Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lost in Space (and Time)

Time is passing. More than one month ("annd wer") has passed since I started this project. And the last two weeks have not been all that productive. I've been distracted by an article deadline and the prospect of a full-time teaching job next year, which I'm not sure I even want. I know that if I were to take a full-time job, it would spell the end of this project, practically before it even gets off the ground. I guess that's why I've been feeling down. I knew that this whole enterprise was counter-cultural, but I had no idea how much pressure I would feel from within to possess a full-time, all-consuming teaching position, even though we are doing OK financially for the time being. When I started this project, I thought I would commit to it fully, Forrest Gump-style, until it had run its course. Now my recent actions (and distractions) are threatening to sabotage the whole thing. I even had to cancel my FaceTime meeting with Jan today, citing lack of progress. Jan offered an encouraging text back, and we spoke in the language of Lost in Space. (Talk about cultural specificity!)
Jan's advice to do something everyday, even for 10-15 minutes.
I felt compelled to skip my FaceTime with Jan this week.
I've been feeling like a "bubble-headed booby" or "ludicrous lump" for neglecting my Amharic Project.
It will be good to see Lulit again tomorrow. My last lesson with her was all about time, so now I can measure in Amharic all the time I've been wasting! Interestingly, the Ethiopian calendar contains 13 months, but that doesn't buy me any extra time. All months last exactly 30 days except the thirteenth month, called P'agume ጳጉሜ, which consists of only the five days (or six during a leap year) before the new year on September 11 (or 12). In Ethiopia, the year is currently 2006 because of the way the Ethiopian Orthodox Church reckons the date for the Incarnation of Jesus. Since Anemo just turned 7, that means he was born in Ethiopia's year 1999, shortly before the turn of its own millennium (if you follow the cardinal rather than ordinal year determination of the millennium). So in a way we are both 20th-century kids.

I was trying to explain a lot of this recently to Anemo, but he got caught up in saying the word P'agume over and over, which, with its bilabial ejective p', is indeed fun to say, especially while eating pizza from Giorgio's.
We'll see where I am when the actual month of P'agume comes around, coinciding roughly with Labor Day and the start of the next school year. If I heed Jan's warning via the robot from Lost in Space, I'll still be firmly committed to this important project.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Amharic Man

The other day, Anemo was walking down our impossibly long hallway after returning home from school. I heard him ask Suzanne if "Amharic Man" was home. I had to laugh. I had never heard him call me this before, but I considered it an honor. I certainly want Anemo to see this linguistic effort as a salient feature of my current identity (though perhaps not the exclusive feature). One of my project's goals is to have a kind of incubating impression in Anemo's mind. Thus, even if Anemo learns precious little Amharic during my year of language acquisition, as long as the seed is planted I will be gratified.

Yet I have been pleasantly surprised by the interest Anemo has taken already, even if some of it is subconscious. For instance, last week while playing a game on the living room floor with his good friend Yoyo, a boy also adopted from Ethiopia, Anemo began absentmindedly repeating the same Amharic word—mawuk'—over and over again. (Simultaneously, Yoyo was singing the instrumental riff from Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," making for an interesting counterpoint.) I think the word stuck in Anemo's head because of the distinctive click sound on the 'k', known properly as a velar ejective. After saying the word a number of times, Anemo looked up and asked, "What does that word even mean?" Good question. I had to go back to my elevator speech to find the answer. Anemo's curiosity helped reinforce an important Amharic word.
mawuk' means "to know"
Another time Anemo wanted to practice more of the Amharic letters. Here he is writing the 'm' group of syllables, one of which begins the word above.
Anemo slowly becoming "Amharic Boy"
Meanwhile, I met my own "Amharic Man" at the Oasis Café, the place where I launched this project on April 21. Back then, I had given my elevator speech to Abeba, the kind woman at the counter, who said she would pass it along to her husband to translate. But I had not returned since. Abeba introduced me to her husband, Haile, who was eating lunch and doing some paperwork for the café. I liked him immediately. When Haile couldn't locate his translation of my speech in the cash register where he had apparently left it, he offered to do it over again right then. Haile's offer of assistance was so earnest that I didn't tell him the translation had already been done. Anyway, I figured that having a different version would help me learn other ways of saying the same even how to introduce myself (simay Stephen nuh-w vs. simay Stephen yibilal).
Haile's translation of my elevator speech
I brought Haile's translation to Lulit to decode. She detected a little bit of Tigrinya influence. It turns out that Haile was indeed born in Eritrea though he grew up mostly in Addis. He speaks Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo, and English. In fact, Haile has such a superb command of the English language that he was able to question me pointedly about how my wife and I are raising Anemo in the United States, particularly around the issue of race. Fundamentally, I felt a deep respect emanating from Haile's interrogation, both toward us as parents and toward Anemo. (When Haile saw Anemo's photo, he wondered what region of Ethiopia Anemo came from. I was pleased Haile expressed a positive opinion of Anemo's ethnic group, the Hadiya, referring to them as strong people.) I certainly appreciate pointed and challenging questions when they come from a place of goodwill, and so I look forward to many more conversations with this "Amharic Man" over the coming months, both in Amharic and English.
Taddesse Haile, owner/manager of the Oasis Café

