Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fast and Furious (又快又生气)

This is my last week in China for the summer. So what did I learn besides that food with faces is always more fun? Read on to find out!

Learning Chinese as a foreigner is not as uncommon as it used to be, and there are language schools everywhere in Shanghai to prove it. 

But I do still get surprised looks when I actually manage to speak a complete sentence. My favorite recent situation was in a crowded restroom where the concept of a line is still not respected. A woman kept stepping ahead of me, so I finally said: 我在你前面。(I am in front of you). She stepped back quickly, probably more from surprise than respect for my place in line.

Today I asked for a glass of water with a perfect third tone and was rewarded with a pleasantly surprised smile. Then all further interactions were in full speed Chinese. I managed to catch the key words and made it through!

Last night I was out with a Japanese friend who does not speak Chinese. No matter how many times I spoke in Chinese, the waitress still spoke to my friend (in Chinese), even when responding to my questions. All because she looks like she could speak Chinese and I look like I would never speak Chinese. Clearly the waitress had the wrong expectations (or hope?).

Trump would like it in China, they are so NOT politically correct. They will tell you how fat or thin you look as a greeting. Foreigners are required to register all movements with local police and are restricted from doing business in key areas. They will judge you by your skin with no shame. And in Chinese the word for black 黑 (hei) can be applied to anyone whose skin is not porcelain white.

To most of the strangers on the street I am like some kind of ghost. Many don't believe in ghosts, so they just don't see me. Others stare in fascination. I have started to stare back and sometimes try to engage, but often they seem to be frightened by my attempts to reach across the void and quickly turn away. At really local restaurants I sometimes get a wary glance and a single worn English menu pushed my way, clearly they hope that if they don't speak then I won't speak and all the awkwardness can be avoided. Sadly for them, the ghost speaks and they have to figure out through my muddled tones and stammering pace that I just want some soup dumplings.

The stereotype of hard working Chinese people may be changing with the latest generation but the stories I hear about the level of competition here is enough to make anyone pay attention to the teacher.  The population is commonly said to be 1.4 billion (or 14 x 100 million “14亿” as the Chinese would say). But a better way to understand this is that The city of Shanghai has more people living in it than ALL of Australia (24 million, or 2 thousand 4 hundred x 10,000 in the Chinese style, “2千4百万”).

The recent stock market volatility has sent people running for new safe havens for their money, and so the wheels of change continue to turn faster than ever. Every time I walk a familiar street there is something new happening: new store, closed store, construction on bamboo scaffolding or perhaps a man in his bright red underwear keeping cool. I so wish I had a picture!

For people renowned for "saving face" they apparently have no shame in many ways. Men carry their girlfriend's bags; no matter how sparkly. And if they aren't carrying her bag they often have their own purses (or "murses" if that is still a valid term in the U.S.). 

I see men riding on pink scooters and children's bikes that are far too small for them. Then there was a "trying to look tough" biker all in black with "FUCK" written on his pant leg, and a fluffy gray teddy bear riding behind him. Sex toys are sold at the checkout stand along with condoms and really gross looking meat on a stick. 

Many people speak English but I don't think these people know what it really says on their butts. Is "Flying Suga Mint" better or worse than "Juicy"?

They also have no fear. Words cannot express the beauty and insanity of an intersection in Shanghai. Imagine bikes, cars, scooters, carts and vehicles of all shapes and sizes moving in all directions at various speeds and you have sort of an idea. You must look all ways at all times when crossing the street. I think the picture below captures a sense of the unimaginable. Yes, that man is carrying a large circular saw blade balanced just below his belly on a scooter with nothing to secure it AND he is attempting to cross against the red light, which he did successfully after I took this picture.

I have ridden on the back of a scooter that violated all the road rules, and come within inches of colliding with many other moving objects. I've used the rusty bike provided by my landlord that has slowly working breaks and ridden without a helmet into a pack of cyclists going in the the wrong direction while the fast moving vehicles behind me sped up to get around. All of this and yet rarely do I see an angry exchange. People cut you off, break the rules, stop short, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Yet everyone just weaves around them, like water around a boulder, eager to be on their way and not worried about enforcing a sense of social order in the context of traffic. 

English speakers think Chinese speakers sound angry because English uses tone of voice to express emotion, while Chinese uses tones to express completely different meanings. The difference between "drinking straw" (吸管 xīguǎn) and “habit” (习惯 xíguàn) involves a questioning beginning with an angry ending to the word for habit. While a breathy start and a throaty, uncertain finish provides the sound for straw. 

They speak fast and they sound furious. But like any language, when you spend enough time with it, the strange becomes intelligible.

