Thursday, May 24, 2007

Small world and music in Hanoi

I know that I haven't written with the fun and amazing adventures of my vacation in Thailand (which was fantastic by the way - very, very tourist friendly, which after Madagascar isn't a stretch, but it still definitely had us basking in the glory of the ease of it all), and I will, but I just had to post this first. I am in HEAVEN!!! I discovered that which I was convinced was not possible in my chosen life as an exile expatriate - I have found others who love to spend their spare time studying the arts of some of our most acclaimed composers - from IN FRONT of the podium. Yes - Hanoi has started, just in time for me to move to Vietnam, an "International Symphony Orchestra" for any and all with some musical experience to come and honk, tweet and scratch along with. It's a community orchestra made up of a motley collection of amateur musicians from all walks of local and expatriate life conducted by the gracious and (I'm not sure just how he's getting paid off for doing this) sacrificial conductor of the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra. It's a service for which many of us (and I am not just speaking for myself here - my fellow musician professionals were equally vocal about) are desperately grateful for. Maybe I'm overreaching a little bit - tonight was only my first opportunity to participate in the rehearsal, and the small collection of people there is admittedly short of an "orchestra" (even adding the word "chamber" in front is still just technically correct...more like a very oddly orchestrated string ensemble - or a symphonetta? I'll leave it to you to decide on the semantics). But the enthusiasm from those attending is evident - and it may not sound like much, especially with my limited contributions based mainly on my inability to count born from multiple months of playing to my own drummer - but it sounds like more than one musician at a time and that, for many of us in this sea of unfamiliarity, is a small piece of welcome home. And speaking of home - who would think that an hodgepodge community orchestra on the other side of the world would be the setting of a reunion? Well, small world stories being what they are - two alumni of the my alma mater's Music Faculty were united under a single conductor once again as I was (re)introduced to a viola player, Lindsey, who was two years behind me at Luther and is now doing a CDC fellowship here in Hanoi. Well, that's the joy of working in this business - and it is a sure sign of how this type of organization is going to be about so much more than music! Yes, I think a photo for the Alumni Magazine is called for...once I can actually get back to Hanoi on a Thursday night when rehearsals are scheduled...patience my dear Erica - we can't have too much of a good thing all at once, now can we?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

From Special English to the Queen's English

I don’t think myself to be a stylized writer in any way, so I was amused to be questioned on my use of a certain idiom in my last post – “not a bit of.” Was I, my bemused reader asked, using this phrase in the American way, meaning “not much,” or in the British sense of “quite a bit?”

I’ll confess I haven’t been paying much attention to form or style in any of my writing lately (it’s enough just to get the words typed out most days), so I accept this observation as yet another mark of the slow evolution that seems to be happening in my personal phraseology and language.

I first noticed the beginning of change in my way of expressing myself on my trip back home last summer. I was engaged in an extended conversation with a friend in my hometown when I suddenly became conscious of a shift in the tone and tempo of my own speech to match my friend’s. I speak English with people of a variety of accents in my work, and I rarely feel any urge to match, say, a British pronunciation when speaking with a Brit, so I was surmised that the direction I was slipping was actually back towards what had once been a more “normal” place for me. I found it rather amusing that I could actually speak with a “northern Wisconsin” accent – and the fact that my current normal speech isn’t in that accent.

Then, during the training in these last few weeks, I was surprised to be assumed to be, again and again, not an American, but an Australian, by non-native English speakers attending our training course. At first I assumed this was by association as the vast majority of native English speakers there were, in fact, Australian. But then I began to notice that the other Americans that were there were, in fact, immediately recognized as American and at one point in particular, the Australians began remarking on the pronunciation and phraseology of one of the other Americans – one I would have labeled decidedly “Midwest” (i.e., generic) accent. I asked why they had never commented equally on my pronunciation. Several of them considered it, and then said that it was because I don’t talk like that. Not that I spoke like an Australian, mind you, but my speech just wasn’t remarkable.

So, maybe the way I talk, write, even think in English is changing. The most obvious influence on this would have to be the weeks, even months, at a time I go without speaking to true native speakers of English. And when I do speak to another native speaker, it’s rarely in Midwest American English. On a day-to-day basis, I speak Special English with my staff and translators. This was also marked by non-native speakers at the training who said they preferred to listen to my English as it was so clear to them – even at normal speeds I tend to pronounce my words more clearly and speak with a steadier pace and with a more even inflection. On a monthly basis or so, I speak good English with the ADRA Vietnamese staff and Argentinean country director in Hanoi, each with their own distinct idioms and phraseologies. I also have occasional (hopefully more frequent as time goes on) contact with expatriates in Hanoi – for now mainly British. And during these last few weeks, my English influences were almost all Australian and New Zealand.

The funny thing for me is how difficult it can be to actually SPEAK English with another native speaker. I often find the conversation goes too quickly – my accessible vocabulary is whittled down to essentials, so while I can understand everything going on, I have a lot of difficulty expressing myself clearly in return. I even find myself intimidated when going into a conversation that I won’t be able to keep up or represent myself in a clear and natural way.

