February 27, 2017

Katakana: The Japanese-English Secret Decoder Ring

My sabbatical linguistic goals for Asia were focused on one language -- Japanese. 

Trying very hard to be culturally appropriate!
The pie in the sky goal was that I would study Japanese every day and improve my limited skills both before arriving *and* while in the country (where it is always easiest for me to study a language).  Also, I was determined to be able to read both Hiragana and Katakana before the end of our visit to Asia.

Classic example of 1/3 hiragana, 1/3 katagana, 1/3 kanji at the Sake Tasting.
Turns out, the study every day while in *other* foreign countries where no one speaks Japanese plan did not go well.  The logistics of managing travel while in South East Asian chaos plus a desire to enjoy the things we did do, plus my brain attaching to the local sounds of the local foreign language, meant that I just couldn't (or didn't) want to make much time for Japanese in South East Asia.  I probably only fit in 1 Japanese study session per week for the first 6 weeks of the Asia trip.

Oh, well.  I started studying for real when we boarded the first plane (of 3) for Japan.

Hiragana is the curlier/rounder phonetic system they teach schoolchildren first.  Japanese words are written in Hiragana when they are intended to be easy to understand.  If you know your Sushi fish orders in Japanese, for example, you can easily read or recognize Maguro, Sake, Ika, Hirame, Saba, Uni, etc. which are written in Hiragana on a sushi menu (or traveling sign on conveyer-belt sushi).

Example of hiragana train help.
If you get on the wrong train in a rural area, they will often write the name of the previous and last train station in Hiragana with arrows, which is super helpful if you couldn't recognize the Kanji (complex imported Chinese characters) in the station, couldn't understand the announcements, and you need to know if you are headed in the correct direction.

Nighttime view of Kakegawa Castle.
Hiragana had already saved me a couple of times on our last visit, so I knew it was a valuable thing to know.  However, I'd originally thought that Hiragana would be super helpful, but really, it was only helpful where the level of help you need is the type of written information that would be helpful for a fluent Japanese-speaking 1st grader who is learning how to read phonetically (i.e. NOT ME).

What I'd learned last time was that the average thing I'm trying to read in Japan (menu, sign with directions or warnings, etc.) is likely 1/3 Hiragana, 1/3 Katakana, and 1/3 Kanji.  I know about 50 Kanji from my Mandarin studies and even though they pay dividends in both Japanese and Chinese, I didn't intend to do any more work on them this trip (because they are hard!).

Katakana is a separate, 2nd phonetic writing system (more angular and sharp) that is used to transliterate foreign words into the Japanese phonetic system.  Initially, I was a little annoyed that I had to learn 2 different phonetic systems for the same sets of Japanese sounds.

Hiragana "Gi" flashcard -- typical Japanese vocabulary with explanations.
But then, I started my Katakana flashcards.  The Romaji (Roman alphabet transliteration) for all of the examples were so easy to understand.  Unlike Hiragana where I can only sound out things and match them up if I *already* know the word in Japanese, Katakana is for FOREIGN words.  Guess what?  Most of the foreign words in Japanese are from English!

Katakana "Gi" flashcard -- note the English cognates.

All of a sudden, just by learning 48 phonetic symbols, I could read things and sound them out and understand a *ton* more of what was going on.

Washington Hotel Plaza
The only visible sign for our hotel from the street
Katakana for the win!
I've *never* studied a language where there was an imported subset of the language that was derived from English and called out to you in a completely separate writing system.  It's seriously mind-blowing.  You just learn a character set and something that is incomprehensible is magically translated into English-sounding words with a heavy Japanese accent.

I basically walked around sounding out
signs all day and night.
I tried to explain it to E, but I'm always getting excited about linguistic stuff and wanting to ramble on about it and we are more than half a year in to the year of travel, so at this point E usually just sort of just mumbles appreciation for the points I'm making and half-listens.  That is, until we sat at an Izakaya and I sounded out the various sections of the otherwise incomprehensible drink menu:

Bi-ru (long i, like ee in English) -- Beer
U-wi-su-ki (long U, like ewe) -- Whisky
Wa-i-n  -- Wine
So-fu-to-du-ri-n-ku (long O, like sew) -- Soft Drink
A-i-su-ku-rii-mu -- Ice Cream

And so on...And then, his mind was blown too!  He's watched me try to remember the vocabulary necessary to translate a menu too many times to count.  This was not that!  He could listen to me sound things out, and, often, because he was only listening to the noises, he could understand what it was supposed to be in English while I was still focused on the Katakana and how to pronounce each one correctly. 

