Category Archives: International Education

Where Are You From Originally?

The US is full of accents and I live cradled between two of the more famous accent regions… Boston and New York—or should I say “Bahstahn” and “Noo Yawk.”

Many of my aunts live in New Jersey (Noo Joisey), so I grew up hearing things like dawg, cawfee, and gawd (dog, coffee and god), but now in New England I hear a lot of dropped “r’s” such as the stereotypical Bostonian accented phrase, “I pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” (I parked the car in Harvard Yard). And I can’t forget the usage of “wicked” as in “really” such as… “Wow! It’s been a wicked haht summah!” (hot summer).

Growing up (in central New York… far from all the cawfee shops and heavy accents) I never thought I had an accent, I guess most of us don’t until we meet other people, but I always thought I sounded kind of like the people I watched on tv. I didn’t find anything particularly distinguishable about the way I spoke, and I suppose my sisters and parents spoke in a similar fashion.

But then, about ten years ago, I started traveling extensively abroad and increasingly interacting with people from countries other than my own. Today I probably spend 80-90% of my day with foreigners and over time I guess it started to affect my accent. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened, and it isn’t something I’m conscious of unless someone points it out to me.

Which happened recently. Last week my mother and sister came for a visit and they were discussing my apparent change of accent. My mother said I was “putting on airs” while my sister just said I was trying to “sound British.” I don’t think either is true.

Some of my international students have noticed as well. I’ve had several ask me, “Where are you originally from? You don’t sound like you are from the US.” When I ask them where I sound like I am from they can’t usually place it. After responding that I am, in fact, from the US they say, “Maybe you sound different because you speak slower and more deliberately. You clearly pronounce all your words.”

And I think that is a big part of it… not airs, but when someone is used to speaking with people whose first language is not English you choose your words more carefully, you pronounce them fully (instead of dropping T’s like a lot of Americans tend to do), and you speak a bit slower, perhaps this makes you sound like you are from somewhere else.

I’ve noticed this with a few other people I’ve met who have spent significant time abroad, or spend a lot of time with foreigners. I’ve also noticed that this type of “accent” is more pronounced in these same people when I see them talking to others whose English is not as strong, rather than with foreigners whose English is completely fluent.

Plus it’s easy to reflect surrounding language as well. For example, in the part of central New York where I grew up we pronounced the word “aunt” like “ant” with a hard “A,” but in New England most people say “aunt” like “ah-unt” and since this is similar to the South Asian way of saying “ah-unty” I have found it easier to adjust to “ah-unt.” So now if I am talking to my sisters about my “ah-unt” I must sound to them more “British” since they will talk about the same aunt as “ant.”

Lastly, I won’t deny that I have picked up a few Nepali-English phrases as well that kind of pop out every now and then. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head, but if I say them in the company of my sister she calls me out on it.

Fun with accents– I found this website that lets you listen to a list of words spoken by people in different regions. If you use the word “father” and try the different areas in the US– Chicago, Boston, New York, North Carolina and Alabama, you can really hear the difference!

Talking about accents has made me feel “wicked smaaht.”

Beef… It’s What’s For Dinner…

Beef was a big part of my childhood. As I’ve mentioned before, we were a real “meat and potatoes” kind of family. Both of my parents worked, cooking in general wasn’t a big thing in our house (aside from my dad’s meat dishes, especially summer barbeques), and we ate stuff that was quick and easy. That included lots of beef dishes—meatloaf, hamburger (and Hamburger Helper), steak, roasts, tacos, meatballs, crockpot stew, and of course, corned beef. Hamburgers in particular were very common.


“Beef—It’s what’s for dinner” advertisement from 1992.

I was never a big fan (aside from corn beef. That was the one meat I did really like, I guess it was the inner Irish calling out), and I used to argue relentlessly about eating meat every night (or silently feed chunks to the dog under the table).

Life is really different now, and although I’m happily meat-free, our freezer is occasionally stocked with P’s meaty pleasures—chicken, pork, goat, fish, unusual game meat from my dad–but no beef. His mother is very religious (a combo of Buddhist and Hindu), and would never dream of bringing beef into her house. I’m sure she had nightmares that an American daughter-in-law would not only eat beef herself, but also corrupt her son and grandchildren into eating it. My veggie-ness helped win over her heart. She sees me as an ally in keeping P’s meat consumption down, and can rest assured there will be no unholy beef eating in her son’s home.

