Plans fail. Life doesn’t.

I think everyone likes to see their life as progression. We have been taught to make plans for our life. We even have something called life-planning education. Be strategic with building your profile. Be smart at marketing yourself.

Realistically speaking, yes, these are important, or else I probably wouldn’t have landed where I am now.

This blog was supposed to be partly serving such a purpose. It’s something for public display. It’s not a private diary. There’s an image to maintain. But not anymore.

It’s tiring.

Not that I’m writing things I don’t believe in – I never do this because it is a sin to prostitute one’s own words. But there are a lot other thoughts that I have not verbalised. There are aspects of me that are not to be shown publicly.

 

***

Maybe this is the seal to this blog.

Or maybe not.

I don’t want to plan now. Plans don’t mean much sometimes.

 

***

Some people are too busy making plans and forget to live the present. We are often told that investing in the future is worthwhile. Take the toil today and have a better tomorrow. Delay gratification.

But then the gratification is not promised. Or maybe it’s just not what you expected.

Plans can fail.

But life doesn’t, as long as you continue walking, even though it surprises you with a lot of complications.

 

***

Sometimes we should just be selfish. People tell me to.

But I’ve come to realise that being selfish is not a simple thing.

Because you can’t be selfish without knowing your ‘self’ first.

 

People also tell you to follow your heart. But could one really separate your rational mind from your ‘heart’? The heart is just an organ responsible for pumping blood anyway.

But sometimes it betrays you.

 

***

Live the moment. Listen to the heart thumping.

Meet friends. Enjoy food. Find new importance.

Start a new life with a new attitude.

 

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Why our kids don’t read

Today is the World Book Day. For book lovers, for avid readers, it is common sense how wide a world reading is able to open us to. I suspect this is not a common sense to the general Hong Kong population. Perhaps we do know, as a matter of fact, that reading does a lot of good, but we just don’t read.

Hong Kong Public Libraries have recently released the ranking of books lent in 2016. For Chinese non-fiction, the top 10 are all tour guide books, with the exception of one – HKDSE Chinese Langauge past paper. This certainly reflects how much Hong Kong people love travelling, especially to Japan. Well yes, I love travelling to Japan too. But it definitely is a worrying indicator when 9 out of 10 books on the top borrowing list are tour guide books, with the remaining one a set of public exam past paper. Where are all the other kinds of books? Is it a problem of our library collection? Is it really because Hong Kong people are too busy?

Perhaps busy life is an important factor. It is not news that Hong Kong people are always overworked. We don’t have time. We are busy people. We are too tired after work and we just don’t want to use our brain any further on days of rest. However, growing up in the Hong Kong education system and having been a secondary school English teacher for three years, I have to say that schools in Hong Kong have not been doing a great job in cultivating an atmosphere of reading.

All schools say they promote reading. Yes, that’s probably on the agenda of every Chinese and English department. How do we do that? We organise book fairs. Fine. We hold author talks. Fine. We ask students to do book reports. Go borrow a book and write me a 200-word reflection after the Easter holiday. What happens then? We teachers have to act as human plagiarism detectors, and every time we are bound to find some Wikipedia entries or online sources copied verbatim (or, for some more ‘skilful’ kids, an adapted or abridged version of those sources) in some of the book reports. And then we yell at them for copying online materials. Then we force them to re-do it.

Are we cultivating an atmosphere of reading? Or are we actually increasing their hatred towards reading?

boy-reading-a-book

Children’s literature as an academic discipline began as a branch of educational research, the aim of which was to find good books for children, also for teachers to use in classrooms. This idea is actually rather alien to me. We’ve never really used books – except textbooks – in Hong Kong classrooms. Perhaps very occasionally we have a ‘reader lesson’, which more often than not is sacrificed when the teacher decides that they need to spend more time on grammar. Even when we do have a reader lesson, a lot of the English teachers just use it as another material for teaching vocabulary or sentence patterns.

When I told my supervisor about this situation, she was utterly surprised. This obviously is not the way things work in the English-speaking countries.

