English As She Is Spoke*

When I first arrived in Canada it came as quite a surprise to me to discover I spoke a different language, despite having emigrated here from an English speaking country (the UK).  Aisha, a more recent arrival, wrote a great blog post listing the new words she’s had to learn and I made the following comment.

“I will always remember my first day of working in Canada in 1979. I was sent downstairs to the coffee shop to buy coffee and muffins. I looked high and low for “muffins” but all I could find were “buns”   Returning without them, a patient but amused colleague had to take me back down again and explain what “muffins” were in Canada.”

Like many immigrants I was determined to pick up the lingo as soon as possible in order to become “Canadian,” and I quickly learned to say “tomayto” and “garbage” instead of “tomahhto” and “rubbish.”

While this was my first encounter with another form of the English language, it certainly wasn’t the last.  In Baku I discovered a surprising number of locals were fluent in English, even though they’d never met a native English speaker.  All their studying had been done from textbooks written in the 1950s and long playing gramophone records of similar vintage from the BBC.  As a result they all spoke like the Queen ;)  You can imagine their confusion when they encountered English speaking oil workers from Aberdeen and Houston.

I frequently found myself playing the role of interpreter between the English speaking expats.  “I’m going for ma messages, hen” (I’m going shopping, dear) would baffle the Texans, while any American reference to “fanny packs” would turn the Scots pink with embarrassment.

Amaliya, my Russian teacher, once asked me how to pronounce “ask.”  Was it a long “a” as in “park” or a short one as in “pack?”  She wasn’t happy with my answer that both were correct.  In fact even within the UK both are correct, depending on which part of the country you’re from, and don’t even get me started on my Louisiana friend who would say “Can I aks you a question?”

In Dubai there were South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders with their breezy slang, “no worries, mate” and “come for a Barbie” as well as the Indian tailor who made me “a trouser” (pair of pants), the Pakistani taxi driver who picked me up from the “backside” (rear) of my building, and my young Filipino friends who went “malling” (shopping) at the weekend.  This funny blog post lampooning “Dubai English” which it describes as a cheerful combination of Arabic, English, Hindi/Urdu and Tagalog spoken with a sing-song accent will make you smile if you’re familiar with any of those cultures.

I love the fact that so many people have taken English and changed it to suit their circumstances, whether as a first, second, third language.  Not only does it make life much easier for me, lol (my attempts to learn other languages haven’t met with much success) but it also makes for a bubbling hot pot of words and phrases that tickle my senses.

Now that I’m back in Canada I’m doing my best to speak “Canadian” again, but find I’m reluctant to give up all the fun vocabulary I’ve picked up along the way.  Perhaps I’ll settle for speaking a bit of everything; it suits my new hybrid identity.

*”English As She Is Spoke” is the title of a 19th century book intended as a Portuguese/English phrase book, notorious for its dreadful but humorous translations.

Third Culture Kids starting careers

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a pot luck dinner for a bunch of young adult Third Culture Kids.  Alaine Handa and her dance company were in town, performing at the Toronto Fringe Festival and they came together with several others connected with the local TCK community.

As we chatted the conversation naturally turned to these young people’s careers.   All were at some stage on the path to establishing themselves in the working world and several were living outside their home country or not in the same country as their parents.  Anyone with a 20-something child knows how difficult it is these days for young people to get a start.  Getting any job is hard, and there are often many false starts and changes of direction.  From my own family’s experience I know it is hard when kids can’t tap into their parents’ network of contacts, friends and colleagues.  Many TCKs haven’t held part-time jobs through high school and trail competing candidates when it comes to local work experience.

Watching my own son look for his first job, together with my own job search upon repatriation, was an eye-opener for me on how much the working world has changed in recent years.  Internships and contract work are the norm, as are many more part-time jobs with evening and weekend hours than used to be the case.  Employees, even freshly minted grads, are expected to perform “out-of-the-box,” with little or no training and flexibility is key.

While TCKs may lag their contemporaries when it comes to contacts and experience, many of the common characteristics of TCKs will stand them in good stead in this new environment.

  • The ability to adapt quickly to new situations
  • Willingness to relocate
  • A sense of urgency (let’s do it now, before we move again)
  • Self confidence and independence
  • Observational skills
  • Fluency in more than one language
  • Cross cultural skills
  • A global network of social contacts (which may eventually turn into business contacts)
  • A big picture view

Far from being at a disadvantage, I suspect that today’s TCKs have a significant advantage over their stay-at-home counterparts.  Certainly these particular TCKs seem to be taking it all in their stride.