French Fries? フライドポテト (Fu-ra-i-do-po-te-to) (e like Spanish, "ay")

Katakana is like a secret Japanese decoder ring for English speakers!  There are even multiple words that have a traditional Japanese pronunciation as well as a Katakana imported foreign pronunciation and you can just totally cheat and use the foreign pronunciation.  I've *never* leveled up in my comprehension of a language as fast I did learning Katakana.

Typical hand-written menu

We had fun deploying this power for the rest of the trip.  We could now go into small local restaurants with no English or pictures and handwritten menus (where we couldn't cheat with Google translate) and bumble our way to get seated, and then sound out the portion of the menu in hiragana and katakana and order.  It was great -- typically 50% of the time we knew what we were getting, 25% we knew some of what the ingredients were but not all or the preparation so we were usually pleasantly surprised, and 25% of the time, the server either refused to serve us what we requested, or explained in more detail because we clearly didn't fully understand.

Final Thought: Of course the best example of leveling up and superpowers I've ever experienced in real life come from an experience in Japan.  Of course.

February 25, 2017

Japan: The Route (JR Pass optimization)

First Shinkansen of the Trip
So, for most of this year's travels, we've been planning a few days to a week or maybe 10 days in advance.  We'll put some hard dates and locations in the excel spreadsheet (of course there is one!) for things where we actually need to be somewhere (flights, holidays, weddings, visits with friends, etc.) and then just fill in the blanks as it strikes our fancy.

Part of this is because in most of our travels, it's been impossible to know exactly how things will turn out, how long it will take us to accomplish what we think we'd like to do, and how the next step of travel will work, so it's just easier to go with the flow.

Hiking Fuji-san is totally a bucket list item (look at those switchbacks!) but not this trip.
Japan is pretty much the opposite of the rest of the countries we've visited this trip with respect to ability to plan.  Everything works here.  Since we were still in Southeast Asia mode, we didn't get around to booking our flight to Tokyo from HCMC until about a week before we took it (but we've had our flight back to California since before the end of 2016).

So, about a week before we arrived, we finally knew we were flying in to Tokyo (we'd actually hoped to fly into Fukuoka, but we waited too long and the flights were too expensive), we knew we were leaving from Tokyo, and we knew we had 18 nights in between.  We had no real idea where we were going, just some rough "that would be cool" inclinations.  Folks, what I can tell you is that this is not how most foreigners "plan" their trips to Japan.  For good reason.

One of infinite underground tunnels between train and metro stations.
First, there's the JR pass.  This is a very big expense, but if you use it wisely, it can save you quite a bit of money.  We did not research the pass very much other than asking a friend what he recommended.  He said to get the Green Car upgrade so we could just book day of and not have to worry about trains being sold out.  So that was our plan.  Green Car.  In Bangkok, when we started to look into actually buying our passes (you supposedly can't buy them in Japan, but one of the vendors offered to ship to our hotel in Japan when they couldn't deliver to us in Vietnam, so I'm not sure how exactly that all works and/or is enforced).  The JR passes come in many different configurations, some less expensive based on the regions where you would use it (which we didn't know yet) and the full country pass comes in 3 different time options: 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days.

So, speaking of speed and transport -- a mazda car won LeMans in 1991 (With a Wankel engine!)

To get the most value out of the pass, you want to be using it on the high value legs, which, for obvious reasons, tend to involve the (almost but not quite fastest on the system, which are not included in the pass) super-fast Shinkansen that pass through the big cities, like Tokyo.  This meant that we either had to spend 4 days in Tokyo on the ends and go with a 14 day pass in the middle (which would have been the most economical thing to do) or go with a 21 day pass and just acknowledge that we'd be missing out on 3 days of value because we wouldn't even be in the country.  But, we've already spent quite a bit of time in Tokyo on previous trips.  And, we really wanted to spend most of our time elsewhere.  So, this is where I did something very much against my nature and advocated for the 21-day full-country pass, which was lazy because we were going full country only because we weren't sure where we were going, and would be quite wasteful and expensive with 3 throw-away days compared to the 14-day option.

