Saturday 22 February 2014

Interpreting "The castle"

Still reading "The castle" (Franz Kafka).
With Kafka in mind, I see the conflict in the book as arising from K's job and position, in the sense that K is stuck between the wish to do his job as a land surveyor, for which he comes to the village, and accepting the job given to him as a janitor, which he doesn't like, to earn a living. He doesn't want to give up but, unsatisfied with his situation, always tries in various ways to change it in order to get back to what he wants to do, to no avail. And everything is worse because people don't understand him and even Frieda doesn't understand him. That doesn't sound much different from Kafka's life, him being a lawyer in an insurance company and hating his job and believing that all he was was literature.
Then, having pushed Kafka out of my mind, I realise that even though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing indicates that K cannot leave the village and return to his hometown, K in some sense very much resembles people in exile, especially political refugees. Refugees don't have the immigrants' freedom to choose where to go and when or to go back to their countries, and in the new countries that they may or may not like, on the 1 hand feel like outsiders and suffer from their ambiguous status of belonging to no place, on the other hand may be forced to take a job much below their skills and abilities with some hope but very little chance to go back to the better jobs they once had in their countries. Similarly, K comes to the village through some misunderstanding as a land surveyor, gets kicked around, and becomes a school janitor. Most remarkably, he's an outsider, not only because he comes from another place, but also because people in the village have different customs, mindsets, ways of thinking, habits, and people treat him as an alien, even a burden, a troublemaker.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Literature and politics
From a book by Philip Roth:
“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other – they are also in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow the chaos. To let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself — for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized.”


Let's make a clear distinction:
1/ Literature is always political. A person's political view may not be expressed in design, sculpture, architecture, not always in paintings, music... but a writer cannot separate their political view from their writings. That's impossible. Literature is always political.

2/ In spite of this, I develop a 'theory' after reading "Invisible man" (Ralph Ellison) that novelists make bad politicians and vice versa.
a, novelists are concerned with individuals, their complexities and contradictions, emotions, longings, nuances, light and shade, personalities, peculiarities, manners, voices, gestures, relationships, interactions... whereas politicians look at everything and everyone as a whole or divide people into groups, have priorities, sometimes have to make compromises, sometimes have to sacrifice something for something else or for the general interests, place the interests of themselves or their parties above the individual problems...
(On the 1 hand, novelists have greater ability to see life from another person's point of view and understand this person's actions, hence, have more understanding and empathy, whereas politicians usually put themselves in someone else's shoes for the mere purpose of adjusting their own behaviour, changing their strategies and protecting their own public image. On the other hand, novelists easily become idealists, or complicate problems in unnecessary ways).
b, novelists, as I imagine, tend to be introspective (though not necessarily unsocial), quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, observant, sharp, deep, imaginative, insightful, self-questioning..., whereas politicians tend to be extroverted, energetic, confident, talkative, charismatic, bold, daring, sociable, good at speaking and influencing people, realistic, pragmatic, flexible (and sometimes have to be hypocritical, cunning and ruthless)...
(Though it should be added that I do not wish to paint a very ugly picture of politicians in order to praise novelists. Novelists might very well be accused, at least once in a while, of being idealistic, unrealistic, delusional, self-indulgent, indifferent and oblivious to the real world, demanding, critical, not really doing anything for society...)

All in all, that's how I think about this topic now. Who knows, I may find some exceptions, some counterexamples. Or I may change my mind.

Monday 17 February 2014

"Das Schloss"

1/ Reading "The castle". 

2/ Once in a while I pick up Kafka's diary and look for some specific stuff or continue reading from where I left off last time. With his diary, I don't read continuously from the beginning to the end and finish before moving on to something else, but read it this way, and have been doing so over the past few years. There's no sense of continuity, and I can't remember everything in his life that is mentioned, discussed, written about, in his diary, but it doesn't matter to me. I like to get into his world now and then, stay there for some minutes, and leave. 

3/ Kafka in his fiction (short/ ultra short stories, unfinished novels...) and Kafka in his nonfiction/ personal writings (diaries, notebooks, letters) are 2 different persons. The dry sense of humour, the laughter of the former cannot be found in the latter, who is darker, more pessimistic, constantly sick, depressed, full of doubt and self-hatred. 