Monday, May 19, 2014

Woosha Alwedim

I hate our dog.

I needed to write that to see how it felt. It actually doesn't feel good to hate another creature, even if that creature, a chihuahua-terrier mix whom Anemo named "Softy," makes me crazy. It's not the high-pitched barking, or the pee pads and feces on the floor, or the black hair on every blanket and pillow we own, or even the incessant need to keep doors closed and everything out of reach. It's the staring. I just don't know what to do with all that staring. I make myself a snack in the kitchen and she stares. I leave the house to do an errand and she's staring at the door when I return. I sit on the couch to do some work and she stares, trying to figure out how to climb up or whether she has the strength to make the leap. Once I had the idea to start a blog on dog training from the perspective of someone who doesn't like dogs. It seemed like an interesting niche at the time. I'm glad I let it pass.

I'm just not a dog person. But Anemo is. At least he is now. When he first arrived from Ethiopia, dogs terrified him. (More on why in a moment.)

Dogs can make me nervous too. I've been a little panicky each Friday walking through a scary gate up to my Amharic lesson with Lulit. This past Friday during my third lesson, I finally asked Lulit about her dog. I had assumed it was sleeping each time I arrived.
Lulit's clever ruse.
Turns out there is no dog. Lulit received the sign from a departing neighbor with the advice to use it to keep people from walking through her property. Lulit and I then spent most of the lesson talking in Amharic about dogs, with Lulit introducing relevant vocabulary along the way. For instance, I was particularly motivated to learn to say "I don't like dogs" (which serves as the title of this blog post).

I found out that Lulit, on the other hand, loves dogs, and that she had one named Lula in Addis Ababa as a child. Still, Lulit treats dogs with caution when she returns to visit her family in Addis. She said that not only is rabies a serious issue, but also the way people keep their dogs can promote vicious behavior. She explained dogs are often tied up all day and let loose only at night to protect the property. Lulit's sister was attacked by such a dog when she was young and still doesn't like to be around any canine species. Once, during a gathering of California adoptive families with Ethiopian children, Suzanne and I met a woman whose son was orphaned after his birth mother died from a rabid dog's bite. No wonder Anemo was so afraid of dogs when he first arrived.

As Lulit was telling me about how her brother in Addis owned five German shepherds, I noticed a word she used ("Bezu woosha"=Lots of dogs) sounded like the beginning of Lulit's last name, Bezuayehu. "Ahhh," she said, as if I'd unlocked a secret code. "Bezuayehu means 'I've seen a lot," she continued. "[My father] was born during the war with the Italians and that's why his mom called him Bezuayehu. ... In my parents' age—even now sometimes—names are picked based on what the parents are going through or what the child means to them in their life." Lulit's mother's name is Allemnesh, meaning 'You are the world,' because she was the only girl in the family. However, the mother's name does not get passed down. Only male names persist genealogically. In fact, in formal documents, the father's first name and the grandfather's first name get placed after the child's first name. Lulit told me her passport reads Lulit Bezuayehu Tesfaye ('My Hope') while her father's reads Bezuayehu Tesfaye Ballacho. So, at least among the Amhara, descent is reckoned patrilineally in Ethiopia, and I learned this by hearing about LOTS of dogs.

