Apart from having one German-speaking relative and hearing the French versions of the skits on Sesame Street*, one of my earliest foreign language experiences was at a friend’s birthday party. I must’ve been around 9 or 10 years old and something was already drawing me to the few children in my, mainly white, school who were of non-European origin. Most of the time we all ate the school lunches as, back then, they were still cheaper than bringing your own and were made with real ingredients. But, on the occasions that Zahra brought her lunch from home I was fascinated. I guess we weren’t old enough for other kids to start teasing her for being different like they do in middle school because she had all these strange orange and yellow foods that she ate with what I thought at first were pancakes. Turned out they were roti. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. “You don’t eat bread at home?” I thought bread came in slices at that juncture in my life, but I was keen to try it. It tasted nothing like pancakes.
When Zahra came to school one day with a stack of small envelopes, I couldn’t wait to find out what they were for. I was one of the lucky recipients, but I managed to wait until I got home to open it. I guess it is a ‘kid thing’, to wait until one of the authority figures in your life looks at any correspondence. Since that’s what happens with report cards and field trip permission slips, why would it be any different for other mysterious envelopes?
A birthday party invitation.
I was dropped off at the address on the invitation and invited inside. While I was busy trying to decipher food smells and interpret various decorations, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t got past the front entryway. My eyes focused on an elderly woman, hair tied back in a long grey plait, right in front of me saying, “Go on. Get your shoes off so you can go and play with the other children.” A shoes-off house. I was, no doubt, wearing boots and a long dress as that was what I thought the phrase dressing up meant back then so I probably struggled a bit before I was lead to the basement stairway. I had only seen a bunch of adults rushing around by this point so I was getting pretty nervous that there weren’t even any other kids there. I sort of stalled at the top of the stairs until the woman next to me switched from Hindi to English and said, “Go down! They are all there.” What a relief it was when I got to the bottom and found that yes, in fact, they were “all there”. Actually, there were kids running amok all over the basement. I remember scanning to see if there was anyone I knew when the lights flickered and all the kids screamed.
In through a side door that I hadn’t noticed earlier entered a group of adults carrying big trays of something. I was wondering if it was going to be the bread that Zahra brought to school, but when they set it down on the tables I noticed it was pizza. Pizza?! Well, it looked and smelled, like pizza but it wasn’t round. I should set the record straight in that my parents did actually cook other real food, but pizza came frozen from the supermarket. That’s just how it was in Northville, Michigan before Dominoes had arrived on the scene. But this. They made this. By hand. Not having been on the Earth for a decade yet, this was very exotic to me. I didn’t know you could just make pizza from scratch like that. I thought it was a supermarket thing, like Twinkies. And I had certainly never had square pizza. I still remember how delicious it was.
The pizza episode was followed by more running around until, once again, the lights went out and all the kids screamed. The same group of women in their saris stood in the shadows until someone managed to get a match to light all of the candles on Zahra’s birthday cake and we all began to sing the Happy Birthday song. By the time we finished, Zahra’s grandmother was sitting next to me and she said, “Come on! The second verse!” and all the Indians in the room chimed in for the Hindi version. I felt so nervous for not knowing the words that I tried to pretend I was singing it. I’m sure my face went bright red when the grandmother said, “Oh, good girl. You know the Hindi part.”
*Whereas Sesame Street in other parts of the States would switch back and forth between Spanish and English, in Michigan they used to have French instead of Spanish supposedly because of the proximity to Quebec. I wonder if anyone else remembers this.
I have a very good friend whom I knew for a few of the most exciting years of my life. He was just discovering who he was, as we all were in those days, and I love the fact that he is living his true life now. However, I lost touch with this friend quite a few years ago. Many years ago. I’ve always wondered what he was doing and what his life had become. And then about 6 or 7 years ago I managed to get in touch again through a mutual friend. I was so happy because I found out about quite a few nice things that had occurred in his life. Sadly, he was about to leave his job. The email address I had for him was through his work and so I knew he would no longer be using it. He said he would be in touch as soon as he got his own email address set up. This didn’t strike me as odd because I know plenty of people who lead their lives without using the internet on a daily basis. And back then, it wasn’t as common for everyone to have multiple email addresses, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. I just hoped for the best. I never heard from him again.
