Friday, July 21, 2006

The Undying yet Ironical Significance of Trần Hưng Đạo: A Summary

This particular Vietnamese general was the only guy to kick the Mongol horde’s asses twice. That’s quite a feat. I can’t think of anyone else who pulled this off. Not the Russians, not the Chinese and not the Persians. The Japanese came closest, but it was a typhoon that did the Mongols the second time around.

I like to think of those campaigns as an early form of Fourth generation warfare. He was a smart guy. He let the bulk of the Mongol army die of "tropical diseases" (read: "malaria") first before tackling them.

The irony is that while this country is justifiably proud of this man, they still won’t show his face on the banknotes.

(This post was inspired by a particular Crooked Timber thread, which asks "what would be the most off-putting title in the world?")

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Interpreter or the Bodyguard

Good grief. China sounds like a tough place to do business in. (And why don't we get more fun stories like this here?) ESWN has his observations on The Toughest Motherf*cking Interpreter in China:

"[T]wo foreigners and their overprotective Chinese interpreter ... fought off eight guys who apparently gawked at his clients too long ... The interpreter came to table of eight and asked them to apologize to the foreigners because the group had "stared at them too long."  The request was refused.  The Chinese interpreter relayed the refusal to the foreigners and then he came back to the table and attacked and stabbed three of them, and continued to chase the other five who were trying to escape, stabbing another four."

This is ESWN quoting The Shanghaiist. Then he adds a sentence of his own:

Whenever there is an event without definitive evidence, the Internet goes amok.

Please ponder the last sentence for a minute. The story sounds like an urban myth to me. What's more amazing is that of the seven people stabbed, none of them died. That is serious Ninja shit, and thus a little unbelievable. It's hard enough to pierce seven people in succession, but it's even harder to avoid nicking an artery while doing. Personally, if I had magical martial arts powers, I'd stick with the coshes and truncheons and other blunt instruments, and only if necessary. But since the story was picked up by "official" news sources such as The Shanghai Daily, then it might be true.

I guess that the serial stabber is not an interpreter, but a bodyguard - albeit with fair English skills. But was he an employee or just hired on a retainer? If the latter, then I reckon he's got some explaining to do at the agency he works at. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Breaking News!

Italy wins the World Cup.

Better 40 hours late than never.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Hilaire Belloc - "Jim"

Those lines always go through my mind when I think of Việt Nam. As I've said before, it's a conservative country - conservative not by political orientation, but by temperament. Most people here are happy to have one day follow the other with little variation between. Change is only welcome if it is for the better, and sometimes not even then.

But when you're a writer:

James Caan

Confronted with a nurse like this:

Kathy Bates

Then a little change in nurse
Is sometimes not always found averse?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Electronic dictionaries considered harmful

These are bad, m'kay?

My impression? From a professional teacher of English? "Teh sux."

Behold one of the toys of the Vietnamese nouveau riche - the bilingual electronic dictionary. They are popular in my English classes. They're slim enough to be held with one hand, and even come with a plastic case for extra durability. They translate from Vietnamese to other languages, and retranslate back as well. Several flavors are available for the consumer: Vietnamese-English, Vietnamese-French, and even Vietnamese-Chinese. Some models even offer voice, so you can hear the word spoken. They can be purchased for a price of just over two hundred American dollars! 

At this point, you may be forgiven for thinking "How poor is the country again?" There are several ways of estimating poverty. You can rely on a glance around the street ("Fuckin' 'ell! They're poor!"). Or you can use hard econometric data calculated by the IMF. I prefer numbers to impressions, so I'll use the common measure of average GDP per capita. When you add up the value of all goods and services produced within this nation in a given year, and divide by the population, what does it come to? That gives you a nice, measurable figure, and as of 2005, it was $612 USD. (I'm not adjusting for PPP; no adjustment is necessary.) My point of this is that these devices should be pretty damned bloody good if they cost a third of Việt Nam's average yearly GDP. In Australia, a third of the average income could buy you a pretty decent second hand car.

Personally, and (more important) professionally, I think the students have been gypped. They have been ripped off. They have been taken for a ride. They have been rolled like a sex tourist looking for a "massage" in Phạm Ngũ Lão. They've been deluded by the presentation - a nice new-fangled (for this nation) electronic device, often packaged as "All-American" for greater envy from their peers. The problem is that the content is not up to spec, and that's what you buy a dictionary for, isn't it? 