That doesn’t mean that every friend of ours who grew up in a Nepali Hindu household has a strict “no beef” philosophy. Our friend AD jokes, “Only Nepali cows are sacred, so an American cow is fine. I have no problems eating burgers in the US” while others seem less worried about breaking taboos and eating beef in general (if you aren’t particularly religious, then the taboo probably doesn’t mean that much anyway).

But sometimes you eat things you don’t intend to, without even realizing it, which reminds me of a funny story from last Thursday. I was driving south (to the Gori meetup) and of course dropped in for dinner at R and S’s house (plus they were babysitting my dog, who wasn’t feeling great. Thanks guys, you’re the best!). They made homemade pizza for a quick dinner so I could get back on the road, one veggie and one meat with pepperoni. There was a debate over whether pepperoni was beef or pork, and whether pepperonis in general are made from beef, pork or some combination of both.

During the discussion R stated, “I prefer not to eat beef, I really try not to…but sometimes it happens… For instance, I knew that cheeseburgers were beef… but I always thought that hamburgers were made from pork.”

“Why would you think that? The only difference is a piece of cheese.” I said.

“No… don’t you see… cheeseburger meant beef, but hamburger meant pork.”

“I still don’t get it, it’s just a  slice of cheese.”

“Cheeseburger and hamburger” she said, adding an extra emphasizes to the ham part, “People know that ‘burger’ means beef, so cheeseburger means made with beef, but why would you call a plain beef burger hamburger unless it was made with pork? Don’t they have chicken burgers made of chicken?” She rationalized.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I reflected.

“So I always assumed hamburger was pork, and one day I was sitting with my cousins talking about how I don’t eat beef, while eating a hamburger. They said, ‘R—you are eating beef right now!’ and I said, ‘But it isn’t a cheeseburger!’ and they had to explain! It took a while for me to believe them!”

Isn’t English fickle?

Oh… I had to add this… From a British comedy sketch on “what it means to be Hindu”–

“My son… you are indeed right… [Hinduism] is a very complex and intricate religion. There are many gods, there are many texts, but they all point to one universal principle… no beef” (ha ha ha).

Weird Dreams and Pipe Dreams

I had a weird dream last night.

I dreamed that I was at a conference in a big room full of people that I didn’t recognize, but somehow  knew that many of the people in this big hall worked at the same institution as me, and they were all talking about Nepal… how professors at the school were writing a huge book about Nepal, teaching classes about Nepal, and talking about creating a new abroad program to Nepal, stuff like that. It was like Nepal was the hottest latest thing at the university, and I had no idea. I was running around the conference tables asking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I’d really love to help!” but no one wanted to listen to me. I was really frustrated and depressed. Then I woke up and it was 4:58 in the morning. Sigh.

Hmmm… what does it mean? I’m not big on dream analysis, although sometimes I think that my dreams are a way for my brain to sort through different thoughts and experiences that I’ve been having/going through–mixing them in a strange way and letting them play out on a stage in my mind.

So what can be relatable? Two weeks ago I wrote a paper (for some coursework I’ve been finishing up for a degree in international education) on creating international programs. When I first graduated from undergrad I worked for a “third party provider” high school study abroad program, and had I been better prepared to take on the challenges of it, I might have been able to create all sorts of programming. For a series of reasons (including being a one woman office with no director, and spending most of my time as a telemarketer instead of a program provider) the job didn’t work out, but it got me interested in something else… I thought it would be fun to create and run a program in Nepal some day… a “pipe dream” so to speak. Ideally it would be great to do it in conjunction with P… I could do logistics, recruiting, program design, orientations, culture stuff and P could teach the program from a sustainability and environmental background. I think we would make an incredible team.

I don’t know if it will ever really happen, but it makes my life kind of schizophrenic, because I’m always thinking about two potential paths– my five year plan always seems to have two directions. This leads me to have silly arguments with myself like: will we ever own a house, because if we did it would make it harder to up and leave the country; or I wonder how I’ll pay my education loans back if we have small Nepali incomes; or will it ever be too late to decide to do something really “out of our comfort zones” and really entrepreneurial like creating a company and running programs?  Not to mention, I like the job I have now (international student advising)… and I’m sure I’ll still really like it when P finishes his degree and we have to make a decision– stay here, move somewhere else in the US, go to Nepal. So I don’t know.