So when we ask why our kids don’t read, perhaps we should start by asking ‘why don’t we teach them to read?’ Just as we don’t expect students to be able to learn grammar on their own, and hence we devote a lot of time explaining the rules and giving them practices, why would we expect the kids to know how to write a wonderful reflection on a book just by assigning a book report assignment to them? They are already overwhelmed by school work, why would we think they could enjoy reading by giving them one more assignment? Over the three years I taught, I was guilty of this. I was also one of teachers who simply assigned book report assignments without devoting time to teaching them how to read. I simply couldn’t spare the time, because we had a lot of other things on the teaching scheme: grammar, writing, reading comprehension (which must be distinguished from the kind of reading I am talking about), listening… Our priority was to teach all these that will appear in their exam.

I didn’t learn to read in schools. I don’t remember my teachers telling me what to read for. Character analysis, plot development, themes of a book… were all alien concepts to me. They are still alien to students today and most of them don’t know what to read for even when they read. No wonder the most typical thing we can expect to see in a book report is ‘the book teach me never give up’ (grammatical inaccuracy intended).

If we teachers do believe in the importance of reading, we should teach students how to read and also spare time for that. We should take the kids into the wonderful world of books, rather than forcing them to do something that they don’t even see their teachers do. Institutional arrangement has to be made: for example, there should be one lesson per week/cycle devoted to reading activities, when teachers can take the kids to the library, or do activities like storytelling and reading circles. It is also crucial to change the mindset of teachers and make them aware that this is something we need to spend time on, just like other components of langauge learning. Only when the teachers and the schools actually recognise the importance of reading by dedicating time and effort to it could our kids actually start to appreciate books and the act of reading.

 No Man is Not an Island – written on the Isle of Man

To myself who have turned 27,

This is the first time going on a trip alone, albeit a short one. In Japanese, this is called hitoritabi (一人旅). And I’ve decided to do it across my birthday. 

John Donne wrote, ‘no man is an island’. People are connected to each other: ‘every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. We continue to share this view in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jürgen Habermas speaks of the principle of discourse and intersubjective morality, essentially pointing to the community aspect of human society. Feminism concerns the female community of solidarity, while Marxism stresses the significance of class struggle. Perhaps I’m more a postmodernist, but even the postmodernist concept of the plurality of truths underlines the community aspect – there’s no plurality without somebody else who thinks differently.

In our own familiar places – for me, Hong Kong and also Glasgow now – we are inevitably tied to people and institutions to whom/which we are inevitably connected: family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, neighbours, etc. There’s no way we can see ourselves as an island indeed.

But each of us is necessarily an island. However much tied to people around you, the only person who will walk the whole journey of life is yourself. People come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. Somebody uses the train analogy – people get on and off at different stations, they meet on the train, but nobody travels an identical journey. Our life, in other words, is a hitoritabi.


どれだけ旅しても、自分からだけ逃れられない。This is a line by Aragaki Yui from a recent commercial. It translates: however far you travel, the only thing from which you cannot run away is yourself.

It’s important to be a social being, but the most important lesson of life is coming to terms with oneself. Who am I, what do I want, and how am I going on this life journey when I’m all on my own, when I do not orient myself around others? Is it at all possible? Maybe not, but one has to try, at least to keep a distance from people in order to hear more clearly your own voice, if that voice exists at all (or in academic buzzwords, has an ontology of its own). Like writing a PhD thesis, finding or crafting your own voice which no one but yourself can completely understand, because no one treads an identical path.

Perhaps my hitoritabi, or may I say the realisation that life is a hitoritabi, actually began when I embarked on this PhD route, departing from people around physically, intellectually, emotionally. At this point of time, Glasgow has become familiar, and I’m getting away again, though just for a couple of days.

I’ve chosen the Isle of Man, an interesting choice in most people’s eyes. Even my BnB host (who happens to be a Cantonese and I didn’t know it beforehand!) asked why I would choose this place for travel, because it has nothing much to see. Well yeah, but I’m not trying to see something on the island. I want to see the island.

The Isle of Man has a very unique, and probably little-known history. It used to be part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Most of the other parts are now within the Scottish territory, but the Isle of Man remains a politically independent country, with its own three-leg national emblem (not even the museum has an answer to what this symbolises) that has nothing to do with the UK. Coming from Scotland, now calling for a second independent referendum, and Hong Kong, trying hard not to get assimilated as just one of the Chinese cities, I find this nation especially interesting. Obviously it is not isolated from its neighbouring (dis)United Kingdom, but it is happily on its own at the same time.


I guess an important lesson of life is to accept that each of us is an island. We are all islands on this globe dipping into the same water body, but after all, we are all on our own.

If no man is not an island, then try to be an island like the Isle of Man.

There’s no elaborate birthday celebration this year. No more surprise from students who happily use this as an excuse to have a lesson off. Away from friends who buy you stuff and hang around noisily. No family cake cutting. I used to be excited because I would be expecting and looking forward all these things around, but not this year. I have it all to myself this year, valuable time with the important person.

Maybe it’s also a sign of getting old too.

Glasgow Subway Poetry

I rarely take the subway in Glasgow because the university is within walking distance, and I go to the city centre usually by bus. Today I took it, and this is what I discovered in Kelvinhall station.

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I wonder how many passengers have noticed it. I obviously missed it for a few times, as this definitely wasn’t my first time in this station. A typical goal-oriented Hongkonger doesn’t usually notice anything in a train station except the electronic displays that I always suspect intentionally underestimate the number of minutes before the next train arrives, but maybe Glaswegians are more perceptive? I can’t speak for them.

Why isn’t there a poem in a train station in Hong Kong? Or is there, but I didn’t notice?

This lovely little poem is not by any well-known poet. In fact, the author is unknown and even Google God doesn’t give any relevant search results about this obscure poem in an obscure subway station. (Almost all Glasgow subway stations, perhaps with the exception of the two city centre stations, St. Enoch and Buchanan Street, are somewhat obscure. The subway here isn’t anything elaborate anyway – it’s just a small loop that takes only 24 minutes to travel back to the departure station.)

subway_map
From the official website of STP

 

This poem has a challenging title – For Pilgrims and Passengers. Am I an ordinary passenger, or am I a faithful pilgrim? It seems to suggest a new understanding of pilgrimage in late modernity, not only in the sense that we passengers can see ourselves as pilgrims by instilling meanings into our journeys, but also how we can understand pilgrimage not in the conventional sense of a somewhat linear journey, but a circular one. Look at the subway map. Besides being circular, the trains also go in two directions, and most logically, the majority of commuters would travel to and fro along the inner and outer circles in the morning and in the evening respectively (or the other way round), rather than sticking to one same direction every time. It might look more complicated if you travel on Hong Kong MTR or London underground, but it is the same idea of circularity, best graphically exemplified in Glasgow subway.

‘The Flowers of Time / the bags you carry / The Flags of Romance / the everyday signs’ – a juxtaposition of grandeur and the mundane. How do we understand this? Because of its simplicity, the Glasgow subway is able to operate rather accurately in terms of time. We can see the time required to travel to other stations on the signs, but can we see the Flowers during the passage of time? What do people do anyway when they travel on the subway? The poem seems to suggest that we passengers should give a little bit more thought to those 10 to 20 minutes during which we do little other than carrying our bags, and it confronts our numbness to the ordinary by erecting the Flags of Romance. Can a little bit of poetry add scents of romance to the old and uninteresting station?

‘Each other / Each other’ – the repetition sounds to me like the to-and-fro journeys commuters take, but what are they referring to? We passengers? The items in the previous stanza? The phrase evokes a sense of connection, perhaps a sense of reconnection of previously disconnected things that ought to be connected. Although individuals seem to be rather disconnected from each other in city life, all the passengers are actually connected by the fact of being in this city, the sharing of an urban routine. We don’t belong to the ancient age of individual heroic quests. What characterises our age is perhaps this collective circular pilgrimage that doesn’t have an end point. This subway poem seems to suggest that to seek a destination in this circularity is meaningless, and let’s appreciate the journey itself. We need faith, not to believe that we can reach the goal some day, but to believe that the journey is beautiful.

Anyhow, the fact that a poem is inscribed in a subway station means something. It’s not a commercial advertisement disguised as art (e.g. that controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum thingy in Hong Kong MTR Station), which is probably more indigenous to such a locale. This poem is an artistic expression and challenge, and the invisibility of the author inhibits the temptation of venerating any artistic authority. It simply belongs to every passenger, or pilgrim.

We don’t actually need a huge vacant space spared for displaying works of renowned artists. What we really need, and lack, is an atmosphere that encourages the permeation of art in our city – Everyart for Everyone.

Life-planning Education and the Cultivation of Autonomy

These few weeks I have been auditing a course called Modern Educational Thoughts, the central theme of which (so far) is whether autonomy should be the aim of education. Last session we were reading about communitarianism, which is theoretically situated on the other end of the spectrum from autonomy. At the end of the class, the professor asked us to vote: whether we think autonomy or community should be the aim of education. Quite a number of us refused to cast a vote, for a good reason – we do not think this is an appropriate either-or question. In fact, only one person in the class took an unequivocal stance. Ideally speaking, at least from my point of view if this does not represent the view of any others, the aim of education should be a fusion of both, cultivating autonomous thinking while raising students’ awareness about the importance of communities.

The professor still made us vote despite our ‘desire to complicate things’. In fact we do not desire to complicate things, but things such as ‘the aim of education’ are inherently complicated. The professor has my greatest respect, just to clarify, and I think this exercise is useful, whether it is intended to be useful in this specific way that I have perceived. I voted for community. We voted by raising our hands, and here is an interesting observation: the few people who cast the same vote as I were mainly those from a Western background (forgive my generalisation here), while the majority of Asians (many of whom are from Mainland China) voted for autonomy. A brief discussion with a friend who voted for autonomy yielded the conclusion that, perhaps our choices only reflect what is lacking in the education system of our own countries / places. Ultimately, we believe that we need both elements in education and this exercise only compels us to think about what is inadequate with our current way of doing things.

businessman-on-road

Anyhow, I maintain that good education is about finding a balance between the two, and I suggest that life-planning education, recently important in Hong Kong secondary education and of particular interest to me as a former careers teacher, exemplifies the importance of fusing autonomous thinking with the sense of community.

I suppose the ‘autonomy’ side of life-planning education is intuitive. The whole objective of life-planning education is to raise students’ awareness that they are responsible for their own life. They will have to make their own decisions regarding their future. What we can do in the programme is to provide information and directions, which are essential as the basis of making autonomous choices. It is about understanding one’s own dispositions and also the world out there, about their careers options, about the reality of doing a certain job. We teachers do not, and cannot, make decisions on their behalf. The future is theirs. The life is theirs. Sometimes there are students who are frustrated after a counselling session because the teacher does not give them an answer, but that is exactly our role: not to give an answer, but prompt them to search for their own answer(s).

In this regard, I have to say that perhaps I did not make a very autonomous choice when I left the secondary school. It is true that my parents and teachers did not force me into a certain path, but looking back, I think I was not well-informed about the choices out there. Both of my parents were teachers, and teaching is something that I am interested in, and among all the subjects I think I am most confident with teaching English (and my mother was an English teacher), so logically I chose English for my university study. However, I did not really consider other options. There was no elaborate life-planning education back then and we were supposed to figure out things ourselves. Honestly I had never thought about what it would be like to study Cultural Studies, or Sociology, or Law – especially since these are not subjects in the secondary school, I either had no idea what they were about, or held some biased views towards them. For example, to the young me, studying Law meant reading a lot of dry books and memorising laws. Being a lawyer meant using all your cunning strategies to help a criminal out of conviction.  Only in years later I realised very little of this was true, and I came to understand the discipline in a whole new light, after reading and learning about what the rule of law means and the functioning of the entire legal system. (In Hong Kong, we have indeed inherited a very well established and reliable legal system from the UK.) I came to perceive it in a very different light and even imagine I might want to be a member of this section to uphold this system that I have trust in. I have become especially intrigued when I was assigned to lead the mock trial team in my last year of teaching, as I had to do legal research together with my students and prepare them for court trials! However, having invested so much time into English literature and education, it seems too late for me to start over and explore whether I might be more interested in Law. And anyway, I like what I am doing now and hence there is not a strong push factor, so the Law path is very much just another road not taken which I can only wonder about.

judge-gavel-1461291328xau

Indeed the nature of the legal sector appears intriguing to me now, but I still am not sure if I would like to work with other lawyers (especially solicitors… I guess I identify more with barristers), not sure whether we would share similar values and interests. What I know is that I do not regret doing English and becoming a teacher, as I have met the most wonderful people in the English Department and in the secondary school where I taught. (And wonderful scholars over here in Glasgow who are so proficient and passionate about children’s literature!) As much as I like reading and teaching, I really like working with and talking to my English-major friends and my fellow English teachers.

