Tuesday, 25 September 2012
I never wake up and wish I was back in Laos. Never.
I had a conversation in Lao a few weeks ago --the first conversation I'd had in the language for several years. The man I spoke with asked when I planned to go back, where I most desired to go back to, and so on.
Although I was limited (and out-of-practice) in the answer that I could offer, one of the first things I said was along the lines of, "Everywhere in the world, people have problems; everywhere you go, life is a struggle". He was astonished at this answer (perhaps because it was a ponderous contrast to how poorly I was able to communicate in the language). He pressed further, asking about specific towns in both Laos and Isan. I confirmed that I had been to these places he named, but that I didn't expect to return, and I didn't particularly want to see any of them again.
It is interesting that the guy speaking to me expected me to feel this type of homesickness at all. I suppose his expectation might be the result of having so many conversations (in his own language) with Lao expatriates and exiles here in Canada, yearning to go home, even if it is politically impossible for them to do so. Of course, one of the first subjects of conversation was my attempt to explain that for me, also, it is politically impossible to return to the country. I suppose he may have previously met a small number of white men who learned Lao as a language and who regard the place as paradise, or who at least recall it wistfully.
I'm neither Lao nor an expatriate, but I was exiled from Laos. I never did regard the place as paradise --neither when I lived and worked there, nor in retrospect.
I remember visiting a colleague's apartment in Cambodia, and remarking on a set of jars he had arranged along a wall: small efforts like that had become alien to me (to decorate one's own home, to settle down or settle in) because I had lived for so long out of a backpack, never expecting to stay in the same apartment (nor the same country) for any length of time.
That kind of chronic uncertainty surrounded me from the day that I was exiled from Laos. My situation within Laos had been so bad that it seemed inevitable that I could find more stability thereafter in China, Thailand, or Cambodia. That proved to be untrue. I was in China during the Olympic terror (an especially hard time to be a foreigner doing paperwork in the P.R.C.) --and, of course, I arrived there as a sort of refugee (speaking only Lao, and not knowing one word of Chinese). Subsequently, things didn't get any easier in Thailand or Cambodia.
The exile itself is a funny story, if told in a funny way, but the bare facts are grim: I was exiled with nothing but my backpack and a bicycle, after receiving death threats from a Communist Party official. The threats were followed by my formal condemnation as a thought-criminal at a meeting (held with the big portraits of Marx and Lenin on the walls). At this meeting, my former co-workers (at a Belgian-government-funded charity) were each required to read a statement aloud apologizing for not having denounced me earlier.
I was told that I would never be allowed to re-enter the country --but I was forced to test the veracity of this threat (eventually) because the only money I had was in a bank account inside Laos.
I received an array of responses from my contemporaries (both Lao and foreign). For the most part, people were indifferent, often justifying this with reference to past examples of people whom they had heard of in similar straits. Everyone had a story about someone being kicked out of the country for no good reason at all (sometimes, the story told was about themselves, and their eventual "rehabilitation" within the government). They said these things to make my circumstances seem commonplace, but the comparisons were always facile. The purpose of these stories was, for the most part, to dismiss me (and whatever my situation might really be).
In general, people wanted to believe that I was secretly wealthy (despite my obvious poverty) or else secretly powerful (despite my obvious powerlessness) --and, as a sub-set, several people said to my face that they believed I was working for the C.I.A. I don't know if others believed this without announcing it.
Conversely, one Lao woman who had formerly believed that I was a C.I.A. agent interpreted the circumstances of my exile as proof that I had never been working for the agency. Perhaps this was because nobody had come to my aid. Perhaps, in her eyes, the whole mess demonstrated that I really was a hapless Pali scholar, trying to examine stone inscriptions and palm-leaf manuscripts, while volunteering for humanitarian work, and so on.
Although both perspectives (on my supposed C.I.A. status) were simply stupid, I thought there was something slightly ingenious on the part of the woman who reversed her opinion in light of the facts. I suppose there must be some strange optimism amongst people who believe that the C.I.A. would employ someone to study Pali, and so on.
My lack of nostalgia for Laos doesn't have much to do with the circumstances of my exile (nor with what happened after that).
I adored the language, especially the written language, and I cherished the opportunity to pursue (i) philology, (ii) fieldwork, and (iii) humanitarian work of some kind, simultaneously, in a setting where each of the three inspired more of the other two.