Also, last week I encouraged the Nepali students at the university to sponsor a “Nepali dinner night” (as part of the international student council activities) where they made nearly 600 (delicious!!) momos for the campus. It was a lot of fun, and when some students showed up early to eat and the momos weren’t quite ready, I happily put them to work teaching them my veg momo folding technique (I should make a video on youtube about this! Note to self).

This one history professor (in particular) who works at the school came to the “Nepali dinner night” who (I think) was in the Peace Corps in Nepal (or maybe he was a Fulbright?) and can speak the language fluently. He and I have run into each other a few times at different Nepali get togethers, although I have a feeling he always forgets who I am… I mean, I’m usually the only other American he finds at Nepali festival parties, how hard am I to remember? Anyway, we saw each other at the event and he mentioned that he wanted to push the study abroad office at our school to create a program in Nepal (BINGO!!!) although he had the feeling that the administrators there were still too leery about the political climate, and probably aren’t ready yet. The study abroad people have already sent this professor to lead a program in Costa Rica and Australia, and with his Nepali-influenced background, he would be a prime candidate in helping to organize something like this if he could allay the fears of political turmoil.

I think this might be where my dream came from. I told him not to forget me if he moves ahead with the plan, because I’d be VERY VERY (did I mention VERY?) interested in helping, and that I knew of several college programs (like SIT’s) which were planning to start their programs back up again (a sign of the political situation getting better). He kind of smiled non-committally.

However my boss helps with the Denmark study abroad program—teaching a Danish Culture class before students depart, and travels to Copenhagen every year to grade their final projects. Sure, my boss is Danish, and speaks the language fluently, but I think if given the opportunity I could design a great Nepali culture pre-departure course! I’d love to travel to Kathmandu once a year to grade projects. Not to mention this would bring me one step closer to my “pipe dream.”

So anyway… I think my subconscious is worried that opportunities are abound that might pass me by. Powers of the universe, I plead, don’t let that happen! Remember my secret talent… “I can talk about Nepali culture for three hours without stopping… probably without even taking a breath…”

Hurray for International Education!

For the past few days I’ve been in Atlanta, Georgia for an international educators training/extended workshop. The sessions have been interesting– the days are long, but being here in a large room of like-minded people really energizes me. I feel full of fresh ideas, insights, and contacts.

When I was an undergrad student I think my family worried that I’d never find a job… who studies “Global Studies” and “African Studies” anyway? Who spends half their time learning languages and traveling to other countries? But I couldn’t have found a better niche than international education.

Plus I think today I talked one of my new colleagues into taking her next family vacation to Nepal ;)

DV Lottery Blues

The 2011 DV Lottery closed at noon on November 30. I had been bugging P to submit an application all month, but by the time he got around to checking it out the application time period closed (he thought he had until midnight that night). I was hoping he would at least try, because if he were randomly to “win” then he could get a green card, and potentially help us sort out some of our immigration related logistical issues. Unfortunately, P has always been a bit laid back about immigration stuff. Where many Nepalis I know apply like clockwork every year (including P’s brother), I’m not sure if P ever has himself.

So what is the DV Lottery? It is the “Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery” also known as the “Green Card Lottery” administered by the US Department of State. According to Wikipedia, “Section 131 of the Immigration Act of 1990 amended INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] 203 to provide for a new class of immigrants known as ‘diversity immigrants’ (DV immigrants). The Act makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas [‘Green Cards’] annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.”

Essentially anyone can apply as long as you are not on the “ineligible country list” based on current immigration trends, this list includes: Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, South Korea, UK and Vietnam. All correctly filed and relevant applications are put into a “lottery drawing” and 50,000 visas are awarded each year.

Wikipedia continues, “The visas are distributed on a regional basis, with each region sending fewer immigrants to the US in the previous 5 years receiving more diversity visas. Currently, Africa and Europe receive about 80% of the visas in the lottery. In addition, no single country can receive more than 7% of the total number of visas (3,500).