In our brief email exchange, one of the things he said to me was that the reason he hasn’t been in touch was because he was jealous. I should clarify that this is not an ex-boyfriend. He was apparently jealous of my life. I just think this is amazing. He has made up a scenario based on the few facts he still knows about me that has led him to believe that my life is a fairytale. Yes, I have travelled a lot, but that is not all that happens in my life. I feel a little bit angry, but mostly sad about this. He has no idea about the difficult things I’ve been through. He has just chosen some random ‘facts’ and gleaned the rest, and then used that non-reality as a basis for discontinuing the friendship.
But it makes me think. Do I do this? I must do. It seems quite common. There are certainly people I feel jealousy towards. And, I have to admit, there have been times when I’ve avoided those people because I didn’t feel I had anything more to offer than what they already have. But, eventually you see things. You start to see that the things you are jealous of are only on the very surface of their being. Over time, these things change or fade and you begin to see more of the real person. If you stick with these people, you find out that they are struggling in life just as you are and we all need allies. I wish my friend could see this, but if nothing else he has left me with the ability to weigh up my trivial jealousies before they cause me to lose something that could be really important. Well, at least I try.
I was writing up a list of Kiwi words and phrases when I started to think about some differences in the way words are used in English speaking countries. I went to school in the United States but I moved around every couple of years so I never developed a hometown or regional accent. Living in England and doing my undergraduate degree in my personality-forming 20s (not to mention the fact that my husband is British) means that a lot of the things I say are very coloured by British English and culture. Now that I’ve been in New Zealand for so long I also have a good smattering of things I say and do that are truly Kiwi. My language use is as mixed up as my accent and, on occasion I read or hear something that reminds me of this fact. There are millions of these little instances but here are four.
Kiwis say, “Big ups” to someone when they want to tell them they’ve done a good job at something. I thought this was a Kiwi phrase until I noticed an American, David Miller on Matador Network, write it in a comment. The difference was that he wrote “Big up” in the singular. I wonder why the difference. I guess Kiwis like to give more than one.
In England people use the word ‘brown’ to mean skin that has been coloured by the sun. For example,
“My you are looking brown. Have you been on holiday?”
“Yes, we’ve just spent two weeks in Spain.”
But in New Zealand, brown usually refers to skin colour based on ethnicity. So, when I said to a Chinese friend that he was ‘looking nice and brown’ a whole group of people looked at me like I was mad.
The Kiwi summer is marked by many occasions to get together with friends at a beach, park or back garden and cook things over fire in a metal box. We refer to both the occasion and the metal fire box as a barbecue as in,
“Come over to my house for a barbecue on Friday night”
“Choice. What should I bring*?”
“Could you put more sausages on the barbecue? John’s coming and he eats heaps.”
American’s (and, it seems, Canadians), however will call the metal box a grill and can also use it like a verb as in,
“Should we cook the steaks on the grill?”
“Come over. We are grilling out.”
As far as I’m aware I’ve never used “grill” as a verb because even if I was to talk about cooking something with a grill, which doesn’t even make sense in this context as a grill is a part of the cooker (uh…stove) with high heat only coming from the top, I would say something like,
“I’ll just put this cheese on toast under the grill for a few minutes until it’s golden and bubbly.”
One last thing. I was once doing some work in Laos with a team of people, one of which was from Hawaii. We immediately got on/ clicked (it’s an island thing) when we found out how many things we did the same in New Zealand and Hawaii. New Zealand is the largest Polynesian nation after all. They wear slippers while we wear jandals, but the biggest difference was that here in New Zealand we call everyone ‘Bro’, whereas they call everyone ‘Bra’. Again, I wonder why so close yet not the same.
* You always bring a bottle of wine or a pack of beer and usually your own meat or veggies for the barbecue and/ or maybe a salad to share. Just in case you wondered.
