Friday, February 24, 2012

Contemplation and Comedy

I started my teaching career way back in August 2001. I was very young (and looked even younger) and inexperienced, and the students knew it. In fact, quite a number of them were the same age as me, and some others older than me. I remember how nervous I was the morning of the very first lecture - such that I had my colleague, Mr Kopi, accompany me to class. He stayed with me until the first students started walking in (for which I will be forever grateful!).

That class, I remember, had some nasty troublemakers. There was this boy who sat at the back of the class and deliberately disturbed the lectures by chatting away, yawning very audibly, and on several occasions, announcing loudly "This is so boring! So boring!" The last time he did, I chided him. The discourse went more or less like this:

"This is the syllabus that I have to teach."
"What do you expect me to do? Sing and dance?"
"Yeah! That's good, do that!"
"If you really like that, you're in the wrong major. You should go and do Performing Arts instead."

He had no witty comeback (not that any of his antics and rebuttals were witty in the first place) so he was silenced. He did not give me any more trouble for the rest of the semester, but he did lead a group of the naughtiest in the class to bully one of my other colleagues (who was also a first-time lecturer) into tears. There was also this girl who loved to ask questions and/or request that I repeat certain parts of the lecture, but when I gave her answers or repeated stuff as per her request, she would be busy playing with her phone and not listening. Every single time. No, I'm not joking.

In those early days, I often thought of my favourite teachers and lecturers, and thought about the qualities in them that made me love them so much. Dedication. Passion. Genuine concern for their students. Teaching with the earnest aim to educate would, usually, result in developing a good teaching style. That much, I believe. I tried, so very hard, all through the years, to continuously improve my style. I figured out the best way to deliver difficult lessons, the best way to explain difficult concepts, the best way to illustrate the abstract. Above all, I tried to instill the love of learning in my students - I tried to encourage them to be inquisitive. I often asked them to ask questions. I often said, upon having presented a point or a solution, "Don't you want to know why?" Asking "why" is important. I tried so very hard to teach that. So very hard.

Reader, you could perhaps have sense the heavy tone of resignation by now.

For, an education isn't what they really want. They don't care that I put so much effort and energy into delivering the lessons in ways best suited for their level of understanding. They don't like it when I criticize their shoddy work, and they don't like it when I refuse to waste my time listening to excuses. They say that I'm harsh, that I don't give them the chance to "explain", that I set the standards too high, and that I shouldn't even be a lecturer. They don't like it when I check their bad manners, and they don't like it that I don't spoon-feed them and expect them to take some responsibility in their own learning. They say that I should calm myself down, that I should understand that the subject is "very difficult", and even that I have failed in my attempt to "teach" them self-learning.

Maybe it is true that I have failed, or that I am indeed not suited for this lowly-paid (but highly-intellectually-demanding) occupation. Don't get me wrong - I am way past the era of being hurt at ridiculous comments thrown at me. At first, I was just really sad that this generation has degraded to such new lows - the mentality they showcased is beyond shameful. At first. After seconds and thirds... I got used to it. I constantly remind myself that no matter how the majority wouldn't know good teaching if it came up to them and spat them in the face, there are always a few who would truly appreciate the way I put my heart into their education. Even if there is ONE, out of a hundred, my efforts would not be in vain.

I don't know where the comedy is in all of these... perhaps it is in reading a report and finding this statement: "The best way to make full step is to make two half steps."

Or getting the answer, "Lagrangian tree is a tree", for a question asking the definition of the said term.

Or looking at a program for controlling traffic lights at a cross junction that is written such that all the lights will turn green at the same time.

Or getting a signal-to-noise-ratio with the unit of Hz in an exam script.

Or this:

Ahhh, how I love Academia! Truly!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peony In Love

Last October, my roomees and I planned a day full of "unconventional" activities - bouldering for beginners in the morning, a scrumptious lunch (a must!) and the largest book sale I've ever seen. While I have to admit I'd never been so delighted, I do think many people bought way too many books that they perhaps were never going to read, simply because they were so cheap. Novels that usually go for RM30+ were selling at RM8. So, I don't know if such sales actually encourages reading, or simply fueled unparalleled impulse buying. Fortunately, my roomees and I were still rather level-headed. We didn't blindly grab all the RM5 and RM8 titles we didn't intend to read... I think. *Ahem*

Some time later, Bee Ree suggested that we share among ourselves brief synopses of the titles we've read. The first one she wrote was for Peony in Love by Lisa See. There was love and loss, and ghosts. I asked to be the first to borrow it.