4/ His negativity however should not be exaggerated. It is balanced out by the comic side of his fiction (though not everybody can see how funny he is). From my personal experience of keeping a diary, one tends to write more about loneliness, grief, sadness, self-hatred, depression, doubt, insecurity, fear, alienation, disappointment, disillusionment... than joy, satisfaction, enjoyment, happiness...

5/ The 1st time I read Kafka was in 2009. Started from ultrashort fiction. 

6/ The last time I read Kafka's fiction was probably when I read "Amerika: the missing person", before 9/2012.

7/ Speaking of statistics, on this blog before this post, there are only 11 posts labelled as K (= Kafka), and only 26 posts in which his name's mentioned. 
Whereas Jane Austen's the label of 41 posts, and mentioned in 44 posts. 
But then it shouldn't mean much. Toni Morrison, my favourite female writer, has only 10 posts labelled with her name. 
Writing about Kafka isn't easy. He confounds. He just draws me in, for some reasons. 

8/ This is called Kafka castle, designed by Ricardo Bofill: 
Kafka Castle6 Ricardo Bofill: Kafka Castle 
Kafka Castle1 Ricardo Bofill: Kafka Castle
Kafka Castle2 Ricardo Bofill: Kafka Castle 
Kafka Castle3 Ricardo Bofill: Kafka Castle
Kafka Castle4 Ricardo Bofill: Kafka Castle 
Kafka Castle7 Ricardo Bofill: Kafka Castle

9/ I believe Knut Hamsun's influence on Kafka is exaggerated by Knut's admirers. This man's mentioned only twice or thrice in Kafka's diaries, and Kafka lists his true blood brothers as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Grillparzer and Heinrich von Kleist.
The similarities between them, I don't deny, but "Crime and punishment" made me realise that they both were influenced by Dostoyevsky. 

10/ Unlike my expectation, reading him a long while later, after discovering the realist painter- psychologist Tolstoy, doesn't have much effect on how I think and feel about Kafka.
It is fortunate that I can like, appreciate and admire and even adore writers of very different kinds, styles, temperaments, from Tolstoy to Kafka, Marquez, from Emily Bronte to Jane Austen, from Orwell to Nabokov, Faulkner, etc.

Will write more later.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Anders Behring Breivik: narcissistic or too desperate for attention?

Remember this guy? I guess you don't. 
Well, 22/7/2011 double attacks in Oslo? Does that ring a bell? That's the guy.
Big deal. 1st world problems. 
He killed 77 people, by the way.
What one should do is to send him to a Vietnamese prison. He'll learn some lessons.

Phạm Công Thiện bàn về Kafka
"Ý thức mới trong văn nghệ và triết học": Chương 3- "Ý thức cô lập – Nỗi quằn quại của Kafka"

"Xin đừng gõ cửa, vì cửa không bao giờ mở. Chúng ta đã đi lầm nhà, vì nhà của Kafka không có cửa.
Đi đến Kafka, xin đừng chuẩn bị. Hầu hết những nhà phê bình Âu Mỹ đã viết cả một thư viện vô ích khi họ cố gắng giải thích Kafka. Giải thích Kafka sẽ thất bại như giải thích Hư vô. Trong những nhà phê bình Âu Mỹ, chỉ có Alfred Kazin và Paul – Louis Landsberg là hiểu rõ thái độ của người đọc trước tác phẩm Kafka. Những nhà phê bình khác đã cố gắng trình bày Kafka như là một bài toán khó hiểu, rồi họ cố gắng tìm đáp số. Họ không thể nào tìm đáp số được; vì tác phẩm của Kafka không phải là một bài toán.
Tại sao Kafka viết văn? Kafka không viết. Nỗi cô đơn của Kafka đã viết. Ta không thể nào hiểu được nỗi cô đơn của Kafka, vì mỗi người có một nỗi cô đơn riêng; mỗi người cảm riêng nỗi cô đơn của mình. Không có siêu hình học Kafka; chỉ có nỗi cô đơn Kafka. Không có vấn đề Kafka mà chỉ có kinh nghiệm Kafka; không có “problème” mà chỉ có “expérience” hoặc “sensibilité” hoặc “mystère” (theo nghĩa triết lý của Gabriel Marcel). "

"Tác phẩm Kafka là kinh nghiệm đau thương của những đêm ngày thao thức bên hố thẳm Hư vô, Hư vô kinh khiếp đã biến đổi Kafka thành một kẻ xa lạ, một người bị lưu đày, một kẻ mất gốc, một người phạm tội và một con vật."