Two months is not enough for me to be fluent, but I have achieved my goal of becoming comfortable speaking (if not always accurately) and I will take the level 4 (out of 6) Chinese placement exam before I leave.

Next time around perhaps I can become fully fast and furious with the language and not just on a bike.

Monday, July 13, 2015

I hope you'll like this, but I don't expect you will

This is week four of my 8 week immersive study in Mandarin. I feel I'm making real progress. I can order food, ask for products I cannot see, and I even had a 20 minute conversation with a manicurist today. I do all of these things awkwardly, and occasionally I reference my dictionary, but any of you who have attempted to speak Chinese out of a phrasebook will know: being able to use the right tones is an accomplishment. And these days, I can pick out words I don't know and repeat them back to get some clarification. 

I'm focusing on the positive, but I know I still have a long way to go. Last week I encountered a particularly frustrating experience with something I thought would be simple. I already knew the word for "hope" 希望 (xi1 wang4) and I wanted to know the word for "expect". One teacher told me it was 期望 (qi1 wang4). So later I used that word with another teacher, and then I was corrected. She told me "that word is very formal, not for general use". I said, "ok, then how do I say expect?". Her response: 希望 (xi1 wang4), the first one, which means "to hope". "The same?", I asked. "The same," she replied.

"But they cannot be the same!" I cried. This led into an hour long discussion about the difference between "to hope", "to expect", "expectations", "to anticipate" and "Great Expectations".

I assumed that my teacher simply did not understand the true meaning of "expect", so I set about clarifying the nuance. By way of explanation about the difference between "expect" and "hope" I started with something simple. At the time I had with me a cup of bubble tea (a lovely sweet concoction of "tea", "milk" and some sort of chewy black tapioca balls). So I said, "I expect this bubble tea to be sweet. I do not hope it will be sweet since I know that bubble tea is, by design, sweet". With a satisfied grin on my face, I waited for her to realize what I meant and provide me with the proper Chinese to match. But all she said was "你希望这个是甜的" (You hope this is sweet).

In her mind expectations are things that parents have about their children's future; big serious things. And expectations regarding future earnings reports from companies use more formal language (i.e. "We do not expect to make our numbers this quarter" is 这个季度我们没有达到预期的标准), No hope there for sure. 

So I took another approach and asked about taking a test: "What if I am am very confident I will pass the test, what can I say?". To which she gave me the Chinese for "I will pass the test". 

Finally I came to accept that for daily matters the Chinese mind does not seem to allow for that extra bit of confidence that "expect" offers beyond "hope". Either you "hope" for something or you know it "will" happen. 

That makes me wonder if I really should take for granted that my bubble tea will be sweet. Perhaps I should be hoping for sweetness rather than expecting it. Perhaps I'd be a bit more grateful that way. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Seeing the world through different eyes

One of the many reasons I am learning Mandarin is to see the world from a fresh perspective. Every language emphasizes different aspects of the world. There are broad generalizations about the differences between Eastern and Western "thought" but digging into an Eastern language means I get to understand a more nuanced perspective on what is important to people from the "Middle Kingdom" (literal translation of China's country name 中国). 

A theme that continues to come up is that Mandarin does not map 1:1 to English in really subtle ways. Ways that dictionaries struggle to convey. This is why most entries in a English-Chinese dictionaries contain 5-20 possible definitions for single "words". 

After about a year and a half of studying and over 2 weeks studying in China, I think I finally understand one of these multi-definitional situations I encountered.

One of the first things a student learns in a new language is to express their "wants". "I want that food", "I need water", "I want to go to the bathroom", etc. With Mandarin I immediately got into uncertain territory with something that seemed so simple. To my mind these are the verbs I need to know:

1) to want
2) to need

But in Mandarin there are a few verbs that express these concepts (I'm keeping this simple for now):

1) 要 - yao4 - to want
2) 想 - xiang3 - to want
3) 想要 - xiang3 yao4 - to want
4) 需要 - xu1 yao4 - to need

So you see the problem, there are three ways to express your "wants". So when do you use which one? Let's look at some additional layers of meaning to these words.

1) 要 - yao4 - to need, will, to ask for

Oh dear, now this overlaps with #4 as well. And wait, it indicates future tense as well, as in "I will eat this food" rather than just "I want to eat this food". And that is where the key lies, using 要 is a very aggressive "need/want". It comes with built in intent. Not only do I WANT it, but I NEED it and I WILL have it soon. Pretty powerful, right? So I use it to ask for a cup of coffee in the morning. And I get it every time!

In English we say "where there is a will there is a way". In Mandarin, 要 expresses the want and the will at the same time. If you lack the will, you probably need to use a different verb.

The first time I learned this word was in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. When approached by sellers, simply say: 不要(bu yao) and they will understand you do NOT WANT their stuff. Later I learned softer ways to say no. 

