Miriam Feder home


Report 16: My last week here

I’m stripping down the apartment I thought was already stripped down. The tasks feel a bit sad and good at the same time. How could I have accumulated so many papers? These are the natural nesting material of the mature Miriam. She keeps business cards,scribbled notes and tourist booklets in tiny piles in case their information isever again valuable. Now she finally knows which few may ever serve. The rest cluster in the routine garbage—arggghhh it’s so hard to mix paper, tissue,fruit peels and plastic. At home each worship at a different shrine.

Which things will I pack and by what logic? Which things will I ship? Which things will I use this week and give away or discard. Hand-wash, or launder? I came with carefully considered items I might need that I haven’t touched at all or not much in my three months here. (Most of these are first aid items or malaria prevention.) Which of those still might save the day, which were misguided(long sleeved shirts although North Vietnam will be much cooler.) Which still have purpose to fulfill? (I’m down to one more recipe for hair coloring, a carefully planned event.) Where does malaria lurk in Vietnam? in Sabah province? Why is the US CDC’s fancy map system so much harder to use than the simple one put out by the British Embassy? Will I bring this same discernment to my things at home or be relieved that I have other things to think about, place enough to stash and forget and no need to shlep it all with me every third day on a public conveyance? Yes to all, as always.

Enough massaging the stuff. On to some questions from my loyal corps. Has the curlycue printing of Khmer taken on any meaning for me? I’m told and believe that I lost the ability to make African clicking sounds at 5—barely before Miriam Makeba soared across my Sunday evenings. I wonder when I lost the patience to try and sort out a new alphabet? Young friends recently took on Russian, in Russia. Would I?

I’m often scanning awnings for an Arabic street number. My eye cast saway the curly letters without really even seeing them: this needs be fast work. Without that urgency—do I turn or do I go straight? Too far or yet to come? —my eyes grab onto the right hand side of the phrase. Khmer is read left to right but my eye always tries to make it into Hebrew, the only non-Arabic lettering it ever struggled to learn. So that’s still where I am. Three months and no progress whatsoever, not even an attempt. Khmer remains not-the-two alphabets that could provide me any meaning (mind you, the Hebrew in my head will only serve on Saturdays and other holidays.)

Both my language learning and my language teaching petered out a long time ago. I was enthusiastic about teaching but my office mates really didn’t have the time and critical mass. They travel a lot for work. The schedule we set up was really not feasible. My work also prevented me from the continuity I needed with my less-experienced students—our GYA members who come to practice computer skills. And they also had unexplained but real conflicts with the established time.

Once my workstation moved out of the room with the white board, the staff and I forgot about the word-a-day program I was on. I think about the language learning that people get here all the time and devise solutions in my head. My own routine contribution is to speak English clearly, somewhat slowly and well and to accumulate good examples of phrases that come up to leave with my work colleagues. I can use a few—shamefully few—handy Khmer phrases and I can accomplish business transactions with the international tools that have always served me well—a quick smile, fluent hands,willingness to play charades and a sincere belief that both sides want to make this work. In the Cambodian people I have had a ready ally for this sort of language.

That said, I’ve just arranged for a tour of Ho Chih Minh City next Monday with a student from Saigon Hotspot, a group of students who do free city tours in exchange for the opportunity to practice their English with you I will be responsible for any transport costs and museum admissions and I’ll have a buddy for the day who wants to speak my crazy valuable language with me. This sounds delightful. If I like it I’ll arrange for a similar tour when I know my schedule for Hanoi, the point for my Vietnam wanderings. I had a retired female volunteer tour guide in Chicago last time I was there and just loved it. People are often awesome.