My own education (so much mired in Cold War politics) was useful in the Communist setting in a way that it couldn't be anywhere else (except, perhaps, North Korea, etc.). Although other people regard the place as exotic, I found it easier to understand Laos than Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Taiwan --perhaps easier than anywhere I had lived before. The combination of political science and Pali that I brought to Laos seemed tremendously useful in that cultural setting --and I gorged myself on the history and politics of the place. However, my time was spent at the libraries: I never drank alcohol nor ate meat, and these were simple but insuperable barriers between myself and the people around me. I didn't pretend to have anything in common with the culture I was studying.
Most of what I liked about the country couldn't be described as "good" --and much of it is tragic. The potential to do good in a place where it was needed was inspiring, but the reality of that need is nothing to be nostalgic about. My agency handed out sacks of rice to people who really were suffering from "seasonal starvation" and malnutrition; although memorable, it would be impossible to be wistful about the experience. Likewise, the situation for scholarship of any kind (Pali included) was parlous; I enjoyed decoding the mix of propaganda and misinformation that surrounded me, but I can't glorify that experience in retrospect, either.
All the while, the basics of food, shelter, and finding enough silence to sleep in were very hard to manage. Everywhere I went it was very, very difficult to get a full night's sleep: natural sources of noise pollution (roosters, dogs, etc.) were competing with unnatural ones (loud music at all hours, etc.).
My official identity card as a "foreign expert" in the employ of the Lao government was issued to me on the same day that I was informed of my denunciation and deportation (i.e., exile) from the place. Likewise, my ability to really communicate in spoken Lao had only started to amount to something useful during my last few months in the country --and then, suddenly, I was gone, and I could never expect to return.
I never wake up and wish I was back in Laos.
I never wake up and wish that I was in Cambodia or Thailand, either.
I miss the opportunity to do meaningful work, but, aside from that, there's nothing for me to miss there.
I don't think there's anyone in Laos who misses me, either. There may still be some memory that there once was a man who came to study Pali in Laos --and that he ended up being exiled by the Lao government, on the same day that they issued his paperwork to certify him as a "foreign expert".
Sunday, 23 September 2012
Now that the lists have progressed into (more substantive) nouns and verbs, the connections between the Lao and the Pali vocabulary have become too numerous to comment on. In several cases (even within this short list) there are Pali loan-words in the Lao column that are (nevertheless) unrelated to the Pali word corresponding to the same meaning (e.g., the equivalents to behavior, in the last illustration in this set).
• ຄຳສັບ 04 ພາສາລາວ+ປາລີ/ບາລີ+ຝຣັ່ງ+ອັງກິດ
• Lao + Pali + French + English Vocabulary Part 04
• Vocabulaire Laotien + Pali + Anglais + Français Partie 04
Wednesday, 19 September 2012
China has its own tradition of breadmaking, and the terms used for different types of bread are likely to be among the first words you use in daily life. However, the distinctions between different types of bread are not consistent from one region of China to another; within any particular city, restaurants will use these terms in different ways, reflecting the cuisine they represent, or the restaurant owner's origins. There is no reliable way to anticipate if (e.g.) mán tóu will be plain white bread, or if it will be a filled bun, or a deep-fried doughnut; this is especially difficult for vegetarians (the presence or absence of meat has to be checked every time).
Similarly, the Chinese concept of "cake" is a broad category (蛋糕 = dàn gāo, ㄉㄢˋㄍㄠ).
In isolation, the word dàn (蛋) means "egg" or "oval-shaped [thing]"; gāo (糕) is a non-specific word for "cake", used also for "ice cream" (bīng gāo, 冰糕) and fried desserts (zhá gāo, 炸糕).
The character dàn (蛋) is comprised of two elements, stacked vertically. The first five brushstrokes are the "bolt of cloth radical", pǐ (疋). The lower half of dàn is the radical chóng (虫), meaning "insect". This is one of many ingredients to be wary of in Chinese cakes.
The first six strokes of gāo (糕) are the compressed form of mǐ (米), "rice". This can also indicate a unit of measure (i.e., the length of a grain of rice, also used in ancient India, including Pali). In contemporary usage, 毫米 is one millimeter.
The right-hand side of gāo (糕) provides the phonetic hint; as a separate character, this is gāo (羔) meaning, "lamb", and it is considered an elaboration of the simpler character of yáng (羊), i.e., the "sheep radical".
In the lower half of the illustration, you can see the difference between the simplified and traditional forms of various types of Chinese bread. A recurring issue here is the simplification of half-width version of "the food radical", shí (食).
Wednesday, 12 September 2012
There's nothing idealistic about the decision to learn a language, nor about the work that ensues thereafter. There's nothing mysterious about rote memorization, nor the process of developing listening-comprehension and speaking ability.
Anyone can do it. Compared to any of the hobbies that people devote hundreds of hours to, it is "easy", and relatively cheap. If you compare it to a sport, there is very little "equipment", and very little strength, stamina, or even talent required.
