Thursday, January 31, 2008

Week 1 Language Fun

Being a USA-native English speaker is both a blessing and a curse. Take the following (oft-repeated) joke as an illustration of this point:

“What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages?”
“And a person who speaks 2 languages?”
“And a person who only speaks 1 language?”
“I don’t know, Mono-Lingual?”
“Nope. You call them American

I tell this joke far too often, but that’s because to me this is my most lamented lacking skill. Sure, I took 4 years of German in high school (unfortunately EVERY German I’ve ever met speaks English twice as well as I speak German – not true for the French I meet by the way), sure I can get by in Mexico with my minimal Spanish and in China with my minimal Mandarin… but when it comes to anything beyond “how much does this cost” or “where’s the toilet”, It’s going to have to be my good old mother tongue.

Now compare this to your average Kenyan (let’s call him Mr. Matatu). Considering that Mr. Matatu is your average Kenyan, he speaks at least 3 if not 4 or 5 languages – his mother tongue (1) will typically be his tribal language, then the national language Swahili (2), then English (3), and more than likely he can get by in the languages of the tribes near his (4 & 5). Not only can he speak these, he can more than likely read in all of these languages.

I just don’t understand the American system of language teaching. Why do we wait until HIGH SCHOOL to start teaching another language??! This is craziness to me! It is widely known that children not only are able to rapidly learn languages, but that it by all accounts helps them in their other areas of study, and sadly, the brain begins to lose this magic ability to absorb new languages by the time children are 12 or 13. What the hell, America?!

OK, that off my back, let’s talk about Cambodia. Cambodian people and language are called “Khmer”, which when said by a Cambodian person sounds like “Kuh-my” (2 very quick syllables). People say that Khmer is a difficult language, but so far we are having a great time learning the basics. So far we’ve learned how to excuse ourselves, count to 10, ask for the bill, say hello, and to say that something is beautiful (sa-at). One of the funny things about Khmer is that unlike Chinese (and just about every other language I’ve studied) there’s no set system for writing out pronunciations of Khmer words with roman (i.e. English) letters.

For example, one dictionary will spell “thank you” as “Ak-kuhn” and another will have it “Og-goon”. This is because there are many consonant and vowel sounds in Khmer that are not in English. Of course this isn’t unusual for English-foreign language dictionaries, but in the Khmer case, the linguistic geniuses seem to still be duking it out. Oxford or Merriam Webster need to step in and put together a definitive system, and then Lonely Planet can get their English-Khmer phrasebook put together (I lived by my Mandarin-English Lonely Planet phrasebook during my year in China).

So why does it matter? Well, I stepped into a small cafĂ© with Naomi on Monday and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English. We have had 2 or 3 cases like this before, but the person spoke French or Chinese and we had somewhere to start. In this case, we were stuck pointing at the menu (which thankfully was in English) and gesturing for what we wanted. In the midst of this we pulled out our pocket dictionary and started looking up how to say “Chicken” and “tea” and suddenly I had remembered my first Khmer word. There is something just so great about being stuck, learning a word, and getting unstuck.

When you think about it, language is an amazing thing – I would even argue that it is the most significant thing that makes us human. The ability to reason and the ability to create mean very little when our thoughts and creations cannot be expressed to another. And it was the fundamental element of language – the word “Word” – that the Bible uses to describe Jesus in John 1. God’s greatest act of love and compassion were summed up by John in the word “Word”. God’s communication to us.

In getting ready to leave, I’ve had several conversations where I’ve told people that selling all our stuff and moving to another country is for me a way to discover my humanity – that is, what it is at my core that makes me a person. So often I feel like I define myself by my occupation, my possessions, or my location. Here, these are still true, but as we’ve left most behind, we’re left with “just us”. To me, being whittled down to the real “me” – by God, myself, and others – is one of the most exciting parts of this upcoming year.

