Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's a Date!

Dear readers,

I regret my recent lack of updates. To give myself some practice in taking notes for research, I took notes on my recent training in Montréal, and I intended to turn those notes into wonderful blog posts. But a nasty cold has overtaken me, and I haven't had the strength nor the will to write about that training. I have found out quite a bit more information about my placement, so I will share that, and some of my feelings on it, with you.

My expected departure date is June 10, 2010. Finding out the date of departure has really changed my feelings about the placement. Before finding out (last week), I knew that I would be leaving and that I would be leaving those close to me (and those not close to me) at some point during the summer, probably late in May. But knowing the date has tempted me to count down the days to departure and to drive myself nuts over worrying if I'll really have taken care of everything I'll need to have taken care of. I'm currently consoling myself with the idea that I will conquer my placement-related affairs once this cold is gone.

Alongside the worry has come excitement. I am prepared to have an amazing time doing amazing things for ATEC and for HCC. I'm excited to be able to carry out intellectually-engaging (i.e. more complex than "Where is the bathroom?" and "How much to take the taxi to the embassy?") conversations in Vietnamese. I'm excited to have a heck of a lot of new types of food. I'm excited to make new friends and acquaintances - not that current friends and acquaintances are not good enough. I'm excited to do social research. Of course, I am expecting that the novelty of Việt Nam will wear off. There will probably be some things that are challenging to deal with. I hope that I don't Occidentally make any cultural mistakes. But I will appreciate the wonderment while it lasts. There's no point in agreeing slavishly with the assertion in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. To do so would take the fun out of discovering new things.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Việt Diet #1

This is the first in a series of posts about my experiences with Vietnamese food and about the events surrounding such experiences. I hope that I can elevate these posts to something greater than ramblings which exoticise and pornographise Vietnamese food. God knows we have too much exoticisation already.

A couple of Saturdays ago, three of my preschool (no, "preschool" is not a typo - I'm that smooth) friends and I went to Phở Việt, a Vietnamese restaurant near the intersection of Warden Avenue and Steeles Avenue East, to chat and to catch up. I had an ulterior motive - I wanted (and still want) to become as familiar with the food which I might be eating a lot of in Việt Nam. I say "might" because it could very well be that the food commonly eaten in Việt Nam does not include phở or beef with chili-lemongrass flavour or satay chicken. Regardless of whether I learn a thing or two about Vietnamese food, the net result was not negative. We did have to go somewhere to eat, after all, and Phở Việt carries out the function of serving food just as well as most restaurants do. I was also given the chance to practice writing Vietnamese - certainly a useful skill. (sidebar: writing Vietnamese is pretty much like writing English but I had to figure out a way to write "ơ" and "ư" gracefully. I can do "ơ" when writing in block letters and when writing it at the end of a word written in cursive. My "ư" still looks pretty awkward except when it's at the end of a word written in cursive. The main trouble I have is that with making the horn stick out enough that it doesn't just look like one corner of the letter is embossed, while making sure that it doesn't just look like a stick jutting out from the letter. It is a horn, my friends. A horn should look dignified and self-assured.)

I want you to know that I wanted desperately to have photos of our dishes posted directly on this blog. I also want you to know that I just spent fourty minutes trying to stick a minuscule adapter into inputs which are clearly not meant to accommodate it. It was all in an effort to bring you my raw, unadulterated footage of our dinner last night. To my dismay, I could not transfer the photos from my cell phone to my hard drive. You will not have evidence that my friends and I actually ate this food. But, now that we've gotten to know each other fairly well over these past few weeks, I think it's time for our relationship to go to a whole new level. You will have to trust unconditionally that the following consumables are what my friends and I ate, and that I did not just select items from Phở Việt's website (www.gophoit.com) to impress you or to lie to you.

Don't cry! Don't turn red with anger! I have provided links to the relevant page, in the menu on Phở Việt's website, where you can see the restaurant's photo of the dish described. To see the photo for a given dish, hold your cursor over the dish's name on the menu page. And, by God, I will bring my camera next time.

When we entered the restaurant, the only other patrons were a Caucasian man and a Caucasian woman. This had me a bit worried, because it was 7:00 PM (the dinner hour) and there were not only no East Asian patrons (indicators of the quality of a restaurant purporting to serve food from an East Asian country) but there were very few patrons at all. My worries were quickly dispelled by chạo tôm (shrimp paste rolled around batons of sugar cane) and by gõi xoài tôm [mango salad with shrimp (on the menu, this appears as "gõi xoài tôm hoặc gà" - "hoặc gà" means "or chicken". The dish can be ordered with chicken instead of with shrimp. We ordered it with shrimp!)] (the photos for both appetisers can be found at http://www.gophoit.com/menu.asp?categoryID=1 - chạo tôm is number 11 and gõi xoài tôm hoặc gà is number 03). We imagined that sharing these appetisers among us four would go smoothly. That hypothesis held true for the gõi xoài tôm, because eating that is just a matter of taking one's chopsticks to sticks of mango. But sharing the chạo tôm inevitably involved sharing a whole lot more than chạo tôm. This was the case for two reasons: 1) sugar cane is very tough to cut through (a fact which forced us to keep them as two batons); 2) getting the most from chạo tôm requires sucking on the sugar cane. While my crack at a virgin baton of chạo tôm was very tasty, I enjoyed the food much more with the addition of Jeffrey's saliva. There's a certain complexity of flavour which only salivary enzymes can impart.