2) 想 - xiang3 - to miss, to ponder, to wish

I'm starting to think of this one as the delicate flower of the "wants". It is a soft kind of wanting, it is the kind of wanting you do when you are dreaming of something that you probably won't get in the near future. You may be pondering this want, nurturing the seed of desire which may blossom into 想要 or perhaps all the way to 要, but that will be later. Right now, you simply 想.

You also use this one to tell someone you MISS them, because you are THINKING about them, and you WANT them to be near you.

Today in class we were discussing different approaches to studying Mandarin. Some students do not take their own notes and do not review the notes the teacher takes. They show up and wait for the teacher to feed them information. I responded: 他们"想"学中文,但是他们"不要"学中文。They wish (想) to learn Mandarin, but they do not really have the will (不要) to learn Mandarin. 

And in that moment I understood how powerful these words were, how much is packed into such a compact space. In English we might say, "you say you want it, but do you really want it?". We use the modifier "really" to take "want" from a wish to more of a "need". 

3) 想要 - xiang3 yao4 - to feel like, to desire

Now this last one I think is like a softer form of 要. There is more will than in 想, but not yet so determined as to justify 要. I'm sure with more time and exposure I will unwrap more of its subtlety.

现在我"要"睡觉。And now, I need/want/will go to sleep.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In a land of implication

Most English speakers have heard that Chinese does not have any "tense", meaning they do not "conjugate" their verbs like latin languages and English do. They do however, manage to convey a sense of past, present, future, etc through other grammatical structures. So it isn't as bad as it sounds.

But ultimately I find that Chinese seems to put the burden of understanding on the listener whereas English puts the burden of clarity on the speaker. English grammar forces the speaker to include things like "if", "when", "compared to", "at", "has" in the sentence, whereas Chinese allows (in fact encourages) the ommission of these seemingly crucial words.

The Implied IF

This was the first implied construct I came across in Chinese. A friend told me (in Chinese) "have time, come Shanghai visit you". I got excited and thought he meant "I have time so I will come visit you". But what he meant was "IF I have time, I will come to Shanghai to visit you". Clearly this was meant to be gleaned from the context. I'm starting to realize that these implied IFs are like black holes, you cannot see them directly, but their influence can be detected in other parts of the sentence. But it takes a trained speaker to pick up on such subtle clues. It is not as if Chinese does not have the word for "if", it is 如果 (ruguo). And I see it used. Someday perhaps I will fully understand when it is used directly and when it is implied. For now, I've become suspicious of all sentences, seeking the mysical signs of an implied "IF". Also, I confirm by asking directly whether the second half of the sentence is true before jumping to conclusions.

The way of the NO

There is no single word for NO in Chinese (nor for YES). It depends on the context how a negative is conveyed. But there are two major prefixes that are used to negate verbs: 不 (bu) and 没 (mei). Generally speaking 不 is used for present/future negatives (不要 means "I do not want" 不会去 means "I will not go"). All pretty clear so far. But then you start using 没 and you enter the implied zone, which coincides with a sort of past tense. It turns out that (most of the time) 没 is actually 没有 (don't have) with an implied 有。Which is odd, since that is a very common character that is used directly all the time (我有一个问题 means "I have a problem". Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't. I shall call 有 (yo) the Cheshire Cat of Chinese, and 没 is his smile; it lingers while you cannot see the rest of him.

Comparatively strange

I have learned to build comparison sentences like "A is better than B" using 比 (bi). To use it looks something like this: "A 比 B good". In English we could think of this as "A vs. B". Then I came across this sentence 晨跑当然没有夜跑好啊。Broken down this is: "Morning run, of course, not have, night run, good". This is like: "A is not as good as B", which is the opposite structure of 比. So I thought I had discovered a new structure to learn. But, yes, you guessed it, there is an IMPLIED 比. Sadly, my teacher's English was not sufficient to explain this to me completely. I was told that it is implied and it cannot be added back, so I just have to adopt the Chinese mind on this one. I think of it a bit like Neo's trouble understanding that "there is no spoon" is the key to bending the spoon.  

When I'm 64

The Beatle's famous song in Chinese could have been "age 64", no need for the "when". I'm guessing on this one, but I think the lyrics would go something like this:

我64岁,你还是会爱我吗?(Me 64, you still will love me?)

This is really a stealthy form of the implied IF: "IF I was 64, would you still love me?". Of course, Chinese has a word for when, which is 的时候 (or 什么时候 when asking a question rather than making a statement). So they can always put it in the sentence when extra clarity of emphasis is required. 

