Saturday, May 14, 2011

Words, Words, Words

While culturally I have found few major differences between the United States and New Zealand, linguistically I may as well be speaking a foreign language here. When I was teaching English in France, I co-taught with a woman from England (a dear friend now), and once one of the students asked us if we spoke the same language. We just laughed. Here, not a day goes by that I do not learn a new word.

The woman who so graciously allowed me to stay with her upon my arrival (only for 3 weeks longer than she had originally planned), and who will soon be gracing the United States (specifically Iowa) with her presence, let me borrow a book called A Kiwi-American dictionary. It was slightly, okay very, outdated, but it was hilarious. I reckon the time has come for me to share some of what I have learned – the top 10 kiwi words and phrases!

1.     Reckon – there is nothing inherently funny about the word reckon, but notice it in the sentence above. To an American, saying “I reckon” sounds a wee bit more proper than we would like. It sounds like Jon Stewart making fun of Queen Elizabeth. In kiwiland, I heard an 8-year-old say it . . . with a straight face!!
2.     Wee – wee simply means small here, as in “a wee bit.” Here, it seems everyone says it all the time. And they say it without the use of “bit” after it. Thus, a wee nap is a proper use of the word.
3.     Kiwi / kiwi / kiwifruit – now this just gets confusing. To an American, a kiwi is something you eat. Here, that would get you put in prison, either for killing an endangered bird or for cannibalism. A Kiwi is a person who lives here, a nickname of sorts for the folks who live in New Zealand. At first I was embarrassed to use it, but people here actually do use the word. Cool, eh? A kiwi is a small flightless bird. New Zealand used to be full of flightless birds because there were no predator mammals (the only native mammal in New Zealand is one species of bat). The kiwi is now incredibly endangered, and most people can only see them in wildlife reserves – my parents saw some when they were here. The kiwifruit? Well, that’s the fruit. They are gorgeous here (and by gorgeous I mean the taste, not the sight – that’s a kiwism as well). See my problem? It just gets so confusing!!
4.     Zed – Ok, ok, it’s not really a word, but it is the last letter of the alphabet. The friendly friends to the north of the United States understand this one, but to those of us from that middle country of North America, this is an odd way to end the alphabet, especially when banks are called ANZ (pronounced A-N-Zed) and when you say X-Y-Z (pronounced X-Y-Zed). We knew we had been spending too much time in the Future Partners Forum when I was talking and said X-Y-Zed and shortly thereafter one of our kiwi friends said X-Y-Zee. None of us knew where we were, which I guess was sort of the point of the partnership – finding new ways to get along. Let’s start with the last letter of the alphabet and move forward from there.
5.     False friends – rooting and rubber. These may not be good in a Top 10 list, but they must be mentioned. Luckily I had been forewarned. In New Zealand, rooting means something very different than in the States. It means sex. Thus, you do not root for a team, and you certainly do not root around in your trunk for something you lost, especially because here, the trunk of a car is called the boot. And a rubber? Well, that is just an eraser, but something we must all warn the kiwis not to request in general public in the United States.  
6.     Sweet as! – used as an exclamation, as in “Sweet as!” There are simply no words to explain this. It just is . . . sweet as!
7.     Sorted – “Have you got your flatting situation sorted?” Does this make any sense to an American? Try that being one of the first things you hear upon entering a country. I thought I did not understand French when I got there, but then I came to a country where they do not speak American. Sorted is just “to sort out,” but they use it here far more frequently. You get parking tickets sorted and plans sorted, etc. Luckily, I have met amazing people here, so my flatting situation is sorted until the end of my time here.
8.     Cheers – often used in conjunction with “mate,” as in “cheers, mate.” Of course, mate it often saved for one’s actual mates. Thus, cheers can simply mean thanks. What a wonderful word that never ceases to make me smile.
9.     Keen – This is a verb, as in “I’m keen to go on a hike out to the Peninsula.” In fact, my actual response was, “I’m hella keen.” I figure it’s time to meld some phrasing while I’m here. And yes, everyone says it here, just like reckon. They do not, however, say hella – but I can hope, right?
10. Good on you! – this is, by far, my favorite kiwi phrase. Oh, does it appear everywhere meaning “good for you,” sort of. It just seems to work for all situations where you want to tell someone that they are doing a good thing for the world.