In short order came our main dishes. I had had phở twice before, and I intended to get familiar with a variety of Vietnamese dishes, so I opted for the cơm cá xào xã ớt [fish (cá) in a chili-lemongrass sauce, with cooked rice (cơm) and with cooked vegetables on the side] (number 81 in the list at http://www.gophoit.com/menu.asp?categoryID=5). I have no wacky stories to tell about this one. But I can relate that it tasted very good. I just wish that the fish wasn't deep-fried before going into the dish. The deep-frying gave it a strange texture (for real. This is not my inner health freak hiding behind culinary elitism).

All of my friends ordered phở, probably because I and the restaurant's name gave them the impression that phở is the must-have Vietnamese dish. Aaron ordered phở dặc biệt (number 20 in the list at http://www.gophoit.com/menu.asp?categoryID=2). "phở dặc biệt" means "special phở". I disagree with the use of such a name, because the dish is indeed not special or unusual. Phở Hưng's phở dặc biệt is much the same as Phở Việt's - it has tripe and tendon as well. Once what's special becomes standard, where is the joy in life?

Faraaz ordered phở tái gân (number 22 in the list at http://www.gophoit.com/menu.asp?categoryID=2). I have nothing to say about this.

Jeffrey ordered phở đồ biển (number 43 in the list at http://www.gophoit.com/menu.asp?categoryID=2).

One thing which has fascinated me about all of the Vietnamese restaurants is the variety and content of drinks available. Devoted readers will have read about my adventures with a durian milkshake, and recall with relish my recounting of the time I spent consuming an avocado milkshake. Phở Việt did not disappoint in the weird-drink department - available items (which we did not order) include eggnog soda and soursop milkshake. Its selection was a bit more limited than that at other restaurants, but that did not affect the quality of the drinks. Faraaz ordered sinh tố các loại sầu riêng (durian milkshake) (no photo available). I was surprised that he did not comment on the drink at all. Durian usually inspires strong feelings, either positive or negative, but he was immune to those. He went to China in the past two summers, so I suppose that durian is as weird to him as yoghurt is to North Americans.

I ordered (and drank too) xương xáo nước dừa (coconut grass jelly drink) (no photo available). This drink was one of sweetened coconut milk interspersed with 1 cm x 1 cm ridged blocks of grass jelly, topped with ice and served with a spoon. This sounds disgusting but it was actually really good. The grass jelly, which was tasteless, made the drink a bit like soup when eaten with a spoon. It did not, however, add to my enjoyment of the drink. But I think that the jelly is in there for a reason. Making the diner chew the jelly forces him to slow down and savour the drink. Without the jelly, that drink could be gone in no time.

After a long bout of conversation (not that conversation is like whooping cough), we left for my house to watch the movie Fanboys. It's about a group of Star Wars geeks who undertake a road trip across the United States in order to steal the rough cut of Star Wars Episode 1 from the Lucas ranch. It was entertaining, but I felt that it was just a series of jokes and of references, given a plot only to legitimise its being published as a movie.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Kidding Myself

About two weeks ago, I discovered just how wonderful children's literature can be. Not only is it exactly at my reading level. It is practically designed for teaching languages. I'm not talking about your 'Young Adults' fiction like The Boxcar Children or Black Beauty. I'm talking about books where the text is more of a footnote to the picture than it is essential content. I refer in particular to The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Chú Sâu Róm Quá Đói) by Eric Carle (translated by Van Nguyen. Granted, my enthusiasm for children's literature as a vehicle for language learning is based on my experience with one book only, and therefore has little to no statistical rigour. To this, my response is: I do not care.

Dual-language children's books are helpful for the following reasons:

They are short and written in large font, so they are easy to read out loud for pronunciation practice. Reading a Vietnamese-language children's story out loud is harder than you might expect. We anglophones tend to emphasise certain words or create certain moods by changing the pitches of our voices. Vietnamese does not give the freedom to do this, because a given set of letters pronounced with different tones produces different meanings. So I've tried to inject life into my reciting by changing my voice's volume and speed. Whether this makes me sound as skilled as Mr. Dressup, I don't know. Overall, I think that my Vietnamese reading sounds like the equivalent of the following said by a freakishly-anthropomorphic robot going through puberty: "And...the...caterpillar...was...still...hungry...do...not...compute...I/O ERROR";

Pictures illustrate everything which goes on. This makes remembering the definitions of words rather easy. Whenever I think of how to say "strawberry" in Vietnamese (quả dâu tây) I think of the picture of the four strawberries in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Frankly, the pictures make the book. The caterpillar is so cute! And he chews holes in everything;

The vocabulary is very simple as well. Writers of children's stories do not use words like "gourmandise" or "partake of". This gives me the security of knowing that I can use a certain word to express a certain thing without implying all kinds of other things. If you want to know how to say "to eat" with no fancy-schmancy connotations, look no further than children's literature (by the way, "to eat" is "ăn").

I borrowed this wonderful book from the OISE library (252 Bloor Street West). That library has a big section of dual-language children's literature. If you are a University of Toronto student, want to help yourself learn another language and don't want to pay a lot of money to do so, then you will find the OISE library's children's-literature section very helpful. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is published by Mantra Lingua, which specialises in dual-language children's books. I know that some of you IDSers will be going to Tamil-speaking areas of India - Mantra has English-Tamil books. Others among you will be going to Twi-speaking areas of Ghana - Mantra has Twi-English books.

Up next is the other Vietnamese-English children's book, which I borrowed, titled The Girl Who Hated Books (Cô Bé Ghét Sách).