Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

 

In the first installment, I introduced the general topic and posed some questions to get you in the "What is Normal" mindset. In this part, I'll deal with writing systems. These days, as most of my travel is international the most obvious deviation from my normal routine is being surrounded by written communication in a foreign language, and sometimes with a writing system quite different from my own. [Should that be "different to my own"? British and American English vary.]

I started writing this article in a hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. [And I proofread it in a hotel in Helsinki, Finland, three months later.] Prior to that time, I had been to Sweden once, for three hours one winter's afternoon in Helsingborg after a short ferry ride from Elsinore, Denmark. I know absolutely no Swedish, and have had very little exposure to Swedish people or culture. [I do have some CDs by ABBA and I'm familiar with the Swedish Chef from The Muppets TV show. So that probably qualifies me to be an armchair expert on Sweden on the talk-show circuit.]

From the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport, I saw Swedish writing all around me. Fortunately, some important signs were in English, but as Swedish is a Germanic language—and I have some basic competency in that—I could also understand or figure out some basics. And the fact that quite a few signs used international symbols for things like toilets, money changing, train station, luggage lockers, and such made it all straight forward (unlike when I arrived in Israel [Hebrew] and Jordan [Arabic] last November).

I've been interested in natural languages for many years, and have made a stab at Spanish, German, and Japanese. And I've picked up some basic vocabulary in a few other languages as well. Then I got into formal computer languages, and that led me to formal grammars. Along the way, I worked on specifications for computing environments to support different linguistic and cultural customs. And some years after I started writing for publication, I even managed to get a decent grasp on my first language, English. So let's just say that I'm an occasionally enthusiastic self-taught amateur linguist.

Introduction

To be literate one must be able to read, write, and comprehend what one has read or written. And in the general understanding, this is extended to include numeracy, the ability to understand numbers and basic arithmetic. So when you hear that a person is illiterate that typically means they lack these capabilities. However, they may well be able to speak and comprehend, and even have an extended vocabulary. In short, they aren't stupid! [Unfortunately, here in the US, we've had more than a few instances of professional athletes graduating from a 4-year university and still being illiterate. "How can that happen", you may well ask.]

Fluency has to do with one's command of a language. I've seen references to the idea that being fluent in a language means knowing the basic grammar and having a vocabulary of 2,000 root words. Over the years, I've done my share of learning word lists in several languages, and each time after having learned 10 new ones, I've felt pretty good, until I realized that that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I may know the words for bird and flower, for example, I'm quickly reminded that doesn't help me distinguish a crow from a sparrow, or a rose from a tulip. As a wag once said, "Those foreigners have different words for everything!"

When I started high school in 1965, only the students in the "A" stream (of which I was one) could take a foreign language, and we had to choose from Latin, Latin, or Latin. Yes my friends, Latin was the only choice, apparently because some Education Department bureaucrats had decided South Australia was most vulnerable to attack from the Romans! And boys like me who didn't care for Latin had to take Agricultural Science instead, while the girls' alternative was Drawing. Speaking of Latin, you may have heard of the famous quote attributed to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered); well, the modern-day version is Veni, vidi, Visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, to graduate high school in the public school system students are required to take one foreign language for three years, or two languages each for two years. Most schools offer Spanish, French, and German. The high school my son attended also offered Japanese, Russian, and Latin. And most American Liberal Arts 4-year colleges require students to take two semesters of a foreign language or to show proof of fluency to get an exemption.

In 1986, an excellent TV series called The Story of English was aired here in the US. It showed the evolution and distribution of the language as the British Empire expanded around the world. One aspect that I found most amusing was that in more than a few interviews subtitles were added so viewers had a chance of actually understanding what was being said. They may have been speaking in their normal form of English, but it certainly wasn't mine.

Let's move on now to how the written word is actually written.

Alphabet Soup

Simply stated, an alphabet is a set of letters each of which is represented by a distinct symbol. [For the purpose of sorting words alphabetically, the set of letters can have one or more orders; that is, collating sequences.] As I'm writing this in English, I'll use that language to start my discussion. English has 26 letters, which come in two flavors, lower- and uppercase. [Follow the lowercase link to see why they have these names. In Australia, I learned them as small and capital letters, respectively.] Not all alphabets have more than one case. And not all letters in one case have a corresponding letter in the other case (the lowercase ß in German being one such example). And to make it a bit more interesting there is an artificial third case, title case (or letter case). This comes into play when typesetting headings and titles in publications.

For most people using an alphabet, they think of it as the alphabet, not as an alphabet. However, numerous alphabets are in use. For example, the Greek alphabet has 24 letters and two cases. The Classical Latin alphabet had 23 letters (that from modern English without J, V, and W, and with U written as V) and two cases. [Nowadays, Latin alphabet is used for any alphabet derived directly from Latin, so the English, Swedish, and Spanish alphabets, for example, are Latin alphabets.] The modern Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters and two cases. [Initially, the EU had two official alphabets, Latin and Greek, and if you look at any Euro paper money, you will see the words "EURO" (Latin) and "ΕΥΡΩ" (Greek) printed on them. However, now that Bulgaria has been admitted, Cyrillic has been added as the third official alphabet.]

In English, each vowel and consonant has a different symbol; however, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets have letters for consonants only. They use other devices to indicate vowel sounds.

Uppercase letters in English are used sparingly, such as at the start of the first word in a sentence, to start proper names, and to write acronyms. However, in German, every noun is written with a leading uppercase letter.

