Tuesday, 26 February 2008

N = Never

When you’re young, anything seems possible. I seemed to spend my childhood filled with excitement for the future. My mother and father grew up in that small rural district, married, had children, joined in community affairs, sat on the School Boards, ferried us to and from sports events, music lessons, girl guides, etc. But despite rarely leaving the area, they never allowed us to feel restricted, hemmed in, or limited. Not in that cheesy, TV movie, American (no offence intended) kind of “you can do anything you want if you just believe in yourself” way. Opportunity was always implied, but unstated. We were never discouraged from aspiring to things.

Of course I was lucky. I was born in an age when, for the first time in history, being a girl was not a disadvantage. Likewise I was at school and more importantly university when education was free. And I was lucky that things came easily to me. Schoolwork, music, sports, friends. There was no reason for me to think I couldn’t do things, because to be honest, there weren’t a lot of things as a child that I felt I couldn’t do. And I dreamed. Of owning and riding a horse. Of living in Wellington and meeting the Prime Minister. Of exotic travel, of glories. Winning Olympic medals and being in the Silver Ferns (the New Zealand netball team). Being Billie Jean King, as I hit my tennis ball against our house. Of money and good clothes. Of an exciting life.

Then you start getting older. You realise your dad is never going to buy you a horse. And even in your teens you start narrowing your options. I knew early on I would not be Miss World. That’s not something I regret, I’m pleased to say. Then gradually the other dreams fall away. The Olympic medals were never an option – winning school sports events was good enough. I knew too I’d never be a concert pianist. That was okay too, as I got tired of practising.

Then you graduate from university and start working. I realised some of my dreams were too small, but some were too big. I realised there were a lot of other talented people out there, and I would need to work hard.

Now in my forties, there are a lot more nevers, and they stack up more each day. Some of them are regrets. I’ll never have children. I’ll never see my dad again. These ones I deal with every day.

But there are definitely some nevers I can live with, relish, embrace:  

I won’t be Prime Minister or a politician. I’ll never run a marathon. Thank God to both.
I’ll never be a beauty, but never have to worry that noone will love me once my beauty is gone. It’s good to be comfortable in my own skin. 
I’ll never own a private jet, but will never have to feel the guilt of such elitism, not to mention environmental impact.
I’ll never bungy jump. Not. Negotiable.
I’ll never get back to my honeymoon bikini body. But I can be fit and healthy.
I’ll never be a Silver Fern and my knees will never allow me to re-enact that dream anymore, leaping light as air for that ball. 
 I’ll never make my fortune on the tennis circuit.
And, let’s face it I’ll never win Lotto unlike this guy.  (I even had a ticket in that lottery, dammit).

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

M = Marina

I parked under a Norfolk pine in Oriental Bay earlier this morning, and set off. The weather was so beautiful I decided my morning work-out would be a walk around the harbour. The air was still, the water was flat, reflecting the buildings from the city, softly lapping the shore. Usually I walk away from the city, around the bays, but today I chose to walk in the opposite direction.

So I joined the dozens of regular morning walkers heading into the city. The girl with her uncomfortable looking shoes setting such a smart pace it took me a while to overtake her; the man in his business suit, jacket left at home today; the obese young man taking what I like to think were the first steps of a new lifestyle; the woman in her silky top, pretty skirt and trainers, carrying her business shoes, to name only a few. We dodged those on their bicycles, the odd skateboarder zoomed past us, and I watched amused at the middle-aged man racing past on a kick scooter, reliving his youth or trying hard to hold onto what is left of it.

As we neared the city, the numbers dispersed into their shops and offices. I stuck to the seafront, and walked past the boathouses and the yacht club. There’s a good seafood restaurant there, right on the edge of the small marina. We like to eat there at least once every summer, taking advantage of daylight saving and watching the activity in the marina. The yachts coming back in after an evening sail, the people doing maintenance on their boats, or sitting having a drink with friends. The stillness as the evening fades, the sun setting and the masts casting long shadows. The masts were casting their shadows in the opposite direction this morning, but it still had that still tranquil atmosphere you only get early and late, it gets burned away by the midday sun, drowned out by all those normal daytime activities.

Further around there are apartments fronting another marina. Living here would feel like being on holiday every day. I would need to win the lottery to afford it though. The cafes at the bottom of the building looked like the perfect spot for a relaxed coffee and newspaper or a good book. I think I’ll go there tomorrow morning.

And I’ll buy a lottery ticket too.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

L = Languages

I grew up on a farm in the South Island of New Zealand. That’s a long way from anywhere. I studied French and Latin at school, but language teaching is not a strong point of the New Zealand education system. We struggled to even have opportunities to practice speaking French, our teacher preferring to instruct us in English. We never met anyone French, and the only person we knew who had been there was our teacher. Whilst I loved French, having an interest in foreign parts from a very young age, for most of my peers it was hard to imagine why it might be useful to learn a foreign language. Especially when our nearest and largest neighbour speaks a similar version of English to ours, and anywhere else is too far to visit on the weekend. Studying Latin was more relevant for me - at least it helped me translate some of the Italian instructions on my sheet music for the piano I spent my youth studying.