"Đọc Kafka (cũng như đọc Rimbaud hay những thiên tài phi lý khác), nếu ta hiểu được là hiểu ngay lập tức, còn nếu ta không hiểu được thì dù có công phu khó nhọc đọc đi đọc lại đến mười lần cũng không thể nào hiểu được. Kafka (hay Faulkner) viết văn không phải cố ý làm cho khó hiểu kỳ hoặc. Nếu Kafka (hay Faulkner) có khó hiểu chăng; đó là chính ta đã làm ra khó hiểu, vì trước khi đọc, ta cố ý đi tìm xem Kafka (hay Faulkner) muốn nói những gì; đừng nên tìm kiếm gì cả, cứ đến tác phẩm Kafka (hay Faulkner) như đến một nghĩa địa vào buổi hoàng hôn. Và ta sẽ hưởng được nhiều cảm giác mông lung lạnh lẽo. Nếu đem cái óc lý luận phê bình của ta mà đọc Kafka, ta sẽ thấy vô lý và chán nản ngay bởi vì giọng văn của Kafka lơ thơ lạnh lùng như mấy cơn gió hiu hắt ở bãi tha ma và phản luận lý học như những nấm mồ xơ xác…"

"Kafka xa lạ, Kafka bị đày. Kafka mất gốc, Kafka phạm tội: tất cả Kafka xa-lạ-bị-đày-mất-gốc- phạm-tội đều nằm trong “Métamorphose”."

"Tình yêu, Văn chương. Tất cả đều thất bại. Kafka đã trốn Hư vô, nhưng làm gì trốn được, bởi vì Hư vô ở ngay trong người Kafka; trốn Hư vô là trốn minh, giết Hư vô là giết mình; bởi vì Kafka và Hư vô. Bởi thế khi Kafka vừa diệt được Hư vô thì vừa lúc ấy, bóng tối kêu gọi Kafka trở về…"


Tôi không hoàn toàn đồng ý với mọi điều Phạm Công Thiện viết. Chẳng hạn, "The metamorphosis" tôi đọc 3 lần, mỗi lần 1 ấn tượng và cảm xúc khác nhau, mỗi lần thấy 1 cái mới. Và bắt đầu đọc từ truyện cực ngắn, khoảng năm 2009 hay 2010, tới truyện ngắn, rồi tới các truyện dài, tới khi đọc "The metamorphosis" lần thứ 3 rồi đọc cuốn "Amerika" tôi mới nghe thấy tiếng cười của Kafka, và của chính tôi, bên dưới tất cả những cô đơn phi lý lạnh lẽo. 
Tôi cũng cho rằng, mặc dù Kafka có vẻ viết văn personal hơn nhiều nhà văn khác và không khỏi chịu ảnh hưởng bởi môi trường sống, bối cảnh lịch sử, quan điểm chính trị, thời thơ ấu, hoàn cảnh gia đình và công việc, người ta không nên gắn quá chặt hình ảnh Kafka của Max Brod và các bài tiểu sử vào các tác phẩm vì có thể sẽ không thấy 1 số giá trị nếu không phần nào tách riêng Kafka tác giả và Kafka con người ngoài đời. Trong bài giảng về "The metamorphosis", Nabokov chủ yếu tập trung vào tác phẩm và gần như không đả động đến con người tác giả với tất cả những vấn đề và mâu thuẫn bên ngoài có thể tác động đến tác phẩm. 
Nhưng tất nhiên, nói thì nói thế, đoạn Phạm Công Thiện viết cũng rất thú vị, nên lưu lại. Rất có thể sắp tới đọc "The castle" bản thân tôi cũng không thể rũ bỏ tất cả những gì đã biết về cuộc đời và tâm lý Kafka. Ai biết được.