So, do we speak the same language? I have begun to understand kiwi English, and what is scarier, I have begun to speak like them. I reckon that will help me fit in better here, but it will be difficult to get my life sorted when I get back to the States if I forget how to talk like a Yankee. There are far more words I can share, but for now, that will do. 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Monday, May 2, 2011

Feeling like an outsider

This is a bit strange. I was planning to write about the word “kiwi” for my next post, but that will have to wait. World events have interrupted my plans again.

I was in the United States on September 11, 2001. Like everyone, I remember it like it was yesterday (with all caveats of what I know about the “truth” of memory). But I have been living abroad for two significant events of its aftermath . . . well, now three. I was living in France as a foreign exchange student when we first invaded Iraq, and I was living in France again, but as an English teaching assistant, when President Bush was reelected. I think it goes without saying that I had a lot of explaining to do as an American in France at those times. For the record, I was treated well and respectfully by the French, but that story is for another day. Those events were nothing compared to my reaction to yesterday.

I have been in New Zealand for just over 4 months (hard to believe really), yet my time here has not been uneventful. First, I was not only witness to, but a direct participant in, New Zealand’s major tragedy this year – the Christchurch earthquake. Although I was treated like royalty because of the group of people with whom I was in Christchurch, I did not feel like an outsider. If anything, it made me feel more like a kiwi (yes, I will explain why they use that word later, I promise).

But yesterday, that all changed. Yesterday, I wore the mark of American loud and clear, if only in my own head. Sitting alone at the Union Grill was a little surreal (after asking them to change the channel on the tv). Wolf Blitzer was blabbing nonsense to fill time, and my fellow kiwi students were walking around as though nothing were happening. I felt an obligation to inform them of the news but then realized that this topic did not hang over them like a dark shadow each and every day. So I sat there alone. Eventually, another American from the postgraduate suite joined me (we had never met before yesterday), and then two of my American friends. We had our little party. The rest of the world just kept on moving along as though nothing was happening.

And then the announcement. Osama Bin Laden is dead. His death was ordered by the President. Watching President Obama, I thought he seemed “off.” With no emotion or guidance of how to respond, President Obama ended our 10-year national obsession with one person who we had been trained to vilify. Then he walked away, leaving the rest of us to figure out what to do about it.

And that is when people cheered. They stormed the streets to chants of USA! USA!, to renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, and to songs of victory. My heart wrenched watching this. How could people celebrate? A man was dead. We killed to stop killing. It makes no sense. So what did I do? I went to yoga, of course. And yes, I felt calmer after the class, but my 40-minute walk home brought all those emotions back. What am I “supposed” to feel?

My flatmate is a 55-year-old woman getting her certificate in Peace and Conflict studies. I was dreading coming home to anyone. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think. I wanted to understand. Instead, I asked her, “did you hear the news?”

“Yes, what a tragedy,” was her response.

I sat shell-shocked. Wait, what? A tragedy? That was not the reaction in the States. It was not even my reaction. Was it supposed to be? Was this the “rational” response? I agonized more and more. She is right, but I found myself defending American policies with which I generally disagree – secret CIA operations that have as their stated purpose to capture, but everyone knows they will end in a bloodbath. I had to tell her that it is policy to try to capture, but he fought back. She said, “how do we know for sure he committed the attacks of 9/11?” I just sat there.

But then I began to understand. I thought about the dancing in the streets. I took a broader view of it – what is it really? For ten years, we have been building tension. I saw a sign today that said something like, “It has been 9 years, 232 days since September 11, 2001. Where is Osama bin Laden?” Over bin was a cardboard piece that read, “dead.” We have been holding onto this. He was a symbol. I make no judgments as to whether he should have been, certainly not on this post, but regardless of what you think, he symbolized that tension. He symbolized that fear. The dancing and joy and excitement were less about a man dying than they were about relief.

But what is this sense of relief? A release of tension. In yoga parlance, this jubilation was really just a really powerful exhale. It was a moment to let go of 10 years of tension. Rationally we know it will not make much difference. If anything, it could escalate anti-American sentiments. But we had the moment to let go, and we needed it. Our collective consciousness needed it. Was it “right?” I cannot judge that. I know that going forward this is a solemn event, one that should make us think very carefully about our definition of “terror” and what it means to the world, what it means to kill people without trial.

But the exhale was needed first. Perhaps with that release, our pent-up tensions can give way to our frontal lobes and our rational thoughts. Perhaps the collective release, the American release, can open our eyes to what really happened – a man was killed. Perhaps we can release into a state of understanding that we are all connected, Kiwis and Americans, and Pakistanis, and Afghans. Perhaps with that release the notion of “outsider” will cease to exist. 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved