Thursday, November 12, 2015

Loss of a Language

There's a special type of shame an immigrant feels as she returns to the homeland, attempts to speak, and sounds like a moron. Every time I go to Finland, my mouth is at first incredibly clumsy. I struggle piecing together a sentence of more than three words. Those four, five syllable words, that the Finnish language is so abundantly blessed with, get stuck in my throat and come out mangled and maimed. All the conjugating just kills me.
Humans have migrated since the dawn of time. There's nothing special about leaving one's country. But unlike most immigrants, I left alone, with no one to speak my language to where I went. It was the prehistoric times before smart phones and social media - I didn't even have a laptop! Without Skype or Facebook newsfeed, my exposure to Finnish was close to none. My brain deemed it a thing of the past, and began letting go. I'd once known this language inside and out, confident of comma rules like a little nerd. I'd enjoyed its nuances and quirks, expressed myself and identified with it. Now, fresh off the plane in Helsinki, I stutter at the train station ticket counter, and raise eyebrows buying a pre-paid SIM card. There's something wrong with her is written all over the faces of those I encounter.
To make matters worse, I don't always remember or know how things work. The conductor has to explain the transfer several times before I get it. I arrive at the supermarket cash register with my vegetables unweighed, and hold up the line. I'll never forget the time I was stuck at a train station without cash - they wouldn't accept my 200 Euro bill. My money was no good at a grocery store, nor at a bar. All it got me was suspicious looks and runaround. Finally a kind taxi driver took me to a big supermarket equipped with bill scanners. Feeling lost and humiliated, I promptly burst into tears on the backseat. There's no place like home.
Until it happened to me, I didn't think a few years abroad could have such an impact. Why would anyone believe I wasn't faking it, then? Ah, she moved to America, and now she thinks she's better than us, I imagined people imagining.
The scenario repeated itself throughout the years. I landed all embarrassed, then got cozy with the language, and even learned a new word or two. (Such as some, pronounced saw-meh. Get it? It's short for social media.) As soon as I gained some confidence, it was time to leave. I'd return in a year or two, back in square one.
Nearing the ten year mark of immigrant life, I was done with the shame. I decided my shaky Finnish was excused once and for all. Now, I stutter with my head high. What a relief.

This past summer, I visited Finland with my Swiss boo. We planned to spend a day in Helsinki, then visit my family in the East of the country. There, we'd rent a big-ass RV and drive up to Lapland, loop around the Atlantic coast of Norway, and return via Sweden. I'd never brought anyone to Finland, and I was excited to see the place through the eyes of a tourist. It had been two years since my last visit, and the thought of pronouncing those long words and filling in the clueless foreigner was enough to tire my tongue.
"I'm not going to be your damn translator", I told the boyfriend. "Speak for yourself."
And what do you know: we received excellent service in English everywhere we went. The level of skill was what I'd expected, but the willingness to engage was a pleasant surprise. Scandinavia switched to relaxed and friendly English without missing a beat.
"How long have you been abroad?" asked the RV rental guy.
"Twelve years."
"Wow. No wonder."
That bad?
Back in the hometown, a friend's uncle offered a blunt analysis of the state of my mouth.
"Oh yeah, you've got that Yankee accent. T's and D's blend into one. My daughter sounds just the same."