Josh Svensson
January 31, 2008
Phnom Penh

First Week Reflections

So it's been a week since we left LA, and as we settle in we're really looking forward to the year ahead. Today we moved out of our guesthouse (guesthouse = cheap hotel) and into a 3-bedroom 4-bathroom apartment near the Russian Market (by the way, rent here is $250/mo). Our arrangement here is only going to be for the next 3 weeks - we're staying with Sarah DeNooyer, another intern with IJM who arrived a few days before us. We moved in at the same time as Sarah, who will share this apartment with Lisa when she arrives around 2/22/08.

Even though it's temporary, we're glad (maybe even thrilled?) to get to move in to a "real house". The guest house was very small and dark, and it felt like we were living in a pantry or under some stairs or something. We also put a deposit down today on a place up on 184th street, which conveniently opens up about the same time Lisa comes into town.

Personally, the transition has been pretty smooth so far, but I think that this coming week will be one of the toughest for me. Now that we're in a more permanent place, and that Naomi will start working Monday, the sense of "O crap, what am I going to do?" will probably start to set in for me.

I have plans to do at least a couple full days of photography, and I think it might even be nice to do it for several weeks. I have also been checking the newspaper and online postings for jobs each day. I have applied for a couple positions, but it's early yet and I haven't heard back from anyone. I also think I will start going to a Khmer tutor - I'm enjoying learning Khmer much more than I thought I would.

Regarding Khmer people, we've really been enjoying getting to know the people at the IJM office and other folks around town. It feels like 90% of our interactions with Khmers consist of being hailed by "tuk-tuk mista?" or by beggars. But we did have a nice attempt at a conversation with the girls who gave us manicures ($1 at the market, this will definitely become a habit - my nails have NEVER looked nicer!), and we've started to make friends with Borat, a tuk-tuk driver.

This past week I also was reminded of the joy of ordering food in a place where they don't speak ANY English! This was so fun, I think it deserves it's own post.

Jan 31, 2008
Street 444
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Looking For a House

Looking For a House

Some random thoughts on looking for a house here in Phnom Penh:

So we began our hunt yesterday by visiting a place above a small bar. It was OK - it had 2 bedrooms and a spacious living room, but was missing a kitchen ("I can get you fixed up with a kitchen, no problem" said Alex, the bar owner.). It was a bit discouraging, especially since our friend Sarah, who had been visiting apartments all day Friday said it was one of the best she'd seen...

But like so many of these other details, we're both comfortable knowing that we are going to have to trust God to lead us to a good place to live. We've been thinking about the different aspects of our future apartment, and are trying to balance the following:

1. Cost: Places here in Phnom Penh range from $50/mo (as was the case for our Tuk-Tuk driver, Borat) to over $3,000/mo in one of the upscale buildings. We're hoping to find something around $300...

2. Location: we're hoping to find a place that's walking distance from Naomi's office, so that her daily commute exposes her to as little Khmer driving as possible.

3. Rooms: we'd really like to have at least 2 bedrooms so that we can always have a place to offer to visiting guests. BUT, this is not a non-negotiable at this time. Plus, our friends can always sleep on our couches... and guesthouses abound in the city.

4. Community: our apartment could either isolate us or immerse us into Khmer community. As I type this, I think this may be THE most important consideration. I have been hoping in the weeks and months leading up to this move that this time, we would really get involved in the local lifestyle. Hmmm... more on this later.

OK that's it for now. It's time to head over to church for our first Sunday in PP!


Sunday, January 27, 2008

What are you doing here, white man?

There's a lot of barangs (slang for whites) around. I have so far created the following groups of whites here:

1. Tourists
A. Americans (not too many)
B. Europeans, particularly French and German
C. Aussies
2. NGO & UN types (lots of these)
3. Crazy old vets (often married to locals)

and then the slimeballs
4. Dirty white men (i.e. sex tourists)

I know as time goes on I'll be refining these groups, but there's so many shady looking white dudes at the cafes that I want to do whatever I can to look legit.

