Tag Archives: cultural diversity

“Babel – Around the World in Twenty Languages” by Gaston Dorren

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

This book is so good I started to write about it when I was only halfway through! I’m not great about taking notes when reading for pleasure, and I didn’t want to forget some of the things that have made this book so much fun.

Gaston Dorren is not a native speaker of English. He lists Limburgish, the Dutch dialect of a province in Netherlands, as his first language. I remember that when I spent a summer in Netherlands, a friend described himself as a speaker of Sittardish, a dialect limited to a single city. For him, Dutch was a slightly formal language, studied in high school and used at the University and at work. Scientists, it seemed, spoke as much English as Dutch. I ended my months in the Netherlands with great affection for the people and their culture, and a tiny knowledge of (standard) Dutch.

In Babel, Dorren writes about twenty languages, use of which accounts for about fifty percent of the human population.  He starts by admitting there’s no way to count languages. How do you decide what is a dialect? We know (and regret) that languages have been lost. See my discussion of the indigenous western hemisphere language Potawatami, dated March 6, 2019.

But what else is going on? It is the nature of language to CHANGE! After all, this is a “blog”, a version of “social media”. Wouldn’t have made sense 20 years ago…

Dorren counts “second language speakers” when calculating which languages dominate the world scene. My life is full of second language speakers; both of my (native born) grandmothers, immigrants, students from overseas, friends from hither and yon. Each has learned English, and some have forgotten their original languages.

What I like best about this book is that, having chosen his twenty “big” languages, Dorren then discusses whatever interests him about each language – geography, politics, history, sociology, sounds, grammar…

He begins with Vietnamese, which has very few “second language” speakers. In other words, very few people study it. Despite his linguistic training, Dorren finds Vietnamese excruciatingly difficult!

Only one African language makes it into this book – Swahili. Dorren describes the African attitude towards language as very different from elsewhere. French, (British) English and (Mandarin) Chinese (to name a few) are very clearly defined by official bodies, and VERY resistant to change. Correct speech is valued. Not necessarily so in Africa! Almost anything goes! Most people speak several languages – mother tongue, a local language for school, maybe another for high school, a regional language, plus Swahili and/or a “world language”. Dorren describes Africans “storming the language barrier”, cheerfully using any common speech they can find, gesturing, shouting… Correctness falls aside.

This is a great book to broaden your horizons. But beware… the urge to travel may overcome you. The only problem will be choosing a destination. Bon voyage!

Atlantic City Women’s March, January 19, 2019

I made my decision to join the AC March at the last moment, on the morning of the event. Before that, I was distracted by family troubles. So I woke up on Saturday, ate well and dressed warmly, and headed to Atlantic City, without a buddy or a single protest sign.

I reached the New Jersey Avenue assembly point early, and the March started late. I got chilled but had fun, greeting many friends among the arrivals, talking to people about their signs, organizations and interests, and doing my usual informal demographic analysis. (I’m always, in some sense, counting and classifying. Is good or bad? Comment below.)

About half the participants came as identifiable members of organizations. These are some of the groups I spotted:

  • League of Women Voters
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Sororities – African American
  • Students in Stockton University’s Master of Social Work program. Stockton supported the March with free parking.
  • Young Muslim women, identifiable by head scarves
  • Men (maybe 5% of participants)
  • One Women’s Center (Cherry Hill)
  • Two dance corps
  • Local Democratic politicians
  • At least three unions – CWA, NJ Education Association, and government employees
  • Furloughed government employees – FAA
  • Admirers of Ruth Bader Ginsberg
  • Feminists and “girl power” advocates
  • Families
  • Immigration activists

Atlantic City suffers from poverty and political corruption, but the Women’s March brought out its wonderful diversity and multigenerational energy. I think it deserves the term “intersectional”. Of course, the various “stakeholder” groups have occasional disagreements, but the March was a positive and unifying event. The organizers dedicated it to the honor and memory of Fanny Lou Hamer (1917-1977), one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Delegation that bravely challenged the Democratic Party at its 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.

FINALLY we started to walk. My feet warmed up and I forgot about the weather. We moved south towards Boardwalk Hall by fits and starts. There was some chanting, usually “call and response”, my favorite being

  • “What does democracy look like?”
  • “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

I was surprised by the lack of organizational guidance. I expected to be told “We have a permit and these are the conditions – stay on one side of the Boardwalk, cooperate with marshals and police, medics are on hand…” I remembered marches when no sticks (for signs or banners) were permitted. And no bags or backpacks…

There was no supervision except for an outside group performing some “marshal” type functions. I spotted about 25 women and men, wearing bright orange hoodies with “The PeaceKeepers Global Initiative” written on the back and “I AM PRESENT FOR PEACE” on the front. They were extremely tentative in giving directions about leaving a clear lane for non-participants and emergency vehicles. I wondered if they were in any way ready to deal with the unexpected.

