Posts Tagged With: soup

The Language From Hell

OK, I have been grousing about the Vietnamese language for over a week now, so it is time to tell you something about it. Here are some important characteristics that make it next to impossible for a Westerner to master. In fact, as nearly as I can tell it is basically impossible for a Westerner to even get the basics right.

First, it is tonal like Chinese. Chinese has five tones (including the so-called neutral tone); Vietnamese has six. Some of these are readily apparent to the Western ear (by which I mean, me); others sound indistinguishable from one another, so right off the bat you’re in trouble. You can’t even hear the differences among the tones, let alone say them correctly. Each of the tones is represented by a particular accent mark.

Second, the variation in meaning associated with the differing tones is vast. You know about pho, the Vietnamese soup, which is actually ritten phở  and pronounced sorta, but only sorta, like “fuh”. (And note that last letter: it is an o with two accent marks. More on that in a moment.)  Do not confuse this soup with the word phò, which with its different accent (and only one them) over the means “bitch” or “hooker”.  It’s pronounced more like “faw”, with a tone going downward.

Third, the alphabet, though using Roman letters like our own, has 29 letters including eleven vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, o, ô, ơ, u, and ư. There is no F, J, K, or Z. Now at this point you may be thinking, “That’s not 11 vowels, it’s just the usual 5 plus some with accent marks for different tones.” Nope. Those accent marks are not the ones that indicate tones; they are a different set that differentiate separate vowel sounds rather than creating a “new” letter with a different appearance. You can apply an additional tonal accent mark to most of those vowels, as in phở as I mentioned above. In this case the last letter is the ơ from the list of vowels above (the 9th of 11); the little thingy that looks like a question mark on top of it is the tone indicator.

Because of the multiplicity of vowels and tones, there are words that can be pronounced eighteen slightly different ways, all with different meanings. We got a small taste of this during an impromptu language lesson that Phil delivered on the bus, which included a handout that listed the six possible tones and meanings of the word ma, to wit:

  • ma (ghost)
  • (mother or cheek)
  • (which, that)
  • mả (tomb)
  • (horse)
  • mạ (rice seedling)

Good luck with that. Phil read them off, had us practice, and then quizzed us. He’s a total sweetheart who always treats us with the greatest affection and respect, but even he couldn’t hold a straight face as we mangled the list; he actually burst out laughing at our pathetic pronunciation attempts. One implication is that those handy dandy phonetic “Common Words and Phrases” lists that you see in guidebooks are utterly useless; the odds of those phonetic lists guiding you to a successful enunciation of a desired Vietnamese word or phrase is essentially zero.

So how did this all come about? I mean, China is right next door so why doesn’t Vietnamese writing resemble Chinese? The answer is, that it used to. It was the missionaries (it’s always the missionaries, isn’t it?) who needed something that they could read to guide their pronunciation and be able to learn the language so that they could convert the heathens. The effort was spearheaded by Portuguese missionaries in the early 17th century, but it took a good 150 years before it broke out of clerical circles and came into wide use by the general population. By World War II it was the de facto official script. So in other words, it’s pretty recent, in general use only since the 1890’s or so.

The upshot of all this is that looking at all the signage on any Vietnam city street is to understand what severe dyslexia must feel like. You see all the letters and words in an alphabet that looks familiar, and your brain keeps involuntarily searching for recognizable words and syllables and coming up empty. Your brain, of course, does not know that the roots of all these almost-familiar letter combinations are in Chinese; it looks like there should be familiar words in there somewhere, but there aren’t. So far I have come across only three Vietnamese words that resemble their Indo-European counterparts, interestingly all of them beverages: bia (beer), trà (tea), and cà phê (coffee). That’s a pretty short list.

