Monday, April 19, 2010

Caveat Lector

This blog might do any or all of the following:
- give you paroxysms of delight
- be unsafe for work
- bore you out of your mind
- be used as evidence in a criminal trial (let's hope that it's not yours or mine)
- provide the after-dinner entertainment you've always sought
- give your day an little kick (in the groin)
- teach you something you never knew
- awaken your latent passion for painted ceramics

Despite this blog's superb form and functionality, this blog has limitations. Some are practical, some are political and some are personal. Please read the following before developing high expectations of my blog (they'd only be left unfulfilled anyway).

What I write is, first and foremost, limited by the capacity of my memory. I do not blog about events while they happen, unless I blog about my act of blogging. I am incapable of remembering every salient detail of every event, so my accounts are bound to be incomplete. They are also much more likely to contain the things I remember than the things I do not remember.

My readership is diverse, and comprises many relationships to me. These different relationships require different levels of tact and have different expectations as to what is acceptable to divulge. I therefore need to accommodate those who are likely to read my blog. This accommodation might entail omitting certain painful or difficult details or events from my blog. I might not feel comfortable publicising certain events or feelings of mine. If you want to find out more about something, please ask me about it. As above, different relationships carry different expectations - I reserve the right to withhold information which I do not want you to know. I don't think that this will be a problem, because I consider myself to be pretty candid. But if I deny a request for information then please respect my decision, as it will probably have been the result of good judgment.

I will be blogging from Việt Nam, of which the government censors websites, monitors content and punishes those who publish on the Internet anything it considers unacceptable. I will therefore do my utmost to avoid publishing anything which might lead to my blog being censored or blocked, or to me being punished. My job is with an association linked closely with the government, so this blog might be watched. The Vietnamese government's Internet policies govern email content as well, so I will have to be watchful in my email correspondences as well.

I can edit any of my posts at any time. So, if certain posts cease to strike my fancy, if I find that I have worded something poorly or if (God forbid!) I make a typo then I can turn those undesirable things into desirable things. Desirable things might not always be truthful. I do not claim to present you the 'truth'. I can't even pretend to have a claim on the truth, as I am at a tender age.

Be mindful of the above. Stay in school, be a man, watch your back and please enjoy reading my blog! I think that we'll all have a wonderful journey together. Except it won't really be together - you'll be journeying vicariously through me.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Proper Phởnunciation

I have noticed that a consistent source of confusion, embarrassment and despair afflicting us today is the inability to pronounce "phở" properly. One wants to show cultural awareness and sensitivity by pronouncing "phở" properly, but does not want to take the risk of saying it wrong, for fear of ostracisation by Vietnamese colleagues and by snobbish U of T St. George students. To end the ambiguity, tears and misery, I have provided below what I hope is a helpful and easy-to-use guide which will make sure that you don't phởck up.

Saying "phở" for Dummies

Note: the following steps are not to be done in succession every time you want to say the word "phở". They are steps to take while practicing saying it. When using "phở" in a conversation, perform only the last step.

Step 1: Say the English word "fur" at a pitch in the middle of your speaking range (your mid-level pitch). Usually this is the pitch that you produce when not purposely lowering or raising your voice's pitch.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1, omitting the "r" sound at the end.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2, lowering your voice's pitch by a bit (I usually do this by approximately a major second. My mid-level pitch is around a B2 so I start "phở" at around an A2).

Step 4: While saying the truncated "fur", lower your voice's pitch substantially, but not to a ridiculous degree. (If you do not know music theory, skip to Step 4) I usually aim for a major third or perfect fourth below my mid-level pitch, defined in Step 1.

Step 5: Repeat Step 4, raising your voice slightly as you finish the word. Do not raise your voice's pitch back to its initial pitch, but raise it audibly. Most of the time spent saying the word should be spent on the part with the falling pitch. The raising of the pitch at the end is like a (necessary) flourish. (If you do not know music theory, ignore the following sentence and use your intuition as to how much you should raise your voice) My voice usually raises a major second or so from the lowest pitch I achieve while I say "phở".

NB: Be sure to start with the English word "fur" and not with "foul", "fornicate", "fun" or "fob".

That's it! Now you can walk into any Vietnamese restaurant and order phở, instead of phố (street), like most non-Vietnamese people do. Phở is much tastier than cement.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Durian

To begin, I apologise for not posting the following sooner. My sin is most grave against my development-fieldwork research-design professor, who exhorted us to take field notes as soon as possible after an event, where taking notes during the event is impossible. Professor, I hope I can make it up to you through this post.

This past Saturday, I and most of my bandmates in (the now-defunct) Vocomotive went out to celebrate three things: the end of the year (and of Vocomotive); the birthday of Ibis, one of our sopranos; my eventual departure for Viet Nam. To do this, we had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant called Phở Đầu Bò. Now, there is more to this name than you might think. To the simple one who does not speak Vietnamese, "Phở Đầu Bò" is just another name for a restaurant, presumably one where phở is served. To the one who speaks Vietnamese, "Phở Đầu Bò" means "Cow Head Phở". The restaurant's logo is a picture of a cow's head. To the clever one, "Phở Đầu Bò" is an ingenious marketing ploy. My tablemate Will told all of us at the table that someone told him that the restaurant chain's founders decided to name their chain "Phở Đầu Bò" because it sounds like "affordable". Say it out loud! You'll be amazed at the resemblance.