Some alphabets use what look like multiple letters to make a single letter. For example, Spanish has the letters ch and ll. And yes, they do occur in both cases, and if these letters start the first word of a sentence, only the first in each pair is capitalized. Spanish also has rr, but that is really two r's, not a single letter. In Dutch, ij is sometimes considered a single letter; I've certainly seen it as a separate key on a typewriter keyboard.

In the good old days, once we had mastered printing, we moved on to cursive writing. And we were told of the importance of penmanship. However, for many of us, as we grew older, our cursive needed no encryption to keep its meaning secret. Our handwriting bordered on the illegible. The interesting thing now is that with the proliferation of keyboards and keyboard-like interfaces, all electronic communication uses printed letters. As such, does the teaching of cursive still have a place in modern education?

Western European languages have mostly evolved from the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian) or the Germanic languages. As I have a basic grasp of Spanish and German, and a smattering of words in French, I manage to read quite a few signs as I travel through Europe and its former colonies. And having also studied Japanese for a while, I tend not to get bothered by seemingly strange or arbitrary rules. After all, perhaps English is the strange language!

Now what about all those dots, bars, and squiggles that we see written above or below various letters in European alphabets? Take French (please!). It has the same 26 letters as English. However, it adds diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. These are the acute (´), grave (`), circumflex (ˆ), dieresis (¨), and the cedilla (¸). The main combinations are: à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, û, ù, ü, and ÿ. The English word facade comes from the French façade; the cedilla clearly tells the reader to pronounce the letter c as an s, but as English has no such marks, that hint has been lost. You simply have to know that is how it's pronounced.

Spanish also uses the acute accent mark on its vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. Once again, these are not new letters, but marks to tell you where to put the emphasis when pronouncing them. In the absence of these marks, the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. These marks can also be used to give the same-spelled word different meanings. For example, sábana means bed sheet while sabana means savannah. Spanish also uses the dieresis, but only on ü. On the other hand, the word señor (meaning a formal version of mister) is widely known by speakers of other languages; however, ñ is a letter in its own right, not an n with a diacritic. Once again, when it was taken into English, the tilde atop it was lost. However, when English took on the word canyon from the Spanish cañon the letter y was added to retain the original pronunciation.

And what about them there umlauts in German, as in ä, ö, and ü? There is some dispute about whether they are separate letters or simply diacritical marks. In any event, they certainly indicate the pronunciation. My family name is Jaeschke, which when written in German is Jäschke, with the a-umlaut having the e sound in egg. [When I went to register the internet domain name www.Jaeschke.com, a German with the a-umlaut version of the name already owned it, so I went with www.RexJaeschke.com instead. Currently, domain names and email addresses have to be written using the English alphabet, so the German ä gets written as ae.]

Occasionally, in English-language typesetting you will see the dieresis (¨) used with English words. This mark is placed over the second of a pair of adjacent vowels to indicate that those vowels should be pronounced as separate sounds rather than as a diphthong. The most common word having this is naïve. Another one is the word Noël, which means Christmas.

The Norwegians and Danes have 29 letters in their alphabets, with the 26 English ones followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å. [Two uses of these letters in English publications come to mind: Æsop's Fables and encyclopædia.] However, the Swedes like to be different, so their set of 29 letters ends in Å/å, Ä/ä, and Ö/ö. Finnish looks like Swedish with the W/w missing, but its roots are completely different, so the visual similarity is misleading.

Diacritical marks turn out to be very useful, and I can see why people have difficulty in pronouncing many words in English, which has no equivalent visual pronunciation guide. One letter pattern in English that has numerous sounds is ough. There is ow in bough, uu in through, oo in though, au in thought, u in enough, and o in cough (and probably others).

Regarding pronunciation in English, look at the front of a good dictionary to see the list of pronunciation symbols and their sounds. For example, man is pronounced măn and plane is pronounced plān. (The ˘ is a breve and the ˉ is a macron.) There is a whole phonetic alphabet used to describe how letters in other alphabets are pronounced.

Even the sounds of the same letter in the same language can vary from one country to the next. The classic example in English is the letter z, which in the US is pronounced zee while the rest of the world says zed. Of course, with the American version of Sesame Street being exported around the world, that is changing. [By the way, Big Bird is not always yellow. For example, in The Netherlands, he is blue.] Also, the way in which small children are taught their letter values varies between countries. For example, I first learned the short sounds a, b, c, etc. rather than the long names aye, bee, cee, and so on. That is, "the a and the t make at in bat"; not the "aye and the bee make at in bat", which would obviously be quite unhelpful.

Each time I travel to a country that uses an alphabet that is somewhat new to me, I look at a local computer keyboard. At a glance, everything is the same, but on closer inspection, quite a lot is different. As many European keyboards have more than 26 letters and/or keys for diacritical marks, the layout is different and some keys serve more than two purposes. The key sequence I have the most trouble finding and using is that to generate the @ symbol when sending email. And what's that ¤ key for?

At one time, I studied a world atlas in Greek for several hours trying to see what I could figure out about that language. Having taken math and physics classes for some years, I knew most of the Greek letters, but still it was a challenge. Legend has it that Saint Cyril—for whom the Cyrillic alphabet was named—and his brother developed that alphabet from Greek and took it into Bulgaria from where it spread through the eastern Slavic countries on up to Russia. So if you look at the history of those areas you can see where certain influences were made, by the alphabets used in those areas. One unusual example of this is the Serbo-Croatian language. The eastern practitioners wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet while the western ones wrote it using a Latin alphabet. As a result, you have two groups of people speaking the same language, but neither can read it in the other's written form.