On the other hand, it was unlikely that they would need to. The Atlantic City Police were present in good numbers and seemed entirely supportive of the March. If they had been hostile to it, they could easily have called the whole thing off, since Governor Murphy had declared a statewide emergency based on the expected harsh winter storm. But with his Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver a featured March speaker, was that going to happen? Nope. (The state wide march in Trenton, regrettably, was cancelled due to weather.)

I’ve written about my fear of demonstrations – see blog entry dated January 22, 2017 that includes my grim memories of a march that “went bad”. Any public demonstration can “go bad”. There was little at this March to trigger my anxiety. I kept an eye out. The crowd wasn’t so dense that I feared being trampled. There was no counter protest.

But what was it like in Charlottesville, VA? Would I have bailed out because of the huge crowd and the terrible, obvious hostility?

When we got to Boardwalk Hall, I hesitated to enter because I was tired and didn’t want to have a problem getting back out. After most of the marchers had entered, I followed. Upstairs, I finally had a chance to ask one of the orange garbed marshals who they were and how they got involved. I approached a small group and found a man who was happy to talk and who introduced himself and his companions, including a woman I probably should have heard of, a singer. They described themselves as a “local” group that supported community organizations, especially those oriented towards youth activities. He was truly local, and we uncovered some mutual acquaintances in the facilities management field. We might have talked longer, but I really needed a restroom break, and my new friends were able to send me in the right direction.

Refreshed, I entered the Ballroom. (We would have been a very tiny group in the giant main arena used for shows and sports events and national political conventions!) The rally was slow to get underway, and the crowd began to disperse. I circulated, finding more friends to greet and sizing up the speakers on the podium, but I ran out of energy, and left.

I made a quick Starbucks stop to fuel up, and walked alone to my car. Later, a friend offered the opinion that the speakers I missed had been long winded and, in some cases, repetitive. In other words, I’d have been fine if I had brought my needlework!

An event like this March takes so much work! I admire the organizers and think their efforts bore fruit. A large crowd in Atlantic City supporting progressive interests is a good thing, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for my region. New leadership is emerging.

Celebrating the Solstice

My dear friend “D” entertains annually on the Winter solstice. The party includes many people who don’t know one another, because they come from different parts of D’s life. My original connection was the playgroup that supported D and I though our children’s preschool years. Those kids are over age 30 now, and most of the playgroup mothers are now grandparents.

Not satisfied with food and drink and general conversation (all wonderful!), D always organizes some kind of “sharing”. This year, her topic was simply inspired. IMMIGRATION has been all over the news and dominates many conversations.

We were offered a chance to discuss our family histories, and share about holiday customs that came from our forebears! Seriously, we could have talked all night. There were 16 of us. Do the math. Thirty two parents, sixty four grandparents, and on it goes! Each life is a story.

What did I learn? The most common country of origin for South Jersey families is Italy! (Had you asked me, I might have suggested Germany, but that’s just my neighborhood.) Those with Italian roots reported large families and many variations on the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve.

Next most common was the Irish/German/Miscellaneous cohort. I belong there – German mother, Irish father, maybe some English blood.

Many people like me report data gaps. Family members were adopted (often informally), and their backgrounds remain unknown. Going back only four generations, my family tree includes two adoptions.

Two people reported Native American ancestry. Each could name a tribe, but neither holds tribal membership. Only two in our group reported on ancestors from before 1776, and no one reported membership in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).

Some of us discussed genealogy and/or genetic testing. One woman hired a specialized tour guide to help her find family records along the Rhine in Germany! Several people had done or planned to use commercially available genetic testing.

I spoke early in the discussion, and managed to be brief, but things continued to occur to me. Did anyone else know how to make the German treat called “elephant ears”? Did anyone speak a language that was NOT lost during immigration? Each of my grandmothers said she had forgotten her first language, but my German grandmother remembered a little vocabulary and snatches of song. My mother studied German in high school, and I learned it in college. Gaelic, regrettably, has been lost to us.

The Christmas season is a wonderful time for these types of reflection! Thanks, D, for a great evening.

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“The Laughing Sutra” by Mark Salzman

I’m creating a new category for this book, which I read about 15 years ago, long before I had this blog. The category is

ADULT BOOKS THAT TURN OUT WILDLY POPULAR WITH KIDS!