In order to allow for those who do not pursue immigrant visas, more ‘winners’ are selected in the lottery than there are visas available. Hence being selected from the lottery does not guarantee an immigrant visa to the U.S. To receive a diversity visa and immigrate to the United States, ‘winners’ must meet all eligibility requirements under U.S. law. Requirements include at least a high school diploma, or its equivalent, or two years of work experience in an occupation requiring at least two years training.”

There are quite a few Nepalis in the US now through the DV Lottery (including the Nepali woman who threaded my eyebrows over the weekend… she arrived three months ago with her DV, and a master’s degree in sociology). In the 2010 drawing (last year) 2,132 DV’s were awarded. This is about the average given out each year for Nepal… in 2009 1,891 were awarded and in 2008 there were 2,562. However millions of people (worldwide) apply. Putting in your application doesn’t necessarily guarantee you.

For example, P’s dad has submitted an application every year for the past 5-8 years. When he went for his visa interview in 2008 in preparation for the family visit to the US that summer, the consular officer asked if he was planning to immigrate to the US if given a tourist visa since, “I see you have applied for the DV religiously over the years.” When applying for a tourist or student visa the key is to prove that you will not overstay your visa and illegally immigrate (or in the case of students, that you will continue working in the US after you graduate even though many do), and thus the burden of proof is on you to show that you have reason (land, family, job, etc) to return. P’s dad planned to return but had some explaining to do to the official before finally receiving his required tourist visa.

Yet to show you the randomness of the lottery… a friend of ours from New York landed in the US with a DV a few years ago. As a student in Nepal he had heard of the DV but honestly thought “no one ever actually wins.” One day at university (back in Nepal) many of his classmates were filling out the DV application and his friend started pestering him… “come on, you have to do it, you never know!” Our friend eventually said fine, filled out the information, and gave it to his friend to send in. When the DV selections were made, our friend didn’t even check the list. He never even thought to look. Ironically (of course), he was on the list, and the friend who urged him to apply (and wasn’t selected) had to let him know. This was a guy who probably never would have come to the US on his own, and here he was, 21 years old, given a visa and sent to the US to start a new life alone. It was tough. He missed his family. He had no one to lean on for support. He spent long nights working at Indian restaurants and driving taxi cabs and days working at the university towards a degree. It took him many years to finish undergrad.

I kind of think the DV is a bit interesting and a bit weird (not in a good way or bad way, just in a… hmmm kind of way). When I hear people complain (especially in this recession) about how “ridiculous” it is to award 65,000 H1B work visas to qualified international students and workers each year when we have plenty of Americans looking for work (and I have students who have spent many years of their life studying so they can get a good job in the States, and are now left without a lot of options and having to return home), then we have this lottery which is a lot more random and permanent, and most people know very little about it, and… I don’t know… sometimes I just don’t get it.

I know the DV helps people… I have a Bulgarian friend from college who has a great job in New York City, and was selected for a DV, and now has permanent residence. He and his American fiancé have less immigration hurdles, and his work and personal life are more settled and stable because his immigration status has been finalized. But then there are others… like P’s dad’s friend, who won the DV lottery and moved to the US with his wife and younger son. Both have university degrees from Nepal (his wife has a master’s in English) but all they can do is work at a Subway sandwich shop. They came to the US to give a better life to their son and the DV Lottery gave them a legal channel in which to do this, but they are frustrated that as working adults their options in the US are limited.

So anyway, it is an interesting program that I don’t think many people know about. I am kind of on the fence about it. It definitely has good points and not so good points. However, it would have been nice to at least have P put his application in for once…

Nepali Students in the US

I was reading the Chronicle of Higher Education today at work, and last week’s paper had a lot of information on international student trends based on the newly released Open Doors reports. I was particularly interested to see reports of the number of Nepali students studying in the US.

I know I am kind of biased, since I am now seemingly “tapped into” the Nepali community (at least while around P)… so I feel like I run into Nepalis all the time (case in point—I went to get my eyebrows threaded with R over the weekend in Connecticut and she was “Nepali ho?”-ed), whereas growing up I never would have imagined bumping into someone from this small Himalayan country. Anyway, regardless of the connection, recently I have felt that I see more and more Nepalis around. I guess Open Doors confirms the phenomenon (at least from the student angle, I won’t even get into the DV Lottery).