I freely admit to having had almost no interest in history during my school years. [After all, as someone once said, "History is nothing but one damned thing after another."] However, having traveled to some of the places I learned about (the Tower of London, Runnymede, and the Waterloo Battlefield, for example) I started to relate to more and more of it. And now I actually like the subject, and I see its influence on language evolution and distribution.

One thing about other languages that can be confusing is their use of a letter that you have in your own language, but with the two having completely different sounds. One example is the Russian letter C, which is pronounced like the English S (except on Wednesdays between 10 and 11 am, and in leap years). And to make it interesting, the Russian P is like the English R. If you look in photos or films covering the Cold War, the Soviet missiles and space rockets always have the letters CCCP painted on the side. These stand for "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик", which—as I'm sure you all know—in English means, "Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik". Now "Soyuz" is Russian for "Union", so CCCP in Russian became "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR) in English. [Speaking of the Cold War, there is a story about how the US spent $1 million to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space. The Soviets simply took a pencil!]

Putting the Em·PHA·sis on the Correct Syl·LA·ble

In Part 1, I wrote, "… my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet!" So what does she have? As well as Kanji (which we'll discuss later) she has two syllabarieshiragana and katakana—which together, are referred to as kana.

Where an alphabet has symbols for letters, a syllabary has symbols for syllables. Typically, a syllabary symbol has a vowel sound proceeded by an optional consonant. Some examples in Japanese are ah, kah, sah, go, zo, do, kyu, shu, and ryu. [Note that Tokyo really has only two syllables, to·kyo, not the three that Westerners insist on using, to·ki·yo.] Hiragana and katakana each have 100+ symbols with almost complete overlap. And just about any word can be written in either. Having two systems seems redundant to me, and students of Japanese must learn them both. Loan words from foreign languages are always written in katakana. Hiragana is used to write particles, a curious language element that does not exist in English.

Speaking of loan words, Japanese words all end in a vowel sound or n. So loan words have to fit this model and the syllabic pattern. For example, hotel becomes ho·te·ru, taxi becomes ta·ku·shi, and cheese become chi·zu. [While bread is also an imported idea, it came via the Portuguese, so it finished up as pan, which not only fits the Japanese model, but also comes from the Latin panis.] Rather than invent new words whose meaning is equivalent to foreign words, Japanese takes them literally with slight tweaks to "make them fit". My favorite is a·i·su·ku·ri·mu, icecream. Although these extra vowels allow the words to fit the spelling model when written in Romaji, they are unvoiced, so when spoken, the words sound very much like their English counterparts.

More than 10 years ago, one of my textbooks was translated to Japanese. As my first and last names were of foreign origin, they had to be written in katakana. However, there is no direct way to do that without adding some extra vowels to fit the required syllabic pattern. Here is the cover of that book:

[The same book was also translated to Russian, in which case, my name was written as Рекс Жешке.]

When one starts learning a language, one is told to learn to read and write as well as to speak and listen. In general, that makes sense, but when I started looking at Japanese, the idea of learning 200 kana seemed way too much work. [And that's without learning any of the thousands of Kanji characters!]

Other languages use a syllabary, but the Japanese ones are the most widely used.

Early versions of telex and telegram services were limited to as few as 32 symbols, which for most westerners was sufficient for a single-case version of their alphabets. So, did the Japanese have access to these services?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or is it?)

It turns out that alphabets and syllabaries are latecomers in the written language stakes. At the beginning of the written word, we had pictograms, which used symbols that resembled the physical object for which they stood. [Even today, the Chinese and Japanese symbol for entrance is a mouth.] Of course, we have since invented many words that have no obvious physical representation, although pain might be symbolized by a picture of a dentist! Ideograms were also developed and they are symbols representing an idea or concept.

The best known of these kinds of writing systems are the hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt and the characters used in Chinese, and which were adapted by Japanese (Kanji).

When I was dabbling in Japanese, I did try to learn the Kanji for basic numbers, and I had some success. So even though I could tell how much I was paying when buying from street food stalls, I still had no idea what I was buying. And to make it interesting, many vendors used a combination of Arabic and Japanese digits. For example, 100 would be written with a Kanji 1 followed by two Arabic zeros.

Although I've asked numerous native speakers how they know how to pronounce what I affectionately call "chicken scratchings", I am still none the wiser. In fact, I think they simply have to remember each character. As to how they look up words in a dictionary is a complete mystery to me. And to make it a wee bit challenging, ideogram-based languages seem to have no concept of inter-word spacing, little or no punctuation, and no upper- or lowercase.

To survive in present-day Japan, a student must master the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, have a good grasp of the Kanji ideograms (some with multiple meanings or readings), and then be able to at least read and understand a good deal of English. Many advertising billboards and TV commercials use all four writing systems together! And as for how one enters these kinds of characters on a keyboard simply is fascinating.

Writing Direction

If you are old enough to remember typewriters, you'll recall that large arm on the right that you had to push to the left to return the carriage to the left side and down to start a new line. Of course, with computers this has come to be known as—surprise—a carriage return.

Standards for computer programming languages support the concept of one or more characters that cause a display cursor or printer to advance to the first position of the next line. Of course, for Westerners, that means, "go back to the left side and down". That is, their writing systems are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I have no idea why those languages are written that way, but I know of no superior property it provides, so it is no surprise that some writing systems (such as Hebrew and Arabic) go right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and others (such as Chinese and Japanese) go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. I am not aware of any that go bottom-to-top, although that could be perfectly normal, right?