Ltd. Express Sonic Kyushu from Fukuoka to Beppu
Jetsons styled train
 Rotate your own seats when the train changes direction

Mind you, at this point, we were still firmly in go-with-the-flow SE Asia.  First, we had stereotypical chaos for the region trying to identify where and how to get the passes in Bangkok.  Fine, we found an online provider who promised to ship in 2 days' time, so we placed the order and asked for them to be shipped to our hotel in HCMC.  I emailed to confirm that it would arrive on time and finally got a vague response about Tet and how they couldn't guarantee it (even though the website offered a 2-business-day guarantee and Tet was, technically, over).  Fine, we canceled the online order and went in person on a business day to a JTB authorized JR pass reseller in HCMC.  The receptionist was there, but the rest of the staff were all off, having taken the rest of the week as holiday even though, technically, Tet was over in the middle of the week.  Finally, the next Monday, we returned and successfully bought our pass vouchers, hours before we were to take the fast ferry to Long Hai. 

Rainbow over Beppu Ferry Landing

Please -- Learn from our mistakes -- research your route ahead of time, figure out what regions make the most sense to visit (and when), maximize the 7 day interval options so as not to leave days on your pass unused.  And order your passes well in advance (the vouchers are good for 3 months, so in hindsight, I really should have managed this while we were in the US for the holidays, except, of course, I had no idea from where and when we'd be flying to Japan...)

Our final route (with a few additional stops between Nagoya and Tokyo, but more or less on the lines shown here).

Anyways, there we were.  We had vouchers for the whole country and 18 days to use them.  We'd thought we might want to go visit Sapporo during the Snow Festival.  But... by the time we got around to thinking about booking hotels everything within our price range was completely sold out.  Okay, one decision made, we'd just stay off Hokkaido (the main North island).

After reading the guidebooks and considering our options, we decided to hit a few musts:  Osaka, Hiroshima/Miyajima, Fukuoka/Kyushu (visit with my friend from Italian Language school), Shikoku, and a visit with my childhood exchange student, likely in Kamakura, as she loves it and we'd never been.

Totally snowing on our Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka.

Osaka.  I'd heard it was a great food city, that the people were warm and friendly, and that it was just a great place.  So, we headed straight there on the highest value use of the pass this trip after one night in an airport hotel and an hour wait to exchange the vouchers for the JR pass at the Narita JR station.  When we arrived it was so cold that even with my gloves and hat I wondered what the hell we were thinking with considering going north to Hokkaido -- it was snowing on our Shinkansen south to Osaka from Tokyo!

Sunset from Miyajima.

We proceeded along our loose route, booking as far in advance as I thought was reasonable, but each time we kept getting screwed by finding decent rates 4-7 days in advance, only to try to book 2-3 days in advance and find everything gone or much more expensive.  Lesson:  Don't take your SE Asian (or South American) travel norms with you to Japan -- do some advance planning.  You do not have to worry about whether you will get to where you are planning to go on time.  You Will Arrive On Time!

One of a million photos of Miyajima Torii.

We maximized the JR pass the best we could and in the end, we essentially broke even.  The optimizer in me was dying to construct an itinerary that would have saved much more money, but that was not to be on this trip.  We paid $739 for the 21 day pass and when we're done, we'll have taken JR shinkansen, local rail, and metros that totaled roughly the same amount if we'd been in 2nd class.   The big differences were:

1) we were always in the Green Car, which means we always had 2X2 seating (2nd class is 2-3) and plenty of space to put our luggage up and enjoy our train snacks;

2) we never had to worry about the 2nd class car being sold out, which based on the boards we saw, could have been an issue for at-the-moment ticket purchases;

3) we never had to actually *buy* tickets.  We had to stand in line and get reservations for the shinkansen and reserved seat trains, but we never had to pay, and we didn't have to do anything other than wave our pass at the agents as we walked through for local non-reservation trains;

[edit to add #4] 4) On regular JR lines with Green Cars, you can sit in any available seat on a Green car (comfy reclining seat, 2X2, table - which makes eating so much less awkward, plenty of luggage space vs. adding your baggage to the cramped normal service cars and feeling like a jerk) and a conductor will come at some point to verify your pass is Green and confirm where you will be getting off (at which point, the lights above your head will turn green instead of blaring red and screaming that you are illegally in the seat).  Today, we learned some of the true value of these seats when we boarded the wrong train (but right time!) and the attendant came before we left, she asked for our destination and when we told her she explained that we needed to get off the train.  Extremely helpful!

JR-branded Shikoku-map train sake.  Brilliant (and delicious!)

We only paid out of pocket for 1 big leg of travel and that was the ferry from Beppu on Kyushu to Yawatahama on Shikoku.  At $30 per person for 3 hours, this ferry was high end luxury and an amazing value compared to its competitors between the islands in Thailand  (it helped us avoid some serious backtracking by rail to get to Shikoku on the pass).  This is potentially some of the money we would have saved and a rail route we would have taken for free if we had those 3 mythical unused days on our pass. 

