Wednesday, April 18, 2012


For some reason I am following a group on Facebook called "English Addicted".  I think the community is comprised of Polish people who are learning the intricacies of the English language.  Most of the posts are in Polish (that's my best guess) but the English ones (either quizzes or memes like the one above) are quite quirky and interesting.  This one caught my eye because of the Filipino one, "Gheegle".  I hadn't heard this one before .. will be polling my friends from Manila.

I feel a gheegle coming on.

The Russian one, "pochemuchka" makes sense, since "pochemu" means "why?" and the suffix "chka" means little one.  So I guess it literally means "Little Why".  I think all of my kids have been "pochemuchkas" at one point or another in their lives.  Amazingly, there's a website for kids called Pochemuchka!!  (Unfortunately you have to read Russian to understand it).  And check out this article with more info about the word.  I myself am a huge "Pochemuchka".

My sister and I still speak in "Japanese-isms" to each other.  They are such ingrained parts of my thought processes that I blurt them out sometimes with my husband and he looks at me like I'm in the early stages of dementia.  When he's in a hurry and I have some little things to get done, I'll shout, "Choto-mate, ne!" (just a minute!)  When sis and I are joking around, I'll call her, "Ne, buta!" (Hey, little pig!)  When the phone rings, it's "moshi moshi." When we start to eat, I think to myself, "Ite daki masu!"  It's just habit.  Of course, "Doi tashe mashte" (you're welcome) now translates to "Don't touch the mustache" thanks to the movie Toy Story.  If I ever end up in a difficult spot in Japan, at least I can still ask for the bathroom.  (I tea-ri wa, doko desu ka?)

Not our cat

"Pena ajena" struck a chord with me.  For some reason I have this irrational fear of seeing other people getting into trouble.  I can't even watch an episode of "Seinfeld" without having to turn away at George or Kramer's misadventures.  I can't explain it.  But it's comforting to know that, at least in Spanish, there's a word for my dis-ease.

I can't say I've ever experienced sgriobn though.  Maybe there's something similar for when I'm about to sneeze?

There's the whole new language that my Jewish father-in-law is teaching me: Yiddish.  Something is meant to be: it's besheret.  A huge portion of tzimmes at Passover?  It was a geshfalleneh serving.  You know there are so many words in English that originated in Yiddish:  schlep and chachke (little knick-knacks) for example.  I'm feeling a little zaftig today (especially after eating that geshfalleneh portion of tzimmes!).  What are you going to do for me today?  BUPKIS!  How many times a day do I utter, "Oy vey is mihr?"  Our cat has a bubbe head.  And he's so cute we're kvelling over him all the time.  It's so hot in here, I'm schvitzing all over the place!

Talk about a melting pot of languages ... If I could only be fluent in all the languages dancing in my head, I would be in great demand at the United Nations.  Either that or be really good at crossword puzzles.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


While I was in Kazakhstan in 2004 adopting my youngest daughter, we stayed in an apartment in Almaty.  We were waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to finish turning for her adoption to be final, which left a lot of time for leisure activities like reading and napping.  Our apartment had been used by many other adoptive families passing through, and a stash of reading material had accumulated in the living room.  Outdated magazines, chick lit, etc.  But one book caught my eye:  The Malaria Capers by Robert Desowitz. 

I have to insert a disclaimer here:  I am a rabid fan of non-fiction.  Biography, memoirs, history, you name it.  I want to read about real people.  I want to see pictures of them, look into their eyes.  I want to learn about events that really happened.  I don’t know why; who’s to say why we like the things we like.  Are our “third culture kid” interests shaped by the serpentine paths of our lives?  Does having seen real history up close and personal make me more likely to pick up a non-fiction book rather than Danielle Steel’s latest schlock?  Probably the subject of another blog entry.