So the result for us is that, unlike on all of our previous exotic trips we will end this one exactly as we began it, linguistically, which is to say in complete ignorance. After ten days here, all I can say is xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you), and xin lỗi (sorry, pardon me), all of them so atrociously as to be barely recognizable to the locals. But it’s all good… we’ve been eating so well, and so much, on this trip that we can’t speak with our mouth full anyway.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saving the Children

We flew via Cessna from Kulala International Airport — not really, I mean the dirt landing strip I showed you yesterday — back through the desert for the 45 minute hop to Walvis Bay. A century or so ago, Walvis Bay was the happening place, the radiant of German colonial expansion into Namibia. It was the whaling and commerce center. Today it is still the major shipping center, an industrial port for the export of salt, copper, and uranium; there is a recreational beach and a lot of fishing, but otherwise from our limited perspective it had little to recommend it outside of our restaurant lunch on the water.

With one exception: the flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. There are hundreds of them, pallid pink on their bodies but the flaming color of the inside of a blood orange on the tops of their wings.

03 Walvis Bay 2017-018-Edit03 Walvis Bay 2017-021

Those guys in the top image who look like they’re recreating the cover of the Abbey Road Beatles album are in fact doing a Michael Jackson imitation. Seriously, they don’t just stand there but rather work their feet back and forth in what looks for all the world like MJ’s moonwalk, the objective being to stir up the silt and thus scatter the small fish and shrimp that are their preferred food.

Since we didn’t have any significant amounts of copper or uranium among us, we left immediately after lunch, driving the half hour north to the resort town of Swakopmund. Swakop draws a lot of German tourists — most of the restaurants seem to be German — and has a long and inglorious history as a German enclave; it is only since independence in 1990 that the all-white, all-German private high school was repurposed into an integrated public school, and the locals — including our driver Joe — still bear a great deal of animus towards them. The town’s former industrial base was the large Hansa Brewery, and the layout of the town still reflects this: the streets are very broad, wide enough for beer-carrying freight trucks to maneuver.

Our hotel is another avatar of this colonial history, its architecture resembling European colonial mansions everywhere, with whitewashed colonnades, an English garden, and sweeping staircases. It’s just a tad different from our Namib desert camp. Its name, aptly enough, is the Hansa Hotel.

04 Swakopmund 2017-177-Edit

With this uninspiring historical background, today was very much a cultural immersion day. Our first stop was the Festus Gonteb Primary School, a K-7 institution educating nearly 1100 students, nearly half of whom walk the mile distance from “DRC”, the sprawling 15,000-person shantytown Democratic Resettlement Community down the road. (More on DRC below.)

04 Swakopmund 2017-077-Edit

We received background information about the school from FGPS’s earnest if longwinded principal, who then turned us over to two 7th grade “prefects”, i.e. top students (both girls) who are given assorted academic, outreach, and disciplinary responsibilities for their achievements. (The “disciplinary” part kind of weirded us out, in truth; the principal’s description made it sound like they girls were being promoted to some kind of stool pigeon, and we wondered darkly whether they still had any friends left.)

We split into two groups, one with each prefect. I went to a 3rd grade class with our impressively poised and articulate prefect Jennifer; Alice was in a group that visited a class of 6th graders. The students were nothing if not enthusiastic to see us.

04 Swakopmund 2017-002

04 Swakopmund 2017-040

04 Swakopmund 2017-056

My camera alone was a big hit, and I made the mistake of allowing one of the kids to take a picture of me with it, instead of the other way around, which of course meant that I was swarmed by every kid in the class who also wanted to take a picture with it and look at the resulting image. I now have about twenty lousy pictures of myself, none of which show my windmilling arms as I frantically attempt to keep about two dozen pairs of enthusiastic hands away from my very expensive lens.

The kids sang songs for us — and we sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round in return — then said a prayer and sang us farewell.

04 Swakopmund 2017-020

04 Swakopmund 2017-018

We in turn left behind a load of school supplies that we had purchased, and received a boatload of hugs in return. We were impressed: these kids were enthusiastic, well-behaved, curious, and very affectionate. They have a lot to offer; we hope that there is hope for them.

As I mentioned, about half the kids walk to school from the “DRC”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, basically a government-sponsored shantytown. The government provides the land and lights the wide dirt streets, but provides no electricity otherwise. Residents scrounge materials to build shacks, and are given a metal ID token that, when inserted into a hydrant-like water station, allows them to access to water. The shanties are otherwise without plumbing, though a sewer line is in the works.

