Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tamil 101: Week 1

Below are a few impressions and thoughts on my first week in language class. I am in a class of five smart and capable professionals and we study with three wonderful instructors for five long hours each day. Whoa, I thought six hours of Arabic a week was more than I could handle; now I am up to 25 hours a week. This is definitely an intense and unique language experience. 

I can best describe my language abilities in two ways; extreme natural ability combined with a terrible work ethic. I enjoy language study and possess an innate ability to pick up subtleties of inflection, pronunciation, and grammar, however I am a terribly lazy language student – I just don’t study enough to capitalize on my natural talents. My husband is the exact opposite, language study is hard for him, he does not really enjoy it, but he has a serious comparative advantage over me – man he works hard! He sits there and studies for hours and all the hard work pays off in big ways. I marvel at his commitment and hard work. I wish I was more like him in that respect.

Tamil is hard, really hard. The alphabet has lots of vowels and consonants. Both letters are somewhat hard to pronounce. In the vowel section, there are distinct vowels for long and short sounds; such as e and eee, u and uuu, o and ooo. Tamil also has some sounds that we take for granted in English, but don’t assign distinct characters to; like ay and aw. There are five N characters/sounds, all distinct according to my instructors, but tend to sound the same towards hour five of language class. There are also three distinct L characters/sounds, and at least two R characters/sounds. Did I mention that in Tamil, you don’t read in a linear fashion? When combined with consonants, vowels look completely different than in the alphabet. Tamil uses punctuation very sparsely, making this language one of the most rapidly spoken languages in the world. Lastly, at least to my ear, Tamil sounds a bit tonal. I think technically, Tamil does not fall into a tonal language category, such as Cantonese, Mandarin, or Korean, but it sure sounds tonal to this student. 

I succeed in using every major and minor muscle in my mouth, leaving my mouth and jaw tender and painful at the end of each day of class. I think I met my linguistic match. I will need to work a lot harder than in the past. At the end of this week I asked my husband, “so when you first started learning Tamil, did you feel like you somehow ended up in a special education class?” He responded, “Yes and what’s worse is that I felt like I belonged there.” I think that just about sums it up. Although, I am currently sitting in the back of the short bus, but am enjoying (almost) every minute of language study.

In other news, the Hebrew class is right around the corner. During a break, I started chatting with the students in Hebrew. They started asking me if I was one the teachers. Score! My Hebrew is still alive and kicking, hidden somewhere in the recesses of my tired brain.

Monday, February 21, 2011

First Day of Class!

Mechanical pencil – check, mostly pristine notebook (somehow a number of different “to do” and shopping lists already invaded its pages) – check, lunchbox – ok I am way too old for that. I am ready for my first day of class.  I love language class and I am really excited to start. For months now, I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed that a space for me will materialize in the next Tamil class. On the other hand, the “to do” lists might’ve crept into the pristine notebook I’ve been saving for the occasion, because, let’s be honest, “space available” is not much to hang one’s hat on and I did not want to hope and rely on a space opening up in a language class too much. Nevertheless, I’m in a class and I start tomorrow! 

Speaking of things like “hanging one’s hat on (something),” “raining cats and dogs,” how are we supposed to understand idioms? I did not grow up speaking English. I immigrated to the US when I was nine. The combination of my age, natural linguistic ability (which in my case comes paired with its evil twin; language study laziness), and excellent hearing got me absolutely no accent in English. In fact, I do well with pronunciation in other languages as well.
I sound like I was born in the US; I can affect a slight British accent, a pretty authentic Brooklyn accent, sometimes a light Boston accent and oh yes, while living in Israel, I did a pretty authentic Russian accent in Hebrew. The Russian accented Hebrew requires a quick digression. Anyone American that has travelled abroad knows that an American accent usually translates into “wealthy American” in most languages. Since when I lived in Israel, I was living off my savings from a former NGO job and tutored an American diplomat in Russian for an hour once a week which got me 70 shekels (20 USD), I did not want to sound American = wealthy. Therefore, I affected a Russian accent while speaking Hebrew, and in Israel a Russian accent usually translates into; new immigrant, not so wealthy.

However, I’ve never stopped wondering about idioms and how the hell did they enter speech? “Raining cats and dogs” how does that even make sense? In Russian you have an equivalent to “raining buckets,” but in Russian you say roughly “raining out a bucket.” In Hebrew you have what translates to “waste of time,” if you had to guess you would say this might be a bad thing, right? Actually, you say “haval ala zman” (waste of time) after you spent time doing something great. This makes no sense, just like a heavy downpour described as “raining cats and dogs.” As a language nerd, idioms have always held a special place in my heart. I hope to add to my collection very soon.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Partner Employment

As I read, “once you get on that plane and leave the US, your professional career is over” in a cautionary tale blog entry about EFM employment, I cringed. This, I have to admit, is my deepest fear right out there, in the real world, exposed. My professional career is over? Really, damn, I feel like I barely started…at 4 AM as I can’t sleep it seems even scarier. It is dark outside and the post about employment options that I was planning to re-read and publish tomorrow morning seems much more upbeat than I am feeling at the moment.  This quote ranks towards the top of the “shudder” list along with a senior staffer at my old consulting firm telling me that I was unqualified to work in the Indian market with the exception of “teaching English to businessmen and writing press releases for an Indian firm interested in breaking into the US market,” whoa really? There is no place in the Indian market I can use my international economics degree, hard to believe right?