Our family will never have lots of animals or even lots of children. Suzanne and I started the adoption process again for a second Ethiopian child but we had to abandon that plan when I was diagnosed with a second brain tumor in 2011. It is still within the realm of possibility to adopt again despite ineligibility for a few years after chemotherapy, but it becomes less likely with each passing month.

That's why, even though she drives me nuts, I actually love Softy. She's been a faithful companion for Anemo, jumping on him when he returns from school, chasing tennis balls he throws, and cuddling with him each night. She's also played the role of little brother with amazing fidelity, destroying elaborate Lego creations Anemo has displayed with pride on shelves clearly too low. Most importantly, even when Anemo is too embarrassed to admit he loves either of his parents (which is pretty much all the time), he can always say without hesitation that he loves his dog Softy.
Anemo and Softy at our local dog park.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Combination Fasting

Yesterday I returned to Manna's restaurant. It was Tuesday after all, and I needed my teff fix.
I told Manna I wanted to learn how to order food in Amharic and I ended up learning about religion, economics, and trade in the process. It turns out there is no concept of vegetarianism in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches decree Wednesdays, Fridays, and the period of Lent to be days of fasting, meaning no meat should be eaten. Thus, when I am ordering a vegetarian combination platter, I am saying Beyaynatu Yetsom, or "combination fasting." Manna considers going without meat a kind of suffering, so the "sacrifice" is consistent with Christian practices around the world.

However, eating injera NEVER feels like fasting. In fact, since the temperature in San Francisco hovered in the 80s all afternoon yesterday, I was afraid the injera would feel too heavy in the heat. It was so warm in the evening that we took two beyaynatu yetsom to Baker Beach just so we could remain outside as long as possible. Suzanne, Anemo, and I arranged to meet a friend who actually IS fasting. He's cut out about everything he can from his diet, including gluten, to figure out the source of his mysterious allergies. When I asked Manna whether New Eritrea's injera was gluten free, he confessed that his restaurant uses about 80% teff flour along with 20% wheat flour to keep prices down. Teff is becoming so popular internationally that Ethiopian farmers refuse to sell their grain locally; they get a much higher price in the global marketplace. Manna explained that there is a ban on exporting teff from Ethiopia, but exporters get around that ban by trucking the grain to Kenya and shipping it internationally from there. Because of soaring prices, the teff content of injera in the Horn of Africa can be as low as 50%. Meat prices have also risen dramatically in the region, so people in Ethiopia and Eritrea are "fasting" more often than just on days prescribed by the Church. Maybe the need will soon arise to invent a word for "vegetarianism" in Amharic!

Manna also explained that most Ethiopians and Eritreans cook their own food at home, but they prefer to purchase their injera from a restaurant because of how time consuming it is to prepare the fermented bread. To make it easier for families to buy injera, a local network has been set up in some Oakland neighborhoods to distribute injera from corner liquor stores. I use the passive tense there because I don't know who is making the injera and getting it to the corner stores. But it seems like an outstanding entrepreneurial model for a microloan...ideal perhaps for women caring for children at home. One business in Washington DC that Manna knew about is even importing injera from Ethiopia already prepared. The company, which has a social mission, is called EthioGreen. Turns out that exporting teff grain or flour is illegal, but exporting the by-product is not.

So there was my lesson in religion, economics, and trade, from local to global. All because I wanted to order my food in Amharic.
Panorama of Baker Beach last night where we enjoyed our "fast."

