Embark on a voyage of learning

Who is Nisar Zaker?

Where are you from?

This question always poses a dilemma for me as I am not sure what people want to know when they ask this! If they want to know where I am from originally or what my ethnicity is, then I am Indian. Both my parents are Indian and I was also born in India, in a town called Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. However, if people want to know where I grew up or where I call “home”, then I would have to say England. As I spent the majority of my formative years in various parts of the UK, I see myself as being more British than Indian really. We moved to the UK in the late 70s when I was 6 years old, first living in Birmingham, then moving to Solihull, then Blackpool, then back to India for a few years before returning to the UK and settling down in Sunbury-upon-Thames when I was fourteen. I finished my schooling in Sunbury, which is a small town on the outskirts of London. I then went to university in London, but Sunbury is the place that feels the most like “home” to me and my parents still live there, so I am inclined to say “Sunbury” or “London” when people ask me where I’m from.

This is a photo of my brother and I with my father in 1979, when we first moved to the UK.

Left: playing the keyboard in the school band (grade 8). Right: Playing the guitar.

What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?

My family is very large and full of annoyingly over-achieving members, so the pressure was on at an early age to do well in school and pursue a “proper” career. (With Indian parents, a “proper” career usually means one of these five things: become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an architect or a dentist! Up until the age of 16, I really did want to become a doctor like my parents, but unfortunately, I am quite squeamish and cannot stand the sight of blood so this was not an option for me! I think you need to be really strong to become a doctor as you have so much responsibility. I remember my mother coming home really sad quite often, and sometimes crying for hours when one of her patients passed away or took a turn for the worse. I also remember meeting a teenager who had had a motorcycle accident and whose legs my father had had to amputate in order to save his life. A tough decision indeed. I did not think I was mentally strong enough to make such difficult decisions!  I do remember wanting to be a hairdresser at one point, but this wasn’t “approved” so I settled for “hobby-hairdressing” and cut my dad’s hair for him when he didn’t have time to go to the barber’s and gave all my Barbie dolls regular haircuts! While at university, I decided on a career in Management Accounting, as mathematics came naturally to me and I felt this would be a sensible choice. However, life takes you in unexpected directions so you can never tell which path you will end up taking until you get to it!

What were you like in high school?

As we moved around a lot, different environments brought out different aspects of my personality! In grades 6-8 I was quiet but found it easier to make friends. However, once I got to grade 9 my confidence suddenly left me. I was very shy and quiet throughout grades 9 and 10. As we moved around so much, I was always the “new kid” and found it hard to make friends if my environment wasn’t so open or friendly. I went to 4 different primary schools and 4 different secondary schools and it made me rather introverted. I was a bit of a nerd and totally “uncool” -  terrible hair and a rather questionable dress-sense - so that didn’t really help me much! I preferred books to people and I think I made it pretty obvious - so even the kids who tried to reach out to me tended to give up after a while and move on! We didn’t have mobile phones then, so most break times I used to have my nose in a book to avoid speaking to people! But my teachers loved me because I was always very well-behaved and very studious! I was also quite competitive academically and wanted to be the best - which did not make me very popular either! My favourite subjects were (of course) mathematics and English, but also History (mainly because I had a huge crush on my history teacher!) I was unfortunately, not very good at sports! And I actually used to make excuses to try and get out of doing PE! Especially swimming - I hate cold water and getting my hair wet so I used to try my best to get out of swimming. I am rather uncoordinated and accident prone. In fact, I actually broke my arm once by tripping over my own feet and falling awkwardly on my arm! After my GCSEs in year 11 (10th grade) I changed schools for my A-levels, and this is where I finally found my “tribe” and came out of my shell. At my A-level college, I finally met other teens who were like me in many ways, academically competitive and interested in learning - so I didn’t feel like such a nerd. In fact, at my A-level college, it was cool to be a nerd! Most of our professors were Oxford or Cambridge educated and had really high expectations of us and encouraged us to be the best version of ourselves. I was a great place to study and I have some of the best memories from this time. In fact, I am still best friends with the people I hung around with back then and we meet up regularly every time I visit the UK.

What did you study?

 

I studied Mathematics and Management at King’s College London. I always loved mathematics so I was really excited about studying it further and especially at King’s as I fell in love with the university when I visited it during their Open Day. King’s is a very historic university located right in the heart of London and I was really relieved and more than a little proud when I was accepted there as a student. Florence Nightingale, Desmond Tutu and Virginia Woolf are all some of King’s alumni and it was an honour for me to be able to go to the same university. I will always remember my first lecture, where we learnt the proof of how you *can* divide something by zero….(something you’re always told at school that you cannot do)...and when you do divide something by zero, the answer is….INFINITY! It was a little bit like learning a new magic trick. But university mathematics was a huge jump from A-level mathematics and I really had to work hard to keep up. London is also a really exciting place to live and study and as it was my first time away from home, so I had many distractions which made it even harder to focus on my grades! I loved my new independence! I unfortunately could not cook, so basically lived on Maggie Noodles or tinned pineapple or frozen pizza. My favourite part of King’s College was the library, where I used to escape regularly for some peace and quiet. I love the smell of books! I also loved meeting so many students from all over the world. At university, part of the journey is discovering your identity. I joined the Asian Society and through this, became more connected to my Indian roots. I wrote a few articles for the Asian Soc magazine and I also took part in their annual charity fashion show, where I got to wear beautiful designer Indian dresses! I also met some amazing people, who are still my best friends to this day.