Much Ado about Context

Chinese is referred to as a "contextual language", even though ultimately, all language is contextual. We know that especially from seeing how the understanding of our own language fades over time. It gets harder and harder to read Shakespeare, for example. However Chinese does make extra use of context. In America we spend time in English class focused on the differences between "there", "their" and "they're" because they sound the same but mean different things (homonyms). Studying Chinese is like that, except where EVERY word is a homonym and key grammatical elements like IF are implied. 

The Chinese Mind (中国人的思维)

Much ink has been spilled considering Eastern vs. Western thought. But I'll add my 2 cents to the dialogue anyway.

Perhaps the Chinese language (Mandarin being the only one I can speak about) forces native speakers to share more of the same way of thinking in order to understand each other because of the limited amount of explicit context. So people avoid straying into new mental territory too quickly. If an individual strays too far from the shared context they will not be understood at all.  The language reenforces the cultural need to be like minded not because of idealogy but simply because of a pragmatic desire to be understood.

Of course, things are changing in China faster than anyone could have imagined. So perhaps the current generation is finding ways to break that barrier.

Today I had a Chinese Mind moment: where I understood the Chinese perspective on a concept. I was in a class with another Western woman who was asking, "What does this 泳 character mean?" and she was told "It doesn't mean anything, it is part of the word 泳远 that means "forever"". I remember feeling the way she did: confused that this individual character 泳 could not have meaning.  But it is all about the context in which it resides, to the Chinese it literally "has no meaning" without its context (in this case 远). But as analytical reductionist thinkers we want to break it down to the individual parts and gain understanding from the meaning of those parts. But Chinese resists this approach. You will go mad trying to think that 泳 has a meaning by itself. You can notice that 泳 seems to be associated with words that relate to a concept similar to "always", but that should only be helpful to remember the actual words, not to draw any conclusions about the "meaning" of 泳. Richard Nisbett expands on this idea of contextual thinking in his book "The Geography of Thought; How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why?". A worthwhile read on the topic.

I will leave you with this painting from an art gallery that I stealthily took from the street. Rows of synchronized TaiChi (太极拳)practicioners in front of a Chinese temple. There is one lone individual out front: is he leading them? has he broken from the pack? Ponder this with whatever type of mind you have handy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Practical Australian English guide for American Immigrants

I've been living in Melbourne, Australia for over 3 years. I made the mistake when I moved here from the US of assuming they spoke the same language but just with a different accent. I had read about 'Strine, a heavy slang based version of Australian that is not commonly spoken in the circles I travel in Melbourne. Those phrases are funny and popular in lists of Australian words. But I was unprepared for the terms that are in common usage here and new to me. Note that British immigrants will find many terms listed here familiar, but since Americans split from the empire much sooner than Australia we developed a more distinct dialect.

The first thing you notice is that Aussies have a great sense of humor. Or at least, they like to think so. They poke and joke and they call it "taking the piss", which is NOT the same as "taking a piss" or "getting pissed", though these often happen in the same venue. It can be quite off putting as a new immigrant, unsure of my place in the social structure and eager to learn the Aussie ways. In the end you just have to learn to be more incredulous of every surprising thing you hear; drop bears are just the beginning!

"Did you know that wombats' poo is square?" or "A Tasmanian devil ate my tires!" - I'll leave it to the reader to figure out which is true, I have heard both at a recent cocktail party.

And now for my handy list of practical words an American needs to know when relocating to Australia. Please send me your favorites and I'll add them on.

coriander = "cilantro", one of my favorite herbs, the seed and the leaves have the same name in Australia

rocket = "arugula", a slightly bitter lettuce common at cafés here. This one I learned in London, so I figure it must be a British label.

capsicum = "bell pepper", I suppose the Aussie version is technically more accurate since it uses the latin word, but I still prefer the "bell" shaped reference

fairy floss = "cotton candy"

icy pole = "popsicle"

skinny = not just for jeans, use this when ordering a "skim" milk drink

cap = short for "capuccino", my morning starts with a "skinny cap"

reckon = as in "I reckon it will take 5 minutes", used instead of "I think" or as a quick way to agree with someone "yeah, I reckon"

heaps = same meaning as "lots" but used lots more, I reckon it is one of the more common words I hear

old mate = used instead of "whatshisname" or "whatamacallit" when you can't remember or are too lazy to name a place or person. As in "I reckon old mate will be here soon". Hopefully you know who they are talking about from context.

chips = "french fries" as in "fish and chips", but also used to mean "potato chips", which the British call "crisps", but the Aussies just overload "chips" for both types of crispy potatoes. Very common to order a "bowl of chips" at a pub with beers.

sanga = "sandwhich"

burger = any sanga with some form of patty, usually round; can be beef, lamb, chicken, fish, vege. 