And, sometimes your reserved seat is in a theme car, because Japan.
Overall, after getting over the sticker shock, I'm very pleased with how it worked out.  Realistically, we could have only known exactly when we'd be arriving and leaving Japan if we'd planned it as the first portion of the trip, and that would have been insanely cold.  So, given our constraints, I think we probably did the best we could.

February 21, 2017

A very short list: things the US does more efficiently than Japan

So, it's laundry day, yet again, which, you might have noticed is a big deal on this Sabbatical.  It's overhead that must be dealt with regularly as we only have 7 days of clean clothes.  But we are in Japan, which is a wonderfully civilized country.  We've been thrilled to find that most moderately priced business hotels (<$100 USD/night) have COIN LAUNDRY *IN* THE HOTEL for super reasonable prices (typically 300Y to wash and 100Y to dry for 20-30 minutes -- total for all of our cold-weather/heavy laundry is always less than $15USD and sometimes less than $10).  What a fabulous idea!  Why doesn't any other country we've visited do this?

Typical Japanese Business Hotel Laundry Center.

Even better, Japan's coin washers are pre-filled with their own detergent and they dispense it during the cycle for you.  Like many of the amazing ways Japan treats us, this hand-holding care is simultaneously wonderful and yet it feels like they are judging us, as if we couldn't possibly be trusted to figure out what detergent to buy, how much to use, where to put it, etc.  And you know what?  After struggling with all of those questions in 10+ countries so far, I'm totally down with Japan's decision that we might not be qualified.  It's been dangerously close on several occasions.  I think they made the right call.  Also, the laundry machines only take 100 yen coins.  But don't worry, they are always on the same floor as the vending machines (including beer), and you can get change from them.  It's really just the perfect system.

Obligatory homage to Japan's Amazing Trains

Anyways, we've got another week left in Japan, but after 2 weeks, we feel fairly comfortable, like we've got a decent handle on what to expect (including the signs that things are headed somewhere we don't understand and we should just go ahead and expect it to be weird). 

Hermetically Sealed Bathroom Capsule, dropped into most of our hotel rooms.

Japan has the highest general standard of Okay of any country we've visited.  And we are currently in relatively rural Japan, on Shikoku, the smallest of the 4 major islands, with less than 5% of the population.  Even here, most things work quite well (and certainly they work much more predictably and reliably than equivalently rural areas of the US and Canada that we visited on our road trip)

Ichiran Ramen Ordering Stations (further customized by paper forms after you are seated)

Because it's so rare, E and I made a list of the very few examples we can come up with where the U.S. is *actually* more efficient than Japan:

1. Hotel check-out and check-in.  For some inexplicable reason, this almost always takes tons of time with several sheets of paper exchanged (even for pre-paid rooms with no mini-bar or restaurant).  I don't like going through the motions of filling in paperwork when I already entered the same info on the Internet and I really like just leaving my key in the room and leaving.

2. Wrapping and unwrapping.  Of everything, but especially food.  Holy over-packaging batman.
3. Toilets (rural train station toilets are squat toilets, so if you are sensitive to that issue, you may find the US more efficient on a different axis).  For us, the efficiency kicks in with the automated toilets, I'm not necessarily complaining about the luxury experience, but it does slow things down if your toilet has either some sort of water-flowing boot-up sequence it has to complete before you can flush, or it thinks it needs to greet you with a song and slow-motion auto-opening lid.

4.  Crossing the street (rare in bigger cities where there are entire underground tunnel complexes to eliminate the need for this entirely).  Due to the rule-following culture, jay-walking is rare, and people often just stand at the side of the road, waiting for the walk sign to turn green on 1 lane roads with no cars or motorcycles or bikes.

And... that's all we've got. 

Hers and his RFID-billed plate stacks at Kaiten-zushi

Everything else we can think of that we've encountered this trip Japan has the US beat on efficiency/dependability: subways, trains, grocery shopping, buying pre-prepared food from vendors, food stalls, eating at mid-range sit-down restaurants (using a call button to get a server immediately, whenever you want one and not having to deal with the "How are we doing?" interruptions), vending machines, convenience stores (more, so easier to get to), everyone keeping their phones in silent mode (no talking) in public spaces to preserve a communal quiet, the speed with which messes are cleaned up in the street, and more.

February 16, 2017


Vietnam was on both of our travel bucket lists.  And after this visit, it's on the list of places we'd like to return.