Certainly Mark Salzman’s first book, the nonfiction Iron and Silk, an account of his time in China, was intended for adults. So when I came across his novel The Laughing Sutra, I expected the same. And initially, it was adult fiction. In fact, kind of scary. We witness a murder. But that was just a prologue… As I read on, and got to know the characters, I was amused and entertained, and wondered what my eleven year old son would think.

Hsun-ching and Colonel Sun are an unlikely pair of adventurers. Hsun-ching is a orphan, raised by an quiet, old monk. Colonel Sun is confused, wild, strong and lives for excitement. They join forces to seek a sutra (religious poem) wanted by the old monk.

When these two make it to the USA, the intercultural confusion blossoms into hilarity.

I started reading this book to my 11 year old, but the six year old was also captivated! We cackled our way through to the amazing climax, when Hsun-ching and the Colonel try to re-enter mainland China. (At that time, no one re-entered China. The border guards weren’t ready…) Colonel Sun became part of our family repertoire, like the characters in “Ghostbusters” and other favorites. He was at least as real to us as Superman or Johnny Appleseed. Who wouldn’t want Colonel Sun for a companion? I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you the source of the Colonel’s amazing powers.

So read “The Laughing Sutra”. I also liked Salzman’s next (and entirely entirely different) novel, “The Soloist”. I hope he keeps writing.

So far, I haven’t been able to think of another adult book that worked so well with kids. Any nominations for my new genre? I’m curious.

“Audrey Hepburn’s Neck – A Novel” by Alan Brown.

Pocket Books, 1996. 290 pages.

This novel was way ahead of its time – everyone’s into “diversity” and “global awareness” these days. This lively cross cultural romance is too good to miss! It has the added attraction of being a “coming of age” story, likely to appeal to young adults. I plan to nominate it as a “common reading” at the University where I work. (Not that my nominations have gone anywhere…)

Toshi, our hero, is a young manga artist with a passion for American women. He studies English and dates any American woman he manages to meet. His long term best friend is a gay American who reluctantly accepts Toshi’s heterosexuality and coaches him in the nuances of the American psyche.

Toshi has left his remote childhood home for the bright lights of Tokyo, but suddenly his family’s past catches up with him. He has never understood his mother’s sadness, his father’s silence, and their divorce. After his father’s death, his mother reveals her shatteringly traumatic past and the nature of the bond between her and Toshi’s father. So unexpected and profound are her revelations that Toshi must reconstruct his entire identity. By good fortune, his most recent American GF is an ideal partner in this undertaking.

This novel, which received numerous awards, fell through a crack at some point and has been so forgotten that it is not available for e-reader! I trust that will soon be remedied. Wikipedia states that a movie version is pending. I think it will be great! Alan Brown has been more active as a filmmaker than a writer. I look forward to his future work in both of these media.

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

This is a blockbuster autobiography. Sotomayor’s life is the “American dream”. She came from a very poor Spanish speaking Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Her family travelled “back to the island” regularly , giving her access to the richness of Puerto Rican culture, but she had almost no contact with the wonders of nearby Manhattan. She became a lawyer, then a judge, and now serves on the Supreme Court, as its first Hispanic appointee. She is sometimes referred to as a “poster child” for affirmative action.

As a small child, Sonia took charge of her diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was seven. Her parents couldn’t handle the necessary daily injections of insulin, so Sonia administered them herself, understanding perfectly well that mismanagement of the disease could disable or kill her. Another turning point of her childhood, a few years later, was her mother’s decision to speak English at home. Sonia’s ability to cope with school increased exponentially. Much later in life, she was part of an organization that went to court to establish that public schools must provide bilingual education. Before then, many Spanish speaking students were classified as disabled or “slow” because teachers could not communicate with them.

In her autobiography, Sotomayor writes about learning how to learn. As early as elementary school, she approached high performing peers and asked them HOW they got good grades. Her parochial education placed a heavy emphasis on memorization, and she was floored when, as a junior in high school, she was asked to write an essay and EXPLAIN her ideas. At Princeton, a helpful friend kept passing her the “classics” she had missed, like Alice in Wonderland.

Finding mentors became a habit that benefitted Sotomayor at every stage of her education and career, though she was stubborn and admits she often listened carefully to advice and then did something else. Parts of this book should be required reading for college students. Sotomayor got in over her head time after time, and worked her way up with gritty determination.

Now a Justice of the Supreme Court and the first Hispanic to hold such a position, Sotomayor deals daily with the most important issues of our day, including immigration law. Her autobiography ends with her first judgeship, but I look forward to a second installment. She’s an energetic writer and a clear thinker, and has a wonderful life story to share.