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Pale Roast for Mother's Day

When I told Jerry Millhon, executive director of the Whidbey Institute and a dear friend, about my project to learn Amharic, he told me I had to meet Hanmin Liu, a wonderfully kind man who has been working with the Ethiopian community in Santa Clara County for the last few years. Hanmin graciously agreed to meet me last Thursday at his Wildflowers Institute near Chinatown.
Hanmin and Jennifer at Wildflowers Institute
Hanmin and his wife Jennifer Mei co-founded Wildflowers Institute back in 1998 to connect philanthropists and NGOs to the informal leaders and systems of diaspora communities, with the idea of funding and promoting what actually is working at the grassroots level. One step of the Wildflowers Approach is to create maps of how the community sustains itself through informal networks. Hanmin gave me a copy of maps Wildflowers created for the Santa Clara community; these will help me tremendously as I begin to navigate the San Francisco and Oakland Ethiopian communities.
One of several maps made of Ethiopian community networking in Santa Clara County
I will be writing more about these informal networks as I encounter them. For now, I just want to say something about coffee. You might notice from this map that the coffee ceremony (on the right side of the page) seems to play an important role in connecting members of the Ethiopian community. I look forward to finding out more about how these ceremonies are actually used. In the meantime, I want to learn how to roast coffee at home. Hanmin told me he's been roasting coffee every morning when he wakes up. He and Jennifer use the ritual of mindful coffee preparation and consumption to check in with each other about the day's activities. Hanmin also noted that the home-roasted coffee provides him alertness without any of the agitation. (This is exciting. Maybe I won't have to drink decaffeinated coffee any more.) Before I left Wildflowers, Hanmin directed me to Sweet Maria's in Oakland to buy unroasted raw coffee beans.
Ethiopia Yirga Cheffe Kore Kochore
I went on Friday after my second Amharic lesson with Lulit. Sweet Maria's had two Ethiopian varieties. I randomly picked the first one...the one that "[c]ools to raisin, clove and date sugar." My plan was to roast the coffee with Anemo for Suzanne on Mother's Day, not only to provide Suzanne with a delicious cup of coffee, but more importantly to engage Anemo in another facet of Ethiopian culture.
You can see the wok we used on the stove. Next time I may use a skillet.
Anemo was game, so we put a bowlful of beans in a heated wok. When the lid was on, I shook the wok; when we took the lid off, about every minute or so, Anemo stirred. We kept the beans on for about 15 minutes. On Sweet Maria's website, the roasting instructions explain that "[y]ou want to pour the beans out of the skillet into a collander [sic] when they are a tad lighter than the color you desire, since roasting continues until beans are cool." Either this is completely false, or, what's more likely, we took the beans off the heat way too early. At any rate, they really didn't get any darker.
I told Anemo the beans would turn the color of his skin. I was wrong.
By this time, Suzanne had already made herself a real cup of coffee so she could endure the wait until her special cup of coffee. Anemo and I decided to go forward with our "delicate roast," and so we put the beans in the coffee grinder and then into the French press.
Anemo said the coffee looked like pineapple juice.
Anemo added milk and sugar to his drink. We should have done the same.
What I can say from our first experience roasting coffee is that the final result was not undrinkable. It was warm and offered a vague impression of coffee. Suzanne said she could imagine hypothetically enjoying the brew while camping in the back country. Regardless of the taste, the experiment was fun, and Suzanne did convince us that she appreciated our effort. Undoubtedly, there will be more attempts in the future to approximate real coffee. I'll end by recalling the most profound coffee ceremony I'll ever attend...the one during the "Entrustment Ceremony" when we met Anemo's young mother, Deto. Happy Mother's Day!
January 31, 2009...a significant day in our lives.
Popcorn is a staple at coffee ceremonies.
This is how it's done.
Two mothers.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Teff Tuesday