Thursday 13 February 2014

The messy acid nonfiction novel

Reading "The electric kool-aid acid test" by Tom Wolfe.
If we define the nonfiction novel as a novel about real people and real events, written by somebody who stands outside all the happenings, like "In cold blood" (Truman Capote), i.e don't include the memoir, the autobiography, the semi-autobiography and the biography, then this is the 1st nonfictional novel I've read.
And I don't like it.
I have been reading this book for what seems like a very long time, and still have much left. Reading and counting pages at the same time, I would have thrown it away if not for class.
Not that I find it badly written. It's the genre that is an issue. 1st, except for writers like Tolstoy, authors usually create enough characters in order to control them, give them identities and personalities, and keep track of them. Characters don't exist outside literary works. If the author gives a character a name, describes him/ her in detail, draws our attention to him/ her, then chances are, that character has some significance and will soon come back or at least will mean something to the plot or the main characters. That isn't the case with the nonfictional novel, the people in it exist outside the book and have a life of their own. So they come and go, appear suddenly and stay briefly, not without letting the readers hear their names, adding more confusion and complexity to the book, which already has so many people, so many names, then they leave and perhaps never appear again. Everything gets mixed up, all the people and their names and their nicknames and their lives and their jobs and their clothes, etc.
2nd, because these people do exist outside the book, outside the author's control, they are already individuals with their personalities and peculiarities, I reckon Tom Wolfe doesn't find the need to go into more details, to make them lively, vivid, individual. And, in order to be truthful and objective, he doesn't write much of their thoughts, either. Usually, the difference between literature and cinema is that, when watching a film, you don't often know what goes on in the characters' mind unless there's voice-over, you are a witness standing outside everything, and watching everything; whereas, reading a book, you have the privilege of entering their minds, seeing things from their perspectives, being in their shoes, comparing the various points of view and understanding why these characters act the way they act, therefore you get to a deeper and more personal level and have more insight. In this case, the readers don't have that privilege, however. All the characters are there, all the events are there, one can see who they are and what they do and what they say, but not why, and not what they think, how they feel. And the characters in the book are not vivid, the focus seems to be Ken Kesey only, the book rather deals with the 1960s, the Furthur bus, the Merry Pranksters as a whole, with their LSDs, their pranks, activities, experiments, etc. All of them, as a group, as an experiment, as a lifestyle, as a religion.
Then I suppose there are other reasons. Literature should not be read too quickly, but it shouldn't be read over a very long time either. Ken Kesey with his psychedelic movement and Merry Pranksters, I guess, simply isn't interesting any more after some chapters. 
And I still haven't picked a topic for my essay at university.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Should linguists speak more than 1 language? (P.2)