I’ve had this incarnation of my blog since 2006 and nobody has ever asked me what the name means until this past month (September 2010), which I find quite interesting. I wonder what conclusions people have drawn. It’s basically a word I stitched together myself from two Hindi words, shanti*, meaning peace, and wallah (or wala or walla) meaning a person who sells or peddles something. For example, a chaiwallah is a person who sells chai/tea. But translating it word for word to peace peddler doesn’t fully capture what I mean.
I believe a lot of what makes up our being comes from the people we come into contact with. Every day we see others doing things and then make a decision to either adapt or reject the behavior or value. Sometimes the decision is conscious on our part and sometimes it is unconscious. Sometimes the actions or behavior of the people we see are conscious, and sometimes not. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many people who have inspired and affected me positively. It may be surprising that many of these people, including my heroes, are just normal people trying to do their thing in the world. They are people whose effect on me has been occasionally subtle yet always profound. Here are a few examples:
My mentor who showed me that the skills I’ve been learning my whole life can actually be put to good use outside of the classroom as well as inside. He showed me exactly what I was looking for and changed my life’s direction without even knowing it.
Korean parents who give up their personal life and live apart from each other to bring their kids to New Zealand just so they can get an education that will put them a step higher.
My Samoan literacy students who live in basic conditions away from their families indefinitely so that they can send little brothers and sisters to school back home.
Close friends who have their own dramas, but would drop everything to help me out if I needed it.
A Japanese professor I met who went to live with an elderly man in northern Australia who was the last speaker of his language. The Japanese professor learned the language from him and, after the man died, taught it back to the next generation in order to keep the language alive.
Countless people who have either been examples to me or helped me directly with changing my livelihood to writing for no personal gain whatsoever.
My teenage Tongan student who resisted the pressure of joining a local gang in order to play alongside Samoans (who would’ve been in the rival gang) in a rugby team (This is the thing that fascinates me about sport in general, even though I don’t play or even watch much of it).
Witnessing positive actions such as these is like being handed a cup of chai from the chaiwallah. With tea, you take it and drink it. The spices nourish your body and the caffeine sharpens your awareness. By the same token, the “wares” handed to me by these accidental shantiwallahs nourish my mind and open my eyes. So, what is the meaning of shantiwallah? It’s really about how I see people as teachers and all the amazing lessons I’ve learnt and continue to learn from them.
*Shanti can also mean ‘slowly’ as in the popular Indian phrase “Shanti, shanti” .When someone says this to you, they are basically saying “Slow it down. It’ll happen when it happens”, or “chill out”. Incidentally, this is my Flickrname and I thought about using it for my blog name, but it was already taken.
This photo is a couple of years old now, but I’ve been thinking about the friends we had back in Japan quite a bit recently. I think it is wonderful how you can float around on the globe and then settle down for a while, look up, and there are people just like you. Amazing, amazing. What are the chances? Why does this happen? Maybe you have to be open to it in some way. Or maybe there’s some boring reason like the fact that they are doing something similar to what you’ve chosen, so you think alike.
This was a moment out of a long weekend we spent at our friends’ cabin in the mountains. It is known as the “Foreigners’ Village” by locals because there have been long-term expat summer homes here for generations. There are Japanese who come as well, but the basic conditions only appeal to very few people. The history is amazing and every simple little cabin has its own story. One cabin is the place where we spent wonderful nights discussing books, listening to music (some on LPs!) creating menus and making delectable dishes, trying to outdo each other and then waking late the next day from too much wine. If it weren’t for our ages, you’d think it some scene out of the life of an undergraduate. Eventually we’d make it down to the local sento for a bath.
I’m convinced someday that I’ll be able to collect all these wonderful people and get them to move to one place so we can live like this all the time. But I know that will never happen because we are all transient by nature. We can’t stop forever. That’s what makes us alike. But wouldn’t that be cool?
I saw this woman speak aat The Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival this year. She’s a great speaker and I was so impressed that I bought her book. This really resonates with me as having lived in so many countries and heard the “single story” so many times. My favourite part is when she said, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are true, but that they are incomplete.”.