According to the Chronicle, Nepal was number 11 out of a list of the top 20 countries of origin for foreign students in the US during the 2008-2009 academic year, with a reported 11,581 students studying here. I guess 11,581 students doesn’t sound like a whole lot, particularly compared to the number one and number two countries India (103,260) and China (98,235) but I was surprised that Nepal even made the list considering it is such a small country (only 29 million compared to India’s and China’s billion plus populations). The article continues that in 2008 there was a 29.6 percent “surge” over the number of Nepalis studying in the US in 2007.

I have mixed feelings about the large number of Nepali students coming to the US. Of course I feel that it is important for everyone to have access to quality education, however with the exodus of so many young Nepalis to other countries I wonder what will happen to this nation which is still struggling to keep itself out of further civil war.

I’ve had this conversation a few times with P’s dad, who is firmly of the opinion that everyone and anyone possible should study in the US, and most likely stay here afterward to work and have a “better life.” My argument to him is that if the “brain drain” keeps all the best people away who will help to rebuild the Nepal of tomorrow? Friends of mine often talk about how when they visit Kathmandu most of their high school buddies are gone, not many seem to be around anymore… most of the young and educated have seemingly left to study and start a life abroad.

I know I have no right or place to judge people who leave as students and stay abroad, Nepal certainly has its many many problems– but I have a lot of respect for people who go back, I can’t help but feel it is impressive and courageous. Heck, perhaps one day, a few years down the road, I’ll be one of those who goes as well!

I have no illusions to the fact that the decision to stay or return home is a tough one, and the whole later section of this post could be a post in and of itself, so I won’t really get into it further than this—I am sure it could be a heated discussion anyway.

For those who are curious, the full list of 20 countries are as follows:

Top Countries of Origin of Foreign Students in the United States, 2008-9

1)      India 103,260                                     11) Nepal 11,581
2)      China 98,235                                       12) Germany 9,679
3)      South Korea 75,065                         13) Brazil 8,767
4)      Canada 29,697                                   14) Thailand 8,736
5)      Japan 29,264                                      15) Britain 8,701
6)      Taiwan 28,065                                    16) Hong Kong 8,329
7)      Mexico 14,850                                   17) Indonesia 7,509
8)      Turkey 12,263                                    18) France 7,421
9)      Vietnam 12,823                                 19) Colombia 7,013
10)   Saudi Arabia 12,661                         20) Nigeria 6,256

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

Int’l Students Contribute $17.6 Billion to US Economy

I couldn’t help myself… I had to put this up here…

NAFSA, the Association for International Educators, recently released estimates of net spending of international students in the US Economy. At a time when many people are being very protectionist about jobs– “don’t take jobs from the American people” — it is nice to see some positive statistics about some of the internationals living in the US. International students are good for many reasons… multiculturalism on campus and in the classroom, diversity of perspectives and experience, even economically positive!

According to the estimates, students contributed $17.6 Billion to the US economy. To check out the report and see the individual state breakdowns click HERE.

Now if only I can find that article with information on how every H1B visa that is issued creates a certain number of jobs in the community…

Als0 on a different note, P says that today is GIS Day… so since I mentioned International Education Week, I have to be fair and can’t forget to wish everyone a Happy GIS day. I guess this shows that we are both nerds.

Happy International Education Week

I spent two hours yesterday evening hanging about 50 flags around our campus (mostly in the Campus Center but also in other locations). I dragged RH to the university to help me out, he is pretty tall, and he helped last year so he knew the drill. This is the second year that I have coordinated the university’s acknowledgement (celebration?) of “International Education Week.”

IEW09_color_info2No, I didn’t make this up, it’s an actual sanctioned week; it is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education. But could they have picked a worse time to celebrate international education? The week before Thanksgiving? Students are already itching to go home, many have mid terms (at least at our school which runs on a 4 term system), and the last thing on their mind is to attend any additional events as part of a week of international programming… alas, I still go through the motions… because I do think it is important to acknowledge the roll that international education plays in our world today.

International Education Week was initiated in 2000, and has been held annually each November. Now in its tenth year, it is celebrated in more than 100 countries worldwide. It is a week which allows communities, such as colleges and universities, to celebrate and highlight international and intercultural diversity, and to appreciate the importance of a multicultural environment, particularly for a learning community.

