Friday, April 27, 2007

The many facets of me

I've been given cause to think a lot lately about the tension between the various aspects of our beings. For example, in no particular order, I am a:

  • woman
  • wife
  • mother
  • worshipper
  • practising Christian
  • singer
  • learning professional
  • voter
  • teacher
  • student
  • step-sister
  • stepdaughter
  • social media user
  • member of online communities
  • learning designer
  • learner
  • leader
  • human
  • homeowner
  • half-sister
  • friend
  • follower
  • female relative of various other sorts
  • expatriot
  • employee
  • colleague
  • driver/road user
  • daughter
  • citizen
  • blogger
  • birth-mother-but-not-mom
  • swimmer
  • customer
I'm sure I've left several out, but you get the idea.

I don't think of these roles as being things I pick up and put down. I am always a daughter, even when I am concentrating on driving my car in rush hour traffic, and not thinking about my mother. I don't stop being a woman when I go to cast my vote. The fact that I am a Christian will influence the way I think about everything else. The fact that I am a wife will influence the way I conduct myself in a social setting.

And yet. And yet.

I am a chameleon. And I'm not talking about the outward matter of grooming - that's a given. I'm talking about more fundamental matters. When I speak on the phone to another South African, everyone in the room knows it - apparently my accent changes noticably. But it's not just that. My vocabulary changes in each situation. When I am counselling one of the members of the church group I lead, I use terminology that would not be acceptable when resolving a situation with a colleague. My confidence level fluctuates wildly. In respect of some of these roles, I am self-assured, in others, cripplingly insecure. My sense of self-worth is inconsistent. In some areas of my life, I know that I am valued - cherished, even; in others, I know that I am not - I may even be despised.

If one of my clients were to be a fly on the wall in my office, would his view of me change for the better or the worse? If my friends were to overhear my next performance appraisal with my manager, would they recognise the Karyn they know? If I had a party which was attended by people from work and people from church, would I be conflicted as to how to behave?

There are times when my leadership role is in tension with my family commitments; when my role as a student conflicts with my role as a mother; when my role as friend puts pressure on the wife in me. Some of the more recently added roles are in tension with some of the longer standing ones, and I'm struggling to assemble the pieces of the tangram into a shape that I can live with, without hypocrisy.

Is this just a symptom of our times? Do we all spread ourselves too thin, and should I just learn to "deal"?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Home? What's that?

Wendy Wickham’s recent poignant video tribute to the Virginia Tech tragedy includes a line that is the latest is many things that have got me thinking about what the word “home” means. Another was a comment on one of my recent series of holiday-related posts.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I live in England as a foreigner. I was born in South Africa and I lived there for over three and a half decades before concern for my children’s safety and future prospects prompted us to move here. I don’t mean to imply that those who have not left are less concerned for their children, but there are many factors that influenced our decision.

One of the first thing people want to do when they hear me speak – often even in the most fleeting encounters, like at the supermarket checkout – is to identify my accent. “Where are you from?” they ask. And they don’t want to know where I live. They want to know where I’m from. Of course, it’s great that they’re interested. What they don’t realise is how the question says “you’re different, you don’t fit the model” and when you hear that question almost every day, the subliminal message is reinforced.

Quite often people follow up the question with others. Do you like it here? What made you come here? More than once I have been asked, “What made you decide to come back?” Back? What on earth does that mean? The first time I ever travelled outside of South Africa was when I emigrated. One of my great-grandfathers was from England, and one great-grandmother from Scotland. All my other greats (and everyone subsequent to them) were born in South Africa. But for the people who asked this question, there was the inconscious assumption that England remained “home” in the ex-colonies.

Recently, a woman insisted that I wasn’t foreign. I was puzzled. In every way, I am foreign. I was born abroad. I have a foreign passport. I speak with a foreign accent. I speak a few foreign languages – one of them with native fluency. I live by different mores. I have a different history. I support a different national team. I asked her why she thought that. She didn’t have a reason, but she was repeated that she couldn’t think of me as being foreign. It dawned on me that she was trying to pay me a compliment, and I was floored as to why anyone would think I would be flattered by this assertion… or insulted by its reverse.

After 8 years, England is still not home. So where is home? South Africa?

I have not been to South Africa since a visit in December 02/January 03, and by then, both it and I had changed. So yes, South Africa is home, but South Africa circa 1999 for Karyn circa the same time period. Neither of which exist any longer. In Wendy’s video, someone says that Blacksberg is where they feel safe – the place they go back to when they need to feel secure. This is often the way people describe home. In the light of that description, there are many countries no-one would ever call home, including the people indigenous to the area for countless generations. South Africa is arguably among them.

I think home is where you feel you belong. Whether you feel safe there or not. It’s the place where you don’t have to keep explaining yourself to people. In these terms I no longer have a home. I don’t belong here, and I no longer belong there.

