Back to School
Alex Horne – 13th February 2007
We arrived nice and early for our third trip to the Oxford International Language School and were welcomed by the friendly faces of Vishan (Mauritius No.2) and Angela (Jamaica – sort of). As break-time approached we made small talk about last week's snow and this week's slightly milder weather but Owen and I were only really thinking about what might happen in the next half an hour.
Thankfully Vishan kept us grounded with some more invaluable comments about life in London, the best of which, preceded by an exemplary world-weary sigh, was; "sometimes on the buses here you literally can't even breathe".
Unfortunately we didn't have time to ponder this oxygen-starved transport quandary for very long as Angela soon whisked us through to the staff/common room where she arranged biscuits and he made coffee. And no sooner were the refreshments prepared than in came the students, shepherded, of course, by Angela, and looking appropriately sheepish.
Owen, I should say, was on fine form this morning. After a few awkward minutes that took me back to all those teenage discos I'd endured in which everyone was too shy to talk to anyone else, he suddenly stood up and launched into a brilliant speech explaining just what the hell we were doing there and exactly what the hell we wanted them all to do. It was a fine piece of oratory that I was quite unprepared for. If only he'd been around when I was going through puberty and trying to dance.
The only downside of this remarkable display of courage and rhetoric was that everyone suddenly wanted to talk to us and we only had four eyes, two mouths and no shorthand between us. Still, we knew we had just twenty odd minutes to meet as many of them as possible so got cracking with Saraa, a smiley young lady all the way from Lambata in Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia! (I'm disappointed to report) I literally punched the air when she said the word.
Unsuprisingly, she seemed all too aware of her country's famous out-of-the-way-ness and repeatedly informed us "it's near China" and "it's not far from Russia" with the determined insistence of someone who rarely meets anyone who has a clue where she's from.
She's been in London a year now and enjoys it despite the cold (although the average temperature in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, is -16°C in February so I'd have thought she'd have appreciated today's balmy morning). She plans to stay for at least another three years before looking for a more 'professional job' with her new improved English. She lives in Brixton which, she says with typical Mongolian understatement (she's the only Mongolian I've ever met so this is wild conjecture), "is fine".
But then, already, it was time to move on. The queue of foreigners behind Saraa was looking impatient and the clock was ticking (this, of course, isn't unusual for clocks but that's what people say when they really mean that time is running out).
Next up was Mohamed, a cool looking guy in baggy clothes (except for the baseball cap which was snug) who I would have guessed was from the U.S.A. Until he spoke, at which point I would have asked for another go then changed my first guess to France. And I would have been wrong again and given up. He's from Guinea.
They do speak French there, along with over a (slightly excessive) hundred local languages, of which Mohamed has mastered three. His English is pretty good too and actually seemed to improve after a faltering start as his story began to tumble forth. When we eventually and reluctantly managed to stem his verbal tide we'd learnt that:
- He currently works in MacDonalds to pay for his study but knows that he "just can't stay in that sort of job, for sure".
- He says "for sure" a lot and it makes him look and sound even cooler.
- He's lived in France and Switzerland at various points in his life but prefers London because he's never been a victim of racism here. "French people", he says "are bloody racist", before apologising for his language. I'd like to say he said "excuse my French" but I don't think they're on to colloquialisms yet.
- Lewisham is his home now and he's pleased by the amount of black people he sees on posters, TV and in public positions compared to the rest of Europe.
- But he feels it's his duty to return to Guinea at some point in the future and employ his skills in his homeland where he can really make a difference: "A diploma here doesn't mean that much, but in Africa it really does".
- He'll be proud to take his London qualification back home with him, for sure.
We were sad to say goodbye to Mohamed, who'd been as inspiring as it's possible for someone to be in a four minute period in a staffroom overlooking Oxford Street, but we had work to do and the several remaining students weren't going to interview themselves. In fact, with the next lesson looming, Owen and I decided to tackle the next few separately and so embarked on a speed-dating scenario, determined to rattle through the rest and not get bogged down by things like 'inspiration' or 'moving true life stories'.
And rattle through my group I did as Paulo, Ahmet and Fabian were instantly dismissed for being Portuguese, Turkish and Brazilian respectively. It felt odd and wrong to say 'no, we've got you, sorry' and clearly disappoint people who'd only come to help and maybe practise a little English but time was not on our side and we'd already banned compassion from the proceedings.
Mercifully, next up was Carolina, a highly motivated twenty seven year old from the fabulously named Cochabamba in Bolivia. "It's beautiful, lovely and hot there", she said a little wistfully, "but my husband is here".
She's lived in South Wimbledon for a couple of months now and is planning to stay for at least two more years while her husband works as a manager for Pret-A-Manger. For now, with just one income between them, money is tight, but Carolina is determined to get a decent job herself once she's perfected her English. Until then, despite her Bolivian degree, she says she'll have to work "as a cleaner of something".
