March 31, 2008

The World is My Classroom

As part of my job, I have to edit a glossary for a cultural product. This task includes looking through many foreign words: greetings, foods, customs, common phrases, and colloquialisms. Although sometimes a little boring, editing the glossary can also be interesting because I get a closer look at some of these terms and the people who use them.

There are some that strike my funny bone. Several Caribbean islands use the term limin or being out on a lime to refer to hanging out with friends and relaxing. These countries include the Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago. I wonder if eating limes was somehow connected to luxury, and then transferred over to this meaning. It reminds me of the part in Little Women when Amy wanted some limes. The girls would bring limes to school and give them to their friends as a sign of admiration and favoritism. Amy owed a lot of limes, and apparently, they were expensive. Perhaps this explains the colloquialism. In any case, the term always makes me smile.

Kyz kuumai, meaning “chasing the bride,” is a custom in Kyrgyzstan (next to China and Kazakhstan), where “arranged” marriages are the traditional norm. But, this custom allowed the woman the fastest horse in town. Then she got the chance to race the groom-to-be. If she could outrun him, she got to keep her singlehood. Today, the custom usually entails racing for a kiss. If the groom wins the race, he gets the kiss, but if he loses, the bride gets to whip him with a horse crop. What a tradition! I took horse riding lessons, so I wish we would have done this—I would have enjoyed chasing after DH with a horse crop.

Fufu, a staple meal in African countries like Ghana, Togo, Liberia, and Cameroon, still makes me laugh, even though I had the pleasure of eating this dish many times on my mission. It was delicious. Once, I was editing the Cameroon text, and my mouth just watered thinking of it. I tried to make my own fufu at home, but it just wasn’t the same. Close, but no cigar. And I wasted a ton of potato flour trying to produce the same effect. I don’t know why this odd word makes me laugh. I guess it’s part of the moo goo gai pan or pupu platter phenomenon. It just simply sounds funny.

And lastly, my co-worker pointed out to me: babu, which means “lying down to converse and propping one’s head with a large stone, coconut, or windowsill.” Windowsill? No idea. This one comes from the Marshall Islands. They must have low windows, but I have to say, it would give me great pleasure to be in a place where coconuts are used for propping one’s head. It must follow that a beautiful palm tree, blue oceanic, sand-through-your-toes scene is not far there from. I wish I could babu right now.

The colloquialisms and common phrases of a country can be very telling. And they are not always light hearted, amusing, or cute. A lot of times, they can be sad. Like Na fo biah from Sierra Leone, meaning “You must bear it.” This phrase is uttered in response to Na so God say (It is God’s will) and Ow fo do? (What do you do?). Sierra Leone is a country that has been torn by war, violence abounding for king-of-the-hill status. The valuable diamond resources in the country only complicate matters. With the country in shambles, the people have become the forgotten byproduct of the struggle for greatness. And they have this saying, Na so God say; na fo biah . . . It is God’s will; you must bear it.

This Sierra Leonean phrase reminds me of the words of the hymn, Be Still My Soul. It has the same feeling of quiet acceptance and a patient heart. “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side; with patience bear thy cross of grief or pain. Leave to thy God to order and provide.” Instead of fighting against their circumstances, the people have learned to accept them, and maybe make their lives the best they can. And the more I should make of my circumstances, because they are so much better than many in the world—the more I should give.

Does that make me feel lucky? Yes, I admit it. It does make me feel lucky, or more fitting—blessed—and not because of any good (or “better”) quality on my part, but rather simply being born at a certain time in a certain place. It makes me think about how much I have and how easily it could have been or could still be taken away at any moment. It makes me think of a “thorny path” quite differently. And I feel that I’ve never known a “thorny path,” and I have no right to say that I have.

On top of feeling humbled to the nth degree from this example, I feel something else: a common thread running through and affixing each of us to the other again and again. I read once:

He didn’t know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said, and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all. ‘I know,’ he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.

Now, I’m not trying to assert that I can understand the depth and dimension of a life led by a Sierra Leonean. But I am saying that we are inextricably united. We, each of us, know grief because we are human and we have the same potential for feeling. And so, we first dig deep within ourselves, and then we reach out. How far can my arm go? Perhaps it need only stretch to my next door neighbor or to the next town. Can it cross oceans, continents? I’ll never know unless I test its elasticity.

There is so much happiness and love in life to be felt and enjoyed. There will always be times to laugh, lime, and babu. Why should there not also be suffering? If God is no respecter of persons, then it must be so. Regretful, but so it is. The world is our classroom, yes, and it is also our oyster. Pick it up and pry it open, and if it snaps shut on your finger, then Na fo biah . . . You must bear it. And if you find that your oysters come easy and succumb to your careful prying, then help others pry theirs open, too.


Thomas said...

that made me cry

brittani c. said...

Okay, I'm done commenting now, but I liked this post so much that I had to comment.
Well done. Beautifully written.