04 Swakopmund 2017-098

 

At the edge of the shantytown is an actual (very) low cost housing development being built by the government, with rows of simple roofed conventional houses that rather like military base housing. The long term plan is to build more and more of these and gradually replace the shanties with actual small houses that the DRC residents are able to own.

Our destination within DRC was a soup kitchen, a rather remarkable three-room operation run by the inhumanly formidable Miss Katrina (a.k.a Mother Katrina) in the form of the Dantago Communities Rising organization; see the link for their Facebook page. Katrina has a day job as a restaurant manager in town but appears to operate in some kind of spacetime warp as she also runs Dantago as a combined soup kitchen/day care/community garden/craft store. Here she is with some of her charges, the latter taken in — sometimes during the day, sometimes semi-permanently — from parents who cannot care well for them. In a few cases those mothers, e.g., disabled by alcoholism, actually work at the center making jewelry for sale, or tending the garden to sell vegetables (the latter not so easy during a four-year drought). “Center”, by the way, is a rather strong word for the structure, which is a three-room shanty with no electricity or running water.

04 Swakopmund 2017-11004 Swakopmund 2017-113

Our contribution was to bring a load of vegetables, cut them up, and watch Lloyd and Katrina’s helpers make stew, which we then ladled out to the kids.

04 Swakopmund 2017-120

04 Swakopmund 2017-144

My contribution was to start a riot by showing my camera to the kids as I took their pictures, thereby triggering the same grabfest that I had experienced (and caused) at the Festus school an hour earlier. Here I am in full Sensitive Tourist mode, trying to keep those grubby little hands off my goddamn lens. (Thanks to Sherryl for this picture, which I shall perhaps forward to Angelina Jolie.)

FullSizeRender

I should mention, by the way, that I asked Katrina whether it was OK for me to take pictures. Her response: “Take as many pictures as you can. Send them to everyone you know. The more people that know about us, the better!” So consider yourself informed. It seems trite and mawkish, but I truly could not look at these kids without thinking of my own three grandchildren (ages 9 months, 21 months, and 5 years), who of course want for nothing and in all likelihood never will. Katrina’s reserves of energy, compassion, and patience are virtually inconceivable to me. (And she is not unique, as I’ll get to in a moment.)

04 Swakopmund 2017-142

Grinding poverty notwithstanding, things are apparently never too dire for a makeover, and travelmate Wanda went to work with gusto. We soon had a soup kitchen full of juvenile, brightly painted nails.

04 Swakopmund 2017-164

04 Swakopmund 2017-160

The child in the above photo, by the way, is from the San tribe, i.e. the Bushmen.

Our final stop was an actual orphanage, the “Tears of Hope” in the nearby township of Mondesa, run by the no less formidable Naftaline Maua, whom you see here in sort-of-traditional Himba garb.

04 Swakopmund 2017-173

I say “sort of” traditional because actual Himba garb consists of very little indeed, plus red ochre hair coloring. The original German colonists — or more accurately, the original female German colonists were none too crazy about this, first because their husbands’ eyeballs were bugging out all the time, and second because those same husbands kept coming home from a hard day of oppressing the natives with red ochre stains in very difficult-to-explain places. So they strongarmed the men, in particular the clergy, into forcing the native women to wear Victorian dresses. As a sop to the actual Himba culture, however, they developed headwear designed to resemble to cattle horns, since the Himba were cattle farmers. Hence Naftaline’s hat and dress.

Naftaline has an interesting history of her own as an AIDS counselor, which you can read a bit about by clicking here. Now she runs a 6-bedroom home that houses 21 orphans (none, fortunately, with HIV). She is an outgoing energetic woman who apparently needs no sleep, and who with her daughter prepared a wonderful lunch for us in her dining room, featuring lamb and polenta seasoned with spicy tomato-y chakalaka relish. (Here’s the recipe if you’re interested.)

Turns out that a couple of her wards attend the Festus school we had visited that morning, and indeed a few came home and said hello to us since school was ending (or on lunch break) while we were there.  We left behind some household goods and clothing for her, then returned to our hotel to contemplate our spectacularly non-poverty-stricken lives.

 

 

 

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.