Friday, December 11, 2009

Family Reunion Down Under

Yikes! It's been more than a month since I've put up a blog posting ... a far cry from the beginning of my trip, when I was intent on posting 1-2 times each week. But in the Frequent Posting Era, I was excited about the adventure. Now travel is just a regular way of life. Familiarity makes people grow blase about anything, even experiencing the unfamiliar.

I've concluded the section of the trip in which I was traveling with two Germans from Darwin, Australia to Sydney, Australia, a distance of 4,000 kilometers -- equivalent to driving from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh.

That's a LONG distance to spend on the road with anyone, much less with strangers who spoke varying degrees of English. In total, our road trip with these two Germans lasted nearly two months. We 4-Wheel-Drove through sand dunes, went to remote beaches, snorkeled over crystal-clear waters, gazed over vast cliffs, blah blah blah. We also spent at least three hours each morning cooking hash browns and drinking endless cups of tea.

In that time, they asked us a lot of questions about the English language, and those questions gave me some sharp insight into how tough it is to master -- not just communicate, but really, truly MASTER -- another language.

Theresa, a 25-year-old gereontology graduate, asked basic questions, like the definition of "inevitable," "bruise" and "callous". She was confused about the double meanings for "shallow" -- it makes sense in a pool, she said, but what do you mean that a person is not 'deep'? And what's the difference between 'done' and 'finished'?

Ollie, a 20-year-old who just finished a year of compulsory national service, lived in the U.S. from age 0 to 5, and asked relatively more complex questions, including my personal favorite: "What's the difference between 'carbohydrate' and 'hydrocarbon'"?

After I said goodbye to the Germans in Sydney, the Family Reunion Down Under officially began. I headed to the home of my sister Aruna and her husband and two kids. My parents flew in a couple days later, and within 48 hours, we had a troupe of cousins coming over for dinner. This time, as the only non-Nepali speaker in the group, I'm the one who's struggling with the mastery of language. Though I understand Nepalese very well, there are still times when I interrupt a conversation to ask the definition of an odd word here or there -- such as today, when I cut in to ask them to translate a word that turned out to mean "refreshing." Meanwhile, my sister's 3-year-old daughter, Shraya, needs the opposite -- the other day we were speaking to her in English and she (ironically) got stuck on the word "stick," needing it translated into Nepali. (How do you say "ironically" in Nepali, anyway?)

I didn't expect to give a second thought to language skills now that I'm in an English-speaking nation for the first time in more than a year, but Australia is English-speaking at work only. In their home life, Australians hold a wide berth of native tongues. The nation is incredibly diverse, thanks to the millions of Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, Malays, Sinhalese, Javanese, Balinese, Papua New Guineans, etc., who recognize this nation as the nearest First-World country and, accordingly, do everything in their power to move here. I looked at a photo of Shraya in her preschool class, and, I swear, there was only one white girl in the picture. The other thirty-ish kids all seemed to be East Asian or South Asian. (Ah yes, and the German girl asked what "-ish" means.)

The Outback is a different story -- the diversity there is mainly Aborigional. In the big cities you see evidence of Aborigional culture primarily in art and music, but in the Outback, particularly in Northern Territory and Western Australia, we saw Aborigional people everywhere -- in grocery stores, at petrol stations, at parks and beaches. Their culture has changed -- while some are still wearing white body paint and hunting bush goannas , others are listing to hip-hop and eating McDonalds. Yet they seem to be a strong and insular community; I don't see many examples of blended or interracial families.

Of course, my family hasn't blended either -- though we're scattered around the world, marriage has kept our bloodlines 100 percent Nepali, at least for the moment. And after a week of Family Reunion Down Under, Sydney-Style, visiting cousins and their spouses and kids from both Mom and Dad's side, it's time to take this show overseas once again. Tomorrow my parents and I fly to New Zealand to continue Family Reunion Down Under, the Christchurch Chapter.