My husband’s family emigrated to South Africa from Sweden when he was a child. He has lived much of his life in this state of not belonging. All the time we were in South Africa, he said he belonged in Sweden. When we visit there, he feels closer to belonging than he does anywhere else, probably because he has family there, but even there he is an anomaly. His Swedish is not 100% fluent and he speaks it with a South African accent. His life experience has been different. He has played different sports (Who ever heard of a Swedish cricketer? Yet he opened the batting for a first division side in Cape Town).

So how will it be for my children? They have a Swedish father, a South African mother and they’re growing up in England. Their accents are almost English. Their passports are Swedish. Their diet is largely South African – especially in the summer. I have asked them where they feel they belong. My younger son wants to stay in England, but feels he doesn’t belong here. My elder son wants to return to Africa for at least a year, but doesn’t think he belongs there. He doesn’t want to stay here, but doesn’t know where he does want to go. They both regard themselves as Swedish, although they have never lived there and neither of them speaks more than a few words of the language.

We own a house. We pay tax. We vote in elections. But in one sense we are homeless. Sojourners. We don’t really belong anywhere.

Most of the time we just get on with the business of living, but there are times when the sense of dispossession hits hard and deep. Seeing communities pull together the way folks have in Blacksberg makes me realise that, at some level we all want to belong. The way they have risen up and defiantly shouted to the skies that they are hokies-and-proud-of-it is reminiscent of the sense of national identity after 9/11 when, for a while, people stopped being Irish American, Latino, African American, Native American, Polish, whatever, and became American.

Afterthought: I noticed several apparently foreign names in the list of the Blacksberg deceased and I wonder whether in life they also felt “apart” as I do. In death, they are an integral part of the community, and mourned as such. I wonder whether this only applies to those brutally cut off in their prime.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

10 reasons it's good to be home

You know what it's like - you go away on holiday, you eat too much, you sleep 10 hours a day, you do very little of anything that smacks of work... and then you have to go home. So, on Sunday night, with the post holiday blues, I decided to draw up a list of 10 reasons I was glad to be home. A bit of a "count your blessings" exercise if you like. It probably has no relevance to learning, but what the heck, here goes...

1. My bed.
I LOVE my bed. We have a fat, down-filled duvet (dooner to Aussies, I don't know what it's called in North America) that I use all year round. On holiday, we had sheets and blankets that kept falling off. Also, we had twin beds on holiday. At home we share a standard double. Much cosier.

2. Driving
In Spain, they drive on the right hand side of the road, in the UK it's the left. I have never driven on the right. Nor has my husband, but he was daring enough to have a go, so we hired a car. Our first trip was to our hotel, 70 or so kms from the airport, which we had to undertake in the dark, since we landed around midnight. All the unconscious means my husband uses to judge his position turned out not to work so well on the other side of the road, and I spent the entire journey in stark terror, as we ventured far too close (by my estimation anyway) to the edge of the road. I was NOT a good passenger, and I opted there and then out of trying my hand at driving. Coward. I know. The morning after we arrived home, I slid behind the wheel of my car and tootled up to the shop to get milk. I appreciated again the first sense of liberation one gets on becoming a driver. Which brings me to

3. My car
I don't have a fancy car. I drive a silver 2006 model Peugeot 307 HDi. It is my second one of these. I traded in the previous model when it went out of warranty. When I got that first one, it was a 3 month old ex-demo model and the newest car I had ever owned. Oh, sure, my husband has had newer, fancier cars, which have been a dream to drive. But this was mine. I have always had a thing about cars - I spent my very early years side by side with my Dad under cars, acting as his toolhand, and my stepdad later taught me to service and maintain my own car so that I wouldn't get ripped off by unscrupulous mechanics, so I was often to be found with grease up to my elbows, face first under the hood of my car, tinkering contentedly (I wouldn't know where to start on the modern models, however!). I tend to drool over cars in a way usually associated with the male of the species. From they day I got that first Peugeot, I stopped drooling. Sure, I would still like to own a 1979 MGB in British racing green or pillar box red, or an Audi of almost any description (just not the TT - you can keep that), or a nice Mustang or Buick (both of these are in short supply in the UK), but I'm content.

4. My cats
I have two moggies. Molly and Daisy. While we were away, our neighbours fed them and kept an eye on them. They came to no harm at all - they are cats, after all, and very self-sufficient. When we got home, they were somewhat startled - it was 2am after all - but they quickly recovered their equilibrium and told us at great length about the adventures they had had during our absence. Of course, they tried to persuade us that they were starving and hadn't been fed in two weeks, so needed double portions immediately, but the evidence was against them. They grudgingly conceded defeat and lavished affection on my husband. Note: they are my cats, and John is a dog person. No matter - they both adore him and allow me to feed them and change their litter and clean up after them and brush them and and and

5. Being understood in shops... and understanding the replies
In spite of having a foreign accent, I never have trouble making myself understood when shopping in the UK. In Spain, I was often unable to explain what I was looking for, and even when I was (for example: "donde esta la leche" - even if it isn't correct grammar was close enough so that the shop assistant knew I was looking for the milk), the rapid fire answer left me looking blank. I have similar experience when we go to Sweden to visit my in-laws. My Swedish is now good enough so that I can frame questions and make simple statements, but I'm bamboozled when these elicit a response from the natives!