In the 1960s and 70s, New Zealand was a very monolingual society. Maori had been through a difficult time, when speaking their language at schools had been prohibited, and many Maori were growing up fluent only in English. We grew up knowing only a few words of the Maori language. The one word that was already part of New Zealand’s language at the time was mana.

Mana means respect, status, authority. It is a word that has no direct translation into English, but has been absorbed into our wider language and culture. We understand what it means, we appreciate the honour and significance of mana.

So when, 28 years ago today I learned I would be living with a Thai family and attending a Thai secondary school, I knew I would have to learn another language. It would be sink or swim. But I was told before I left home that the Thais speak quote “ a local dialect.” Dialect made it sound easy. I’d be chatting in Thai in no time, was the implication. But that local dialect, I discovered, is one of the hardest languages in the world for an English speaker to learn, ranked right up there with Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Arabic.

But over my year as a student I learned to converse, read and write in Thai. Just as I was getting more confident it was time for me to go. Ten years later I returned as a diplomat, and in my refresher course realised that I had to relearn the language. I had learned to speak Thai as a deferential schoolgirl. I now needed to relearn it to speak as a diplomat representing my country. It opened doors for me. With my language and my AFS contacts, I was able to attend political meetings where I was the only foreigner attending. I had so many opportunities to talk with the locals, gained so much insight, and felt as if I belonged. My husband worked on the language as well. His accent was atrocious, he had no understanding of the tones, but he was cheeky and supplemented his language with a type of charades, and managed to be understood and make friends. The number of Thai speakers in the foreign diplomatic community was small. Most learned enough to get a taxi or tuk-tuk and to order in a restaurant. They expected their maids to speak English, not to speak to their maids in Thai. Single men tended to learn Thai to speak to girls, and you could usually tell the social class of a man’s girlfriend (and consequently the circumstances in which they met*) from his accent.

I was not fluent. Fluency is a funny thing. You ask two people with the same language skills if they are fluent, and one will say yes and another no. Perhaps it is simply a matter of confidence? For me, the more I learned, the more I saw the goal of fluency disappearing over the horizon. The more you learn about a language’s complexities, the more you begin to realise how fiendishly difficult it really is.

Since those first Thailand days, I have studied Japanese at university, performed well on a language aptitude test and encouraged by that, spent a year studying Mandarin full-time (long story that I’ll tell you about one day) reaching the level of a bachelor degree in Chinese. I also taught myself to recognise the numbers in Arabic (does that count?), so you could say I’ve knocked off 4 of the 6 most difficult languages. Russian is next. Depending on where my next travel destination is, I’ve taught myself varying degrees of Italian, German and Spanish, and periodically brush up on my schoolgirl French. I would like to reach a degree of “fluency” or at least comfort and confidence in a language, but realise that that is unlikely now. I’m fickle. I flit from one language to another. Fluency requires dedication. But I figure I’ve still got a good 30-40 years to pick a language and work on it.

But back to my point. It was in Thailand that I discovered how a language can be a window to the culture, or maybe it is really the manifestation of that culture. It is impossible to understand a culture without the language, and impossible to learn a language without absorbing the culture. For example, sabai and sanuk are Thai cultural concepts of well-being and fun that go beyond the simple English translations of the words.

For this reason, and this reason alone, I wish everyone could learn a language. For a start, I find it fun. Quirky facts about the way people see the world comes through in language.** Learning a language forces you to put yourself in the position of someone from that culture, living in that environment, and to think like them. It teaches you empathy, gives you understanding. We need more of that these days. To understand others, to understand ourselves, to understand those who live among us. And it shows respect.

Maori is however one language I have never formally or seriously studied, and I’m ashamed of that. In New Zealand these days, Te Reo (Maori, but literally translated as The Language) has had a resurgence. Maori words are now commonplace in New Zealand conversations. In the last ten years it has become accepted practice to sing the national anthem in both languages.

We experience and talk about powhiri (ceremonial welcome), karakia (prayer/blessings) and waiata (song) at hui (meetings) at a marae (Maori meeting house).

A Maori will know their iwi (tribes), hapu (subtribe) and whanau (family), tamariki (children) and koro (grandparent), tipuna (ancestors), kuia (elderly women) and kaumatua (elders). They are the tangata whenua (people of the land/ indigenous people).

We routinely use Maori greetings and farewells: tena koe/koutou or kia ora (hello) and haere mai (welcome) , haere ra, e noho ra and arohanui (with love)

We talk of aroha (love) and tell people kia kaha (to stay strong).

I have two brothers-in-law who left New Zealand before this renaissance began. They would not be able to understand a typical news bulletin in this country these days. Our language has changed. Our country has changed and is changing. Our culture has changed and is changing. We understand more. We understand better. We give respect. I like that.


* Enough said! ;-)
** The Meaning of Tingo is a great book dedicated to this.

Monday, 4 February 2008

K= Knees

The traffic light turned red, and a group of teenage girls crossed the road. They were out together making the most of the last days of summer freedom before the school year begins again later this week. They were all so beautiful, young and slim.

I ached for the days when I too, wore shorts unselfconsciously, my knees enjoying their public exposure, not realising that there would be a time when I wouldn't want to do that anymore.

I didn't know what I had at the time. The young never do.