Three months later, I returned to Finland in an entirely different state of mind. I entered through the door of my childhood home, leaving it cracked open for Death. Graciously, she waited outside for some hours so I could spend a little time with the living. Then she quietly let herself in.
Since I hadn't been gone for long, getting my Finnish on was easier than ever. For what I lacked in fluency, I made up in not giving a fuck. If I could make myself understood, it was good enough for me. By now I knew returning my Finnish to its former glory would require months of constant exposure - and double that time for tactful writing, or reading anything beyond a magazine without constant retakes.
In my old bedroom, I dug into the closet for some vintage treasures. It turns out I was an avid writer around the age of seven. I authored several books, made out of scrap paper, with plot lines varying between remotely clever and downright bizarre. To boost my credibility, I'd thrown in some fancy grown-up words, the meaning of which I hadn't quite understood. From there the learning curve went up, and it went down. Now I'm back to not having the complete command of any language.
At the morgue, I placed two white roses inside the casket, on behalf of my sister and I. Rest in peace dear Dad said the little card. I'd written it in the language of my childhood, so my Dad would better understand.
"Could we have a moment", I asked the staff, so my mother wouldn't have to speak.
"Of course", they said, and stepped outside.
In this most surreal of situations, I felt a misplaced jolt of pride for having so eloquently cleared the room. I was quite the linguist.
One of those days, my sister had a strange outburst. She accused me of being rude and bossy. I was at a loss. She gave me an example.
"Can you see if Mom needs help outside, since you have shoes on?" I had said, in a totally unacceptable tone.
True, I hadn't said 'please', since such a frivolous word did not exist in Finnish. I shrugged the incident off as a bout of death induced stress.
On the train to Helsinki, I had what Oprah calls an Aha! moment. When asking my sister to step out I'd translated the request into Finnish word by word. CAN YOU SEE IF MOM NEEDS HELP. It didn't work that way. The result was too formal. To me it sounded polite and proper, to her it came across as demanding.
I thought I was all fluent and shit. In reality, I'm tone deaf.
A while back, a Finnish expat blogger was wondering if one's first language could ever be replaced by another. I thought of replying, but coining up a coherent response in Finnish felt too difficult. Doing it in English, I feared, would have seemed pretentious and self-serving. The answer as I know it is that without maintenance and effort, it can and it will. However, losing ground on language does not equal losing identity. The self is not married to a title, a profession, a nationality. I am my thoughts and my beliefs, but the language in which I dress them is irrelevant.

The edge of Finland is not the airport. Finnish chatter accompanies me all through the first flight, out the plane and into the terminal. There it disappears like ashes into the wind, eluding me until the next visit. Before that, a few words may tease my ear on a Manhattan street, or the tourist trail of Southeast Asia.
Finnish thoughts pop into my head, becoming less frequent by the hour. In two days, they're gone. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Interview with the Author: Tava Naiyin

Little Book of Big Advice: Enlightening Ideas for Bellydance Professionals hit the market earlier this year. This self-help book for aspiring dancers is distinct from others in its approach. Instead of the contents of the gig bag, Tava zooms in on the life of a performing artist, and how to create a career of integrity and longevity.
Tava herself has been dancing her entire life, taking her first bellydance class at age four in California. Years later, she went on to become a professional bellydancer in New York City. Today she's a bellydancer, instructor, choreographer, blogger, and mentor based in Connecticut. She lives with her husband, a stage manager to the likes of Diana Ross and The New York Dolls, as well as three cats and a dog with varying levels of artistic talent.

Tava, what prompted you to write this book?

After years in the industry, I'd seen a number of things I wanted to speak up about. I find that new dancers want to do things the right way, but may simply not know how. No one told them "the rules." When I started, there seemed to be more mentoring going on. The students I knew waited for their teacher's blessing to go pro, and had someone to turn to along the way. Now, a lot of learning happens via YouTube clips. Many things fall through the cracks. I don't expect people to agree with everything I write, but I'm happy if they consider it and form their own opinions based on knowledge and experience -- rather than assumption.

What do you wish for the reader to get out of this book?

They will know which issues they are likely to face when turning their hobby into a business and what it's like to be a pro dancer. I want to give the reader a realistic idea of what that means, instead of the fantasy we all have in our heads as aspiring dancers. Should you turn your passion into a paycheck? How will you get through a slow gig month without falling into financial despair? Do you want to put on makeup and dance when you have fever? The answer may not be a resounding yes.

Give us an example of a gig gone wrong!

Back when I was fresh in the field, I used to book shows verbally, and I was hired to dance at a maternity store opening. There was some media, and I was already out in my costume to take some pictures...when suddenly, I was escorted into the back area. There had been a major miscommunication between the store owner and the person who hired me: the owner only wanted a pregnant bellydancer! Obviously, I didn't fit the profile. I was not paid at all. Today, this could never happen to me, as I would have created a contract and collected a deposit well before the event.

Wow. So what are some of the issues in the dance scene today?

Well, there are amazing dancers out there who conduct themselves with tact and professionalism. But, of course, there are others who seem to emerge out of nowhere, buy expensive costumes, create a website or online profile, and poof! They become "professional" overnight. But being hire-able doesn't mean the dancer is ready to go pro. Ignoring professional standards devalues the same art form we are trying so hard to promote as legit and respectable.
An example that comes to mind is dancers not costuming themselves properly. This is not about morality - different dances simply have a different aesthetic. In some dance forms, flashing your crotch area, covered with tights or micro shorts, while turning fast or lifting your leg is totally acceptable. In bellydance, it's too much information - and usually way too up close. Much like a woman on the street whose skirt gets blown in the wind, the audience is seeing something they're not supposed to see. Dancers coming into bellydance from ballroom or ballet may simply not know this.
Other times, a raised stage might lead to an oops moment. The dancer turns, and the audience down below sees all of her business.