Well, if these machines aren't 99.98% accurate, and I'd expect no less, then they're not worth buying at all, and certainly not for these prices. As Woody Allen as said to Stanley Kubrick "You can't polish a turd", and these are $200 turds indeed. But as Mr. Kubrick riposted back, "You can if you freeze them". It seems that congealing these pieces of poo in metal and plastic is sufficient to sell them to the masses. 

What are my problems with these infernal machines? The major reason - and sufficient for one teacher of my acquaintance to blackball them - is that there are no example sentences. When students look up the meaning of a word in one language, they will get the equivalent or equivalents in the opposite tongue. That is necessary for a dictionary but insufficient to stop translation problems. 

Let me illustrate with a purely hypothetical example. One of my students wants to know what "xanh" means in English. He turns on the device, and types the word in. The machine returns the following English synonyms back: (1): "blue"; (2): "green". Unfortunately, examples are not provided like "The sky is blue" and "Plants are green". So the student makes sentences like "The sky is green" and "Plants are blue" instead. In practice, even the rawest neophyte generally grasps the distinction between "green" and "blue", but still - a good dictionary should be careful in distinguishing these words anyway on principle

This brings us on the related problem of "usage". How do native English speakers actually use the language? You can make as many "rules" as you want (that's what Vietnamese grammarians like to do) but the natives will break them without really trying. Examples sentences will illustrate what to do... and more importantly, what not to do. 

Let me give another example. This time, I'll use phrasal verbs. For those that don't know, phrasal verbs are basically "verb + preposition". They are common in English. You use them without thinking. Unfortunately, they are painful for learners. There are "rules" for using them, and there are "rules" for not using them, and these "rules" are arbitrary and inconsistent for outsiders. Take as an example: "get on". You get on a plane. You even get on a bus. But you never get on a car, unless you like to ride the roof. You get in a car. 

A good dictionary would show examples of what to do and what not to do. A bad dictionary (and these electronic dictionaries are bad) would just provide a translation of the word - say "trèo lên" for "get on" or "đến" for "get in". So students continue to produce wrong English, such as "I get on my parent's car. I sit in the passenger's seat."

Let me bring up the matter of pronunciation keys  - another area where these gadgets let learners down. Since the the relationship between English spelling and pronunciation is capricious and uncaring, you need pronunciation keys for English words so that you can "read off" the pronunciation. The industry standard for pronunciation keys in the ESL world is the IPA - the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is what I was taught in my CELTA, and it is what both the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries use. The problem is that while electronic dictionaries provide pronunciation keys for English words, these keys are often wrong. I don't even know what standard the makers are using, or even if the makers are even interested in standards at all. I suspect their primary motivation is in shifting units. 

Let's take an example: how do you pronounce "grape"? A good dictionary would use IPA, and write /greIp/.[1] These electronic thingamabobs seem to alternate between writing /greip/ and /grep/. Both are wrong. The first (/greip/) fails to distinguish between "I" and "i", but these are separate, distinguishable vowels in English. (For example, there's bit /bIt/ versus beet /bi:t/.) Alas, distinguishing these vowels are one of the big problems for Vietnamese learners - these vowels should be shown differently. As for /grep/, that is even worse. The vowels in "Grape" are a diphthong - two different vowels run together. Good transcriptions should show this. Using /grep/ seems to mislead my learners into pronouncing grape as a single vowel... a little bit like "grêp". It's close, but it's not quite right.    

Some models come with a voice button. You can hear the word "spoken". Unfortunately, the sound is often so distorted that this feature is worse than useless. Anyone remember the old arcade game Gauntlet? With the narrator saying lines such as "Wizard needs food badly"? Then you get an idea of what noises these machines produce.  

