StJosephandKaren
(Ink) St. Joseph’s alcove at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore
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Supporting Chiara and finding our Calcutta

A few days ago, on the last day of 2014, I wrote a letter to Chiara Natasha, the 15-year-old Indonesian girl who lost her immediate family to the recent AirAsia tragedy. I’m not usually the type to try to contact people who don’t know I exist, and when I do, I certainly don’t do it so publicly. But reading about Chiara’s plight struck me in a particularly profound way, as I feel a sense of affinity with her due to our similar backgrounds.

My sister and I were once, like her, schooled in Singapore while my parents were based in Indonesia. Jakarta, where they were, was but a 1.5-hour flight away, and for years we’d rely on planes to periodically shuttle either my parents to Singapore, or us to Jakarta. And when I later moved to Chicago for college, I would fly home for part of my summer breaks, and my whole family flew to Chicago for my graduation. Thoughts of aviation disasters frequently crossed my mind, but I’d chalk it up to too much Hollywood. It shattered me to learn that my worst nightmare had happened to a girl significantly younger than me. She immediately felt to me like a sister, even though we’d never met.

The letter quickly became one of my most widely-shared posts, and thanks to social media, the letter not only reached Chiara, but she also replied, in spite of my initially worries that I might come across like an intrusive busybody (I wonder how often such concerns hinder us from reaching out to someone in need?). Praise the Lord!

What happened next was also a surprise. I began receiving emails and Facebook messages from other people who read the letter and, moved by Chiara’s situation, wanted to help in some way. Many, like me, have no specific ideas on how to help, but just want to be available as sisterly figures if needed. Others came forward with more concrete offers of assistance. For example, C mentions that a few friends working for the Ministry of Education would like to help Chiara explore the option of pursuing a government scholarship; R, who works for a multinational corporation, asked if he’d be able to ease the financial burden of continuing studies in Singapore, and is also actively looking for a volunteer professional psychologist should that be helpful; V is offering to sponsor a Bali vacation for Chiara and however many friends she might want to take if she took the offer. Just to name a few. (For anyone concerned about privacy and safety, be rest assured that I’m taking appropriate measures and am not trying to figure this out all by myself.)

I’m so honored to be able to witness such a beautiful outpouring of solidarity, and I had to share this with you. Isn’t this a much more productive, not to mention compassionate reaction to a tragedy? Grief should never be reduced into a mere public spectacle. I partially blame the media for encouraging such a response, and the following frontpage headline is but one example:

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An invitation to a pity party at best, an exploitation of others’ tragedy at worst. I cropped out the blown-up photo of the grieving girl.

Forgive me for my harshness on the media, but I feel very strongly about this. Back to the point. It seems to me that the people of these times aren’t as “heartless” and desensitized as we often make it out to be. I’d like to think many of us are just forgetful. We have this innate, deep-seated desire to support and embrace those who are in need, but that desire often gets buried by the distractions of other pursuits and stimulations. Blessed Mother Teresa, beloved Roman Catholic religious sister whose charitable works in Calcutta inspired the world, once said:

Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.

Amen. Amen. I pray this will not stop with Chiara and others affected by this disaster. Let me also share something my dear friend Eamon wrote in response to the recent spate of Thanksgiving weekend shootings in Chicago.

In light of recent events (Ferguson protests, new FBI warnings over ISIS, and five murders in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend), it can be very easy to become despondent or to lose hope in our society. However, we must remember that these are only the devil’s skirmishes, and that he of all beings knows Christ has already won the final victory. This doesn’t mean we should simply ignore these tragedies, but rather we should remember that good triumphs over evil by means of great love in small matters. Do you pass a homeless person on your way to work every day? Take him to lunch. Are you frustrated with your coworker? Smile and accept his criticisms of your work with humility. Do your best at your job, and offer it to our Lord who spent 30 years of His life building tables and chairs, and of whom people said, “He does all things well!” (Mark 7:37). In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien (speaking to us through Gandalf), “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”

Peace be with you, brothers and sisters. Let’s find our Calcutta every day.

The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it

I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and my own 12 years as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their primary language, English.

My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.

I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.

I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.

The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.

Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?

You'd think this was a parody flashcard.
You’d think this was a parody flashcard…

I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good” my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.

In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.

A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.” Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.

What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it. 

I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.

If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.

Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!

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Being back home in Jakarta means it’s time for the annual excavation of old photo albums. This year, the above vestiges of my childhood strike me most powerfully.

1. (Left) It’s hard to imagine that I was once that tiny. And that my mom once unabashedly sported magenta shorts.

2. (Right) This was pretty much every morning of our first 2 months in Singapore, fresh off the proverbial boat. With the help of 2 private tutors we crammed to know adequate amounts of English and Mandarin before starting grade 2/3 in a local school (i.e. joining the rat race). And the rest is history.. Cheesy adage that springs to mind: remember where you came from.