I've just read chapter 10 "Strukturer i målspråk og morsmål" in "Med språklige minoriteter i klassen. Språklige og faglige utfordringer" by Kirsti MacDonald and Ryen Else in my kompedium, in which the Vietnamese language is mentioned a few times, with a few words on the structure, syntax... 
There are some silly errors.
1/ People seem to have a mistaken view (which I've encountered a few times) that as the Vietnamese language lacks inflections, there must be function words to denote tense such as đã for the past and sẽ for the future.
As a native speaker, I do not know how Vietnamese is taught as an 2nd or foreign language, but I would say that we rarely say đã or sẽ and sentences with either of these 2 words used superfluously sound weird to us. Let me clarify. Sẽ can be used for the future tense, as in Tôi sẽ nói với ông ấy (I will tell him) or Con trai tôi sẽ lấy vợ vào đầu năm sau (My son is going to get married at the beginning of next year) or Thằng đấy sẽ chết sớm nếu cứ hủy hoại bản thân như thế (That guy will soon die if he keeps destroying his own body that way). But it isn't always compulsory. We can say Mai tao làm (Tomorrow I'll do it) or Năm sau anh đi Úc (I'm going to go to Australia next year) or Tuần sau nó qua chơi Oslo (Next week he/she is visiting Oslo). In other words, as far as I know, sẽ can be dropped when there are adverbials denoting the future tense.
Saying Mai tao sẽ làm, Năm sau anh sẽ đi Úc and Tuần sau nó sẽ qua chơi Oslo is not very natural but OK. 
Đã is slightly different. We can say Hôm qua tao đi bộ về nhà (Yesterday I walked home) or Con làm bài tập tối qua (I did my homework yesterday evening) or Chị tớ tốt nghiệp đại học 2 năm trước (My sister graduated from university 2 years ago), without đã. The word đã is used to emphasise that something has been done, finished, which means it is acceptable in the 2nd and the 3rd sentences (and they are better translated as I already did my homework yesterday evening and My sister already graduated from university 2 years ago), but no one says Hôm qua tao đã đi bộ về nhà. In some sentences, đã denotes the present perfect, instead of the past tense. For instance, Con đã làm bài tập (I have done my homework). Sometimes đã can be replaced with rồi, though it is also present perfect- Mình bảo rồi (I've told you), and if it's past tense, rồi also emphasises the fact that something has been done, as in Con làm bài tập tối qua rồi (I already did my homework yesterday evening).
Which means that the example in the book is wrong. Tim reiste cannot be translated as Tim đã đi.

2/ The book says hus (house) is nhà and huset (the house) is nhà ây.
The 1st issue is ây. Apparently they mean ấy. The Vietnamese language has 5 diacritics and these tiny things make all the difference.
The 2nd issue is that ấy is not used very commonly as an equivalent of the, this, that... in English. We may say cô ấy, bà ấy, chị ấy, anh ấy, ông ấy, lão ấy... but these words would be translated as she or he. We may say chuyện ấy, but usually it's better translated as it, this or that, as in Chuyện ấy không liên quan gì tới anh (This doesn't have anything to do with you), though very often Vietnamese people use the word chuyện ấy to refer to sex, and cái ấy (literal: that thing) to refer to penis. The word ấy may be used for time, such as năm ấy (that year), ngày ấy (that day), etc. But I definitely don't use ấy for things such as tables, desks, pens, bottles, pillows, laptops, phones, wardrobes, TVs... (basically the objects around me now). Đó, for instance, is a better word.
The 3rd issue is that huset is definitely not translated as nhà ấy, but not as nhà đó either. There must be a word before it, such as căn, ngôi or cái. Nhà, without any word preceding, very often means home, family, husband or wife. The same goes with other things, there must always be some word before it, such as con for animals, in general, or cái/ chiếc for things, in general, though it's more complex and diverse.
etc. etc.

See the danger of not speaking many languages or of speaking languages that are not very different, linguists?
See the danger of talking about a language one doesn't actually know?

Friday 7 February 2014

"Poshlost", according to Nabokov

"“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany's guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range." 

Thursday 6 February 2014

Paedophilia? Nympholepsy? Love? is an entry about "Lolita". 
Before discussing the topic, I need to state a few facts: 
1st, I by no means and under no circumstance support paedophilia and paedophiles. 
2nd, I do not sympathise with Humbert Humbert. 
and 3rd, I know that Humbert Humbert is not only a paedophile but also a deceitful, narcissistic, ruthless, cold-hearted, scheming and manipulative person.