The First 48

blog post #1
jan 26, 10:45 am

...the first 48 - 72 hours in a new country are a special time: you're senses are heightened and dulled simultaneously - you're jet lagged and weary from all the travel, but you also have a very special vision to notice all the peculiarities of a new place that become commonplace within the first week.

Naomi and I landed at 10 am and were greeted by the IJM diretor at the airport. We then made our way to our guesthouse, which like most guesthouses (it seems), has a clean and small room, and smelled like brut aftershave. After unloading our bags, we headed over to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) for lunch (I don't reccomend their Fish Amok - It was very bland), and then to the IJM office to make some introductions.

Everyone we've met so far has been really kind, and we're looking forward to our first visit to a Khmer church tomorrow. The whole move is still pretty overwhelming. I'm definitely still jet lagged. My thoughts keep bouncing between "I can't wait to get started, this year is going to be awesome" and "what am I doing here, all these foreigners trying to 'help out' aren't helping at all". I know that they are both valid thoughts, and I trust that God really does have some awesome work for us in store.

During lunch, the Director was able to tell us some amazing stories of some recent IJM cases. I can't share any details here, but WOW! They are really on the front lines of a hugely important fight! Naomi's really excited, and after hearing these stories, It reminds me of what I've said before: If I just spend this year supporting her, it will be a year well spent. I don't plan on this, but being an engineer, this is a pretty comforting "worst case scenario" for me.

As far as work goes, we walked past a huge drainage/water supply project on the way back from breakfast this morning, and we both concluded that a civil engineering position for a job like that for me would "kick a lot of butt". We've also come across several ads looking for teachers, and this remains a strong possibility as well. BUT, as it's been less than 24 hours, I'm not going to start worrying about that yet.

The word "worry" reminds me of another thing I was worried about - my visa to stay here. At the airport I asked for a business visa and $25 later (the official fee) it was mine. I asked about extending, and the guy said it would be $280 for a year. I didn't get my extension yet (on the hope that my employer might cover the cost), but again, $280 is a pretty manageable worst case scenario. Another pre-trip worry that was completely in vain.

More thoughts... First Day top 9
  1. There are motorbikes EVERYWHERE!
  2. I'm seriously tempted to get one... but no plans on that yet.
  3. It's nice that we arrived in January - the weather is about as nice as it ever gets at 80 degrees and not super humid
  4. The Khmer day follows sunlight much closer than in the states - people are out by 5:30am and the streets are dead by 9pm. Of course, teenagers and tourists are excepted from this rule.
  5. We miss Monkey, our dog, and pore over each update from my mom.
  6. I remembered today what I learned back in September (during our recon visit): Cambodian street food generaly sucks. It's particularly sad because of how awesome Thai street food is (Noodle plates, street meat, banana pancakes, iced coffee, etc), but we both agree that maybe we'll gain less weight living here, where so far, the best tasting thing I've bought from a street vendor was a fried tarantula. The street food here is so epically bad, that I think I'll do a complete blog post on this in the future. I think the problem is that Khmer folks are too poor to buy tasty food (with good ingredients) on the street. And anybody with any money is too "dignified" to eat from street vendors. Hopefully in 12 monts I'll be looking back at this narrow-minded disparagement and have loads of great things to say about street food... but I doubt it.
  7. I can't imagine a smoother transition from country to country. We've had a really smooth transition so far, for which I am very thankful.
  8. People ride on top of trucks, busses, etc here. It's completely nuts - dudes will be like 15 feet off the street just chillin on a giant load of charcoal or rice.
  9. I wonder what it's going to do to my kidneys now that my water loss to urine/sweat breakup will go from 90%/10% to more like 40%/50%.

1st floor balcony of Bright Lotus Guest House #1
Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

World Bank Disgrace

Take a look at this interesting article from the Wall Street Journal regarding World Bank corruption.