How is it that you teach English when you studied Mathematics at university?

To be honest, after studying mathematics for four years, I needed a bit of a break from numbers! I always loved English and decided to do a CELTA course (Cambridge Certificate of Teaching English to Adults) in the summer after I graduated so I could travel the world for a few years before coming back to London and following a career in Financial Management. (Well, that was the plan!) However, I fell in love with teaching English (quite by accident) and decided to make a career out of it. Although it is not the most lucrative of professions, it is one of the most rewarding fields and I really enjoy teaching both mathematics and English. It is also a very flexible and varied career and can take you to many different countries in the world and introduce you to people from all walks of life. It took me to Poland for two years, where I taught English to teenagers and adults; then Hamburg, where I taught mainly business people from different industries (it was also where I met my husband); Munich & Ingolstadt, where I taught at the Audi Academy and the headquarters of Media Markt and Saturn; London - where I taught at various secondary schools, and now, back to Hamburg.  I have taught both adults and children over the span of my career and many professionals from different industries, and it is really interesting to get an insight into their worlds. During my time in London, I also volunteered at Refugee Action Kingston (RAK) and taught English to refugees, to help them apply for higher education courses and improve their chances of getting employment. This was extremely rewarding and it’s a great feeling to know that you have helped someone achieve their goals.

This is my very first class teaching English to adults in London in 1995.

These photos are when I taught teenagers also in London. They were teenagers in 1998-1999! They must all be in their thirties now!

Who's your favourite fictional character?

Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason because I love detective stories and solving puzzles/mysteries and both these characters were very good at solving cases. Perry Mason is a hotshot lawyer and I loved the court scenes in the books. However, a more recent favourite character would have to be Beth Harmon (the main character in The Queen’s Gambit). She is seriously cool and smart. We need more books with smart women protagonists!

What's your favourite film and why?

The Life of Pi because it reminds me about my childhood in India. The ending was also very interesting and made me think! I also liked Salam Bombay, (from the 80s). It is a moving story about a boy from the slums who gets a job with a circus, but they move on without him and he’s lost. He cannot read or write so could not write home to his family - he didn’t even know their address. But he had enough money for a bus ticket to Bombay (now Mumbai) so he went to the city and got a job as a tea-boy, delivering tea to various shop owners. The film follows his life and the people he comes across,  but it is rather sad, so make sure you have a boy of tissues handy as it will make you cry!

What´s your favorite music band?

I don’t really have one but when I was younger I used to love listening to Queen, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Estefan and a band called Wham! They were all very popular in the 1980s. I was mad about George Michael!

What inspires you?

Everything really - people, random overheard conversations, a Tik Tok recipe and Marie Kondo. I saw a recent recipe for “eggy bread” on my feed and it was so simple and easy to make! Marie Kondo has been life changing and she has inspired me to get rid of anything that does not bring me joy. I loved her series “The Unexpected Joy of Tidying Up” on Netflix and can highly recommend it. I also follow The Folding Lady on Instagram. But my biggest inspirations have been my parents. They made it in life despite very difficult circumstances and I really respect them for everything they have accomplished and achieved.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Reading, playing chess, watching Netflix, cooking, planning my next holiday... I would love to travel to Hawaii - I always wanted to go there and in fact, my husband and I were supposed to go there last summer for our 20th wedding anniversary - but unfortunately Covid19 happened and we had to put our plans on hold. I am currently reading “Becoming Michelle Obama”, which my daughter gave me for Christmas and I loved The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix , which was all about chess - my favourite game.

Here I am in Seattle at the foot of Mount Rainier.

I love traveling! Here I am in Stonehenge in 2000, Disney Land in 2018 and in a palace in Venice in 1995.

What has been your most bizarre life experience?

Being an extra in a Bollywood movie (in my 20s) and teaching English to famous football players at Chelsea FC! One of my best friends is an actress and she got us both parts as extras in a Bollywood movie. The movie, unfortunately, later got cancelled, but we met the actors and got paid anyway so that was good! Teaching football players at Chelsea was also very interesting because I didn’t really know very much about football and I didn’t know who the players were when I met them! But I finally understood the off-side rule!

What is the funniest thing that has happened to you recently?

Making a cold-caller so frustrated (because of my bad German) that they actually hung up on me!