sauce = multipurpose: any liquid condiment that you can put on a sanga or burger. Typically tomato or bbq. Aussies love their sauces.

tomato sauce = "ketchup". Typically a bit less sweet here and more tomato flavored. Note that what American's call "tomato sauce" is called "marinara sauce" here. You may also hear "dead horse" or "deadorse" when someone is using 'strine to be funny, ask them to tell you why they call it that.

pumpkin = "butternut squash" or other forms of squash. You will not find big orange jack-o-lantern style pumpkins here.

corn flower = "corn starch"

polenta = "corn meal"

university/uni = "college". As in "when I was in uni..."

maths = "math". Why is there an extra 's', it is just one subject!!!!

drink driving = "drunk driving" 

Autumn = "fall". I note this one because if you say "fall" out of context, they won't know what you mean, just stick to Autumn.

toilet = "restroom". Some people use "loo" in Aussie, but the word on all the signs is "toilet" and "restroom" confuses them.

bin = "garbage can"

rubbish = "trash" or "garbage"

car park = "garage". I get laughed at sometimes for using "garage", it is the most common word that gets me mocked for my strong American pronunciation of "a". Houses have a "garage", cities have "car parks".

fringe = "bangs". Remember that "she bangs like a dunny door" is a 'strine reference to sex and avoid using "bangs" at the salon.

serviette or tissue = "napkin". They know what you mean when you ask for a napkin at a café, but I was told by a friend that they usually reserve the word napkin to refer to the feminine variety.

fanny = "vagina", so best not to talk about your "fanny pack"

rubber = "eraser", not a condom

doing it tough = "having a hard time" 

on the dole = "on welfare". Except that the whole system is different, so it is hard to make a direct comparison.

pants = "pants" (British say "underpants"- thanks for the correction!)

trousers = "pants" (another way to say it)

pushbike = "bicycle". They do ride them rather than pushing them, so I'm not sure where this came from.

dinking = riding with a friend on handlebars of a pushbike. And you thought it meant something naughty!

beetroot = "beet". To me it is obvious it is a root and so why add the extra 4 letters. Odd that the Aussies go through the effort of the full word given their tendancy to shorten everything else. These show up in the most unlikely places, including on burgers with an egg.

caster sugar = finer grain "granulated sugar". This one drove me nuts at the supermarket. I just had to buy a bag and take it home to find out.

onesie = no longer just for babies, this is a popular form of costume for adults and you will see them for sale in the oddest places.

Ripper! = "Brilliant!" or "Awesome!" Remember not to pronounce the second 'r', it is more like "rippa!" Usage is well demonstrated in the classic Aussie film "The Castle", which you must watch because otherwise your Aussie friends will keep asking you if you've watched it yet.

chockers = "full" kind of like "Chock full of nuts", but it can be used to express how crowded a place is, as in "that pub was chockers".

chuck = "toss", as in "chuck it in the boot"

boot = "trunk", clearly a Britishism

bum = "butt"

mum = "mom"

bubba = "baby"

chook = "chicken"

How ya going? = "how are you?"

cuppa = cup of tea

flat white = somewhere between a latte and a cappucino, but very inconsistent from cafe to cafe I find

CBD = "central business district". This is a global English term and basically means "downtown"

bloke = "guy"

hens night = "bachelorette party"

bucks night = "bachelor party" ... what does this say about gender stereotypes here? I leave it to the reader to decide. 

milkshake = a sweet, flavored glass of milk

thickshake = closer to an American "milkshake"

slice = a dessert that is cut from a sheet into rectangles. Common instances are "lemon slice" or "caramel slice"

bake = "casserole", as in "pasta bake" which is kind of like baked ziti.

lollies = "candy"

tick = "check", as in "I got that done, tick!" or "tick the box"

In a tick/just a tick = "in a minute/just a moment"

dosh = "cash", as in "I need to get some dosh from the ATM"

quay = a location by the water, pronounced "key"

pokies = "poker slot machines", commonly found in pubs as well as casinos since gambling is legal in Australia 

prozzie = "prostitute", legal in some states in registered brothels

mozzie = "mosquito", sadly they have them here too

fuel/petrol = "gas"

servo = "gas station"

barbie = Bar-B-Q or "grill"

prawns = "jumbo shrimp", I haven't seen what I know as "bay shrimp" here at all, they only seem to have the big kind of shrimp. Yes they put them on the barbie, but if you say "put another shrimp on the barbie" you will get glared at.

esky = "cooler"

bench = "countertop"

lounge = "couch"

brolly = "umbrella" - I just learned this one from the Facebook forum for "Yanks Down Under", good addition! The contributor asks, "why not brelly?" and I think that is an excellent question!!

footpath = "sidewalk"

trolley = "shopping cart", and the ones in Melbourne are coin operated. My theory is that it is too expensive to hire staff to collect them ($15 min wage) so they make it so you have a $2 incentive to return the cart.

shops = "mall"

ta = "thanks"


This is just the list I felt would be most useful, clearly there are many more. 