The trouble is that it isn't a sport that you can practice entirely alone. You do need a partner who can, at least, throw the ball back-and-forth with you. Being around other beginners is better than nothing; interacting with fluent speakers is (of course) better still (assuming they have some patience for the mistakes you're bound to make, and some interest in correcting you). However, being around them still isn't enough, for the same reason that hanging around a gym isn't enough: you do need at least one other person who will do the work with you.
First Nations University, you will never see a "no smoking" sign written in Cree. Although I'm surrounded by small grocery stores where I could ask the price of something in Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Lao, there is nowhere that I could buy groceries in Cree; there is nowhere that I could have a simple dialogue (such as "how much does this cost?") in this language, on a daily basis. This is part of what it entails for a language to be endangered: those who really want to devote the hours to learning it cannot practice by happenstance, but really need to contrive the circumstances to get other speakers into the same room (at the same time) to have even the most basic and pointless discussion imaginable.
When I showed up in Saskatchewan (and formally enrolled to gain a university degree in Cree, as a language) I was optimistic in a very practical sense: although many people warned me about how bad the (institutional) situation here would be, it seemed to me that it couldn't possibly be worse than Cambodia. There were desks, electric lights, working bathrooms, and even a library: how could it possibly be worse than conditions I'd already known in Laos and Cambodia?
It was, and it is. A little more than a year later, I'm in a position to report that the situation in Saskatchewan really is worse than Cambodia. Canada really is playing out the endgame to cultural genocide --and the porcelain bathrooms and well-lit libraries don't help at all.
Universities spend huge quantities of money importing animals to be vivisected in laboratories (including, incidentally, monkeys from Cambodia [exported to the U.S., and to England, etc.]), and they manage to assemble huge contraptions in the name of science (including, incidentally, an "airship" [or Zeppelin] that they painted an Oji-Cree name onto the side of). Why is it so difficult to get five people sitting around a table, practicing simple sentences, in a native language?
That question does have specific answers. Many of them are political, others merely bureaucratic, and a minority could be called cultural. I have had the benefit of meeting and speaking to some of the people who are themselves (more-or-less) mute witnesses to the endgame to cultural genocide that's now unfolding, and who make a study of what those reasons are. Various institutions are failing in various ways to provide exactly what everyone knows is necessary for an endangered language to survive (or revive). I didn't just speak to F.N.U., I spoke to institutions from coast to coast (or, at least, from B.C. to Quebec) --across a range that included universities, colleges, and small community centers.
When I lived in Laos, I explained to various people (sometimes in English, and sometimes in Lao) that I would not return to Canada unless I were to learn an indigenous language there (be it Cree, Ojibwe, or otherwise). There were various reactions. The Lao understood clearly the distinction between "indigenous" and "non-indigenous" (both as applied to peoples and languages) --these concepts had currency in their own political circumstances. However, they were extremely unwilling to regard white people as "non-indigenous" in far-away places such as Australia and Canada. I can remember explaining it also in parallel to the significance of a foreigner learning Lao if he lived in Laos, and Chinese if he lived in China; I would say very simple things (partly because of my limited ability in Lao), such as, "If I wanted to speak English, I would live in England; and if I wanted to speak French, I would live in France".
For a period of about one year, I was able to live up to my own hype in this respect: I completed four courses in the Cree language in the space of 12 months. I then came to realize that my long-term future in working on the language was already over (whereas I had been hoping that it had just begun).
Canada will never be a "New France", and it will never be a "New England", either; it will forever be defined by the languages and the peoples who were indigenous here --both present and absent, both extant and extinct. I refuse to be a part of that process of genocide; I said that I wouldn't return to Canada if I couldn't learn Cree, and now that I've proven that I can't learn Cree (despite enrolling in a university program to do exactly that) my resolution is to pack up and leave as soon as possible (as I did once before, many years ago).
I haven't met one other student who actually wants to learn Cree, and I haven't met a single student who has been able to learn Cree through the university system. I entered the program understanding very well that I would need to spend hundreds of hours writing out words and phrases, listening to audio recordings, and practicing speech, spelling, reading and writing. I was accustomed to all of that --and I was accustomed to doing it in much more difficult conditions. I have never had a teacher for any of the other languages I've studied (not Lao, not Pali, not Cambodian, etc.). Nevertheless, what I brought to the equation wasn't enough: I came to the grim realization that the program at F.N.U. is worse than nothing at all.