Affordable it was. Most main dishes, which are substantial, cost between six and eight dollars. Of course, when the main dishes are so inexpensive, you have to order an appetiser. And a drink. And a dessert. And something to take home so that you don't have to make lunch the following day. By the time you've sat down, you're on EI and you've mortgaged your home.

Before going to the restaurant, I looked briefly at its menu. All of the dishes seemed appetising. One in particular caught my eye. Its description is '"Hue" style beef, pork & blood pudding with vermicelli in spicy soup'. As soon as I saw this, I thought "Oh my God. I MUST have this. There is no way this thing is kosher.". The Torah forbids Jews from eating pigs and from eating blood (among many, many other things, including bees and horses). To eat this would be to take kashrut's lifeless body, slit its neck, drain its blood, put the blood in the fridge for twenty-four hours to let it congeal then eat it. I was sorely disappointed to find that the restaurant was out of blood. What kind of restaurant doesn't have blood on hand? Why should I be subjected to a blood shortage? Oh well. The next time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, there will be blood.

I have read that a popular dish in northern Viet Nam consists of congealed raw duck blood topped with herbs and raw peanuts. This dish is called 'tiết canh' and it single-handedly makes every single dollar spent on avian-flu vaccine useless. If you want to see what it looks like, search "tiết canh" in Google Images.

Defeated, I ordered a beef phở with tripe (matter from cow's stomachs). At least I got to try something new (the tripe). To my surprise, the tripe was tasteless. I would think that, after having come in contact with so much grass/grains/ground-up 'downer' cows, the tripe would have more flavour. As for texture, the best comparison I can make is that to seaweed noodles which are very hard to chew.

Enough about the food for now. I was rather delighted to sit across the table from my Vietnamese friend, whom I thought could teach me a few things about Vietnamese. She hasn't lived in Viet Nam for a while but still speaks Vietnamese with her family members. My hopes were nearly dashed as soon as I told her that I would be working in Hà Nội, which is in northern Viet Nam. She told me that, being from southern Viet Nam, she cannot help me, because the dialect is different. Great. Maybe she was suspicious that I had become a communist. After she told me this, I did not ask for much help, owing to her disavowal of sufficient language skills. But she ended up helping me out quite a bit. In the Pimsleur Vietnamese programme (which I am using), one is taught that one should address an older woman as "bà". So right after the waitress delivered our food, I quietly said "Cám ơn bà" [Thank you (to an older woman)]. My friend swiftly reminded me that "bà" is used to address an old lady, not a middle-aged woman such as our waitress! It turns out that "chị" is the proper way to address a middle-aged woman. I just hope that the waitress did not hear me.

After much jovial conversation, cow flesh and rice flour, we decided to order postprandial drinks. I took advantage of my opportunity to order a durian milkshake. At first I was reluctant to do so because I had never had durian before, and wanted to taste it in all of its naked glory (or naked shame). But the milk and sugar would moderate the fruit's worst tastes, so I figured that the milkshake was a safe way to experience durian for the first time. Let me tell you, it was an experience. As soon as the durian matter enters your mouth, you feel as though your taste buds are being violently assaulted. After coming on strong, the durian apologises for its rudeness, cleans up the vomit and gives way to a thickly sweet flavour. I look forward to the day when I can enjoy durian by itself.

One of the unique things about Phở Đầu Bò is the fact that it has menus in its washrooms. The one I saw was at eye level (for those who are about 5'5") above the urinal. It is another ingenious plot by the owners. They encourage patrons to order phở so that they will spend a long time urinating. While they urinate, they see the menu, and think of how much more room they have in their bodies because the phở is expelled. Armed with confidence and with empty bladders, patrons order more and more food. But I had the strength of character to walk out of Phở Đầu Bò with my head held high, after three hours of good food, good conversation, bad Vietnamese and durian.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Driven to Learn

Yesterday began my long, exhilarating and (it is to be hoped) organic process of learning the Vietnamese language. From Markham Public Libraries I borrowed two materials: a Teach Yourself Vietnamese CD/book package; Part A of Pimsleur Language Programs' Complete Vietnamese course.

I made my way gingerly from the library to the car which I was using. I was struck by a dilemma as I lowered myself to sit in the driver's seat. Should I use the Pimsleur CD while driving? Excepting the drive to the library, I had not driven a motor vehicle in over a month prior. It was also twilight out. These were both good reasons to focus on my driving and not on the finer points of Vietnamese tones. Very good reasons indeed. Yet not good enough to detract from the awesomeness of shouting "Hiểu!" ("understand!") while revving the gas pedal.

The Pimsleur programme works, from the user's point of view, very simply. Native speakers give you words and phrases to repeat as closely as possible so that you can hear and feel how to produce the desired sounds. Grammar is learned incidentally - nobody learns how to conjugate the verb "to eat" in fourteen different ways. One picks up the grammar just from learning different phrases and having to think about differences between them. I think that saying words and phrases aloud helps one to remember them as well. Each lesson takes about thirty minutes, which is great. The only caveat is that one should choose a place where no one else is likely to be within earshot of the learner.

So the Vietnamese lesson (more accurately, the first twenty-one minutes of it) went very well. The Vietnamese tones which once mystified me are now not so scary. I can also say some words and phrases now. As for my driving, there is a different story. I did not get into any accidents - for that, I have only the vigilance of other drivers to thank. But, if I did get into an accident, then I would have been able to save my ass by saying "Tôi không hiểu tiếng Anh!" ("I don't understand English!").