Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fish Friday!

This last Friday, I was invited to attend a dinner hosted by two of our African friends (one from Ghana, the other from Cameroon) and one of the Americans here who used to live in Africa. I was told the food was typical for people in Ghana. We were served Tilapia, banku (cornmeal in largely-shaped balls), and yams. Both the meal and conversation were out of the ordinary.

The fish came straight out of the oven with head attached. Each plate had a fish. Before we sat down, we were told to put some banku and yams on our plates as well as sauce. When I sat down, I noticed that we had no silverware. "No matter," I thought. "They will bring the silverware." On the contrary, when someone asked, we were told we should eat with our hands. Isaac, the man from Ghana, explained that we should first grab banku and make it into the shape of a bowl resting on the index and middle fingers. Then we should dip this into the sauce and then grab pieces of fish. I was glad that I only ate with one hand and kept a clean mess, which seemed to be how the Africans were eating. My hands weren't any more dirty than if I were eating hot wings or even pizza.

After dinner, I had the chance to speak with one of them, Samuel, who was from Cameroon. In the larger group of about ten, he was reluctant to speak. Though English is an official language in Cameroon, his native language was French. He could speak English conversationally but, naturally, was hesitant in doing so with a group of natives.

I learned about his coming to Slovakia. He studies auto engineering at a local university. However, before taking these classes, he had to take two years of Slovak because this was the language that his classes were taught in. He said he spoke Slovak well, but many of the technical words he could not understand. I asked him how often he returns home. He said he has not returned home since he left four years ago. He explained that returning home is a big deal and he needs to have his bachelor's degree to return home. His parents would welcome him, but since they would have a celebration, he wants to bring something he is proud of.

During our conversation, he lamented over the fact that he studies were more difficult than they could be because of the language barrier. Many of the students have a head start: they know the language. Samuel not only must know the material, but also must know the language that the material is in. After briefly explaining some of these difficulties, Samuel wanted to affirm his positive attitude toward his studies and life. He said, "It's like in life: If you don't think that you can do it in here (pointing to his head), then you can't do it no matter how easy it is."

This positive attitude is a survival tactic at times in a foreign society. One has to be convinced that one can survive or that person must return home. This positive attitude doesn't come from nowhere, out of thin air.

There are numerous people like Samuel who exist in every society, people who have come from another country or society looking for an opportunity. These opportunities pose roadblocks: knowing the language, knowing the ins and outs, knowing the people. Living in another society myself, I can only begin to understand his hardships. I have a school that has welcomed me with a job and a place to live, friends who have integrated me into life here, and supporters who encourage me.

Understanding that we are dependent upon each other and others depend upon us, I can only encourage, hope for, and support these Samuels so that they remain positive and hardworking. Furthermore, I must thank those whom I am dependent upon: family, friends, and strangers.

To finish this post, I want to leave with a quote from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whom I am dependent upon as well.

"And don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. (Yes, sir) Don’t forget that. We are tied together in life and in the world. (Preach, preach) And you may think you got all you got by yourself. (Not all of it) But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world. (That’s right) You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. (That’s right) Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. (Yes) Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. (Yes) Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. (That’s right) Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. (That’s right) That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others" (from "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life" by Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ski Week

The first year students in our school have a week where they learn how to ski. That week is next week. Some of the students, however, opt not to go. Eighteen are staying this year. Because I teach first years, I do not have to teach 8 of my 20 classes a week. Twice next week I have to teach the students who remain.

Here's a few questions I was asked this week:

"Am you going on ski week?" - No, thank you. Whenever I ski, I feel like I'm going to fall off the mountain.

"What are you going to do with not having your first year classes?" - Pretend that I get to have another week without half of my classes.

"Professor, can we watch a movie while they are on ski week?" - No, what movie? "Simpsons" - No

(I'm not really that mean. I only say, "maybe", but "no" sounds funnier.

"Professor, will we miss you?" - Uh, I sure hope so, but I don't know if that's what you mean.

"Professor, will...we miss you?" - Hmm, I think you need to think about that question for a minute.

"Professor," - Yes, of course.

(See, I'm not that mean)

But, as the mug that a friend of my first roommate in college gave me says, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"


In Slovakia, New Years Eve is known as "Silvester." Except for a few special holidays, each day corresponds to a name. For instance, "Daniel" corresponds with July 21. December 31st is the "names day" for Silvester.

Some of my friends asked me if I would join them in going to a cottage near a town about an hour away from Bratislava. I was a bit reluctant to say that I would because the cottage that they stayed in last year did not have running water. They used an outhouse for a toilet. Not my kind of fun.

Upon arriving to the cottage on the 30th, I was reassured: no running water or toilet in the cottage. Fortunately, we had a toilet and sink available to us just outside our cottage.

One of the highlights of staying at the cottage was building snowmen.

Not having built a snowman in years, I had forgotten about the weight of snow. I had wanted to build a gigantic snowman, a man-like snowman. We stopped rolling the lower third when we could not longer push it. However, I forgotten that the middle shouldn't be too heavy because we would have to lift it. It took three guys to lift it. We were quite proud of our snowman after giving it a few facials.

To ring in the new year, we went into the small town - Piestany (Pi-esh-ta-knee) - for a small concert and fireworks. After having spent Silvester in Bratislava two years ago and in Piestany this year, I am convinced that Slovakia has no regulations on fireworks. Being in the town was like being in a small war zone. I always had to look where I was stepping and watching what others were doing around me. In Bratislava, kids would throw firecrackers into groups of people. Then everyone would have to scatter to avoid losing a leg.

Another interesting part of the evening was the "dropping of the ball". Well, okay, there was no ball, and we had no idea when was the "official" new year. There was no clock nearby. So each group of people standing waiting for the "official" firework to begin had their own time. One group of people would count down and yell, "Happy New Year", and the group next to them would just shake their hands thinking, "Don't they know it's ten more seconds." This made for quite an interesting way to "drop the ball."

The next morning we returned to Bratislava.