Having said that, I waver between the 2 terms "paedophilia" and "nympholepsy". My mind grasps the former as "sexual feelings directed towards children" and the latter as linked to the term "nymphet", defined as "an attractive and sexually mature young girl". At the beginning of the book, after presenting himself, Humbert Humbert spends some time writing about his obsession and introducing his concept of nymphets as distinct from other girls. And he uses the term "nympholepsy", which (also) means "wild frenzy caused by desire for an unattainable ideal".
Now this seems problematic, the word seems to be a mixture of euphemism, self-justification and slut-shaming, which on the 1 hand is true. However, I don't see any contradiction. Maybe being born 38 years after Nabokov published the book and added the word to the English dictionary gives me hindsight, especially when the Lolita image has been used again many times in the media, but in my opinion, acknowledging or believing in the existence of the Lolita type of girl, who combines the sensuality, the sexual attractiveness of a woman with the innocent and blooming quality of a child and some sense of carelessness, doesn't mean I think she should be harmed or deserves to be harmed. It's the same as the way I, if having a daughter, would warn her and advise her not to wear revealing clothes, not to walk alone in the dark, not to get herself into dangerous circumstances, but if she chose not to follow my advice and were raped, I would never think she deserved it or was responsible for it. I see these 2 things as separate and not contradictory- that a woman must try to be safe, and that rape is always wrong, molestation is always wrong. 
One may say, it's still not convincing. That is understandable, even the author of this entry wavers between the 2 terms. So let's say it's paedophilia. 
Is it paedophilia from the beginning to the end? 
I'll say not.
The moment Humbert Humbert 1st sees Lolita, or Dolores Haze, he sees her as a nymphet like any other nymphet he has met. When they live in the same house and talk more frequently, and later, when Charlotte no longer blocks the way and they live together and travel from 1 place to another, he still sees her as a nymphet, who is only more familiar, more acquainted with him, or one may say, who is in his possession, under his tyranny. A change takes place in some last chapters of the novel, when he meets her a few years later, when she has passed the age of nymphets, older, pregnant, fatigued, and worn out by poverty and suffering. His feeling at that point, I think, is more than the bitterness at losing something he has once possessed, and more than jealousy and the anger of losing to Quilty, and must be a mixture of them, and some love. It's because of love that he feels deep sadness in the end, realising that he has lost her forever. It's because of love that although she refuses him, he gives her a large sum of money, more than she has asked, without anything in return. It's because of love that he starts to care about her as an individual, no longer an ideal image.
In short, "Lolita" is mostly about obsession and tyranny, but... love? Yes there is.

Should linguists speak more than 1 language?

Let me simply start by saying: in my opinion they should. 
I know how linguists may react- linguistics is the study of language, the word "linguist" should not be confused with "polyglot", there are non-linguist polyglots and non-polyglot linguists. I know, too, that linguists deal with phonology, morphology, lexis, syntax, grammar, semantics, pragmatics, language history, etc. 
But personally I don't trust linguists who don't know another language, not that they don't speak another language fluently but when they don't understand anything at all but their mother tongue, because of the view, supported by some personal experience, that you do not really know your language until you have known another one. Languages are very different, especially when they don't belong to the same group. Chances are, the rules in your mother tongue, you take for granted and see as understandable, unquestionable and more normal than anything in the world, until you learn another language that challenges everything you have held as truths, makes your belief collapse and tears your world apart. Of course, you may stand in a distance and hear somebody else speak about a language that is very different from yours, you may hear about certain rules in that language that sound incomprehensible to you, unusual, unthinkable, but you're too far away from it to accept it, understand it, be affected by it. Learning another language expands you perspective and gives you insight into what you've never really known before about your mother tongue. Speaking it makes you think in it. 
And even though so far I've been talking about a simple "another language", it's a better idea to know a language that belongs to another group, the way I, a Vietnamese speaker, speak English and now learn Norwegian and in the future will learn another language that isn't Germanic. Truly knowing something and hearing it from others are not the same. Especially when a linguist makes claims and generalisations about languages in general though they themselves are monolingual, I can't take them seriously.
Of course, one may argue still that linguists aren't required to speak many languages and it makes no difference. Of course, one may say my point is invalid, especially because I'm not a linguist myself. 
But that's my 2 cents on the subject.

Monday 3 February 2014

Thank you very much, University of Oslo

How do you think East and Southeast Asian students feel when their university (condescend to) celebrate their new year? Happy? Touched? Grateful?
Let me tell you how I feel.

