terminal cancer, the first instinct is to deny that it’s true, possibly seek a second opinion, refuse to deal with it. The next step is to be bitter and angry, possibly lashing out at doctors and family. Then comes bargaining – if I just change my diet and start exercising, this will go away. But when it doesn’t go away, the next step is depression, horrible, deep depression that makes it hard to see any joy in life. And finally there is acceptance – this is natural; this happens to everybody; I’m going to live every second until the end and enjoy what is left of my time on earth.
It has always seemed to me that the first four stages are a complete waste of emotional energy. I much prefer to jump straight to acceptance. And that”s how I deal with things like my friend Rob dying. Yes, I miss him. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone. But that’s life. That’s reality. There’s still a lot of joy in my world. So, while I feel sad, it isn’t a sorrow I must recover from.
Landon: For my English study, it’s quite a long term task.
Zale: Ha ha. It’s a lifetime task, even for a native speaker. Ruth and I are still learning English. It is endlessly fascinating, and there is no way I will ever know all of the words in the English language. I still encounter words I have never heard before. Usually I just guess at the meaning and read on. That is the best way to build a vocabulary. It’s only when I can’t imagine a meaning that I bother to look a word up. But usually, the context will give you the meaning. Of course this runs the risk of looking foolish if I try to use a word but don’t understand it. For example, many native speakers think that “penultimate” means the very best, the top, the final, as in “It was the penultimate achievement of his life.” In fact, it comes from the same root as “pen” meaning “almost” as used in words like “peninsula”, almost an island. So the penultimate achievement is the one before the final achievement.
Landon: I never said I gave it up, but I was never determined to devote time to study it (maybe there is no much need from my current working), and consequently I never saw any much progress of it. But recently, it seems I spent a bit more time to touch it. For example, I install an app called Radio Singapore(I once studied there) to listen the English channel, and another app called CNA(its an app from Singapore mainly focusing Asia News and the worlds as well) to read English news.
Zale: I applaud you for this. The best and easiest things to learn are learned simply for the fun and joy of learning. So many people seem to be dull creatures with no real interest in anything but entertainment provided by others.
Landon: Overlly I feel that for those four parts of English – listening, speaking, reading, writing, I need to improve listening with the highest priority, and reading with secondly priority. The rest, speaking, and writing, I will set them aside(maybe for future to improve, ^_^).
I sort the four items above mainly out of the frequency I use them. I listen the News from radio, and I often fail to understand during the listening because of unfamiliar words or fast speaking speed. The situation of reading English News is a little bit better. Because I can refer dict for new words while reading, and repeat to read for better understanding, it’s low efficiency though. I’m always surprised that there are so many new words when reading different topics of News.
Zale: And when you have a passion for learning something, breaking it down into sections, setting priorities, and organizing your study is a great way to improve,
Landon: I have some parts that I don’t understand from what you writing, could you just explain a little bit more if you have time:
1: From your facebook, “News of his death kicked the crap out of my Christmas this year”
I think it says the News made you had a sad time during Christmas, right? But I don’t understand “kicked the crap out of …”, even after I refereed dict for the word “crap”.
Zale: Okay. This is a vulgarism, the more impolite version of which is “kicked the shit out of…: As in “If he does that again I’m going to kick the shit out of him.” meaning I am going to do serious damage to him. News of my friend’s death was a severe shock that brought me to tears. It cast a shadow over my entire Christmas as I struggled to accept the loss, i.e. it kicked the crap out of my Christmas.
2: From your blog: “Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”
“Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”, does that mean like every thing is ready except a last problem? But what is the exact mean of “lock down” here?
Zale: You understood perfectly. Yes exactly. When he was putting a deal together there were hundreds of elements that needed to be decided, i.e. locked down, starting with the script, the director, the cast, the location, etc. and most importantly, the financing. Very often there would be a vital part to this that would make everything fall into place. Often getting the interest of a major star would be that vital part, or the interest of a wealthy investor, or a “green light” from Netflix. So you see, you really did understand what I wrote. This is a perfect illustration of my belief that running to the dictionary every time you don’t understand something is usually not necessary, and, in the case of idiom like “locked down” often not helpful.
Landon: 3: From your blog: “And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance.”
Here, why I think it should be “And what Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise …”. I feel a little puzzled. Because only with Laowise, the Christmas could be perfect and completed.
Zale: No. For your version to work you would need to leave off the word “what”. “And a Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise…” Adding the word “what” asks the question, “Is a Christmas party complete without the Laowise…”So you see, once again you understood my meaning completely. It was just an unfamiliar structure that you found confusing.
Landon: 4: From your blog: “He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.”
I can only figure out it does say “He had no accomplishment”, the rest I don’t understand at all.
Zale: To rephrase this I would write: I know he played an essential role in the early stages of the financing for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”. But he left that production early after a dispute with one of the other producers. Other than that accomplishment, I don’t know what else he managed to achieve.
Landon: Currently the main issue for me is vocabulary. If I had gained larger vocabulary, I think I could have a faster understanding while listening, and a low frequency of referring dict while reading, thus improve the efficiency of reading. And I will devote more on vocabulary.
Zale: Again let me stress that the best way to build vocabulary, and certainly the most fun way, is simply to practice voracious reading, especially classical writers like Charles Dickens, or more contemporary writers such as George Orwell. Just read. Guess at the meaning of words. Only go to the dictionary when you really feel that you don’t understand. I have a huge vocabulary, compared to many native speakers, and I don’t think I went to the dictionary ten times during all my years as a student. But I read everything I could get my hands on.Now quite often I think of a word I use and I’m not sure I understand what it means completely, so I will go to a dictionary. It’s much easier now that a dictionary is as close as Google. Almost always, I find that my understanding of the word is correct.Once again the Internet has made finding material to read easy. For example, I’m now rereading a book by George Orwell that I read probably fifty years ago. When I recommended it to somebody online, I discovered that it is available for free here: https://libcom.org/files/wiganpier.pdf
Landon: Again I wish you have all thing the best in this new year.
Zale: Thank you, Landon. And again it’s great to hear from you, and to learn that you have become a family man of some substance. I hope you have a happy, joyful, and prosperous time in the new year and years to come. Please feel free to write to me and tell me more about your life, family, work, and interests in China. You might even include some pictures.
Your old English teacher, David (Zale, Da Dawei)