Some other quick tips for new American immigrants:

1. When attempting to pronounce place names: soften your 'r's. For example "Cairns" is pronounced like "Cannes" and "Prahran" is "Praan".

2. They use grams and kilometers. So when you hear "kilo" it could refer to kilogram or kilometer depending on the conversation.

3.  Everything can be shortened and a 'y' or 'ie' added: brekkie for breakfast, lappy for laptop, tradey for tradesman,  sparky for electrician, etc. Make up your own and try it out!

Here's some other fun reading on the topic of Aussie and British English:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fein Walkabout - Sorted

I named my blog 'A Fein Walkabout' as a flippant reference to a significant ritual that used to mark the coming of age of males in the Aboriginal culture of Australia. I like to think my time here has been proof of my ability to withstand pain and survive in new lands - if not exactly in the way of the ancient people - but I know very little about exactly what a true Walkabout entails.

So I signed up for a spot on the Blue Mountains Walkabout to see what more I could learn. The email directed us to meet on the train platform at Faulconbrigde at 10:50am, a very precise time that aligned with the train schedule, but not our guide's arrival time.

The four of us: myself (the American), a male Austrian backbacker on a multi-month Asia Pacific tour, and a mother/daughter pair from Paris visiting Sydney for 10 days, had gathered at the station and waited patiently for the tour to begin. Within 10 minutes, Evan came walking up the road, wide brimmed hat and backpack - looking like a proper outdoorsy Australian. As we walked together he explained that the Aboriginal gene for dark skin is recessive, which is why he looks the same as the British settlers rather than the original peoples of Australia. The last of his full-blood people died in the 1800's.

Evan did his best to keep the day focused on positive things, but there is always a tinge of sadness to contemplate the end of an ancient civilization. The Aboriginal people lived on Australia for over 60,000 according to Evan. I'd heard statements from other sources that "Aboriginals were the oldest continuous culture, surviving for over 40,000 years", but I'm sure it is hard to date things of that age especially given Aboriginals did not have a written language. It is also a bit fuzzy to speak of Aboriginals as a single entity since there were so many tribes and languages (250 language groups and 500 dialects). Evan represents the bloodline of the "Darug" (yam eaters) people, a collection of clans spread from Botany Bay in Sydney to the Blue Mountains (1.5 hour train ride away). There are few remaining speakers of the original language and he is not one of them, but Evan shared some terms with us. Note that there is no standadized spelling for these terms (since writing is only something that has been adopted with recent generations) and this is poorly documented in general. As someone who is used to having all information at my fingertips, it was interesting to spend a day learning through stories in the way that all humans used to acquire information. It requires patience, attention, focus and practice to absorb information in this way.

New ways must be practiced for a moon before they have an impact on your life. This was the first wisdom of the tour, dispensed at the turn off from the sealed road onto a dirt "road".

The road less travelled
This tour was not just a history lesson about how people used to live, it was a chance to learn about things Aboriginals used to do that could apply to modern life to counter modern maladies that they did not suffer. Evan calmly challenged us to absorb these lessons or "challenges" today and practice them for 28 days. He was soft spoken, and at first I felt the pace was a bit slow, but as he wove his spell througout the day I came to appreciate the way he slowed our minds by pacing his words so we could be present with his words and focused on the challenges.

We had walked away from the train station, where there are modern bathroom facilities, before he asked us about needing a toilet break. He pointed the women in one direction and the men in the other, putting a hand up to me as I attempted to move down the trail, which was in the "male" direction. I can only assume it was intentional that he made the first bathroom break in the bush. Welcome to the Walkabout; there are no toilets here.

Can you spot the green beetle?
I had my camera with me so I was happily snapping shots early in the tour, until it became clear that this tour was about being present, not documenting for those who are not there. I snapped this green beetle early on and then later we ate the fruit of this type of tree as "bush tucker".

Almost immediately after we stepped off the dirt "road" onto an unmarked path into the bush, we stopped for another lesson. Evan was here to help us connect with the "Dreaming", which is a way of being connected to the spirit of everything in the past, present and future. This is what Catholics achieve in their awe inspiring cathedrals, Southern Baptists achieve with Gospel song and dance, Yogis with Asanas and chants (Evan didn't tell us that, but I extrapolated). And that day in the Blue Mountains we achieved it by feeling our body's energy through the experience of the natural world around us. Evan encouraged us to touch everything (rocks, trees, plants and water), walk softly and dance! 