Monday was Cinco de Mayo, and Stephen Colbert joked about how Americans celebrate the Mexican holiday: "Many Americans are eating tacos today, even though it is not Tuesday!" I had Colbert's joke in mind when I took Anemo back to New Eritrea Restaurant on Tuesday. (Suzanne has been out of town the last few days and I have no interest in adding to the pile of dishes in the sink.) I realized I've fallen into a pattern by eating food from New Eritrea the last three Tuesdays. Manna had never heard the phrase "Taco Tuesday," but nevertheless I suggested he start a weekly "Teff Tuesday" happy hour. Teff is the gluten-free grain from Ethiopia used to make injera. This article says teff "is poised to become the next quinoa--a grain superfood." After all, Manna should capitalize on the grain's emerging popularity.
Harvesting teff
 Besides getting another vegetarian sampler and watching some of the Miami Heat game with Anemo, I also tried out my elevator speech on Manna. After all, Manna was the first to try translating it into Amharic. He was complementary about my delivery, saying any Amharic speaker would be able to understand what I had just said. Just to be sure, I tried it again on Yodit, an employee at Manna's restaurant. Yodit, like Manna, is from Eritrea, but she left her country at age four when her parents went to Sweden. So she speaks Swedish, English, Tigrinya (one of the languages of northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea), and, most recently, Amharic. Yodit told me that the transition from Tigrinya to Amharic is not difficult since the languages share many roots. Thus she understood what I was saying as well. And though Yodit preferred I didn't video her, she did agree to make an audio recording, which I have been listening to this morning. It would have been harder to learn initially from her version, since she speaks rapidly, but it is helping me now to get to a more conversational pace.

One last thing. Yodit (which is a form of Judith, the feminine of Judah) told me that some people call her Yoda. Since I had Cinco de Mayo still in mind, I asked if she had heard of Star Wars Day, which is celebrated on May the Fourth. She hadn't, but she did know who Yoda was, and I don't think she is generally pleased about the association. I told her that she should forget Yoda's appearance and just hope for his longevity.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Lesson with Lulit

Last Friday I had my first official Amharic lesson with an Amharic teacher. I first met Lulit Bezuayehu last summer when Anemo attended an Ethiopian "camp" in the East Bay near Tilden Park. The camp ran for one week of mornings in July and catered to children adopted from Ethiopia. Anemo did not learn much language in that short time, but the exposure to Amharic and Ethiopian culture was invaluable. Lulit chooses a different theme for her camp each year, and last summer she focused on Ethiopian athletes, having each kid research the career of one Ethiopian runner. Anemo was assigned Miruts Yifter, affectionately known as "Yifter the Shifter" for his ability to shift into a higher gear near the end of a race. One of the notable facts that Anemo included in his presentation to the group was that Yifter landed in prison when he returned home with a bronze medal from the 1972 Summer Olympics (10,000 m). Apparently the Ethiopian government thought he had betrayed his country by deliberately skipping the 5,000 meter event, though the story goes that his trainers simply forgot to fetch him in time. Yifter continued to train in prison and eventually won gold in both events eight years later. Inspired by Yifter, Anemo competed in his first one-mile race in August, where he won the bronze medal for his age group.
Anemo approaching the finish line at the "Race Thru the Redwoods" in Felton, CA. He shaved more than three minutes off the practice run he completed the previous evening.
Anemo with bronze medal, feeling like Yifter the Shifter.
But I digress. I contacted Lulit again when I decided to undertake this project, and she agreed to work with me one-on-one in her Oakland home.
Lulit, my Amharic teacher.
 We began with greetings and she gave me some exercises with the Amharic alphabet. But most importantly, she translated my elevator speech thoughtfully into Amharic, writing out a polished copy from which other Amharic speakers could read.
Lulit's final version of my elevator speech, explaining who I am and why I am learning Amharic.
Lulit also let me video her delivering the speech slowly, which I played over and over. I even slept with headphones one night, putting an audio recording of the speech on repeat. (I didn't keep the headphones on the entire night, but I know I must have listened to the speech subconsciously at least a hundred times.)
After practicing for several hours, I recorded myself using Photo Booth. This was earlier today, or actually yesterday morning, since it's now after midnight.
When Anemo came home from school on Monday, he saw that I was trying to make my own video of this speech. With one of his favorite snacks in hand--honey on toast--Anemo sat down on my lap and clowned around during one of my trial runs. Of course he means no disrespect to the language; he's just enjoying imitating the foreign sounds coming out of my mouth. Anemo is a funny kid who gets a kick out of physical humor. I'll let him have the last word:

Saturday, May 3, 2014


If you search the term "emaye" on the web, you'll find that it's a popular title for blog posts among American adoptive mothers of Ethiopian children. That's because it's the word for mother in Amharic. Actually, it's more like the word for mom or mommy. "Enat" is really the word for mother.
The word for mother has an 'n' sound instead of an 'm' sound.
The "n' sound gets changed to the 'm' sound in the more intimate term. There is something so comforting about that letter m. Even the look of the letter is soft, round, and non-threatening, like a mom. This is true for the m group of Amharic letters too.
Could this letter ("muh") be any more evocative of a mother? Takes me back to my breastfeeding days.
My mom would have turned 70 years old today. She was born Suzanne Claudette Cardin on May 3, 1944 and she died on August 7, 2010 of a glioblastoma brain tumor. This morning, in her memory, my wife (also named Suzanne) and I participated with Anemo in the Brain Tumor Walk through Golden Gate Park, an event to raise money for brain tumor research.
This is the photo of my mom we used on our fundraising page.
The language my mother spoke at home as a child was French, since both her parents had migrated to Woonsocket, Rhode Island from Québec when they were young. My mother was even a French teacher briefly before I was born.

Unfortunately, I never learned the language of my ancestors. Instead, I am learning the language of my descendant, and I'm happy my mother got to know Anemo before she passed away. Here's to you Mom, Maman, Emaye!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Short-legged Humor

Just had my FaceTime meeting with Jan, my language acquisition coach. I'm getting a little better with both the technology and the ergonomics; this time I was able to talk to Jan on the iPad while typing notes on the computer. Next time I'll document my setup. With her permission, I'll take a photo of Jan's image on my iPad with my iPhone and then upload it to iPhoto on my iBook.

That last sentence was meant to be funny, but it's certainly not hilarious. The modest humor seems to derive from some combination of the following: 1) the recognition that we rely on so much overlapping and occasionally redundant technology to communicate with each other; 2) the awareness that the image of Jan Marston the person will be so thoroughly mediated (a photo taken of her face as it appears on my iPad, probably brightened and cropped with iPhoto) by the time you see it on your computer; 3) the use of repetition that emphasizes possession of Apple products beginning with i. [Note: I actually use a MacBook Pro and not an iBook. iBooks were discontinued in 2006 but "MacBook Pro" just did not advance the humor.]

Jan asked me a lot of questions today during our 1-hour session. The one that resonated the most was: "What do Amharic speakers find funny?" I realize I have little chance of answering this question at this early point in my project, but it's one that I will keep in the back of my mind as I progress. I enjoy humor...especially humor that originates from language itself.

I had a small hint at Amharic humor on Tuesday, when I went back to New Eritrea Restaurant to see Manna and pick up dinner. I told him I was learning the Amharic alphabet and he showed me how to write the 'k' and 'l' groups of syllables. Thus, I was able to write the very useful word "Coca Cola." Manna then pulled out a Coca Cola label he had saved from the Olympic Games Collector Series. The Amharic vowels 'a' and 'o' are often designated by a shortened leg on the left and right, respectively, of the consonant form. Manna explained that because of this, Coca Cola is known as "short legs" where he comes from.
The Amharic label for Coca Cola, the soft drink also known as "short legs" in Ethiopia and Eritrea. (I forgot to ask how to say "short legs" in Amharic.)

I suppose this is somewhat humorous in itself, but I think the humor is compounded by the fact that the label commemorates the Olympic Games. In the Summer Olympics, Ethiopia competes almost exclusively in running events, and Ethiopians actually have rather long and equally-sized legs. That the drink known in Ethiopia as "short legs" serves as an official sponsor of the Olympics is...well, funny.

At least I think so. Stay tuned for more scintillating Amharic humor in future posts!