Most writers of Western languages are right-handed, which allows them to read easily what they have written as they write. Not so for lefties, like my son. In many cases, this forces left-handers to hold the pen at a very strange angle. [Speaking of lefties, back in the good old days (the Middle Ages) many people believed that those who wrote with their left hand were possessed by the Devil, and so they were considered evil. The word sinister comes from the Latin word of the same name, and means left-handed. Dextrous comes from the Latin dexteritas, from dexter, which means on the right.]

A few years ago, I made my first visit to the new British Library in London where I discovered its treasure room. [Among other things, it contains the first folio of Shakespeare's complete works, some very ornate Korans, and the lyrics of a well-known Beatle's song scribbled on an airline napkin. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity.] Off in one corner was a room with computer terminals that provided access to a digitized version of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Now Leonardo (or "Yo Leo", as his close friends addressed him) was never accused of being normal. In this notebook, he wrote left-handed, from right to left, and back to front. That is, you need to look at a mirror image of the writing to see it in its "normal" perspective.

Conclusion

We've barely scratched the surface of this topic. For example, we haven't talked about sorting order in word lists, punctuation, grammar, or even the spoken word, which is a completely new topic of its own. But, of course, we have to leave something for future installments.

I'll leave you with the following anecdote from my travels in South East Asia in July 1979. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, had just been released there. The Malaysians loved movies and the ticket price was cheap, so each showing was packed. However, Malaysia has four official languages: Bahasia Malay, Chinese, Indian, and English. Although the soundtrack was in English, that was not the first language of most patrons, so they read one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen. At the same time, they were talking loudly amongst themselves making it difficult for those few of us trying to listen. For them that was normal.

Australia and the U.S. – A Contrast

© 1995, 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[In the mid-90’s, I signed up for a university-level English course. It was all about essays and I really enjoyed it. One of my assignments was to write a comparison/contrast essay. I present here a revised version of that essay along with a few other bits of related information.]

Australia and the United States of America are two modern, democratic, English-speaking countries both originally colonized by the British. For all their similarities, however, they have remarkable differences in their systems of government, law enforcement, taxation, education, and health services, to name but a few areas.

Australia was not settled by Europeans until 1788 when Captain James Cook led the First Fleet of settlers and convicts to Botany Bay, near present-day Sydney. [Almost all Australian states started as convict settlements.] The US had declared its Independence in 1776, and fought a war with the British to obtain that independence. For 40-odd years, the British had been transporting convicts to Georgia Colony (the present-day US state of Georgia); however, once the war started the British needed an alternate dumping ground. And although they might have settled eventually in Australia anyway, there is no doubt that US independence sped up Britain’s search for a new penal colony.

Australia started out with a central government; states came later and, finally, local governments came into being. In the US, the process was completely reversed; diverse communities combined into territories and states, which in turn became the Unites States. Not surprisingly, many of the differences between these two societies can be traced to this fundamental difference.

Politics and Government

Australia became independent via a peaceful process and, like most other former British colonies it remained a member of the British Commonwealth. As such, it adopted the Westminster parliamentary system at both the Federal and State levels, and it added a few other twists. Voters elect upper and lower chamber representatives for their electorate (i.e.; voting district) only. The party that wins a majority of electorates forms the government, the head of which (the Prime Minister at the federal level and the Premier at the state level) is chosen by the elected representatives, not the people. Unlike the US system, there is no Executive Branch. In the absence of a simple majority, coalition governments are possible. There is no such thing as a primary election; candidates are chosen by each party based on its own rules. Independent candidates are permitted. New parties can be created and, from time to time, they (or independent candidates) have held the balance of power. The government controls the parliament's agenda. Voting is compulsory; you must exercise your right or risk being fined! Voter registration is a once-in-a-lifetime process although a move from one electorate to another requires an address change.

Governments are elected for a maximum term [typically of three years] rather than a fixed term. [However, some states have moved to fixed 4-year terms.] The government can call an early election and often does so when its leaders project that it will be harder for them to get re-elected later on in their term, especially if economic conditions worsen. And if things are going well, they might call an early election to extend their time in office. They need give no more than six weeks notice for a general election, and they can and do catch the opposition unprepared. There are no term limits.

Political appointments are largely non-existent because all government agency employees are civil servants and by law are prohibited from political partisanship. The only personnel appointed are the staffs of cabinet members and parliamentary representatives. Recently, however, some top public servants were appointed for a fixed term, which makes them beholden to the government. 

Party politics is seldom seen at the local government level. Local government is by the local people for the local people and is generally not influenced directly by state and federal leaders.  There is a ban on political advertising for the three days prior to an election, which allows voters to evaluate the information they've received and to make up their minds without further pressure.

The US gained independence by fighting a war. It created a unique form of government with an executive branch separate from the legislative branch. Citizens vote for their President and Vice President (almost) directly, and independently of their choice for federal or state representatives. As a result, the President may come from a party that does not control the congress.  Voting is not compulsory and turnouts of 50% or less are common.  Voter (re)registration is necessary under certain circumstances and considerable effort is spent on this process.

At the federal level, the President is elected for a 4-year fixed term with most State Governors having the same.  Since 1951, the Constitution has prohibited the President from serving more than two full terms. Many states also have term limits on their Governor and/or state representatives. [My own state, Virginia, allows a Governor to serve two terms, but not consecutively.]