In an official statement Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized November 16th-20th as International Education Week:

“In a world that gets smaller every day, a quality education must incorporate an international dimension—not as an add-on, but as an approach that is integrated across all subject, from math and science to social studies” the Secretary explained, “Our graduates should be global citizens prepared to work on solving challenges that transcend borders, and they should be able to work well with people from diverse backgrounds, whether it is an individual who is a recent immigrant to the United States living in the community, or a business client or colleague located halfway around the world.”

Amen.

For more information on International Education Week visit http://iew.state.gov/

Education Abroad

I have been working on this really boring project at work. Basically we are installing a new database program for management of international student files, and as part of the program prep I had to go through all of our students files and cross-check their addresses, then update the current system and convert their “local” address to a new special address form called “IN” and then switch their “permanent address” back to their foreign address—an ongoing battle—since other university admins have different definitions of what “permanent address” means and are forever changing it (If anyone touches my changes I will hunt them down!!!) With nearly 650 students, and working on the project by myself, as well as having to meet with students for regular appointments, it took me the better part of 3 ½ weeks to complete. Today I finished the “Z’s” and I now realize just how many students have last names that start with “L,” “M,” “S,” “W,” “Y,” and “Z” (thank you China).

OnPointAnyway to keep myself sane while working on this (besides taking occasional breaks to peek at blogs) I have been listening to a lot of NPR (I could go on and on and on and on about the love I have for NPR, especially for WBUR, the awesome Boston NPR station I listened to before I even moved to New England). In particular I’ve been listening to archived broadcasts of one of my favorite programs, “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” (and no… he’s not my favorite just because his wife is also an international student advisor who I have done visa workshops with, but because he is totally awesome.)

Anyway, as I was finishing the “Z’s” today I started listening to an archived broadcast from back in July called “Global Students” and the intro on the website that caught my attention was this:

Everybody knows the straight and narrow, up-and-out formula for American success: good grades, good scores, good college, big debt … good luck.

My guests today, Maya and Tom Frost, say forget it. There’s a better way, they say. And the path leads abroad — early.

Stay home studying for SATs and taking on college debt, and you’re guaranteed nothing in this topsy-turvy economy. Go abroad — as early as high school, especially for college, they say — and you’ll find low tuitions, big adventures, and the future.

This hour, On Point: A new American way in the world. Going global, right from the start.

I really enjoyed the program and felt that these parents reflect a lot of my own feelings about education abroad. So I wanted to make sure I shared the program with you all. Feel free to listen to the streaming podcast HERE… it’s only 45 mins long.

When I was a kid I was dying to study abroad. I found out about the Rotary Youth Exchange program in high school and contacted the local chapter. My parents “went along with it” for a little while (probably hoping I’d lose interest or chicken out) until I started filling out applications to spend a year abroad. I think they were horrified (especially since I am the oldest sibling, so perhaps the “overprotective” parent syndrome was in full effect)… “you are too young!” “we only get to spend x amount of time with you before you go off into the world, we would rather you stay home…” “it is too expensive… we can’t afford it…” basically any excuse/explanation under the sun that they could give me to dissuade me from going. I applied to the program anyway, and once accepted my parents refused to pay anything and contacted the local Rotary coordinator to tell them to stop encouraging me to do something they refused to allow. Instead, one of my best friends in high school who found out about the program through me applied and spent a year in Hungary. I was so jealous.

Then I found out about the amazing school program called the “United World Colleges.” I was encouraged to apply through a leadership program I was involved in, and I was ecstatic. This was the very type of educational program I was interested in… I sent off my application (are you noticing a pattern?) and again my parents refused. They wouldn’t allow me to go to the required interview and thus I was automatically disqualified. It didn’t matter that I could get a full scholarship to go to the school, or what educational opportunities might have come out of it. As a university student I ran into other “UWC” students and I couldn’t help but wonder what high school would have been like if I was encouraged rather than discouraged to do these sorts of programs.

me_and_Maasai_woman

Yes, I am a total study abroad geek. This is me and my Maasai homestay "mother" in rural southern Kenya. I was living with the community (staying in the mud and cow dung huts behind) and dressed in traditional Maasai clothing for an age-set graduating ceremony. I was also thoroughly burnt to a crisp at the end of the day.