There is another influence on my language – perhaps a little less obvious, but it’s definitely a strong one – radio and audiobooks. I am very happy with my satellite radio, which is most often tuned to NPR from the US and BBC from the UK. I suppose NPR does the most for keeping me on an American keel (otherwise I might have gone all Brit by now!), but my choice in audiobooks isn’t helping!

I am taking advantage of our online library source for downloading books for catching up on my classical literature. There’s a wide selection of classics, and I’m working my way through a slew of Charles Dickens and other mainline classics. I’ll save the literary commentary (other than the Count of Monte Cristo is FANTASTIC), but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after hearing 18th and 19th century English day in and day out, I’m beginning to imitate it. It seems that I am slowly making a transition from Special English to the Queen's (or King's, depending on the period, I guess) English.

Which brings me back to the original idiom “not a bit.” After looking back at the post, I did use it in the British way, meaning “not a little bit” or “much.” So, everybody I met has a lot of pride in that little big island off the coast of Madagascar, and in any language or dialect – I completely agree!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Six Degrees of Madagascar

Yes, I know I am far behind on my posting. But I hope I have a bit of an excuse - I went back to school for two weeks of intense monitoring and evaluation training in the Imperial Queens Park Hotel in downtown Bangkok. Not a bad location, if you must be in school! It was about as good an environment for learning as a teacher might hope for being completely isolated from any connection to the natural world with no windows and recycled air. We could have been marooned in deep space for all the cares we had for the outside world by any means other than the internet.

So for eight hours a day we were isolated from the screaming city of Bangkok that surrounded us in a matter of meters on all sides, but in the evenings we were released to the world. We flew out only to be swallowed by the hot, humid air of the tropics, which quickly took a notch off of our speed. But it didn't keep us from exploring the city - particularly the shopping. If there is one thing Bangkok does well, it is shopping.

We spent many of our evenings exploring the air-conditioned shopping centers by way of the air-conditioned sky train or underground train, although some braved the smothery elements to explore Bangkok's many night markets. I did a little of everything, from the dripping night markets to the vibrant, overpowering IT malls. I even got to make some purchases in those IT malls - a couple of laptops for our projects here, which gave my credit card an international workout. The food was exquisite - both breakfast and lunch in the hotel (the dessert bar was unbelievable - many of the class participants spent lunch hours taking pictures of it) and dinner out on the streets. Dinner was as varied at the shopping - everything from A&W (except the Aussies had no clue what that was) to food court and street Thai and of course all the gourmet anything and everything you could wish for.

Then there were the organized tours - one to the "Ancient City" - a multi-acre park area with replicas of all the famous temples and pagodas and other sites in Thailand. Touted as the "one place to visit if you only have a few days in Thailand," it is actually a very sweet and beautiful setting in the quiet country, a valuable respite from the florid intensity of the city. The other, the requisite riverboat ride down the famous Chao Phraraya River that is the lifeblood of Bangkok, past, present and future. We visited Bangkok in the midst of a tropical depression, so it was just as well that we were shut up in doors almost all day, but the steady rain didn't interrupt our enjoyment of this even - the wet evening only gave a deeper polish the gold plated temples and sweeping, modernistic bridges gracing our path up and down our watery way.

But, through all of this, the most amazing thing was how close I was to my old home in Madagascar throughout the 10 days. The event seemed to be an exercise in "six degrees of Madagascar." Although there wasn't a single person there actually representing Madagascar present, almost everybody in the training course seemed to be in some significant way connected to that great island. The first dose came almost immediately with the first facilitator using multiple references to Madagascar examples in his instructions. Later I asked for more details and it turned out he is a partner in the shade-grown coffee project that is being promoted in many of the communes that I worked in with the Kaominina Mendrika project. Next were those that had worked long-term in Madagascar in the past, and then those that had done consulting or were actively planning work trips in the very new future. That meant that the number of people actually having been to the island was reaching an incredible proportion, and then when you added those that had done work with projects there, I think we had nearly half of the attendees nearly directly connected. It was eerie.

Sadly, there were no other Malagasy speakers there, but there were plenty of French speakers. This actually came as a surprise for me because at first the Spanish speakers held sway during all social events. But then as we climbed on the bus to head for the river boat I realized that the discussion had shifted rather unexpectedly into French - and I suddenly discovered myself speaking French as if I had spoken that and not Malagasy for the last 4 years. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of those French speakers also had previously undiscovered connections to the island.

I'm still not sure why that place has such a strong hold on so many of us, but there it is. Everybody who had a connection there held not a bit of pride in it. There's just something about that island. Yet, I'm not so disappointed to come back to Vietnam. Not a bit of the discussion about Mada revolved around the amazing frustrations that that place offers - and the curiosity of why that island just can't seem to make it out of the rut it seems firmly entrenched in. So it's nice to come back to a place that seems to be going somewhere - a figurative breath of fresh development air if you will, despite the unique challenges here.

And so the two weeks passed pleasantly. I learned a lot, but I appreciated the instructive conversations even more. So much to learn, so much to share. And one place that the development world seems to want to revolve around.