6. Finding the products I need
The whole time we were in Mallorca, we never once saw any fresh meat for sale. We could buy processed meats of various descriptions, and the restaurants were obviously able to source the stuff from somewhere, but the supermarkets didn't stock it, and we didn't see a single butcher. We also got confused about where to shop for other things. Pharmacies only stock medical type items. If you want nail varnish, cosmetics or aftershave, you need to go to a perfumery. Neither of us smokes, but we noticed that supermarkets don't stock cigarettes - these must be bought from a tobacconist.

7. Business hours
We needed to find a pharmacy on one occasion. We knew of 3 in the town, but none of them appeared to be open for two (week)days in a row, even though their business hours, posted outside, were shown as 10-2 and 4-6. On the third day, they were all open, even outside of those hours. Many shops close for two or more hours over lunch time, but then they stay open until 8 at night. Nothing much is open before 10am. I'm sure if we were to live there, this would become normal, but we're accustomed to the hours in the UK, so we kept getting the timing wrong.

8. Church
We attend a very lively, pentecostal, charismatic church in the UK. We didn't see any churches at all in Cala Millor. We know they exist, since we saw evidence that people had attended a service. Chances are, of course, that any church would have been Catholic, so the service would have been even more alien to us than even the language difference would indicate, and we would have been unable to participate. Of course, we observed Easter together as a family (no Easter eggs - those aren't available in Spain), but we missed the wild and woolly bunch with whom we normally spend our Sunday mornings.

9. Familiar etiquette
I have no desire to imply that Spanish or German (the nationality of most of the other holiday makers) people are rude, but the protocols are different. Several times, we would hold a door open for someone, and they would march straight past us without even acknowledging the act, let alone thanking us for it. We felt very slighted. No doubt we frequently offended people in our turn by not observing some or other protocol of which we were unaware. Perhaps we offended by holding the door open, thereby implying that they were incapable of doing this for themselves!

10. Dog poo
No, I haven't returned to a mound of the stuff. Quite the contrary. In the UK, dogs must be on leashes at all times if they are outside of their homes, and their owners must clean up after them or face a fine. Many people ignore this rule, but most are pretty good. I have never seen a dog wandering about on its own in the UK. We saw several in Mallorca. Even when the owners were with their dogs, though, and even when the dogs were on leashes, there was no attempt to clean up their - ahem - leavings.

And one thing I will miss...

It appears that the nanny state does not exist in Spain. At least not in the same measure as it does in England. It seems people have a measure of freedom that has been lost here. Of course, this has its downs as well as its ups. Some of the issues I've covered above are the result of that freedom. And there are other negative points, too - smoking is still permitted in many restaurants in Mallorca and, where there are signs that say that it is forbidden, the people smoke anyway. I saw a woman backhand her child across his face in a store, and no-one turned a hair. In the UK, she would have been in serious trouble.

However, the State has not seen fit to dictate to people about every last aspect of their lives, and they get on with the business of living, raising their children, ruining their health, running their businesses and walking their dogs in the way they see fit. In the restaurants, the proprietors were prepared to let us make the choice as to whether our children may drink wine or sangria, rather than citing a rule about ages. There don't seem to be rules that govern every little thing (or perhaps there are and people just ignore them, like the prohibido fumar - smoking prohibited - signs) which means that people have to take ownership themselves, and be grown-ups.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Games and simulations - keep them consistent!

Over the course of our recent holiday, my sons spent a large amount of time playing PSP games. This is not unusual in itself. What is unusual is that I was in earshot much of the time and got to experience their frustrations by proxy.

I have recently been thinking about the use of games and simulations in learning - trying to figure out what place they might hold, etc. - so I was alert to their observations. I'm still not sure how to reconcile learner-driven just-in-time learning with the serendipitous, learning-by-immerson world of simulations, but regardless of how these things fit together, it has become abundantly clear to me that simulations must observe some rules:

  • If the player is leading a race by 10 seconds, and the second-placed, system-controlled competitor is not catching up according to the images on screen, then the player must win. He cannot be pipped at the post by a competitor that was clearly eating his dust.
  • When the player is in second place, the leading car must not straddle the centre line when cornering - it must take the inside lane as would be the case in real life.
  • If getting back onto your motorbike after a spill takes 2 seconds when you are in third place, it must not take 5 seconds when you are in first.
  • Clipping your wing mirror must not cause your car to roll 5 times and end up on its roof off the track. Especially not if it only does this if you are in the lead.
To summarise:
1. They must be more or less realistic within their own set of paradigms (perhaps believable would be a better word)
2. They must be consistent
3. They must not cheat!