Midori, on the other hand, is concentrating on having the best possible time during her stay in London. This is her first visit to any country other than her homeland Japan and so far it's lasted two years and seven months. Was she scared when she arrived, I asked: "Oh yes, but I could handle it", she replied and handle it she certainly has.
The best thing about London, she says, is meeting people from all over the world, which seemed quite an appropriate thing to say in this particular set of circumstances. Unfortunately I then let myself down geographically yet again when she told me she was from Osaka. I was fortunate enough to spend a month travelling around Japan just a couple of years ago so confidently said, "Oh, Osaka – that's way up North!" "No", said Midori, coping with this situation especially well: "It's in the South". "Oh yes", I backtracked, "that's right. It's in the South".
Living in Streatham, Midori's got many more serious things to worry about than this Englishman's ignorance, but seems able to deal with them all with her customary cool head. I mentioned the well-publicised shooting that had taken place at the ice-rink round the corner from her house the previous week. "Oh yes, I saw the police tape and I was very surprised", she laughed. "Of course, I won't tell my family".
Most other Japanese people she's met here tend to live in North London and think the South is very dangerous. For Midori, however, it's just another place to have adventures and make new friends. "I've lived in Balham, Surrey Quays, Tooting Bec and Colliers Wood – I have to move fairly often because the landlords keep selling their houses" - just another small hurdle to be taken in her stride.
Bewildered from having already met an entire handful of brand new nationalities I got off on slightly the wrong foot with Sohyun. She'd opened with "I'm from Korea", I'd grinned, said "Great!" and had a quick glance in my folder to check we'd got the flag right. "Ah – do you mean North or South Korea?" - an astute enough question, I thought, having been faced with the confusing two options of the Republic of Korea or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"South Korea*, of course", said Sohyun emphatically and with a genuine look of disbelief that I'd even had to ask. "Oh yes, of course", I said, finding myself backpedalling for the second time in two brief interviews.
"That's obvious because…" I continued hopefully.
"Because people in North Korea are very poor, they can't travel and you definitely won't find any North Koreans in London", she explained helpfully but also slightly demoralisingly. We'll see about that.
Sohyun is 25 years old. Well, she's 25 years old in South Korea. Here she's 24 years old – not, of course, because she's travelled backwards through time much further than the standard nine hour difference, but because they have a slightly different counting system there. When you're born you're already one year old. Which, I suppose, is logical enough considering today's accepted wisdom that we're alive and having a nice if snug time for at least some of the spell spent in the womb. And it also means that Sohyun can choose which of the two she'd like to be when travelling the world. She usually picks the younger.
She swapped Seoul for London just six weeks ago and is impressed by the capital's "beautiful buildings" in comparison to Korea's more modern architecture. I agreed. Unfortunately, however, at this stage of the chat my mind was elsewhere as she'd also just told me that she'll be heading home soon to get a job in business management.
"So, you're just here for a short time?" I pried.
"Oh yes, I just want to get my English a bit better then hopefully get a better paid job back home".
Home, quite obviously, being South Korea, not London. So she couldn't really be our South Korean representative. She's a student. She's not really living and working here. And that's strictly not allowable under our stringent regulations.
She is, however, staying with her uncle, a (Korean) chef just about to open a (Korean) fusion restaurant in Gloucester Place ("it's got very beautiful buildings") and I've got her email address so will try to meet him before she returns home. For now, I'm counting the country but will, of course, minus one (in a nod to the Korean age system) if I fail to find him.
*South Korea's full name, as I'm sure you already know, is the simpler Republic of Korea. The North (the Democratic People's version) will get a bit more of an explanation as and when we encounter one of its nationals.
JAMAICA (country notes)
At this point Angela, the equivalent of their school bell (but much friendlier sounding), said it was time to return to lessons and we waved our goodbyes, wondering if we'd achieved our potential. We'd only actually ticked off six countries (including Owen's Venezualan and my South Korean) and felt we'd have got at least a couple more if only we'd been more organised.
Yet again, though, Angela came to our rescue. "Come back any time", she smiled and we promised we would. "In fact, I might have a Jamaican for you – I'd love you to interview my mum and dad". We were both moved and excited. She'd obviously put her students' language needs first and helped us in the process but all the time was yearning to tell her own life story – and maybe even give us a bonus tick.
Unfortunately, Angela's mum lives in the USA and her dad lives in Jamaica. We can't actually count either of them because of those pesky regulations Sohyun had transgressed just a few minutes earlier. But her dad used to live in London (and, she said lovingly, "he is very handsome") so we are going to give him a call and see what he's got to say about life here and why he moved back to the warm, friendly, relaxed and tropical island he'd grown up on.
Obviously we'd love to have interviewed Angela herself but she has a British passport (as well as Welsh, Polynesian, American and Jamaican relatives – she says they look like the UN Security Council when they get together) so is also ineligible. For now, though, we're more than content to have had the pleasure of meeting and 'working' with a brilliant person. She plans to open her own International College in the future and I'm sure it'll be a brilliant place. She's brilliant.