When I had my first chance, and my parents didn’t have too much control over my choices, I signed up right away to study abroad… second semester freshman year I was off to France (and Senegal in West Africa). Ever since then I have been eager to jump at any international opportunities I can find. I love everything about traveling… the planning, the prep work, the plane ride (even the plane food, believe it or not), the new experiences, the language, the food, the culture, the eye opening exchanges… everything!! (need I go on?) I’ve made international education a career… and I am even completing a master’s degree in the field.

Anyway, I guess I can kind of understand my parents concerns… here was this wacky high school kid, full of enthusiasm to travel to some unknown possibly scary or dangerous place. I grew up in a sheltered little town, what did I know about the world? They must have thought I was crazy.

But regardless, I have connected with the world in my own way… through travel, through my work with international students, through my intercultural relationship, through my interest in reading world literature and armchair travel books, the list goes on… I hope to continue feeling this passion for “global knowledge” and I hope to be the kind of parent interviewed in the On Point broadcast. I just hope I don’t wind up with kids who hate to travel… then what will I do?

So check it out if you have the time… or if you are working on a boring project and need a distraction… or if you are making dinner, or whatever your reasons might be.

Learning Nepali

In my office I have a beach ball with about 150 questions written all over it in black Sharpie marker. I call this “Icebreaker Beach Ball” and use it for new student orientations. It has everything from “do you sing in the shower?” to “if you were invisible for 24 hours what would you do?” Students toss the ball to each other, introduce themselves, and whatever question is under their right thumb they have to answer. The students get a kick out of it, and the game can even be fun at large dinner parties. One of the questions on the ball is “if you could become instantly fluent in another language- what would it be and why?” whenever I get this question I want to yell from the top of my lungs… NEPALI, SO I CAN FINALLY UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING!!!!

Yep, that's my Icebreaker Beach Ball... I'm very proud

Yep, that's my Icebreaker Beach Ball... I'm very proud

I fully admit that my lack of Nepali aptitude is my own fault… there are a million different times that I could have picked up a book and studied Nepali vocabulary or verb tenses instead of watching a movie, or going for a walk, or even writing 150 icebreaker questions all over a beach ball, but heck, I like to think that I’ve had some factors working against me.

First of all I don’t have a natural talent for languages–I do have to work at it–but with that said I’ve taken classes in French, Spanish, Arabic, Kiswahili (Kenya), Wolof (Senegal), and Hindi. I was a French minor as an undergraduate and at one time could write short plays and read short chapter books in Swahili. It is tough to try and keep a descent level of communicability in several different languages at the same time, particularly when you learned them as an adult, and when your language aptitude is being evaluated for a grade, it is harder to focus on a language that isn’t part of your academic curriculum. Plus there always seemed to be something else going on- whether writing a thesis or tired from work, or needing another language for another project at the time. Not to mention that Nepali is not a frequently spoken world language, so Rosetta Stone and other highly rated language programs do not have it as an option (although the minute Rosetta comes out with Nepali- believe you me- I’ll be one of the first to purchase it!  You can actually fill out a “request a new language” form through Rosetta’s website. I did my part, please support the cause!)

Plus, I know how I learn languages. Yes books are great, but I know I need a class, and I need to practice communicating with a teacher who can drill me on conversations for which I already know vocabulary. I can’t tell you how many times P and I have tried to “practice Nepali” on a long car trip, only to have my pronunciation critiqued to the point where the conversation goes nowhere… “its BuddHa not Buddha or BudDHA… can’t you hear the difference??” (no!!!) or an older Nepali neighbor will insist on talking to me in Nepali but will use complicated or sophisticated words that I don’t understand and again the conversation goes nowhere.

The Nepali alphabet uses Devanagri script like Hindi

The Nepali alphabet uses Devanagri script like Hindi

So I often wind up sitting at Nepali get-togethers and I am one of the few if not the only person who can’t understand all of the conversation. While it is not so much of an issue now that I know everyone very well and can easily have my own side conversations, when we first moved I felt really lonely and isolated due to my language bonding barrier, and I don’t want to be in this same situation again.