Last Saturday, we met. While I forgot all about Bee Ree wanting to borrow my copy of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, she placed the book I asked for in my hands. You see, Reader, this is karma - I've always laughed at her for being somewhat senile, and look what I've become...

When I got home, I forced myself to complete my work duties - exam scripts - and then started eagerly on the book. I read well into the night. I read continuously through the next day. It's been years - and I do mean, yearsss - since I indulged so, and it felt so good. I finished the 273-page book (well, a 280-page for me, since I'd read the Author's Note at the end as well) that night - within 24 hours since I started it.

The story was set in the 17th century during the Qing Dynasty. Peony was two days away from turning sixteen, and just months away from her wedding day. The man she would marry had been chosen for her since her birth and he would be a stranger to her until their wedding night. Such, was the custom - marriage was a compulsory duty to one's family and not in the least a choice or had anything to do with love. This is a solid and recurring point presented throughout the book - families took care to raise and educate their daughters to please their future husbands' families.

In contrast with the reiterations of the idea of the worthlessness of daughters, Peony's parents loved and doted on her. Her father arranged a production of her favourite opera, The Peony Pavillion, to be staged in the compound of their family mansion, and she was sure it was meant to be a treat for her, though he would never put it that way. The opera would play for three nights. On the first night, Peony grew restless in the middle of one of the scenes, and stole away into the garden. There, she met a handsome young man whom she'd spotted among the audience earlier. In the era where women, especially the unmarried, were not allowed beyond the inner walls of their homes, where they must stay hidden behind screens when there were male guests, being alone with a male stranger amounted to way more than a scandal. Peony was aware that she could ruin her life if they were caught. Yet, they exchanged words. They exchanged musings on the opera. They somehow fell a little in love. He asked to meet again, and for the next two nights, they did. Peony fell hopelessly in love with the man, a poet, whose name she did not know.

Thus, began her obsession with The Peony Pavillion, in which the female protagonist, Du Liniang, had a passionate dream of a scholar and subsequently died pining for her dream-lover. Peony couldn't eat nor sleep. She thought about her love for the poet, about her impending marriage to her betrothed whom she was sure she would not love, about living her entire life without love. These tortured thoughts she penned in form of poems and commentaries in her copy of the opera. Month passed; Peony wasted away and died, just days before her wedding. Too late, she found out, the man chosen for her was the man she'd fallen in love with.

Her ghost continues to narrate - how her tablet, not yet dotted, was hidden away and forgotten, causing her to indefinitely roam the earth as a hungry ghost; how she watched her family and her poet carried on without her; how she learned the history of her family from deceased elders; how she wronged and righted her wrongs. Her soul wandered for twenty-nine years. In that time, she influenced her poet's following two wives to complete her intended commentary of The Peony Pavillion.

The Three Wives' Commentary is a real publication - written by the three wives of a poet, Wu Ren (also Wu Ren in the novel). Peony In Love, in fact, is the fictional story of how a real and significant work by three real women, at a time when women were insignificant, came to be.

There are references to and detailed descriptions of many traditional Chinese customs, including foot-binding and rituals performed for the dead. I personally do not believe in most of the customs and superstitions, but I enjoyed this read, regardless. On the theme of love - at first, though - I found it hard not to laugh at someone who threw her life away over a dream, and someone who fancied herself so deeply in love after just three rendez-vous that she starved herself to death. Then, I reminded myself that theirs is a world too different from ours. When one must walk her parents' chosen path for her - to marry for the main purpose of producing sons, to always obey and always made inferior, to literally have nothing much to live for - the very thought of the loss of what could have been is quite possibly enough to snuff out the feeble will to live...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


C'est un mot qu'on dirait inventé pour elle
Quand elle danse et qu'elle met son corps à jour, tel
Un oiseau qui étend ses ailes pour s'envoler
Alors je sens l'enfer s'ouvrir sous mes pieds

J'ai posé mes yeux sous sa robe de gitane
A quoi me sert encore de prier Notre-Dame?
Est celui qui lui jettera la première pierre?
Celui-là ne mérite pas d'être sur Terre

Ô Lucifer!
Oh! laisse-moi rien qu'une fois
Glisser mes doigts dans les cheveux d'Esmeralda

Est-ce le diable qui s'est incarné en elle
Pour détourner mes yeux du Dieu éternel?
Qui a mis dans mon être ce désir charnel
Pour m'empêcher de regarder vers le Ciel?