Political appointments number in the thousands with the top two or three tiers of many government agencies changing with each new administration, especially when a different party takes office.  Party politics permeates all levels of government. State and federal leaders, especially those who are charismatic or good orators, are often involved in drumming up support at the local level; the President might campaign for a big-city Mayor, for example.  Political advertising runs right through Election Day, which for many positions is “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November”. A congressional session runs for two years. The terms of all 435 members of the House of Representatives and one third of the 100 senators expire at the same time. The term of a President matches two 2-year sessions of Congress. A new Congress is sworn in on January 3, and the President at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on January 20.

Law Enforcement

Australia has two kinds of law enforcement:  state and federal.  Essentially, police officers are civil servants and are never under the control of a political entity per-se. As a result, politically related police corruption is virtually impossible. To become a uniformed officer, typically, one must pass a strict entrance examination and then attend a police academy as a cadet full-time for three years. Cadets are trained in basic law, police procedures, usage of weapons, and traffic control.  Non-uniformed officers either graduate from the uniformed ranks or have degrees in particular fields along with specialized training.  Private ownership of most kinds of guns is prohibited without membership in a gun club or via some special justification. Until 25 years ago, most uniformed officers did not carry a side arm.

In the US, law enforcement is largely run like most other aspects of government, at the local level. Different police forces exist at the city/township, county, state, and national levels. Then there are specialized police: Secret Service/Treasury Agents; Drug Enforcement Agency; Immigration; Post Office; State and National Parks' Services; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; sheriffs for various court systems, and District Attorneys' offices, among others. In many cases, there is considerable debate over which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction over a crime scene.  The level of equipment and training is proportional to the wealth of the force's tax base.  Opportunities for corruption are significant from within many forces as well as between the force and a controlling local government. Cronyism is rife. In some areas, locals vote to elect their sheriff who might not even have any law enforcement training. Some local judges are also elected.

Taxation

Australia has one form of income tax, namely federal.  And it is relatively expensive. However, taxes are used to subsidize a number of important areas, such as tertiary education and health care.  There is no overt sales tax; certain imported or luxury items do have taxes, but these are included in the published price. About 10 years ago, a national Goods and Services Tax (GST) of 10% was introduced, which is much like Britain's VAT and Canada's GST.  From a tax point of view, there is no real difference in living in one county or state versus another.

The tax system is very conservative. For example, couples cannot file jointly nor can taxpayers use multi-year averaging.  When the economy is strong, the government tends to increase taxes, which often stifles growth.

While the usual real estate property taxes exist, there is no personal property tax per-se. In fact, states and local governments are limited in their ability to raise money via taxation. [For a while, South Australia had a tax on bank transactions.] All licenses for business, driving, auto registration, and the like, are obtained from regional offices of state agencies.  Home loan interest is deductible, once per lifetime and the deduction is inversely proportional to the applicant's income. And because the threshold is below most families' income, few qualify. Despite this, the home ownership rate is very high. Negative gearing is allowed on rented properties, where interest paid on the loan for a rented property is deductible from income tax.

In the US, not only is there federal income tax, but most states and some cities and counties also raise revenue from income taxes. Sales tax is levied by most states and in a growing number of cities and counties. Local areas also have hotel occupancy, rental car, and other “use” taxes often times to pay for new sporting stadiums to lure professional teams to the area. However, there are no federal sales or consumption taxes.  The federal tax system, and those of many states, is quite progressive and for those with discretionary income, even generous. [For the first few years I lived in the US all interest paid on credit card bills was deductible!] It is a national pastime (and one that supports a substantial advisory industry) to try to legitimately avoid paying taxes. For many, the avoidance process begins at or before university graduation.

Local governments often raise revenue via personal property taxes. For example, in most counties near Washington D.C., residents must pay a tax on the book value of all privately owned automobiles and recreational vehicles for “the privilege of housing them in the county”. Businesses in those counties also pay a tax on the depreciated value of all tangible assets owned or leased by their company, for the same privilege.  In many regions, business licenses are issued by local government and are based on the business's gross income.

Home loan interest is deductible, on both a primary and secondary residence, forever! And because a residence need include only separate areas for sleeping, bathing, and food preparation, large yachts, aircraft, and motor homes can qualify. [What a system!]

State and local taxes can play an important role in choosing where one lives, shops, and sets up a business. And given that many major population centers straddle state borders, there is a constant flow of trade across state lines to take advantage of neighboring states' lower, or even non-existent, sales taxes. The differences in state sales taxes have resulted in a high sales volume by mail-order companies and internet sites.

Education

By and large, Australia is a land of well-educated, well-off, middle-class people.  One of its cornerstones is the attention given to all levels of education. While private (mostly church-run) elementary and high schools do exist, the majority of students attend public school, which is free. And like all main services, education is controlled at the state level with funding from a federal education department. Each of the states and federal territories has its own separate, but equivalent, school system.  Public school teachers are essentially civil servants and, for the most part, those with less tenure can be posted anywhere in the state. [South Australia now requires teachers in and around the state capital, Adelaide, to change schools after 10 years, although dispensations are possible.] Teachers are state-certified and, in most cases, state-trained.  Being centrally funded, education is immune from the economic misfortunes of local areas. Yet communities having more wealth or fund-raising ability can make significant contributions of library books and equipment. Most schools have dress uniforms.