Hence, besides encouraging students to make autonomous and informed choices for their future, the exercise of life-planning education is also to raise their awareness about the new communities that they are going join after graduating from the secondary school. The important message here is that to choose a career path means to engage in a certain community. No man is an island. Obviously, if you want to become a teacher, you will enter a teaching community populated by teachers (would you like that?). Entering the business circle means mingling with other business people (are you enthusiastic about that?). Even if you opt to be a freelance writer, you are still inevitably caught in the literary circle. Many students do not realise what their interests really are, but to think about who they want and do not want to work with is usually a worthy exercise. When talking about life-planning or careeres education, most of the time we only ask ‘what do YOU want to do?’, emphasising selfhood a lot, without realising that after all, a great part of your work life will be about the people around you. If you do not feel comfortable to be a member of that community, if you do not really share the same visions and interests as the people in that community, if you do not speak the same language as those people, perhaps that job might not really suit you. In contrast, if you truly identify with a community, you will be a lot more committed.

I am aware that I am oversimplifying things a lot here, but I cannot afford to go into much greater details of how life-planning education can be carried out in order to promote both autonomy and communtarianism. My point should be clear, though: we need BOTH. Also, the mentioning of life-planning education is for illustrative purpose only, and we should go beyond it and consider how the many other elements of school education can come together and develop both valuable traits in our students.

Christmas Party @ SPYC

A few days ago I went back to the Christmas party in the secondary school where I taught. Very joyful atmosphere swarmed with candid laughter of kids. Students who might be unruly and mischievous on normal school days always become more innocent on such a day. Unlike previous years when I would be staying with my own class, this year I went around the school to different classrooms finding faces I know (and getting different food).

To my surprise, the kids were actually exhilarated when I appeared, and people kept asking me for photos – of course, they did this too on previous Christmas party days when I was still a teacher at the school. I was also surprised by the realisation of how many students I’ve actually taught in the past three years. I was very happy to see them again too (especially without having to undergo the toil of chasing after them for homework and marking their terribly ungrammatical compositions anymore).

Christmas party day is definitely one of the happiest school days, and I will soon miss it. Celebrating Christmas in school is always different from any other Christmas gatherings. But as one cohort of students leave the school after another, I will soon be a stranger when I visit the school again. No more innocent kids surrounding Mr Chan sharing food and taking selfies with me.

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What my 2014-15 Class 3D drew on Christmas party day

Or will I miss it? Will I become so old already that I no longer find joy in such occasions? Even if I stayed and continued to teach, would I enjoy the occasion less as I grew older and older, with a wider and wider generation gap with my students? This is something I probably won’t be able to find out. This is the road not taken.

But I’m glad that I’ve been a teacher. I feel blessed to know there are kids who miss me. (Irony: They never do until you have left!)

***

And I met a boy whom I taught for two years in S2 and S3. Having left our school after S4, he’s now studying in Canada. He reminded me of the episode in the last S2 English lesson, when I half-jokingly asked him to copy a Japanese phrase (なに) for 100 times as extra summer homework because he shouted the word when I was giving out the English summer assignments. He was unlucky enough to fall into my hands again after the holiday so I did chase after him for that. Now he is telling me that in the process of copying he actually felt that the Japanese characters are beautiful and this made him want to learn the langauge.

Really couldn’t have imagined that. You could never imagine how you may influence your students. Things that cannot be encapsulated in the ‘learning outcomes’ we designate in our teaching.

He also thanked me and another English colleague for encouraging him throughout the years (though I think I teased him more often) and helping him with his English. Didn’t exepct this either, as he didn’t appear to care much back then. Boy. Perhaps too good at hiding emotions.

I will probably miss this kind of satisfaction.