Elle porte en elle le péché originel
La désirer fait-il de moi un criminel?
Qu'on prenait pour une fille de joie, une fille de rien
Semble soudain porter la croix du genre humain

Ô Notre Dame!
Oh! laisse-moi rien qu'une fois
Pousser la porte du jardin d'Esmeralda

Malgré ses grands yeux noirs qui vous ensorcellent
La demoiselle serait-elle encore pucelle?
Quand ses mouvements me font voir monts et merveilles
Sous son jupon aux couleurs de l'arc-en-ciel

Ma dulcinée laissez-moi vous être infidèle
Avant de vous avoir menée jusqu'à l'autel
Est l'homme qui détournerait son regard d'elle
Sous peine d'être changé en statue de sel?

Ô Fleur-de-Lys
Je ne suis pas homme de foi
J'irai cueillir la fleur d'amour d'Esmeralda

J'ai posé mes yeux sous sa robe de gitane
A quoi me sert encore de prier Notre Dame
Quel est celui qui lui jettera la première pierre
Celui-là ne mérite pas d'être sur Terre

Ô Lucifer!
Oh! laisse-moi rien qu'une fois
Glisser mes doigts dans les cheveux d'Esmeralda

From the musical Notre-Dame de Paris
Music: Richard Cocciante
Lyrics: Luc Plamondon

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fruitcake Recipe

There is a standing joke in my family about how the women would take their husbands' expensive brandy and put it into fruitcakes. My father used to say that that half a cup of liquor costs more than all the other ingredients put together. Last year, I heard the same complaint from my uncle about my aunt helping herself to his quality stash for her cake. I don't know much about alcoholic drinks - I don't drink mainly because I don't enjoy the taste, and also because I'd get rashes if I have any more than half a glass of wine - and I definitely don't know how expensive good brandy can be. But I know I love fruitcake, and I love them adequately laced with brandy. *Ahem*

So, Papa, don't mind me helping myself to your Martell V.S.O.P., yea?

The reason I am writing this post is some friends have requested for the recipe I used. Here it is:

Fruit Cake


2½ cups (400g) sultanas
1½ cups (375g) chopped raisins
1½ cups (240g) currants
½ cup (90g) mixed peels
¾ cup (150g) glace cherries
¼ cup (55g) glace pineapples
¼ cup (55g) glace apricots
250g butter
1 cup (155g) brown sugar
½ cup (125ml) brandy
½ cup (125ml) water

The rest of them:
5 eggs
1 tablespoon treacle
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1¾ cup (~200g) plain flour
½ cup (~58g) self-raising flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate soda

1. Combine A in a saucepan and cook until the butter and sugar have melted. Simmer covered for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature.

2. Add eggs, treacle and rind to fruit mixture and stir to combine. Add dry ingredients and stir once more until combined.

3. Bake at 120°C for 2½ hours.

4. Cover the cake in foil and let cool in pan. Serve after 2 - 3 days.

1. The original recipe came with all measurements in cups and the above conversions to metric were determined by me with the help of Google, so they may not be very accurate. Anyhow, that didn't matter much to me because I found it quite difficult to get all the dried / glace fruits where I live, so I used a 1kg pack of Mixed Fruit that bakery supply shops commonly carry. To that, I added 200g of golden raisins because I love the colour and the taste =)

2. The first time I made this, I use the exact amount of sugar stated in the recipe and the cake turned out sweeter than I would've liked. So, the second time I did, I reduced the sugar to 120g, and it turned out fine. If you'd like to further reduce the amount, do it in small decrements... sugar contributes to the moisture of the end product (so I think I've read somewhere before) and a drastic reduction may affect the texture of the cake.

3. You may need to adjust the baking temperature and time according to the size of your baking pan and also your oven.

There. Reader, if you happen to attempt this, do let me know how it turned out and how you liked it! Happy Sunday, everybody...