Friday, February 06, 2009

Chinese New Year Lunch

Singapore food was the best I'd ever tasted and the chance to work there changed my life. With a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and British cultures, there seemed to be a festival every other week. When not shopping or eating, Singaporeans spent their spare time at the cinema.

In 1989, with Thatcherism raging, R had taken early retirement. I stuck a pin in the foreign jobs pages of the Times Ed and in 1990 signed a three year contract to teach for the Singapore government.

I was posted to Maris Stella, a Chinese High School for boys. My students' grandparents came from South China and spoke a variety of dialects but Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew declared English and Mandarin as the official languages

For me the biggest surprise was the school ethos. All the fighting and swearing in London classrooms hadn't prepared me for a culture where homework was done on time and the worst form of misbehaviour was falling asleep in the back row. Singapore is 60 miles from the equator so it's not surprising they succumbed to the heat. Unlike banks and businesses, there was no air-conditioning in government schools, only overhead fans. Lucky I was standing up, otherwise I'd have been asleep myself.

Back in London, I was keen to learn more about a culture that had such respect for learning. I signed up for evening classes in Mandarin. at my old alma mater, Goldsmiths College. My first teacher was an infinitely patient and encouraging Taiwanese lady.

Over the next 15 years I wrestled with this fiendishly difficult language at Morley College, Westminster University and SOAS. Currently I attend a twice weekly class at a community college in Soho.

In 2003, with Blairism raging, I even took a job in northern China for a year to try to speed up the learning process. This time I was an editor with an educational publisher and was even more impressed with the dedication of the Chinese teachers I met. R joined me aftr six months and enjoyed it more than Singapore, despite the -20 degrees centigrade of Winter months.

I've met a lot of fascinating characters and marvellous teachers over the years, and I'm as enthusiatic about Chinese culture as ever.

I miss the excellence of Singapore food, but I can recommend the 'Top of the Town', where my classmates and I enjoyed a Chinese New Year lunch .


Katy said...

Sheila, your time teaching in Singapore must have been fascinating. Did you think there were a lot of differences between their curriculum and ours?

Sheila Cornelius said...

Katy, thanks for your comments. Yes, it was an exciting time for me.

Subjects in the curriculum seemed much the same, although there was more emphasis on sport and self-discipline in terms of home study. There was an afternoon of extra curricular activities every week, and I had a drama group.

The currriculum in Singapore schools was already standardised at a time when the National Curriculum was just being introduced in England - it happened while I was away.

The students I taught did O level English Language and Literature, regulated by the Cambridge exam board. I remember teaching Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, as well as book of Singapore Short stories and poems by Singapore and Malaysian writers. The English Language text books reflected Singapore contexts.