In front of the cafeteria in Eilert Sundts hus of UiO there was a sign saying that from 27/1 to 31/1 they celebrated Chinese New Year (kinesisk nyttår). That's problem no. 1. Based on the lunar calendar, and not only celebrated in China and other Chinese-speaking countries, it should be called Lunar New Year. Using the name Chinese New Year is incorrect, or at least tactless. (Note: American president Obama uses the term Lunar New Year).
Problem no.2 is that the cafeteria was decorated with Chinese, Thai, South Korean, Japanese and Indonesian flags. Thailand has a different New Year, in April. Japan no longer celebrates Lunar New Year. There are some other countries that still do, such as Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore... and their flags weren't there.
I would have forgiven these 2 things if not for problem no.3: the line "the year of the dragon". For anyone who doesn't know, such information can easily be googled. That was 2 years ago, now it's the year of the horse.
It was on Tuesday 28/1 that I saw this spectacle, and left a note pointing out the aforementioned mistakes. The next day, 29/1, I came back after class to see if there was any change. Indeed there was- the change was that the note I'd left disappeared, everything else remained the same. I thus talked to a person working there and was told that the manager was absent. I left another note, this time not stating clearly what the errors were, only my name and phone number and that there were a few things to discuss concerning the "Chinese New Year" thing.
On Thursday I had no class and stayed home, waiting for the call. In vain.
On Friday, 31/1, as nobody called, I came back to check. Everything, I repeat, everything, remained the same. The manager was there, however, and even though she was busy, I asked for 5 minutes and was accepted.
Now guess what she said.
Concerning the flags, she enlightened me that they were decorations for something else- the week was supposed to be Asian week. Right. Except that there were only flags of only 5 countries. Except that placed beside the flags was the line "the year of the dragon". Except that I didn't see the phrase "Asian week", only "Chinese New Year".
Concerning other things, she "didn't think it would offend anyone". The year of the dragon was... last year? Or the year before? She was uncertain and apparently didn't give it much thought. Why should she? "And this is the year of the... horse?" Rise at the end of the sentence. A question. Uncertainty. Yet whether or not certain, she had known or been told that it's the year of the horse, but she kept the line "the year of the dragon" anyway. Because she thought it's "nice", she said. Because "it's better than nothing", she said. Because the decorations came in a box from the office and she "didn't think it would offend anyone". Right. She added, all of them would be taken down after 31/1 anyway.
The whole time talking to her, I was under the impression that everything I said was seen as trivial and unimportant and that she didn't care very much and only wanted me to go so that she could turn back to what she was doing. Trying to say everything in 5 minutes whilst seeing that look on her face, I forgot to say that the hat worn by the people working at the cafeteria was problem no.4. The hat has absolutely nothing to do with Lunar New Year, nor other East and Southeast Asian countries; and to be the best of my knowledge, is not even a traditional hat in China and can only be seen in Chinese-speaking costume dramas.
How do you think I, as well as other East and Southeast Asian students, feel? 
That same day I came to the office that organised the event, SiO mat og drikke i Frederikke building, only to find that the manager of the place wasn't there. So on Monday 3/2 I came back and talked to him. There's no need to specify what I said and what he said, except that the week was meant to be a celebration of the New Year, not an Asian week as said by the woman, and the ones responsible were from different groups, different departments, who then sent the kits to Frederikke and Eilert Sundts hus. Generally I felt better after the conversation, as he listened attentively and apologised and promised he'd make sure it wouldn't happen again, adding that he understood, as an Irishman who had lived many years in the US before moving to Norway, that national identity's important.
In short, because of this man I will not make the matter bigger and more serious, as intended, but it should be written anyway, and published here- I must react since apparently no one else does, according to the 2 managers, and sometimes your careless way of speaking about something of another culture, another group of people may be very insulting, what you see as trivial may matter a great deal to someone else.


Sunday 2 February 2014

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

Shocked and deeply sad to hear this news. Philip Seymour Hoffman's 1 of the greatest actors of his generation.
It's horrible. I don't want to believe it.
I can no longer have the feeling of excitement when seeing his name in a poster and looking forward to seeing him in it. He's now gone. But his works remain. All these years he has played a variety of roles and portrayed them truly, honestly and fearlessly. He has been wonderful in "Boogie nights", in "Happiness", in "Magnolia", in "Punch-drunk love", in "The master", in "Mission impossible 3", in "Doubt", in "Before the devil knows you're dead", in "The ides of march"..., in everything he has done, and he will always be here. Philip Seymour Hoffman's a legend.