I can sympathize with the Nepali students, I’ve lived abroad before, and I know how comforting it is to speak in your mother tongue when you are far from home. Plus I don’t want to be the one party-pooper who declares “please, everyone, speak in English for my benefit” (although occasionally I don’t mind being that person when the gathering is a mixed crowd and I see other non-Nepali speakers feeling uncomfortable).

Speaking of these gatherings… In fact, there used to be a trio of older Nepali grad students (R-dai*, M-dai and S-di)  who loved to sing. Once the party was off to a good start you could tell that the eldest, R-dai, was just itching to break into song. Nothing killed a mixed gathering (Nepalis/non-Nepalis) more than R-dai’s singing, and a few of us would be on “R-dai singing distraction” duty to make sure he didn’t start for a few hours to give the mixed gathering a bit of a chance.

It’s not that he was bad, quite the contrary, many of the Nepalis complimented him on how well he sang, but the killer was—once he started he would literally sing for hours–and almost exclusively in Nepali, not even Bollywood hits that other South Asians in the group could relate to. The non-Nepali guests would be polite and listen to a few songs, but when it became clear it would not stop, they would start making their excuses, say goodnight and tiptoe towards the door.

I admit there were many nights where I valiantly tried to stay interested as long as possible (there is only so much you can listen to when you can’t understand or participate) but eventually grew bored after the 12 or 13th song- there were even a few times when I attempted (unsuccessfully) to get some of the younger Nepalis to sing an English song over the Nepali songs, competition style, but it wouldn’t really work. R-dai was into it, half the room would be singing along, S-di would be in the middle of the floor shaking her hips with traditional dance moves while M-dai brought out his wooden flute or his drum to keep up the rhythm.

Although I didn’t know all the words, eventually I recognized a lot of these older folk songs, and could do some of the dance steps if need be. I didn’t truly appreciate this until I went to a wedding outside of Kathmandu in June and most of the music was Nepali folk. I’m sure I got quite a few surprised stares when I recognized one of M-dai’s favorites, jumped onto the dance floor and started crouching over, waving my arms airplane style and stomping my feet while spinning around in the fashion I’d seen him do back in the US (I’m pretty sure its this song below–Chari Ma Mero).

Typical Nepali gathering... S-di (back row- 5th from right), M-dai (front row, 3rd from right) and R-dai (front row, most right). P and I are back row 4th and 2nd from right respectively

Typical Nepali gathering... S-di (back row- 5th from right), M-dai (front row, 3rd from right) and R-dai (front row, most right). P and I are back row 4th and 2nd from right respectively

Anyway, I digress… the point of the story is that I’m frustrated with my lack of Nepali speaking abilities. In fact, at this point, it is kind of embarrassing that I can’t say that much, even if I can understand a great deal more than I ever could before. In one exasperated moment while visiting Nepal P’s dad said, “after all these years all you know is namaste and dhanyavad” and although not true, it was fair enough, since I couldn’t carry on much more than the simplest of conversations. I am fully committed to being a bi-lingual household once P and I have kids somewhere down the road, and even encourage P to talk to our dog in Nepali. At some point, I’m going to have to get my linguistic act together and do some hardcore learning. So I wanted to declare that I am going to make a committed effort to learn far more Nepali this year than I have been able to do thus far, and hopefully the blog will keep me on track. So- enough with the excuses…

* “dai” is the Nepali suffix meaning “elder brother,” used to denote respect for someone elder to you, but not old enough to be considered an uncle. “Di” or “didi” is the Nepali suffix meaning “elder sister,” used in the same way as “dai.”

Other Links…

  • One of my favorite Nepali folk songs and one that I can actually sing along with at the parties… Kehi Mitho
  • I also quite like this one… Resham Feriri
  • S-di would dance similar to this kind of style
  • Another popular Nepali song to sing…especially if you can’t speak the language, just belt out a confident “NE-PA-LI HO!!” at the end of the chorus… Yo Manta Mero Nepali Ho
  • Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the Nepali music videos before I turn into R-dai… but while on the subject of Nepali songs, here is a fun NPR article about an American who became a bit famous in Nepal from singing in music videos with a popular Nepali singer (although if you ask most Nepalis they would hardly call this American a “Rock Star”) “My Brother, the Rock Star in Nepal”