Okay, disclaimer over.  The Malaria Chronicles read like a good spy novel.  In our part of the world we know so little about the devastation wrought by a single little mosquito.  We can’t relate to a poor Indian family who has to walk for a day to get basic medical care.  We have to symbolically turn away at the thought of a child dying an agonizing death from a mosquito bite.  The book talks about the futile efforts of finding a vaccine against malaria, and the not-so-good hopes for the future.  It doesn’t sound too good.  Politics intervenes, as does poverty and distance and fear.  When a person has to choose between food and medicine, which do you think they will pick?  Especially when the medicine will cost a month’s wages?  When a stranger comes to their village and tells them they’re going to stick a needle in their arm and that will possibly prevent them from getting sick, what do you suppose the reaction will be? 

The other day I came across another book called “Pox: An American History” by Michael Willrich.  Another story of how politics and racism sometimes get in the way of public health.  There were compulsory vaccinations of hordes of people, bickering between the federal and local government over who was supposed to pay for it all, and a sorely misguided belief that only blacks and poor whites were susceptible to the disease.  It’s a miracle that this disease has been eradicated … gone. 

I’m one of probably millions of kids who carry the telltale little scar on their arms.  I remember getting the vaccination right before we left for Japan in the mid-1960’s.  My shot “took” meaning that I developed a huge festering “pock” on my arm.  I was not to get it wet.  Of course we were going to stop in Hawaii for a few days before going on to Tokyo, so guess who had to sit by the pool watching everyone else have a good time?

We went to the most interesting places to get our shots all over the world.  There was a place near the Belgian Royal Palace where we went in Brussels.  The American Embassy in Manila.  A clinic in downtown Tokyo.  All this to protect us against scourges like yellow fever, typhoid and the dreaded cholera.  The cholera shots were especially egregious as we had to get one, and another a week later, then every six months thenceforth.  My arm hurt like a bear for days, and someone at school would inevitably smack me right there.  Of course I hated the shots, but mom would regale us with lively stories about constant diarrhea and vomiting that dehydrated you so that you died a long agonizing death.  She embellished (more likely it wasn't embellished) the misery, I suppose, so that we wouldn’t complain too loudly about being poked yet again.  

When the brother of a friend came down with hepatitis right after I had slept over, mom escorted me to a clinic in Brussels for the dreaded gamma globulin shot.  They keep that stuff in the refrigerator until it’s the consistency of jello.  Then they put it in the biggest hypodermic needle they have and inject it into your buttock.  Slowly and agonizingly.  I still remember the pain of that one.  Of course, it was nothing compared to the pain I would have endured had I developed hepatitis.  Is it sad that I know that if your urine is the color of coca-cola, you most likely have hepatitis?

Before going to Kazakhstan the first time, my husband and I went to Passport Health to update all of our shots.  I sat on the table and had six (count them, SIX) shots, three in each arm.  It was explained to me that most people in the western world may get all the necessary childhood immunizations, but rarely do they get boosters as adults.  (Unless one steps on a rusty nail and is encouraged to get a tetanus shot).  I felt pretty good knowing that I had all the hepatitis, polio, DPT and MMR shots updated. 

Remember these?

We in the west take our health for granted.  We don’t give it a second thought when we are bitten by a mosquito.  However, too many dread diseases still exist in the world.  It’s easy to turn off the TV when there’s a story about an epidemic in a Third World country.  We TCKs have endured the slings and arrows of a multitude of shots against diseases most have never even heard of.  We’ve had classmates who suffered from polio as children and who walked with crutches through the halls of our school.  We’ve seen children with rickets and adult survivors of smallpox begging at the side of the road.  These diseases are too real to us.  It makes me sad when I hear of people in the developed world who refuse to vaccinate their children for whatever misguided reason.  It only takes one case to start an epidemic.  Do we really want to see diptheria make its way back into our society?  Whooping cough?  I remember the story of a newly adopted child from China coming down with measles on the flight home.  How many people on that packed airplane were exposed, who may not have had a booster shot as an adult? 

We might need to think twice.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Almost Like Being There

Stumbled across this on a recent trip to NYC.


This is too funny.  I'm sure some would say it is not "politically correct" but remember that this was a Japanese comedy show having some fun with themselves.  I don't know how the actors were able to keep straight faces.