I found it difficult to believe that any language class could really be that bad, but over the course of 12 months, it became proven to me. I have stated this (both verbally and in writing) to my professors: with sadness, I have to admit that the classes are so bad that they are actually a worse use of the student's time than sitting alone with the dictionary and the audio recordings. The fundamental praxis of speaking in sentences was neither what was being taught, nor learned; nor were any of the students doing it in their spare time; nor was any arrangement possible to spend time hearing or speaking the language (above and beyond coursework).
Instead, students memorized isolated words and rules that were well-suited to testing, and the ensuing tests were easy to get high scores on. My classmates included several athletes who were taking the courses only to increase their grade averages, two aspiring medical technicians who were trying to raise their grades to meet the minimum requirements for their program, and an array of others who had absolutely no interest in speaking a word of the language after the course had ended. Many remarked that Cree was much easier than the courses in any other language (including French) for those who had degrees requiring a credit in a "foreign" language.
It was, in short, well-known on campus, that Cree was an easy A+ --and, indeed, it was. Unfortunately, the A+ did not correspond to the ability to say a single sentence in the Cree language --not even, "How much does this cost?", nor "Where is the bathroom?". Those are two good examples of sentences that none of the A+ students could manage at the end of the program. I don't think that this would be true of any other living language taught at the university level.
It was especially depressing for me that we heard very little of the language spoken aloud by the professor(s) in class: months would pass without anything like listening-comprehension work, and without hearing a complete sentence. After many months, I tried to politely request that something like a children's story be read for the students, so that I could hear a solid paragraph or two spoken continuously (rather than the isolated words that were, as mentioned, directly linked to the exams).
I've discussed this (in much greater detail) with several of the professors at F.N.U., and I do appreciate that they listened with real interest. They agreed with many of the specifics that I pointed out (in at least one case, a professor warned me in advance of problems that I would later encounter) but they seemed to regard themselves as powerless to make any kind of substantive change. They're not bad people, and they don't have bad intentions. They have a bad institution with bad results, that has emerged (ersatz) as a surreal irony at the end of a long political history in which the entire Canadian educational system (not merely the residential schools) actively sought to drive these languages to extinction, while upholding the supremacy of European languages and learning. It simply isn't the case that we're building on 300 years of scholarship in Cree: we're looking at the ruins left behind by state-sponsored genocide, and a few odd anthropologists and Christian missionaries who produced language studies along the way.
The Canadian university system has been (and remains) more interested in the study of Latin and Ancient Greek than it is in Cree; it wouldn't be difficult to demonstrate that more resources are now going into these languages than Cree, Ojibwe, etc., combined (and, of course, this has been even more stark over the last 300 years cumulatively). Although this is sad for many different reasons, the one that I would draw attention to here is this: Canada will never be the greatest country in the world to study Latin or Greek. Never. It doesn't matter if the budget for those languages is doubled or tripled: Canada could at best achieve mediocrity relative to Europe in the scholarship of European languages.
If your country is a European colony that defines itself in terms of European culture, then you'll always be second-rate in the very same culture that you valorize: Canada simply has no unique advantage in any of these areas, and will always be at the same kind of disadvantage as Australia. Despite the endless propaganda of the C.B.C. on the subject, I don't know if anyone in this country is really deluded enough to believe that Canada could ever be a great country to study English literature in (or French literature, for that matter). Nobody in Canada seems to be convinced of the importance of Australian literature, nor are the Australians very impressed with our output in Canada; on the contrary, all of the former colonies merely shuffle along with their second-tier, derivative traditions, that they pour resources into promoting (and exaggerating the importance of) for the domestic audience.
Likewise, Canada will never be a great place to learn Chinese; at most, it can hope for mediocrity (at great expense) for the same fundamental reasons. Nevertheless, the resources put into teaching Chinese (in the current generation) are enormous compared to Cree, Ojibwe, or any indigenous language (and a simple glance at a map of where any of these languages can be studied within Canada will convince anyone of this).
Meanwhile, the languages, heritage, history and politics that Canada has a unique advantage in dealing with (and a unique responsibility to deal with) are being neglected, for the sake of some really third-rate attempts to reproduce the "high culture" of other continents.
Canada is never going to have the world's greatest ballet, nor opera; it is never going to have the world's greatest Beijing Opera [京劇/京剧], either. Conversely, we're always going to be burdened with the legacy of the terrible mess we've made of First Nations languages, literature --and the treatment of the First Nations peoples themselves.
It would be completely laughable if anyone said that the generations of the future would judge "us" (Canadians) by how well or how poorly we had reproduced the high culture of Europe. Conversely, I think that nobody would deny that history really will judge Canada in terms of its ongoing erasure of its indigenous peoples, languages, and so on.
For a whole generation, it is already too late. For myself in particular, it is already too late.