I would have given up faced with the frustrations they experienced, and elder son's temper was tried to extremes at times, but he is a stubborn and determined child, and he persevered.

Meanwhile, I muttered into my pen-and-paper sudoku...

A painful lesson

Of course, as learning professionals, we know that we are always learning, and usually thinking about learning. And going away on holiday doesn't mean that we switch off our brains.

My own recent trip to Spain was no exception. I had a very painful opporunity to remember some key things about the learning process. It had to do with clarity of message.

We had a very relaxing holiday, marred somewhat by the fact that we had pretty miserable weather. The first couple of days were sunny-to-partly-cloudy but not hot. Thereafter, it clouded over and rained on and off until the last day, when the sun shone (of course). Feeling the need to acquire at least some measure of a tan, I decided to pay my first-ever visit to a solarium.

I popped in during the morning, and found a very pleasant German lady in attendance. Her English was excellent and she assured me that a single session would give me a hint of colour. I am very careful about my tanning, taking it gradually and building up my exposure. She assured me that a single session would do me no harm, and would lay the foundation I was seeking. Since I had one of my sons with me at the time, I decided to return later in the day alone. Confident that there would be no communication problems, I left my phrase book at home when I returned.

Big mistake.

There had been a change of shift and the lady now on duty was Spanish without a word of English or German to her credit. Uh-oh. In my best (non-existent) Spanish, I asked her for "instrucciones". Using very simple Spanish and sign language, she told me to pop my tokens into the slot machine, whereafter I would have "dos minutos" to strip off and lie down on the sunbed, which I would then pull closed over me, and that was all there was to it.

This was a breeze, I thought. Even I couldn't botch this. It all went very smoothly. When I emerged from the bed, I could see the signs that there would be colour in due course (I have a strange skin that doesn't tan immediately - it acquires a bluey-grey tinge, which over the course of the next 4 hours, goes brown or, if I've overdone it, pinky brown). Emerging from the booth, I found two German ladies trying to make themselves understood. They enlisted my help to try to get the attendant to understand that they each wanted 20 minutes at the highest setting. The alarm bells started. I hadn't known anything about settings. They were both well tanned ladies. The lady that used my booth before me was Spanish and well tanned. No doubt, she had opted for the "highest setting" as well, which I had not changed. So I had just had just subjected my winter-white skin to its first dose of sun to the tune of 20 minutes - which was in fact two sessions - at the highest setting.

Within an hour, the discomfort had started. By that night, I was lobster red (no exaggeration) in places and very pink in others. I could barely move, and I radiated heat. I had only once been more sunburnt and that was when I fell asleep in the sun after an all night party in my misspent youth many, many years ago. I was very glad that I had opted to wear my two-piece during the session, rather than opting for the all-over approach. Several days later, the lobster red bits are now brownish pink and only slightly tender to the touch.

So what has all this got to do with learning?

Well: it's important to ensure that instructions are clearly understood. Just as important - instructions must cover everything that will have an impact on the outcome. You can't afford to assume what your users already know/don't know, unless you have a process by which to check this at the outset. In my case, the result was a couple of days of severe discomfort. It could have been worse.

Lesson learned. If/when I ever visit a solarium again, I will make sure that I understand the recommendations for my skin type very clearly beforehand!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Service with a snarl

I am holiday with my family at the moment. We decided to push the boat out and do the tourist thing. So we are staying in some beautiful apartments right on the beach on the east coast of Majorca (or Mallorca, of you prefer - it´s the same thing).

When I told a colleague where we had booked, he said that this was the part of the island favoured by Germans. He wasn´t wrong. The service staff at the hotels and shops all have German as their second language. We were warned that we would receive bad service if we were thought to be English - apparently English holiday makers have a bad reputation abroad. This proved true, too. After one night of incredible rudeness, and an accusation of shoplifting, we decided to set people straight. When asked if we are English, we now say, "No, but we can speak the language." This then gives rise to a major curiosity about our heritage, and how did a Swedish man and a South African woman (a) meet and marry and (b) wind up living in England? We have been treated wonderfully well and declared a "very nice family" by several people. We have been given free gifts and all sorts of perks.

Isn´t it weird? We are the same people who were thought to be so deplorable on that first night. We haven´t changed, but the attitudes of the people we meet couldn´t be more different - simply because we are not English. It would be interesting to do a survey on how people´s attitudes are formed and to what extent they are justified. When I think of the English people I know, it seems totally off.

For now, I´m enjoying the sun and the sea, oh and the food and the cocktails...