We arrived the day after Tet (had to pay extra for visa madness due to the gov't being shut down...)

Typically, we had to remove some of our planned travel due to delays and unexpected longer stays along the way, so we were unable to go to the north of Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Danang, Hoi An -- all supposedly wonderful and definitely still on the list).

Instead we flew from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon/HCMC) and spent several days enjoying the sights of HCMC.

We made the obligatory visit to the War Remnants Museum and it was very depressing, but educational. 

War Remnants Museum.

The pictures were so horrific on their own, it just seemed to me that there was absolutely no need to try to say anything with words.  Every single one of the images taken from the battlefields just screamed about the wrongness of war.  And I can't find words to describe the images of Agent Orange victims and phosphorous bomb victims.  It is so sad to see what people can do to one another.

However, the curators of this museum have gone out of their way to present a very one-sided account of the war (its original name was the "Museum of U.S. and Puppet War Crimes"). No doubt some of the issues were due to translation errors, but a few of the text explanations were almost funny with how hard they were twisting language to try to portray the ugly issue of how humans behave in war as having only been perpetrated by the US, French, their international supporting forces (Australia, Thailand, Chinese) and their "puppet" army.

One of the largest exhibits (and the most even-handed in its language) was gifted to the museum from the State of Kentucky and it contains photos taken by 60 photo-journalists from several countries, all of whom died in the war -- it was a silent day of walking through exhibits and facing ugly truths.

Saigon River banks close to HCMC.

One day we took a speedboat up the Saigon river to visit the Cu Chi tunnels.  Our guide was fiercely proud of how strong the Vietnamese were in their resistance to foreign powers, all the while admitting that he had an uncle who fought for the south and moved to California after the war to escape the persecution he was facing. 

Planes coming in to SGN over the Saigon River.

This Vietnamese pride in their strength was most on display when we visited friends in Long Hai.  The father and son of the Vietnamese side of the family went out of their way to educate us on the history of Vietnam's impressive historical military performance (their version: after millennia of occupation and invasion by the Chinese, they are one of the only regions who has successfully exited the middle kingdom, plus they are the only country to have caused the US to declare defeat in war, *and* they are one of the only places to defeat both the French and the Japanese, etc. etc.)  Their obvious national pride (even though the majority reside in France) vs. our indifference to their negative statements about the US involvement in Vietnam seemed to confuse them.  The idea that we could be American, but not support or feel vested in something that our government had done (before we could vote) was definitely a cultural difference that they seemed amazed by.

The Cuchi Tourist Tunnel (extra-big to fit the tourists)

In other news, we just loved Vietnam.  The seafood was amazing, and the value was unparalleled.  We had several of the best meals we'd enjoyed in Asia thus far, including some of the best if not the best soft shell crabs we've ever had, on the seafront in a gorgeous restaurant in Vung Tau.  One day, we went to a locals restaurant in Long Hai (recommended by one of the workers at our hotel) and treated our friends and their daughter to the most amazing multi-course meal (easily 5+ family style dishes including an eel hotpot) plus drinks for $40 US.  All of the food that meal was amazing, but the baby squid fried in fish sauce was so delicious that E insisted that we bike back the next day in the heat to get it again before getting on our bus to the airport.

View of the sea off Vung Tau at the amazing seafood restaurant.

And then, we did one last night in HCMC at an airport hotel (again enjoying delicious Vietnamese style seafood for dinner), and the next day, we headed back to the airport in the early AM to go to Hong Kong for a very tight layover, and then finally Japan.

February 12, 2017

Thailand, Part II

By the time we left Koh Tao, I'd fallen completely in love with Thailand.

So picturesque.

This surprised me.

Ordinarily, when I fall hard for a country, it's language, food, and culture -- in that order.  But in Thailand, first, I fell in love with culture, I had a strong liking for the food before arriving and found a few new things to adore while there (but I don't really like sweet things or coconut milk or fruit, so the food relationship would never be anything more).  After spending a bit of time in the country, I developed a little bit of a crush on the language, but truly, the unknown script, tones and loose consonants plus the ease of Tinglish meant that if I was honest, I really only liked the language (and the food), but I *loved* the culture.

This table on the beach is a restaurant. (There was one other one.)

I mean, these people are CHILL.

And the landscapes are gorgeous.  And the infrastructure and engineering is super pragmatic/hacked (see Long-tail boats).