I will never have another opportunity to learn Cree, such as I thought I would have at F.N.U.; when it became clear that there was no such opportunity at F.N.U., I sought out any other opportunity elsewhere, and found none --receiving some very blunt advice in reply indicating that other universities may regard their own language programs as even more hopeless! However, the most hopeless aspect of the equation is this: I honestly have not met even one other student who is seeking out such opportunities. Although I met many students who reflected on the political importance on the language, and many who praised me for the efforts that they could see I was making, and while I spoke to several young parents who said that they would (hypothetically) like to help their children learn the language (without knowing it themselves), I simply never met anyone who was doing the work --nor anyone who aspired to do it.
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
[The Rights to the Photograph Above Belong to Gary Jones]
The immortal Ian Baird has published an article on the subject that "everybody" knows about, but nobody ever talks about: Buddhist monks who raise money to support international terrorism. Yeah, I said it. The following quotation involves exotic locales that may be unfamiliar to my readers such as Edmonton (埃德蒙顿) and Winnipeg (温尼伯) --thus I've added links throughout to avoid confusion.
The 65-year-old abbot of the Lao Buddhist temple in Edmonton, Canada, and I sat on the floor. […] [After fleeing Laos in 1975] Achan Sounthone stayed at a temple in Kalasin province, northeastern Thailand, for the next five years. […] After being regularly hassled by Thai government officials, however, the monk decided to register as a Lao refugee and enter the Lao refugee camp in Ubon Ratchathani province in 1979. But he soon found himself disgusted with the corruption in the camp, and he became increasingly convinced that the cause of the insurgents was just. So in 1980 he moved to a village in Thailand on the edge of the Mekong river where one of the main "white Lao" groups […] was headquartered. […] He spent over eight years treating injured insurgents […] and training medics. […] In 1988 when the Chat[i]chai Choonhavan government announced its policy to transform "battlefields to marketplaces," making it difficult for insurgents opposed to the Lao government to continue operating from bases in Thailand, he entered the Lao refugee camp at Napho. From there, he ended up being sponsored by the Lao Buddhist temple in Winnipeg, Canada, where he arrived in December 1990. […] [The monk stated:] "Since 1995 I have been sending money to an insurgent group that still lives in the forest in Southern Laos," […] [After discussing the monk's moral justification for this, Baird comments:] A thought came to mind. Wasn't the monk's justification for providing insurgent groups with money similar to the legitimization that many monks give for consuming meat even if they are not allowed to kill animals? […]
[Source:] The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 71, No. 3, August 2012, p. 655 et seq., "Lao Buddhst Monks' Involvement in Political and Military Resistance to the Lao People's Democratic Republic Government Since 1975", by Ian G. Baird.
Sunday, 9 September 2012
• ຄຳສັບ ໐໓ ພາສາລາວ+ປາລີ/ບາລີ+ຝຣັ່ງ+ອັງກິດ
• Lao + Pali + French + English Vocabulary Part 03
• Vocabulaire Laotien + Pali + Anglais + Français Partie 03
• 2010, "The Disappearance of the Pali Language: A Pragmatic Guide", the English version of the article above was separately published in an English-language journal of anthropology, The Ethnological Review, from Kunming University Press.
One further article was supposed to be published as a book-chapter in mainland China (it was the ill-fated "Canon and Reason…") and remains as-yet-unpublished in both Chinese and English.
Wednesday, 5 September 2012
• ຄຳສັບ ໐໒ ພາສາລາວ+ປາລີ/ບາລີ+ຝຣັ່ງ+ອັງກິດ
• Lao + Pali + French + English Vocabulary Part 02
• Vocabulaire Laotien + Pali + Anglais + Français Partie 02
Many of the disease names (not all) feature the Lao monosyllable Lok; you may know this as "world", transliterating Pali loka, but, in this context, it is in fact rendering the modern pronunciation of Pali roga (a word that you'll find near the top of the first illustration, next to Dr. Gachet).
The same logic underlies all of the terms for diabetes: the two syllables of Lao ເບົາຫວານ are conceptually equivalent to both the Pali and the Latin (diabetes mellitus), yet they hardly share a common syllable.
Meanwhile, the Pali verb vamati shares a common etymology with its French and English equivalents (requiring no explanation) --but not with the Lao hāk.
Saturday, 1 September 2012
• ຄຳສັບ ໐໑ ພາສາລາວ+ປາລີ/ບາລີ+ຝຣັ່ງ+ອັງກິດ
• Lao + Pali + French + English Vocabulary Part 01
• Vocabulaire Laotien + Pali + Anglais + Français Partie 01