For 15 or so years starting in 1973, tertiary education was provided free of tuition fees. Students needed to pay only a nominal student union fee for on-campus activities, as well as for books and materials, and living costs. And in the case of the latter, many students qualified for a government allowance.  In certain disciplines, quotas existed for mature-age students who passed an aptitude test yet who would not otherwise have qualified for university entrance.  Now, all students must pay fees for tertiary study. This is called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). Fees can be paid in installments once the graduate commences full time employment and receives a salary above the designated minimum. Most undergraduate degrees take three years full-time with the academic year running from March to December.

There is relatively little research and development, and what is done is largely funded or subsidized by state and federal governments. As a result, there is a small market for those with graduate degrees.

In the US, there are some 2,500 separate school systems each running its own Kindergarten–Year 12 program. While a few states have a statewide system, most are organized at the city or county level. Each system recruits its own teachers, performs administration, and funds its own building construction and repair. Like many other aspects of American life, the quality of education is directly dependent on the local wealth. While some counties have an excess of computers, others can barely afford pens and pencils, let alone pay competitive teacher salaries. Many Americans view public school systems as providing significantly inferior education.  Teacher certification varies considerably and a license from one state does not guarantee eligibility in another.  Few schools, and then mostly private ones, have any uniform dress codes. More than a million students are home-schooled.

The cost of tertiary education varies from fair to outrageous. In-state schools are subsidized by their state government and may cost as little as $6,000 in tuition fees per year. The most prestigious schools run more than $40,000 per year. Such high costs often require students or their families to take on significant debt. Many students work part-time to help support themselves, or they take classes on a part-time basis.  Most undergraduate degrees take four years full-time with the academic year running for two 16-week semesters, February-to- May and September-to-December. Community colleges offer 2-year Associate Degrees. These schools are very popular, much cheaper, and many offer a transition path to a 4-year university.

Given the considerable government- and privately-funded research and development, there is a very big market for those with graduate degrees. In fact, considerable emphasis is placed on higher degrees. For example, teacher certification in many school districts requires the applicant either have a Master's degree or currently be working on one.

And for our Final Comparison …

How many Aussies does it take to change a light bulb? In theory, at least 10. The process of changing a light bulb comes under the jurisdiction of the Australian Association of Associated Australians Union (AAAAU). Union rules require that an electrician be present, and that workers be in teams of two just in case one of them is electrocuted while taking a leak at the jobsite, right next to some exposed live wires. And if they are called in at nights, weekends, or on public holidays, they must be paid a minimum of four hours. Of course, hot tea must be provided along with frequent and long “smoko” breaks. And then there are the assistants, the supervisors, and so on. In practice, “Any way, isn’t that why we bloody well have immigrants?”

How many Septic Tanks (Aussie rhyming slang for “Yanks”) does it take to change a light bulb? Well we used to change the actual bulb, but one day the guy doing it cut himself when the bulb broke. Well, the lawyers got involved, a whole Court TV cable channel sprung up surrounding the case, and everyone involved got three College Credits for watching. So nowadays, we’re much more careful. For the small bulbs, we shoot them out with handguns (which, of course, are lying by the dozen on every street corner). For mid-sized bulbs, we use shoulder-fired missiles from a discreet distance. And for the really big bulbs, we have small thermonuclear weapons. Oh, and in that rare case in which an actual person is needed, “Any how, isn’t that why we damned well have immigrants?”

Some Interesting Facts

For Australia, WWII began in 1939, and Aussie troops served with distinction in North Africa. However, after Pearl Harbor, they were brought back nearer home to defend the British Commonwealth territories in South East Asia, from Malaya, Singapore to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and, eventually, the homeland.  When General Douglas MacArthur retreated from the Philippines, he set up his HQ in Australia.

Contrary to popular belief the US did not “go it alone” in the Vietnam War. It had two staunch allies that committed significant numbers of troops and quantities of materiel: Australia and South Korea. And like the US, Australia had a national lottery system of conscription (and subsequent anti-war protest movement). However, instead of its being at age 18, it was at age 20. [In December 1972, the newly elected Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, took office and implemented immediately two big campaign promises: to get Australia out of Vietnam pardoning all draft resisters, and to make tertiary education free.]

Ignoring Alaska—which is huge but largely empty of people—the size of the other 49 states is not that much bigger than that of Australia. However, while the US has more than 300 million people, Australia has only 22 million, the population of greater New York City.

Conclusion

Democratic systems and modern lifestyles come in many forms, each having their strengths and weaknesses. What is most interesting is that the Australian and American societies each have customs and laws the other simply would not tolerate. But, after all, isn't that their democratic right?

[Thanks to Kevin, Dave, and Frank for their help in revising the Aussie data, and especially to the AAAAU for keeping acceptably low the number of deaths of electricians leaking on live 240-volt wires.]

Travel – Fly Me to the Moon

© 2009–2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In the first 10 years of my adult life, I flew on a private or commercial plane fewer than ten times. However, I made up for it in the next 30 years when I added another 1,100 flights; that's a flight every 10 days!

This article describes my flight log and provides some flying-related information. So put your seatbacks in a comfortable position, put your feet up, and come "Fly the Friendly Skies" with me.

My Flight Log

During a vacation in the Caribbean over the Christmas/New Year break of 2008/2009, I dreamed up an idea to use up some of my then copious free time. I would attempt to create a complete record of my commercial flights, the first of which I took in 1971 while living in Adelaide, Australia.

After having set up a spreadsheet and tracking down all the flight details from business and personal records and cancelled passports, I finished that task, and a summary of the results is shown below. I had to make some intelligent guesses for a few things (see "Estimates" below), but I believe that the result is very close to what actually transpired.