The lifestyle in Phuket, Koh Samui, and Koh Tao are all focused and functional enough to feel like you could get most things done, eventually, and medical treatment if you needed it, but relaxed enough to feel like just about *anything* you wanted to do would be tolerated, so long as you were polite enough to find a place where it was not super conflict-causing.

Elephant Crossing.

On the laundry scale, Thailand was a place where it *should* always be very easy to get your laundry done because many people advertise the service and the prices are extremely reasonable (50 Bhat per kg).  We had our dive center do our laundry before we left Koh Tao and it was exemplary -- we handed it over and for $7 USD it came back in 24 hours, clean, dry, and folded.  Such Luxury!

This was our "road" for part of our bus ride from Phuket.
But, like most of Southeast Asia, laundry can often be more complex than you expected, so you should build in a day or two for delays, drying in the wet climate, etc. (in Phuket, during intermittent rainstorms, we couldn't get our laundry dried in the dryers as there was too long of a queue, so we carted damp laundry around for a few days, packing and unpacking and laying it out all over the furniture in the A/C or fans until it was finally dry).  On my scale of What Is Okay?, Thailand is likely in the top 75%.  Plumbing worked, most of the time, hot water was hot, most of the time, supply chains were happening all the time, in front of your face, via moto, tuk-tuk, truck and what not (serious JIT), and watching restaurants buy ingredients from the trucks passing by during the lunch rush, it felt like generally just about everything worked "most of the time." 

Thankfully, the hard rain was during a paved section of the bus ride.
This working most of the time with slack and forgiveness and relaxation (presumably due to occasional flooding, ferries canceled due to weather, mud slides, buddhist or lunar holidays, etc.) put the culture firmly in the relaxing (to me) side of Okay.

The seas were a bit rough on the ferry to Koh Samui.

In a perfect example of what I'm trying to explain -- there were *so* many travel agencies, all selling the same stuff.  At any given point, some number of them would be closed for smoke breaks, lunch, family business, etc.  But there were more than enough open at any point in time, and because they were in heavy competition, when we tried to book a ferry and overnight train to Bangkok, we got the best service packaged all-in-one with all transfers at the exact same price that everyone else dependable/reputable/recommended/English speaking was offering. 

Views from our Koh Samui guesthouse.
The train reminded me of my first travels by train in Europe in college. It was fine.  A little nostalgic, even, although there was no socializing due to a lack of closed sleeping compartments and for that I was supremely grateful -- I was tired and didn't want to chat with anyone other than with E to say goodnight after we finally boarded sometime after midnight.  The best thing it did was save money by combining transport and lodging (and it was at least 50% less than flying and roughly the same as a night of lodging).  I'm glad we did it.  But I wouldn't make a habit of it.  Also, the extra 2 hours of delay once we were within the city limits of Bangkok (so woken by the train attendant and forced to unmake the beds into seats long before we arrived) did not make E a happy morning co-traveler in the least.

CPX orange boat -- our main Bangkok transport.
Thankfully, after arrival, when we realized walking to our hotel from the train station wasn't gonna happen, we decided to negotiate with a slowing tuk-tuk to short cut the taxi line and get to our hotel.  After a brief negotiation including the obligatory motions of E walking away and me starting to follow him (settled on 2X Uber fare), we drove away from the train station a few hundred meters before the driver stopped and asked again where we were going.  E showed him on the phone.  This clearly wasn't working very well, but the tuk-tuk driver was game, so he drove off as E and I held on, amused at this ridiculous mode of transport and pleased to be getting some open air after 15+ hours in the closed train full of backpackers.  Eventually, it became apparent that our driver wasn't going the right way and I asked E if we should say anything.  This is when the driver (who had some English and had picked upon our concern) turned backwards (while driving) and said, "No problem.  I go wrong way.  1 minute."  And then he turned the wrong way down a one way street and negotiated a complex transaction where he slowly approached each vehicle facing us (all trucks!) and made some motions followed by a deep bowing wai and was allowed to pass.  Eventually, we were through and he triumphantly stopped, waiting for us to get out and pay.

Tuk-tuks in Bangkok.