My aversion to electronic dictionaries is shared by other teachers. There are those who will ban them in class outright. Others will warn the students of their dangers. And me? For advanced students, I recommend that they buy themselves a good, monolingual dictionary such as the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. It's big, it has accurate phonetic transcriptions, it comes with example sentences, and best of all - it's a lot cheaper. Even with a CD-ROM, it's only £19.85. If they can't afford to buy the book, learners can afford to access the website - they can do dictionary lookups online. (So can you; just use that link.) For less advanced learners, I have no problem with using the bilingual paper dictionaries available locally. They're not always accurate either, but they seem to be more accurate that the electronic dictionaries... and they're even less expensive. Pulp gives you extra advantages - you can scan down the page, and pick up related definitions with a flick of your eyeball. I think it's better that my lads and lasses pry open the pages of a book. 

Better than using electronic dictionaries - those exorbitant, inaccurate, dangerous... toys

[1] To be 100% accurate, there should be a minuscule capital "I" there, like "/greɪp/". But font support for IPA is pretty patchy on the Interweb, and IE users may see a meaningless box in its place. Hence the substitution. My apologies for any inaccuracies. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Unwarranted Generalizations about Việt Nam - One

What are my thoughts on war writing? I generally like it, even when it concerns this country in the 1963-1975 period. But I also feel that the less metaphors a book uses, the better it is to read. That's probably why I like Chickenhawk a lot - it's excellently written, it's exciting, and the author, one Robert Mason, is clear on the point that much of the disorientating images and sounds he suffers is PTSD, plus a little bit of guilt. He doesn't mythologize these symptoms or this country; he just knows he is a little off in the head. It also appears that he genuinely likes the inhabitants he meets here - the ones that aren't shooting at him. 

By contrast, the Vietnamese people are just used as a backdrop in Michael Herr's Dispatches. There's some nice descriptive writing there, but there's also too much of the "Việt Nam as metaphor for the sixties"... wordsmithing I find quite suspicious after living here. This metaphor may make sense for the author. Not for the locals: they just live here. But then Herr Herr never seemed too interested in the hearts and minds of the indigenous inhabitants. As he admits in the book, he flies out of the country in an opium haze, never to look back. A few pages later, set some years after 1975, he remarks on "a picture of a North Vietnamese soldier sitting in the same spot on the Danang river where the press centre had been... He looked so unbelievably peaceful." Well, that could be inner peace... or it could be the poor soul saving his energy during famine conditions. And conservation is a must, if this soldier was probably about to be sent to fight the Khmer Rouge. The late seventies in this country were hard. But Herr decides not to dwell on these unpleasant facts. They would be complicating the "Việt Nam = '60s" metaphor, making it a little harder to sell to publishers. Or maybe I'm getting cynical about the author's motivations.

When I return Stateside - Queensland, to be exact - I wouldn't mind checking out The Things They Carried. It's another book about the American War, as the Vietnamese describe what everybody else thinks as the "War in Việt Nam". I haven't read it, so I can't say whether I'd like it or not. I feel I would. But I admit, I rolled my eyes at this snippet. Never mind that it is set in 196x rather than 200x, or quotes a minor character (someone's girlfriend who decides to come over here and then accompany her fella on Green Beret patrols). It grates.

Rat continues: Mark waits outside the Green Beret's camp. Rat cautions him against bothering the Green Berets. Then they hear Mary Anne singing in what sounds like a foreign language. Mark can't wait anymore. He runs into the tent, and then everything is silent. Rat and another soldier follow him in. The tent is full of candles and has a strange tribal quality. But the most powerful thing is the smell: a mixture of incense and death. The head of a leopard sits on a post in the corner. There are bones everywhere. Mary Anne appears. Her eyes are dull, and though she wears the shorts and sweater she arrived from America in, she also wears a necklace of human tongues. She tells Mark that he doesn't understand what Vietnam really is. She says, "When I'm out there at night, I feel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and my fingernails, everything, it's like I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark--I'm on fire almost--I'm burning away to nothing--but it doesn't matter because I know exactly where I am." 

At this point... and that's me imagining myself as another minor character in the novel... I see myself shaking her. Well, I'd disarm her first, and then shake her, and say "You don't understand what Việt Nam is either, lady!" Then I'd probably handcuff her, and force her to accompany me (on a motorbike, naturally) to the nearest dingy Phở eatery, and point around and say, simply, "This is Việt Nam". Then I'd give her a bowl of soup. I'd probably unhandcuff one of her arms at this point - if she's so in tune with this land as she says, then she can consume the stuff with one set of chopsticks. Oh, and I'd better remove her necklace of human tongues before setting off. We don't want to frighten other customers. Then it's off to Tân Sơn Nhựt airport (which is what they called Tân Sơn Nhất back then), and get her on the first plane home. This country can take a lot of stress, but it could not and should not afford her terrible "understandings".