Those are words which are much more powerful at 4 AM than they are in daylight hours, when I feel much more confident about my abilities to forge my own way. During one of our Shabbat dinners, a friend, with whom I spent the last two years studying in one of the top and toughest international economics programs in the country suggested that “well if you can’t find a job, India is I hear a great place to start a family.” While appreciate all the time taken to offer me sage advice, I will make that rather important decision with my own husband. 

My friend and I went to the same grad program, took identical classes and the difference between the two of us? He was one of the very few of my classmates that passed the oral part of the Foreign Service exam. For one reason or other, some of the smartest people in my grad program and I did not pass the oral assessment stage, at which point I decided to strike out on my own – since besides acquiring a number of stellar analytical, writing and quantitative skills, what SAIS taught me is that this world is a big place with lots of options. My friend also sent a calendar that the Chennai EFM husbands put together outlining their daily pursuits, because he thought it was really funny. 

EFM unemployment is not a joke. Out of a high 40th percentile, the exact figure escapes me, of EMFs that want to work, only 25 % actually find employment. The overwhelming majority work at US missions abroad, while a much smaller percentage works in the local economy, bi-lateral employment agreements permitting, while an even smaller group telecommutes and runs online businesses from their homes. Local economy employment requires work permits, work permits take time. 

I seemingly achieved the impossible; I got a job offer to work in a local office of an American firm. I worked really hard to find the said job. Since August of last year, I have been talking to just about anyone that would listen that I was moving to India and I was interested in finding local professional employment offside the US mission. Personally, I feel that the local mission does not currently offer employment that fits my professional goals. I talked to friends, family, and former classmates asking for contacts and advice. My hard work paid off, I got an offer through an alumni contact. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to the alumni and co-worker that helped me make that happen. I am in a privileged position, but I’ll leave you with this (as I hope to get back to sleep); spouse and partner employment ranks towards the top of concerns of those considering and entering the Foreign Service. Although one of the reasons that you see so many single income families in the Foreign Service (meaning one partner is in the FS the other takes care of the family) this is the only government service where you can afford to have a stay at home partner, but the other reason is that it extremely difficult to have two professional careers with one of them within the FS. Ok, I said my piece, time to get off the soapbox, and wake up confident that in fact the job offer will be there tomorrow and when I get my work permit from the Indian government. Good night and thanks for listening.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My husband discovered Eretz Nederet!

My dear husband loves reading a rather large number of blogs and newspapers, so when I told him I started this writing endeavor, he asked for the blog’s address added it to his Google – reader; that’s true love folks.  Last week he stumbled across a skit from a show called Eretz Nederet and emailed it to me. I love Eretz Nederet! It is highly irreverent, makes fun of everyone and everything that goes on in Israel. Eretz Nederet (ארץ נהדרת), which translates to “[our] wonderful land” is Israel’s version of Saturday Night Live. Even some of my religious friends enjoy this Friday night show through the wonder of Tevo, which allows a person to pre-program to record a show at a later time. Eretz Nederet airs on Friday nights which is when Shabbat (or the Sabbath), the Jewish day of rest, begins. Observant members of the community refrain from doing any work, including using electricity, phones, and writing. Thus watching Eretz Nederet on Friday nights is not an option, but here is where Tevo comes to the rescue: Tevo turns on and records the show automatically on Friday night without prompting the religious person to break Shabbat by using electricity. Pre-programming of electrical appliances before Shabbat which starts at sundown allows some, but not all, people within the religious community to use electricity while observing Jewish Law.

Like I said, I love Eretz Nederet. I am ashamed to admit to how many hours I wasted on youtube looking at sketches. I justify the wasted time on the internet, by telling myself that this is the best way to maintain Hebrew comprehension. If you are interested, some skits found on youtube have English subtitles. Last week, A. love of my life surprised me by forwarding a skit about Israelis in India. If you searched for Tamil you likely narrowed our future post to two candidates, Sri Lanka and India. We are going to live in South India where there are approximately 50 million Tamil speakers, who are mostly concentrated in one state.

I want to give you a little bit of context for the skit A. sent to me and why, even though I think I have seen this skit 100 times, I still find it really funny. If you are a Jewish-Israeli citizen born or naturalized, and live in Israel past your 15th birthday, I believe, you will automatically be drafted to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Women serve for 2 years and men for 3 years. After a soldier completes his initial service, he or she will remain on reserve duty every year for 6 weeks, I want to say until the age of 45. I think the service times have been reduced, but I don’t remember the exact figures. If you are a woman and get married, you are released from reserve duty altogether. After the service, young Israelis work to save up money to pay for a six month to a yearlong trek abroad.  In droves 22 year old Israelis flock to South and East Asia and to a lesser extent to South America. Israelis love trekking through India and visit in very large numbers every year. This skit pokes fun at Israeli tourists in India. Unfortunately, I could not find a version of this skit with English subtitles. However half of it is in English and is very funny even if you don’t speak Hebrew, if you are interested click here. I think the funniest part said in Hebrew is that the girl keeps telling her friends that certain things are not “politically correct.”