After we got over how awesome the wrong way one-way trick was, we pointed out that this wasn't our hotel (the Sheraton).  Instead, he'd seen our backpacks and assumed we must need the hostel district.  Ooops.  Eventually, once he realized we needed to go somewhere else and couldn't seem to read our phone map (a super common issue in Southeast Asia, btw, handing someone a phone map with directions does not immediately solve the problem like you'd expect it to do).  Finally, E cut me off from trying to repeatedly say "Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel" and just kept saying "Sheraton"  "SHERaton" "SheraTON" until the driver's face lit up and he said, "OH, SHER-A-TON!  I KNOW!".  E's phone thought it was 6.1 Km to drive from where the driver understood to the hotel, but the tuk-tuk took us through some alleys and various "pedestrian" paths such that we were there in 1.5 Km.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is HUGE.
From this point on, E was a huge tuk-tuk advocate.  Sadly, for him, we were staying on the water in Bangkok, which meant that the CPX boat was usually our fastest mode of transport and we took it almost everywhere we needed to go. 

Khao San Road in a nutshell -- 7/11, massage and tattoos.
After 3 nights of decadence at the SHER-A-TON (yay complimentary happy hour with food and drinks + a wonderful pool), including visits to Bangkok Chinatown, What Pho, and an afternoon of people watching on Khaosan Road, we said goodbye to Thailand and flew to Ho Chi Minh City,

February 7, 2017

Southeast Asia: Linguistic Observations from an English Speaker

Offerings slid through the plexiglass box at Wat Chalong.
The Southeast Asian portion of our trip had been, well, quite the trip for me.  I've had to rely on English.  Occasionally, I've helped out fellow travelers in Spanish or French, but even then, I'm still totally that English-speaking privileged traveler.  It's been very humbling.

Side-car tuk-tuks (tricycles) waiting for passengers in Manila.
In most countries we've visited, I've had *no* words on arrival.  Korean, which is semi-tonal, seriously multi-syllabic and consonant loose, was extremely difficult for me.  The romanization was super-hard-to-follow with some books/guides/signs saying things like Kokuohae and others saying Goguohae (made up example) all for the same thing, which if you could compare the Korean script or Chinese characters you could recognize that the consonant changes were immaterial. *Plus* all the locals seemed to slur/mumble and drop syllables at will, so gamsahamnida (formal thank you, apparently, also "I love you") often sounded like kamhamnda.  Definitely a tough language. 

View of Busan bay from the Busan Tower
Taiwan, thankfully, was Mandarin with an accent/dialect I'd heard before, but it was the first time I'd interacted with non-pinyin Romanization after having studied Mandarin.  Holy shit -- Keelung = Qilong, romanization is apparently not so simple.  Their history of having a strong European influence prior to standardized/formalized pinyin resulted in all sorts of different transliteration of consonants and vowels so maps, addresses, & written romanized names all could be very far off from each other, and yet the tones never change.  The English in Taiwan, when we interacted with it, tended to be standard English, not a creole or pidgin.  But that is probably because I could use a wee tiny bit of Mandarin to get English menus or fluent speakers to help us.

Shrine in the middle of the Miaokou nightmarket in Keelung, Taipei. 
Slowly, as I saw the pattern repeat itself across several of these countries, I had a realization.  The romanizations were all over the place because in tonal/semitonal languages, the tone is more important than the consonant and vowel pronunciation.  When I shared this with E, he said, "oh, so it's like V/B in Spanish or L/R in Japanese" -- and, of course, because he is super smart and observant, he was totally right. I'd already learned that consonants are flexible in some languages, I just hadn't combined the concept with tones.

Sneaky monkeys breaking into the aviary and stealing water and food, Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. 

Next up -- Tagalog? Well, let's just say that I realized I could recognize the numbers as Spanish and that they used "pero" to mean "but" and some other random Spanish and English popped up while listening, but for the most part, the language was totally and completely incomprehensible to me. *And* everyone we met spoke English on some level (apparently Taglish is a thing, as is Singlish in Singapore -- when you can't comprehend the other local languages, you'll get quite good at understanding the local English variant).  Again, with the English privilege.  This is the first country I've ever visited where I didn't even learn how to say Thank You in the local language before leaving (in fairness, "Thank You" seemed very common).

Happy Year of the Rooster!

Singapore was super easy, because English *is* the official language.  Singlish has some adorable pidgin that we noted, but many of the pidginisms/creole phrases in localized English variants are commonly used throughout Southeast Asia to the point where after several weeks of hearing and using them, I think they're just English now.  ("same same" being the most common example, which according to a quick Internet search supposedly started in Tinglish, although I first heard it in Hawaii years ago.  It's been adopted in most of the places we've gone this trip, apparently having traveled as far as the UAE in general usage.  Example: Tomorrow weather same same today).

