SG: on the road (er, air) again!

After a painful 4:30 alarm clock (and only 3.5 hours sleep), I awoke to pouring rain. The taxi ride was quick with no traffic (about 20 minutes and only S$23/US$19 from Little India).

My taxi driver spoke the local pigeon English – I could only understand a third of what he said. I had read about this language mix, but it’s the first time I really encountered it.

The rain was done by the time we arrived at the airport.

A 3-flight, 28 hour itin today. and only the last and smallest leg upgraded.

I’ll be trying to post more photos and stories during the trip… physically it’s pretty much over, but much left to catch up on the blog.

The Singapore Airlines *A Gold lounge is nice. I’m pretty sure it’s nicer than the nearby contract lounge that UA tries to send you to.

Seoul: more Korean language notes

  • No explicit word for “please” (implicit in polite form of verb)
    e.g.  “XXX juseyo” means “I want XXX please” or “Please give me XXX”
  • Only language I know where the word for “yes” starts with letter “n” (it’s ne)
  • My hovercraft is full of eels: 내 호버크라프트는 장어로 가득 차 있어요
    (Nae hoebuhkeurapeuteuneun changuhro kadeuk cha isseyo)
  • For the techies, HTML codes for Hangul: HTML codes for Hangul

Seoul: fun with language

Unlike other Asian languages that use complicated (to us westerners) pictograms or scripts and are tonal (e.g. “ma” can be pronounced 5-7 different ways in Mandarin and Thai), Hangul (the Korean language introduced in the 15th century) is actually composed of letters that roughly translate to many English letters, with a specific syllabic pattern, and pronounced fairly flatly. Of course pronunciation rules aren’t always straightforward, but you can get reasonably close. The first few sections of Korean Writing System give a good overview.

I can read most of the letters now, which helps for place names and some key words, but obviously if you don’t know the Korean word for something, then you won’t understand the word you are reading/pronouncing.

For example, 신촌 is Sinchon (pronounced Shinchon), the metro station closest to my hostel (and yes, in the metro, maps and signs also list the stop name in English everywhere). I can read the 3 letters inside each of those 2 syllables. My turning point came one day at lunch when I was even able to recognize the Hangul for beer (maekchu), a local drink (soju) similar to vodka, and rice wine (makkolli) on the no-English menu posted on the wall (for food, I pointed at a picture of the dish I wanted).

I may not be able to read much Korean, but I’m pretty sure the sign, locked gate and barbed wire are all saying: “Keep out!”

No entry sign on part of Inwangsan (mountain)

Tip: Language difficulties pt 2

One thing I like to do is write down key phrases (and numbers) on a piece of paper that I can look at and study quickly without trying to flip through the phrasebook.

I also write down my own pronunciation guide for the word(s), especially here since the pinyin is a little confusing at first (see the related post).

It might go without saying, but if your handwriting looks like chicken scratch the way mine does, you really need to take effort to write cleanly. While I can figure out an English word that I scribbled, the pinyin and/or translation needs to be readable character by character or it’s not really useful anymore.

For example, excuse me is jieguang (with some accents not shown) and my pronunciation tip is jegwung. or is it jegiung? or does that say jegriung? hard to tell (for the record, it’s the first one, where wung rhymes with swung).

Language difficulties

Mandarin is difficult. Another one of those tonal languages. As in “ma” can be pronounced 5 distinct ways for 5 different meanings (in Thai it’s 6 or 7 different ways for “ma”!)

Of course I didn’t look at my Lonely Planet phrasebook until breakfast the first day in Taipei, which didn’t help. In retrospect, with enough time, I wish I would have sought someone who speaks English and Mandarin (e.g. in Chinatown, or at a hostel if traveling) to ask for 15-30 minutes of pronunciation help. Oh well, maybe I’ll be better prepared for Hong Kong.

I’m not sure who created pinyin exactly – that’s the official way the Chinese adopted for writing in Roman alphabet (i.e. regular ol’ letters like in English). But it’s not English pronunciation (unlike Japanese romanization (romaji) which is pronounced as an English speaker would pronounce it).

For example, “sorry” is “duibuqi” (with some accents) but pronounced “dayboochee” more or less). Say what?

Or, to quote an example from the phrase book, foreign diplomats (waijaoguan with some extra accents) who pronounce it with a flat tone are saying that they are “rubber U-bend pipes” :-)

The LP guidebook/phrasebook suggests 2 things: Taiwanese people are friendly, and don’t worry so much about the tones. Case in point…

The second time I went to Taipei 101, afterwards I ate lunch in the food court in the bowels of the building. I had to circle the whole food court before finding a seat at a narrow table with barstools. A Taiwanese woman, Silvia, sat down across from me a little later. After a while, noticing my phrasebook, she asked me (in very good English) what words I knew. I swear she couldn’t understand half my words the first time I said them (mostly due to intonation, and some errors on my part). She helped me straighten it out a little. It turns out she manages the new office for a law firm that is headquartered in Seattle.

Using her spare cardkey, Silvia took me up to show the office and view, on the 45th floor (most of the Taipei 101 building is office space, with 10,000 people working there!). We had to switch elevators at the 35th floor “lounge”, which had a Starbucks and a Family Mart (main competitor to 7-11 here) with a view! She had only been in this office for a month, so it was with a touch of irony that I pointed out that her view was towards the Maokong mountain (where the gondola is).

So, Taiwanese are indeed friendly! And intonation does matter!

A coule of little points missed in recent posts

it’s a World Heritage site.

Communicating in English:
Note: there is a movement in India to make Hindi the official country-wide unifying language, but south India is resisting the idea because English is the common second language – hardly anyone speaks Hindi in the south. Recall that virtually every state (certainly in the south) has its own language (a Dravidian language in the south, which is very different from Hindi).

Alleppey and backwaters:
In the backwaters village homestay, Thomas’ mother did the (excellent) cooking. She also gave cooking classes (no time for me though).
Tip: skip the night in Alleppey and head straight for Chennamkary village homestay!


More than a dozen wild monkeys at a hill-top temple in Hampi

Including this mother with baby – so cute! Had to include this pic for Susan!
Apparently the mother’s very red face means she is ready for to mate again…
They may be wild, but they are definitely used to humans – they will take bananas and nuts (one at a time, stuffing their cheek) out of your hand, and drink water from a loose-capped water bottle (one actually managed to twist the cap off) or from a half-coconut shell, even tipping it up like a cup!
I didn’t do any of that direct interaction (other guys did), but I’m heading up there again today with supplies!
Oh, and one of them kept touching my back while I was crouched taking photos and videos – they’d definitely get into a backpack or bag if you left it lying on the ground…

Monkey with baby on board

On an unrelated note, I was recently asked: How are you finding communicating in India? How common is English?
A: English is quite common (less so in smaller towns, but people who deal with tourists speak English, except for the canoe paddlers out of Alleppey :-)
That being said, their English is hard to understand due to to the strong Indian accent (think Apu on The Simpsons but even stronger) – I frequently have to ask What? and Sorry? to get them to repeat it…
An exception of course is better- or foreign-educated Indians, their English is very understandable.
Note: there is a movement in India to make Hindi the official country-wide unifying language, but south India is resisting the idea because English is the common second language – hardly anyone speaks Hindi in the south. Recall that virtually every state (certainly in the south) has its own language (a Dravidian language in the south, which is very different from Hindi).