The sap is good for wounds, and also for fueling fires
The tree in the photo above is a Sydney Red Gum, similar to Eucalyptus. The sap oozes out as a red, gummy substance and can be used as an antiseptic. This sap is what makes these trees burn so well, which is why bush fires are a big problem for communities near the forests. Despite being aware of the dangers and the need for these forests to burn for their reproduction and health, modern Australians still struggle to find a balance. It is known that Aboriginals did controlled burns to make sure the plants that needed fire to seed would flourish. I don't know whether they also suffered from out of control blazes, but it seems possible. Perhaps that is why they didn't create permanent settlements like other long lived ancient cultures. "Lightning brother" is one of the forms of the Rainbow serpent, the source of creativity in the Dreaming. Clearly they respected the power of lightning to bring change to their world. 

Note: filter used to bring out red color in the scene and contrast with the forest, the red is the actual color, but all other color has been removed.
Evan pointed to another tree, where the bark peels off like paper and called it the "bandaid" tree, because the bark was antiseptic and antifungal. Now that we have antibiotic resistent super bugs perhaps we'll need this knowledge again soon.

We came to a sacred place and Evan suggested we remove our shoes to feel more grounded on the rock. A few of us did so and it was nice to feel the ground as he told his stories about this sacred place where people carved their symbols into the rock a long time ago and then held their initiation ceremonies. Evan did not know the exact age of the carvings present, but they are likely to be thousands of years old. It was awe inspiring to come across this site so close to the train station, yet unmarked and unnoticed by so many.

Female Rainbow Serpent, the eyes are at the top and the body is wide and then tapers to a tail. This hole was natural, giving the site its sacred status. There is a male version of the rainbow serpent that is more snakelike in form.
The female refers to the earth and the male to the spirit (or sky).
Swamp Wallaby (looks like a mini Kangaroo) carved into the rock along the Song line where rituals were performed over thousands of years. There was also a joey (baby wallaby) and other symbols nearby.

We walked further into the bush, stopping for stories, to sample bush tucker (food) and to feel the ground, trees and plants. After about an hour, I was starting to feel the pace and settle into the rhythm of Evan's stories and lessons. The Aboriginal society was very segmented by gender: men's business and women's business. Evan often used the word "sorted" to describe Aboriginal life. It seemed to be highly disciplined and ritualized. Life progressed through phases and you were led through the right phases for your gender using initiations and rituals. Women had 5 major initiations and men had around 10. The women's initiations centered around their natural cycles: menstration, child birth and menopause. Men had more initiations because they were tasked with the spiritual aspects of clan life  (which required more practice) and because women were busy with the children. 

That kind of comment would have once inflamed my feminist side, but these days I recognize the reality of how hard raising children is, and that it is an important role that should be more respected in our modern age than it is. I do not know for sure how "respected" Aboriginal women were by our standards, but I'm guessing they were respected for their proscribed roles, and veering from those roles was not as respected. Evan emphasized that their world was "sorted", meaning both "figured out" as well as "organized into logical groups". There was work that women did and work that men did. One of his take home points of wisdom was to arrange your own life in a way that had clear lines of responsibility - a truism they also teach in management courses, yet so often ignored. Many of us have thrown off the traditional separation of duties, but not everyone has a comfortable replacement that balances responsibilities in a way that both people respect. While I can see the appeal of sorting on gender lines, I like to think as modern people we have the capacity to make finer distinctions and still have clear lines of responsibility.

One of the rites of passage for men he described included knocking out one of the man's front tooth. I commented that this seemed a bit impractical, and Evan retorted that you couldn't fake it. Today we often struggle with building "trust" and "identity" in the online world, because it is easier to fake pretty much everything. In the clan, there was no faking it - either you made it through the initiations and became a man or you didn't - and everyone could tell at a glance; effective if a bit brutal by our standards.

Cave ceiling with intricate natural patterns.
Rainbow in the rock makes this a sacred place
For lunch, we sat in the shade of a large open cave. I could have stared up at the rock formations for hours, but sadly the wind whipped the sand up and we had to move on. The pictures only capture a glimpse of the feeling of being in that space, I would recommend the tour just to visit this cave.

While we ate the lunches we brought with us (not bush tucker), Evan drew some symbols for us and gave us material to paint. At first I was put off by the black charcoal I was given when Evan explained it symbolized death, but then he added that it also symbolizes change. Since I'm happily in the midst of a lot of change I decided to draw a meeting circle in black and then used the reddish brown coloring to paint a female rainbow serpent on my arm to represent the earth mother that Evan spoke of often as we walked through her realm.