Memories of Cairo

I have a particular affection for Egypt, having lived in Cairo for a year with my family.  On Monday my husband said “I wish we were there,” as we watched the massive and inspiring demonstrations in Tahrir Square, but since then things have turned violent and the outcome is still uncertain, so I suspect that like many others by now we’d be queuing at the airport.

Although the political ramifications are huge, what I think about most is the fate of the average Egyptian, the kind of people we knew on a day-to-day basis.

What has happened to Mr Salah, my husband’s driver?  We quickly learned from him that Egyptians like to be addressed in what, to us, seemed a more formal style, so he was always “Mr” Salah.  His English was shaky (although far better than my Arabic) and he often got words confused.  When driving us past the Egyptian Museum (in Tahrir Square) he proudly waved his arm at what he called “The Egyptian Limousine.”  :)

What has happened to Magdi, the taxi driver who worked from the taxi stand at the end of our street?  Once a week he’d ferry my husband and son to their RC car club meeting, my husband hanging on to the passenger door for dear life, so it wouldn’t swing open as they went round corners.

And Magdi’s colleague, Mr Adel?  The first time he picked me up from the supermarket he told me I didn’t need to give him directions because he already knew where I lived, and I should tell my son it was alright for him to answer when he said good morning to him on his way to school .  It was only then that I realized what a small “village” I lived in and that all the locals already knew all about the new family in Digla.

Has Dr Ghaly’s family medicine practice been affected?  Do the expatriates still gape with amazement as he summons his assistant with a bell to bring him a pen so he can write a prescription?

Does the unlikely Engineer Mohammed still own the knitting wool shop in Horia Square, where I used to buy supplies for my craft group?

And does Engineer Gamal still bring his apprentice to clean the air conditioning units, perching on top of them with a dust pan and brush, 9 floors up, much to my horror and amazement?

We lived in Cairo through 2001 and after that dreadful day in September, the biggest worry for all these people was the effect it would have on the Egyptian economy.  Their reaction may at first seem heartless, but the reality is they live a precarious hand-to-mouth existence and are very dependent on the expatriate and tourist trade.  Fortunately in 2001 Egypt remained peaceful and there were no evacuations, but how are they coping now?

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Help at home

Ask any expat about household help while living overseas and they’ll have a story to tell you, often not a good one.  For many westerners, going overseas is the first time they employ a maid, a gardener or a driver and our inexperience shows.  We’re uncomfortable with strangers poking through our physical and psychological dirty laundry and usually end up expecting less and paying more than the going rate, making ourselves unpopular with the locals. But every once in a while there’s a happy story . . .

Tania was my cleaning lady in Baku.  After a disastrous first attempt with a woman sent from my husband’s company, I smartened up and asked my new expat friends for a referral.  Tania cleaned for the American family upstairs and already knew we westerners liked hot water, lots of detergent and different cloths for the toilet and sink – hurrah!   She was hired.

At first I thought it was a disadvantage that she didn’t speak a word of English, particularly as my Russian was non-existent at the time, but we managed with lots smiles and pantomime.  However as my language skills slowly improved with lessons, I began to see the benefits.  You see Tania loved to talk.  She came to me in the afternoons, and as I knew she’d been working all morning, I’d sit her down for a few minutes in my tiny kitchen, we’d have a cup of tea and a slice of cake and she’d chat away to me.

She talked to me in very basic Russian, like a mother talking to a toddler.  Soon I began to understand at least some of what she was saying.  She’d tell me about her family, her husband who couldn’t get a job and her son who she wanted to go to university so he could avoid military service (she was worried about the prevalence of TB in the army barracks, a not unwarranted concern).  She’d tell me about her church, their services and Sunday outings.  She was a born-again-Christian and her conversation was peppered with “Слава Богу” (praise God).  But best of all she’d tell me the gossip about all the other western families she cleaned for, who was untidy, who spoiled their children, who treated their driver badly and what new purchases they’d made.

Fortunately I didn’t have many skeletons to hide and was happy to answer her many questions about what I was cooking for dinner, my house in Canada and what to her seemed like an apartment full of wonderful gadgets.  All this was a considerable linguistic challenge and we were constantly running to my Russian dictionary, but it was a great boost to my growing vocabulary and fluency.

Convinced we weren’t eating properly she’d sometimes bring me huge cauldrons of borscht, enough to feed an army.  In return I loaned her videos of Mr Bean.  She taught me the local tradition of keeping a row of cheap slippers, just inside my front door, for the benefit of visitors. When I threw out my son’s socks because they had holes in, she humbled me by retrieving them from the bin so should darn them and give them to children in her building.

Her eyesight was weak, but vanity (and perhaps economy) held her back from wearing glasses.  As a result her cleaning wasn’t always top notch.  But no matter, she had a big heart and as a teacher of language and local culture, her value to me was without price.

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