There's also the etiquette of dancing together with others when nothing is pre-planned. And, of course, how to cover a gig for another dancer without making waves. I have a number of contributors who weigh in to share thoughts on topics we face as dancers. I love having multiple perspectives.

Staying inspired in a long career can be a challenge. How do you keep the love alive?

One of the contributors of the book, Riskallah, actually discusses this in depth. In a nutshell: keep learning and remain a student. I'm so deeply in love with this dance which has supported me, brought me my closest friends and helped me find my confidence - and maintain my humility. I want the same for everyone who chooses this path.

Photo by Joe Marquez

Little Book of Big Advice: Enlightening Ideas for Bellydance Professionals 
is available here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Bellydancer's Body

Imagine going to work, and having your co-workers talk about your body like it's the weather. To your face. Every day.
My homegirl and colleague Luna dances in Cairo, and when she's not busy being slut/fat/skinny-shamed she writes a blog. Here's a piece I co-authored, about the body image of bellydancers all around Arabia.

Back home, we have this notion that bellydance has a more accommodating aesthetic than other dances - that this art is for all sizes, shapes, colors, and ages. And that may very well be the case, for two reasons. We insist on it being that way, and second, bellydance is not a mainstream form of entertainment there...

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

7 Things Traveling Has Taught Me

You know the basic benefits of traveling: it broadens your perspectives, challenges your world view, makes you appreciate what you have.
Then there the less obvious lessons. Here are some of mine. Now, you don't need to travel to the end of the Earth to learn these things. The more evolved individuals have known them all along.

1. Time is not money

For most of us mortals, time is just time. There's a lot of it now, and a whole lot more where it came from. It's a renewable resource.
I was trying to cross into DRC, but the Congolese immigration officer wasn't feeling me. I didn't want to give up so soon and decided to wait and see what would happen. My time was dragging on in Bwera, that non-descript small town on the edge of Uganda.
There was nothing really to see, but I decided to see it anyway. I looked at the life around me. I stuck my head in all kinds of little shops. I watched Zakia the tailor sew skirts. I took pictures of the usual targets: kids and animals. At the tiny market, I admired fish, and browsed second hand shoes. Just to kill time, I tried on some dresses, imported from China. I didn't really love any of them but bought one anyway. I wear it from time to time and remember Bwera with a smile. Those two days had seemed so long. I'd felt like I was wasting my time - I had places to go! Of course, it was just a blink of an eye in my lifetime, and the memory of it is a pleasant one. I had time.
2. To get to the good stuff you gotta tolerate the rest

Travel plans play like a highlight reel in your head. In reality, there's almost always a lot of downtime. The less exciting stuff just didn't make the cut for the reel.
The whole point of going to Djemila was to see the ruins of a Roman town. Getting there was tricky: from Algiers, it took three different buses and lots and lots of time. Once there, the ruins rewarded me big time. After dark, though, there was nothing I could do in Djemila. I had no business roaming the streets alone at night. So, I spent the remaining hours in a bare hotel room. No laptop, book, TV, wifi. Just silence and solitude.
These days we're used to having a million distractions at our fingertips and I for one am a product of my time. As I'm writing this, I'm shuffling between news, newsfeed, Netflix, and random cat videos. Remove all entertainment and communication, and what's left? Just you. Do you like you? 
Rome in Algeria
3. Boredom is key

In Western culture, we'd rather die than be bored. We regard boredom as an ugly, unwanted feeling. I prefer to see it as a transformative state.
After a few weeks in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, I'd learned how to haggle with taxis, and freshened up my survival French. I had rummaged through sights and museums, been to some cool restaurants. Then the day came when I couldn't think of anything to do. I was just bored. 
I lingered in the house for the better part of the day. Eventually I put some shoes on and strolled to the end of the street, just to buy chocolate. I passed by the Lebanese supermarket, and the lady selling oranges on the roadside. The shop keeper greeted me. He knew what I wanted before I even told him. As I walked back, I realized I had become part of the neighborhood. I was no longer a traveler passing through.This was my place now, and there was a place for me here. My state of boredom had allowed my mind to go quiet. Finally, I could feel the place. From there on, Cote d'Ivoire started pulling me into its sweet embrace, loving me more and more.
Dodo and I
4. You are not lazy, you are traveling