Friday, February 11, 2011


We interrupt our regular blogging for an update from Egypt. Today on February 11, 2011 President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of mass protests all over Egypt. For the past 30 years President Mubarak ruled under emergency law. However, years of repression and torture of the political opposition, economic stagnation, and poverty finally drove the Egyptian people out into the streets to protest. While Mubarak spent the past few weeks attempting to make a deal with his people, his concessions instead of appeasing further fueled the anger and frustration of ordinary Egyptians. Mubarak also deployed uniformed and plainclothes policemen to suppress the demonstrations, while the Egyptian Army both protected the protesters and separated clashes between government and civilian groups, thus containing widespread violence.

A few hours ago Vice President Omar Suleiman announced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak; joy erupted in the streets of Egypt. Among the calls for democracy and freedom, there are also calls for justice. The Egyptians want to put Mubarak and those close to him on trial to return money which left government coffers for personal gain. However Egypt’s large and expansive government structure is one of the very few job options for ordinary Egyptians and I hope that they do not end I paying for financial infractions of the leadership.  

According to Vice President Omar Suleiman the Egyptian military will supervise constitutional reforms. Military oversight is nothing to Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s most charismatic leader and reformer came to power through a military coup. After the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s handpicked heir, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled with the help of a temporary emergency law which was extended for the last time in March 2010. Will the military move aside once all reforms are instituted and the Egyptian people elect their leadership? How will these reform look? Will a new charismatic leader emerge to take up Nasser’s legacy?  

Egypt is not the only country in the neighborhood to have experienced military takeovers and rule. The presidency of Iraq was created through a military coup. Syria went through over 20 cabinets shortly after independence from France. Syria’s political instability and disastrous participation in the 1948 Arab – Israeli War also ended in a series of military coups starting in 1949. Lastly, although Turkey has been a parliamentary democracy since the Republic’s creation in 1923, military involvement in politics is still the norm.

Egypt truly stands at a crossroads and I wish for the Egyptian people to have every opportunity they need to steer their country in the direction of equality, personal choice, economic development and political freedom.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I am joining the blogging world, when the novelty of blogging has worn off and it is no longer considered unusual. I am a bit of reluctant blogger, but understanding the realities of my new-found path, I feel that this is the most efficient way to keep friends and family up to date on our adventures in this big wide world. I am also acceding to demands of a dear friend, valued colleague, and classmate K. Lovely K. has been begging me to start a blog prior to departing from the US, so that she can live vicariously through me, from the safety of her web-comic decorated cubicle. I anticipate a journey filled with lots of social awkwardness, nerdy glory, cultural firsts, commentary and of course large numbers of linguistic trial and error. As always, hilarity ensues.

Incidentally, today is an interesting day for my first post. My contract with a small and dynamic international consulting firm ends tomorrow. After I graduated from the best grad school on the planet – an Ode to SAIS post will hit the virtual presses soon – I looked for contract work as my days in DC were numbered due to the vagaries of my husband’s new career. I succeeded in finding coveted contract work through an amazing network of SAIS alumni. I think Shakespeare put it best – “parting is such sweet sorrow.” For the last seven months I performed the type of research, analysis, and writing that I got used to doing at SAIS as a paid contractor. I performed country risk analysis, market entry research, economic overviews, regulatory, legislative, and demand analysis. This was an amazing opportunity in a place where I felt intellectually challenged, contributed and learned a great deal. I made friends, developed professional contacts and had a great time completing my assignments. 

Alas, I also wrestled with the tentative hope of getting a spot in a language class prior to our departure. Thus, I am leaving to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity afforded to partners of Foreign Service officers, the coveted language course.  Although, I will miss my job and especially my friend K, I am also excited to start learning a new language! So for those that don’t know me, I am kind of a language nerd and besides English, speak Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Ukrainian, as well as survival Spanish and Italian. With the exception of English, I will not use any of my language skills at our post. To rectify this omission I will start Tamil language class, a rather difficult language hailing from the Dravidian language family spoken by our future neighbors. Speaking Tamil is not an absolute necessity for where I end up working and most people that attended secondary school speak English. Learning Tamil will not only help me get around independently, it will also help me learn more about the place that we will call home for the next few years. I wish to respect our hosts by speaking to them in Tamil and hope not insult Tamil speakers by mangling their language - let’s be honest – mangling Tamil is the most likely outcome.

So Tamil – new alphabet, words made up of an average of 20 syllables, sparse punctuation, flashcards, and memorization – here I come!