The period over which this travel occurred was June 1971 through December 2009 (38 years, 6 months); however, except for four flights all other travel was done between June 1979 and December 2009 (30 years, 6 months), so the latter time frame is used in statistics below.

Some Terminology

A flight is one take-off and its subsequent landing. [What goes up must come down, right?]

A trip is one or more flights taken together as a group with a single purpose, but not necessarily taken on the same day or connecting directly one from the other. (For example, a trip might last weeks and have several flights each on a different day.)

Flying time is the time from pushback from the gate on departure to pull up at the gate on arrival.

Ground time is the time taken getting to an airport before departure of a flight, getting from an airport after arrival of a flight without a connection, waiting at an airport between connecting flights, and moving from one airport in a city to another between connecting flights.

Travel time for a flight (or trip) is the sum of the flying time and ground time for that flight (or trip).

Estimates

Not surprisingly, I didn't have all the flight information available, so in some cases I had to come up with a best estimate. Specifically, for my first five years in the US, I submitted all my expense/travel reports to my employer and my copies were long ago tossed away.

In some cases, I knew the city from which I departed or into which I arrived, but I didn't know the airport. For example, the Washington DC area has three major airports and I've used all of them from time to time. However, the flight distances and times to one or the other would only vary by 20–50 miles and a few minutes flying time, which are insignificant.

For a handful of flights, I know where I started and finished, but not if I connected along the way and if so where I connected. The difference in times would be insignificant, but it might mean the airport usage count is a little off.

For all flights taken prior to 2008, I used an on-line database to find the direct flight distance between any two airports. Of course, when I actually took the flight the distance flown might have varied a bit. In a few cases, I had to estimate the distance from a map as some out-of-the-way airports weren't listed in the database. From 2008 onwards, I have the actual distance flown.

For all flights taken prior to 2008, I used some basic math to figure out the flying time based on the distance and type of aircraft. Ground time involved some guesswork, but I pretty well know how long I take to get to/from airports and many of the flights were repeated numerous times. From 2008 onwards, I have the actual flight times.

Some of the travel days and months are guesses; for example, I know I took a certain trip, but I couldn't pin it down with respect to the actual date.

Non-Goals

For more than a few flights, I don't know the airline or airplane type. I also didn't track my seat number or the class of service, but most of my trips were in Economy Class with more than a few in Business Class and a handful in First Class. I did not track which trips were taken using free or discounted tickets due to Frequent Flyer program participation. I also did not distinguish between business and personal flights although each flight I recorded does have a "purpose" field. In any event, I often extended business trips to include personal days or even weeks. I did not track the price of any tickets.

The Big Numbers

  1. Total distance travelled was 1,545,515 miles (2,472,824 kms). (907,700 of these miles have been with United Airlines since they started their Frequent Flyer Program, so I'm well on my way to joining their Million Mile Club.)
  2. Total travel time spent was 6,899 hours. This is 862 8-hour days, or 3 years and 4 months, full-time based on a 40-hour workweek, made up from the following two components (which are just about equal): Flying time 3,628 hours, which is 453 8-hour days, or 1 year and 9 months. Ground time 3,271 hours, which is 409 8-hour days, or 1 year and 7 months.
  3. Number of countries (or distinct regions) flown into or out of was 42 (Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, Czech Republic, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia [Tahiti], Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong [now a Special Administrative Area of China], Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Korea [South], Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles [Northern Group: Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Martin], New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, US Virgin Islands, United Kingdom [Greater London airports only], United States [including Hawaii and Alaska], Uruguay, and Venezuela). [I have been to the following other countries or distinct regions, but got there by car, bus, train, or ferry: Austria, Estonia, Lichtenstein, Macau (then a Portuguese territory; now a Special Administrative Area of China), Russia, Scotland, Sweden, and Wales. I have not been to any country in Africa.]
  4. Number of airports into or out of was 146 (60 in the U.S., in 34 states)
  5. Number of airlines used was 42 (based in 24 countries)

Flights

  1. Total number of flights was 1,134.
  2. Average distance/flight was 1,363 miles (2,181 kms).
  3. Average flying time/flight was 3:12 hours.
  4. With 1,130 flights in 30 years, 6 months, I averaged a flight every 10 days.
  5. Busiest year (most flights) was in 1984 when I had 106 flights, in 27 trips, for 31,310 miles (50,096 kms).
  6. Busiest year (most distance) was in 2007 when I had 41 flights, in 15 trips, for 109,657 miles (175,451 kms).
  7. Shortest flight by flying time was 15 minutes; 31 miles (50 kms), San Francisco, California, to San Jose, California; and 19 miles (30 kms), St. Eustatius, Dutch Antilles, to Saba, Dutch Antilles.
  8. Shortest flight by distance was 19 miles, 15 minutes, St. Eustatius, Dutch Antilles, to Saba, Dutch Antilles.
  9. Longest flight by flying time was 15:24 hours, 7,787 miles (12,459 kms), Chicago to Hong Kong (there were six movies shown, with snacks between each). We flew north and south only, over the pole then over Russia and China.
  10. Longest flight by distance was 7,920 miles (12,672 kms), 13:30 hours, Melbourne, Australia, to Los Angeles.