In related news, Charlie is not in the jungle, getting stronger. Charlie's staying up late at home to watch the Cup. Charlie's also engaging in mild absenteeism. Charlie had to sleep in late this morning after watching Germany get beaten to smithereens by Italy. The diving bastards.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Word of the ... whatever: ăn vạ

ăn vạ (verb): to dive (football), to pretend to fall down to get a penalty. Example:

Cầu thủ đội Ý đã ăn vạ trong trận đá với Úc.

(The Italian team dived in the football match against Australia.)

No good language should be without a verb for "dive". Guess who I'm not supporting for the World Cup Final.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Meet the new bosses, almost the same as the old bosses

The old guard go, and the new guard come. The Asian Times has the story: Vietnam's south takes leadership wheel. Read it all.

HO CHI MINH CITY - Conventional wisdom has long held that Vietnam's communist north may have won the war 30 years ago, but the capitalist-friendly south has won the peace. Recent changes in the makeup of the ruling Communist Party's leadership dramatically underscore that point.

The party reshuffle reflects the growing prominence of southerners in Vietnam's national politics. If all the new leadership is ratified, as expected, two of the three top leaders will be from the south, a departure from the past convention of having one person from each region - north, center and south - represented in the senior leadership.

This represents a significant change, indicating that commercially savvy southerners are now rising faster than northerners inside the party. The average age of the new Politburo is five years younger than the outgoing one, and seven of the 14 newly announced members are from the country's more entrepreneurial south.

I'm not sure I like this change. More commercially savvy government is good. But changing the "North, Center and South" troika is bad symbolism, even if only symbolism. The geography of Việt Nam does not encourages centralized government, unlike France, a Paris-centred place, or Indonesia (where the densely populated island of Java makes a natural core). You have a 2000 km long country, with two big cities at either end: Hà Nội and HCMC, respectfully. That gives the country two areas of natural development. The problem is that the geographical centre area is in danger of becoming the new periphery. That includes highland provinces like Kon Tum, and the impoverished location of the old DMZ, Quảng Trị. The centre can and should not be left behind. There are ways of providing development.

Unfortunately, moving a oil refinery away from the gas and oil rich areas around Vũng Tàu is not one of them.

There are still some indications that communist leaders in Hanoi have not completely gotten with the reform program. In January, Hanoi abruptly decreed that the minimum wage paid at foreign-owned factories would rise by 40%, a move designed to end mass strikes by garment workers in the south. Similar government interference has plagued the development of the country's first oil refinery, which has been snagged in red tape for about seven years.

Moreover, two major foreign investors have pulled out of the $1.5 billion project because government officials insist the refinery be located not in the south, near existing ports and oilfields, but in the center of the country, in the hope of aiding that region's development. And the specter of corruption, particularly in massive infrastructure projects, still casts a long shadow over the party after a scandal that saw the resignation and arrest of high-ranking Transport Ministry officials.

On the other hand, I do agree with the wage raise. No, foreign investors do not like wage raises, nor do certain investment consultants acting as journalists writing from their comfortable desks. The problem is that the existing wages were appalling. $40 a month, or 640,000 đồng a month, is subsidence level, even here. It is urban poverty. It will get you a boarding house, and a minimum of nutritious food, but you probably won't get to spend too much time with your family, because you'll probably be working weekends as well. The current wages aren't too good either: $55 if you are living in the big cities. The problem is that if you raise the wages, then investors turn off, which means you end up with less cash in the country. What to do... what to do... Well, killing corruption would be a good step forward, rather than the current S.O.P of just stinging it. That would give some more cash to redistribute to the deserving.

Returning to the Asian Times, one stanza stands out:

After the northern and southern parts of Vietnam were reunited after the war with the US ended 1975, communist authorities made it policy that the northern capital city Hanoi should develop faster and grow more prosperous than the southern Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

Yep. That's what I always suspected. But it didn't work too well, did it?