Samples of symbols used in aboriginal painting: emu, kangaroo, male rainbow serpent on the left, female on the right
Meeting place on the hand, female rainbow serpent on my arm

We walked along the song line (literally a path that would have been walked while singing) which was also a ravine. The path was not straightforward, but I loved that it felt like we had gone off a typical trail and felt very much a part of the bush. I was so engrossed that I didn't take any pictures; Evan would approve.

We ended our tour with more stories which I will not spoil for those who will take this tour some day. As a closing ritual Evan used the Bullroare, a device that makes an interesting noise and was used to communicate across distances by men only. Out of respect, I closed my eyes so as not to observe the man's business, but I listened and enjoyed the meditative whirring sound as an appropriate end to the lessons of the day.

We were returned on schedule to the train station and I made my train back to Wentworth Falls. I took the long way back to my B&B via the Charles Darwin Walk, a lovely track cut through the town along a little stream. It was quite well maintained and there were houses just up the hill; a stark contrast to the bush trail I had just been on. Yet I still saw a big lizard lounging in the late day sun and encountered more spring flowers - including the Waratah, a flowering shrub unique to Australia, this variety is the state emblem of New South Whales (where the Blue Mountains are).

Waratah flower in full bloom
As I walked, I did my best to feel grounded and touch the trees and plants as Evan had taught us. It was an exquisite day and I am grateful for the time to appreciate and be present in the company of someone who had many stories to share from the Dreaming.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sydney Showing Off

Melbourne and Sydney have the type of rivalry you'd expect from the two largest cities in Australia. Thankfully, Sydney did not win the Grand Finals of Footy (Australian Rules Football) this year. But they can always fall back on the honor of having the largest natural harbour in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful. Plus, this weekend, I was impressed by the art on display, all for free.

The harbour was on proper display as the day was a perfect spring day. Chase and Sasha were my hosts and we started with brekkie at the Cafe inside the Kirribilli ferry station. Then we hopped the ferry across to Circular Quay (pronouned Key).

Above: Poached egg on smashed peas, with chorizo, salad and toasted sourdough.
Below: Sailing the harbour in front of the Prime Minister's Sydney home.

We were pleasantly surprised to encounter the #chalkurbanart festival going on and spent a bit of time admiring and posing with the art, including the big one in front of the customs house. 

Above: Chase got a little stronger
Below: 6 chalk artists collaborated to create one gigantic piece of 3D art that you could pose in the middle of and have a photo taken from the 3rd floor of the customs house.

We caught the bus to Bondi Beach and got the requisite ice cream and hot dog to fuel our walk. 

I've been living in Australia for 3.5 years and I finally made it to the famous Bondi!

There is a nice path that runs south from Bondi Beach along the coast and this weekend we were lucky/unlucky enough to be there when the "Sculpture by the Sea" was on. The sculptures came in all sorts of shapes, sizes and themes. Some of my favorites below. We didn't splurge for the guide, so we can only guess at the true meaning.

One of our favorites was what we dubbed "Rocks n' Socks", since it looked like piles of rocks all lovingly wrapped in thin white socks and arranged so they almost blended in with the natural rocks. What does it mean!?

This black obsidian sculpture had striking lines and a shiny finish. I liked the rough edges as well.

Above: The crowds stretched along the entire path, as far as the eye can see.
Below: They do not realize they are being watched by one of the clones from "Attack of the Clones"

Chase contemplates the meaning of a collection of plastic bottle caps woven together with zip ties and filled with plastic jugs. "Overconsumption" was a number of pieces spread over the rocks like dead giant squids. *Note: color has been modified for effect

Black swans made from re-used wooden furniture. 

Chase does not approve of the dog cone.

Overconsumption seen from above.

At the sculpture that looked like a giant funeral pyre, we decided the wind and crowds had worn us out and decided to take a break. While laying on the grass we watched a bird literally hover, wings outstretched and not moving forward, back, sideways, just perfectly balanced in the air. It was an impressive combination of wind and bird behavior. I hope it was as fun as it looked. (sorry, no picture)

Lunch called to us from a pop-up cafe in a sea themed cottage in the midst of the sculptures. Tasty fried shrimp, burger and fries, plus a pastry for dessert, yummy!

Out front was a unique sculpture that looked like two tree houses connected by a wooden bridge, but one was a classic western house shape singing Hallelujah and the other was playing a call to prayer and looked like a mineret. The songs alternated and made you look back and forth between the two mini structures along the bridge. I liked the commentary, especially given my personal bridging of these two worlds.

Back at Bondi Beach, we sat and watched the surfers a bit and then we got an unexpected show. If you want to know the story, message me. No, there was not a shark attack.

Sydney always impresses when I visit, but I'm still glad I live in Melbourne.