Image stolen from the New York Times

Third Culture Kids have trouble talking about things that they know without feeling they are coming across as arrogant.  ("I used to live in Tokyo!  Aren't I special?"  "Well, when we lived in Europe ... "  You get the picture).  Arrogance aside, I can say that one of the things that I have learned (absorbed? Heck, it's in my DNA) is that I can tell the difference between languages.  (Can't speak them but I can hear them!)  To a large number of westerners, all Asians "look alike" and "sound alike".  Remember the Rosie O'Donnell rant and the chick at UCLA complaining about the Asians in the library?  Remember dotty old Prince Philip on a state visit to China?  Ching chong, ching chong, slitty eyes.    My ear can hear the smooth intonations of Japanese versus the tonal syllables of Chinese.  I can hear a Tagalog speaker in a crowded room and will knock people aside to hunt them down to tell them I used to live in the Philippines.  (My kids love it when I do this).  I appreciate the broad canvas of cultures in Asia (and elsewhere) and therefore respect them and understand them.  I cringe when I hear people lumping them all together in one homogenous pile.  How did Westerners get so narrow minded?  Do Asians ever make politically incorrect statements about us?  Do we all look alike to them?

I am told that I was fluent in Japanese as a child, although I can't exactly remember.  Perhaps it was so ingrained in my brain that I never knew the difference.  Isn't that the beauty of being bilingual?  (I don't think it made me any smarter, though).  Perhaps if I took up studying the language today it might come a little quicker than for most?  Two years in Belgium (and mandatory language classes) gave me a semblance of bilingualism in French.  However, by the time I got to high school my language acquiring brain cells had started to die off.  The only Tagalog I remember is how to curse someone out by referencing the profession of their mother.  Oh, and I can tell a cab driver to stop here.  And of course I can sing the first verse of the national anthem, though I have no idea what it means.  (Of course the fact that most Filipinos also speak English made immersion impossible).

It's just humor folks!

In college I was told I had to take a foreign language.  Being the rebel that I am, I opted out of boring old French or Spanish.  I was given the choice of Arabic, Hebrew or Russian.  I chose Russian, and spent four years studying the ins and outs of grammar and the Cyrillic alphabet.  I had to visit a Russian immigrant at his home and converse with him.  I have never felt so inept and uncomfortable.  (His wife felt uncomfortable too and all but threw me out with her dagger eyes.  I guess she thought I was there to steal him away).  I never really mastered it, (it's a tongue-twister) although I can pick out Russian in a crowd.  I was told once by a Russian grocery store checker that my pronunciation was "perfect" (ahem!)

Only in my life it was real ... 

My own arrogance came along to bite me in the nether regions though.  Later on in college, needing an elective to fill my schedule, I chose French.  I smugly thought, "Heh, easy A." Being the chump I was I rarely attended class.  I missed the most important class of all, the one announcing the time for the final exam.  I showed up for the test, and it had been the day before.  You know, the stuff that nightmares are made of?  I went to the professor's office and threw myself at his feet, crying and begging.  He allowed me to sit down and take it right there and then.  Undeservingly, I earned a B.  He should have thrown the "livre" at me.  I took a long hot shower of humility that day.

I was shocked to find out that my kids didn't even have a foreign language requirement, either in high school or college.  (My oldest son did take Japanese in high school, as an elective, after hearing me harp on talk about my early days).  I think this is shameful.  We are only going to slip further into the abyss of cultural ignorance.  As if we weren't already xenophobic enough.

So how does all this language stuff benefit Third Culture Kids?  Not only does it purportedly make us geniuses in school, (ha!) it helps us mentally erase those silly political borders that you see in the Rand McNally atlas.  These cultures have been around for millenia, with impossibly rich histories.  We don't know what old is.  How dare we Westerners feel superior to these folks?  We all need to take a long, hot soak in the humility shower.  I may feel arrogant in sharing what I know, but if I can pass along my understanding to one person, I guess I've accomplished something.