The other reason we fall apart at the face of doing nothing is that we equate productivity with self worth. Not doing anything? You're lazy and useless. But the juice of any experience is in the feeling, not the doing. Truth is, we are worthy human beings without having to do a damn thing. Those voices in our heads insist we should be productive all the time, but our voices are louder, and we can tell them to shove it. It's surprisingly hard, even for a lazyass like me.
In Bahrain I met a female US soldier. She'd spent her twenties on different navy bases, saving up her money. Now the end of her stint was getting near, and she dreamed of going traveling for a year. She totally deserved to take a break and explore the world after working throughout her youth, right? Not so fast. 
"I don't know if I could travel more than a couple of months. I'd probably feel guilty for not working for that long." 
An unemployed Bahraini camel
5. You are not a friendless loser, you are traveling

In a new place, by yourself, your mind can start playing tricks on you. Loneliness has a way of creeping up on a solo traveler. You've got to keep it at bay, and be stronger.
There aren't many times I've felt as out of place as I did in Marrakech. The whole situation was bizarre. I had intended to leave Morocco, but then a bellydance contract in Tunisia suddenly came up. It would take two weeks for my work permit to be ready. I thought I would just hang out in Casablanca, but quickly realized I couldn't stand the city. In an unprecedented move, I booked myself a week-long stay in a four star hotel in Marrakech, thinking it would be relaxing and comfortable. That was hardly the case. Naturally, all other guests were families or couples. Sitting alone at breakfast was awkward, with a lineup of overly helpful waiters watching me and rushing to refill my coffee cup the second it was empty. Every day I bodyblocked cleaning ladies from entering my room. Had they seen my dance costumes, the whole house would have known I was a hoochie mama bellydancer. Was I in Marrakech alone because no one in the world loved me? No. Did I feel lonely and pathetic? Yes. Did that deter me from traveling alone again? Hell no.
A happy day in Assilah, northern Morocco
6. You are not the same bitch everywhere you go

In your own environment, it's easy to be your best self. I'm sure you are nice. I hope you feel safe. All is normal and so are you.
I'd like to think the same about myself. But this is not the only version of me. Take away my ability to communicate, or put me in a place where I'm given loads of unpleasant attention, or I have to worry about my stuff or my ass being grabbed, and I'm not that nice anymore. The defense mechanisms that come out under duress are not pretty.
I try not to judge myself too harsly for being a bitch on demand. The way I see it, part of the travel deal is accepting the uglier, equally real sides of myself.
In India I was no yogi - I was a screamer. From what I'd come to understand about South Asian culture while in the Gulf, and by my everyday observations in India, aggression was the law of the land. Stay polite in a conflict, and you'll be eaten for breakfast. 
I was handpicked by my agent to do a show in Kurukshetra, Haryana. A significant Hindu pilgrimage site, with a holy pond and temples - the boss knew Kurukshetra was right up my alley. He gave clear instructions to the driver and the middleman who would take me there: "No temple, no dance." 
The sun was alarmingly low as we neared Kurukshetra. The middleman turned to face me. 
"I don't think we have time to see the temple...the client is calling me." 
I knew we were in no rush - he just didn't feel like giving me a tour. I immediately turned up the volume, and threatened not to dance. For him to take me seriously, calm and polite wouldn't cut it. The middleman called my agent, who (loudly and impolitely) backed me up. So I saw the pond and the temple, and even got some nice footage for my documentary. I only got back in the car once it was totally dark. At the show venue, I still had to wait for several hours before dancing. As we all knew I would.
Brahma Sarovar, a holy pond
7. Seek and you shall find

Whatever we believe about the world is true, because our beliefs shape our experiences. Are most people good or bad? Is the world dangerous or safe? Are people happy or unhappy? Whatever you're leaning towards, the proof is never far. We simply zoom in on what we want to find.
As much as I can, I choose to see the good. In some places, people will warn you about thieves, for example. I don't then focus on the thieves. I zoom in on those people who care enough to warn me. They are my sisters, my brothers. In my life, they outnumber the bad guys a hundredfold. They help me find what I need. They defend me, they keep me safe. Anywhere I go. Every single time.
Mustafa, Hanan, and Najib took me under their wing in Somaliland