Beers and lunch at LeVeL33 overlooking the Singapore harbor.
Malaysia was similarly easy.  They teach English in school so most of our drivers and the various tourist service folks spoke it reasonably well, and all of the signage in the train and metro stations were in at least Malay and English (often Chinese as well).  Bonus, students often supplement their incomes while driving for Uber (or the Southeast Asian local competitor Grab, flat fee and recommended by our Uber driver in KL as the cheapest way to get to the airport), so we had several interesting more complex English conversations with car service drivers. (Random fact: Noob has made it into Manglish, which I think is hilarious.)  Embarrasingly, despite trying, I also didn't learn how to say thank you in Malay.

Epic nighttime views from the Hyatt Regency Club KL
Thai was very interesting.  It's super tonal and the wai (quick prayer hands, short bow) is very much a part of all daily communication.  I did learn to say thank you ("Korp Kun Kaa" + wai) but quickly learned that the "kaa" (rising tone female speaker "please"-like sentence marker) could sound like "gaa" or a very nasal "hnaa" so long as the tone was correct.  Similarly, many of the Tinglish words dropped the last consonant or changed it, so a very nasal "why why" would be my rare order of white wine and "reh why" would be E's order of red wine (I say rare because wine is expensive compared to just about everything else in Thailand, so mostly, we ordered "bia" or "soda wata").  Overall, once we got the hang of Tinglish, it was surprisingly easy to get around in Thailand.  At the dive center, I loved listening to all of the various versions of English spoken between the Thai staff and all of the international students and instructors -- everyone managed to understood each other, but the grammar and syntax and pronunciation were so very diverse.  At times I felt like I was watching my mother tongue evolve in front of me.  Also, it was funny to arrive in Vietnam and realize that after 2+ weeks, I'd so internalized the wai that I kept doing it in Vietnam, where it is not used and E laughed at me until I unlearned it.

Delicious bus stop ($2 noodle soup) between Phuket and the ferry to Koh Samui.
In Vietnam, the linguistic experience has been quite easy.  Thanks to the prevalence of Vietnamese immigrants in California, I arrived knowing how to say thank you and the roman letters (but not the accents) for many of my favorite Vietnamese foods.  I sat next to a Canadian expat English teacher on the plane from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC/Saigon) and she gave me the low down on some useful phrases and the hand gestures that are common and what they mean (super helpful!).  We stayed 4 nights in the Park Hyatt Saigon (points and cash!) which means that everyone we interacted with in the hotel spoke perfect standard English.  Also, for the first time since Tagalog, the actual script of the language was based on the roman alphabet (albeit with the most tones we've encountered thus far - 6!).  Most of the menus we encountered were in English and Vietnamese, and if not English, they at least all had pictures.  There was plenty of standard travel miscommunication and frustration in HCMC, but most of it was cultural, not linguistic.  In fact, oddly, HCMC felt more international, more developed/modern, and easier to get around in English for both of E and me than Bangkok (but, with less than 5 days in either city, no doubt our impressions of both cities are not nearly big enough to make any sort of generalization).  

Typical HCMC traffic -- 80% scooters.

Now, we are visiting friends (who live in Paris but who are visiting family) in Long Hai, near Vung Tao.  Here, our linguistic interactions are not the norm.  The first night, they had us over for dinner and we were a party of 10 where I believe the common languages spoken were: French - 9 (have I mentioned how much I adore E? He's so patient and supportive of my love of linguistic experiences), English - 3 fluent/5 some, Vietnamese - 4 fluent/3 some, Korean - 2.  At most points during the meal, conversations and translations flowed through and between all of the languages, with a heavier emphasis on French for obvious reasons.  One of the conversations we had was about how despite being identified as a Francophile nation, most people under the age of 40 in Vietnam do not speak French and their second language is English.  I confirmed this with our general experience in HCMC.  It was very fascinating to have this conversation, in French, with speakers of French who had no direct experience with this change because they speak Vietnamese when in Vietnam.

Fish farms at the Vung Tau Ferry pier.
Overall, I had expected the Southeast Asian portion of our year of travel to be much more difficult.  I've been surprised by how easy it is to get around in English.  In many ways, linguistically, South America was actually more difficult.  There, the average person speaks their local Spanish dialect (which can be very different than the Spanish I know) with no English, whereas in Southeast Asia, the average person does have some form of English as a second language.

Delicious home cooked meal in Long Hai.
In short, it's been an amazing linguistic experience, and it's fascinating to hear and see the different variants of English that are used in this part of the world.  I suspect the English spoken here (simpler, direct, consonant flexible, repeated words, no requirement to conjugate for tenses if time indicators are used, etc.) looks much more like the future of international English than the English I speak at home.