Trips

  1. Total number of trips was 328.
  2. Average number of flights/trip was 3.5
  3. Fewest flights in a trip was 1.
  4. Most flights in a trip was 12. Two trips tied for this. June/July 1979, a one-way trip, when I moved from Adelaide, Australia, to Washington DC. The complete itinerary was Adelaide, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Bombay, Rome, Geneva, Paris, London, New York, and Washington DC That trip involved 12 airlines and 15 airports in 11 countries. (In two cities [London and New York], I departed from airports other than those at which I arrived.) June/July 1985 when I took a vacation to Australia, stopping off on the way out and back. The complete itinerary was Washington DC, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Fiji, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Adelaide, Melbourne, Tahiti, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Next best were two trips with 10 flights each: October/November 1991, when I took a vacation in Chile and Argentina that involved hiking in the Patagonia. The complete itinerary was Washington DC, Miami, Santiago, Puerto Mott, Punta Arenas, <by road across South America>, Rio Gallegos, Comodoro, Bahia Blanca, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Miami, Washington DC. July/August 1997 when I took a vacation to Australia. The complete itinerary was Washington DC, Los Angeles, Auckland, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin, Ayers Rock, Adelaide, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.
  5. Average distance/trip was 4,712 miles (7,539 kms).
  6. Average travel time/trip was 21:00 hours with the average flying time/trip being 11:00 hours, and the average ground/trip was 10:00 hours.
  7. Longest trip by travel time was 89:45 hours, 24,282 miles (38,851 kms) the second of the 12-flight trips above.
  8. The longest trips by distance were 28,266 miles (45,226 kms), 84 hours travel time with 56 hours in the air involving Washington DC, Los Angeles, Sydney, Singapore, Sydney, Gold Coast/Coolangatta, Sydney, San Francisco, and Washington DC. 24,642 miles (39,427 kms), 84 hours travel time with 55 hours in the air involving Washington DC, Los Angeles, Auckland, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin, Ayers Rock, Adelaide, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.
  9. The longest time taken to complete a trip was 7 weeks.

Countries

The country with the most flight arrivals and departures was USA (885 of each), Australia (44 of each), Germany (39 of each), and United Kingdom (19 of each), Canada (17 of each), and Japan (14 of each). (These involve travel between airports within the same country as well as to/from that country.)

Airports

  1. Airport with the most flight departures was Washington Dulles International (222) [which is no surprise as I've lived 15 minutes away from it for more than 28 years]; Boston (193); Washington National (101); Bangor (87); Chicago (47), Seattle (36), Frankfurt (34), San Francisco (29).
  2. Region with the most flight departures was Washington DC (BWI, DCA, IAD) with 325.
  3. Airport with most flight arrivals was Washington Dulles International (222); Boston (193); Bangor (87); Washington National (76); Chicago (46), Seattle (36), Frankfurt (34), San Francisco (28).
  4. Region with the most flight arrivals was Washington DC (BWI, DCA, IAD) with 325.
  5. Most common flight was Washington National (DCA) to Boston (88 in each direction), Boston to Bangor (86 in each direction)

Airlines

  1. Ever since United Airlines put a major hub at my local airport (IAD), they and their Star Alliance partners have been my preferred carrier. I've had 387 flights with United alone.
  2. Prior to United, I was a regular passenger with Delta Airlines as they were the only carrier servicing a route I took frequently. I've had 363 flights with them.
  3. After that, the numbers drop off dramatically. The next best is Lufthansa with 35 flights.

Luggage

I have never lost any luggage permanently, and I have had luggage go astray only three or four times, which is quite remarkable.

Unlike many frequent fliers, who want to avoid waiting for luggage on arrival I do not try to pack everything into one carry-on bag. In fact, the number of times I've flown without checked baggage would be only two or three. I like to take my time; "It's the journey, not the destination."

Not being a wearer of suits or jackets, I very rarely travel with a garment bag. And when I do, I have to find a way to remind myself that I have an extra piece of luggage hanging in a closet up front.

In March 1988, when I first traveled with a video camera bag, I was not used to having an extra piece of hand luggage. I accidentally left it behind on a mobile lounge that took me to a plane in Florida. Fortunately, I recovered it and all the video it contained from my just-completed vacation.

On more than a few trips, I've traveled with only a backpack.

Runway Designations

I usually sit in a window seat and I like to watch out the window while taxiing on and to or from a runway. Along the way there are signs marked something like 31R/13L, 21R/3L, or 4/22. And if you have listened to air traffic control on an audio headset, you might hear pilots and controllers use these numbers, which designate runways.

To explain their meaning I'll use my local airport, Washington Dulles International (IAD). IAD currently has four runways. Three of them run in a north/south direction and going from west to east they are designated 1L/19R, 1C/19C, and 1R/19L, respectively. The fourth runway runs northwest/southeast and is designated 12/30.

Airport runway numbering uses an international standard. As you may recall from your geometry days there are 360° in a circle, with degrees numbered from due north going in a clockwise direction. Every runway points in a direction—called its heading—that is rounded to the nearest multiple of 10°, so Runway 09 points due east (90°), Runway 18 points due south (180°), Runway 27 points due west (270°), and Runway 36 points due north (360°, not zero). That is, "the runway number is one tenth of the runway centerline's magnetic azimuth, measured clockwise from the magnetic declination." But you already knew that, right?

Of course, a runway can be used in both directions, so when landing from the south on a runway that goes due north, the designation would be Runway 36. When landing on that same runway from the north, the designation would be Runway 18. Runways tend to be built in straight lines, which is very convenient for landing planes! [I just hate it when there's a sharp right turn midway along a runway!] As the angle of a straight line is 180, the two designators for any given runway differ by 180/10, which is 18.

So why do some runways have a letter suffix and others not? Many airports have two or more parallel runways, in which case these all have the same number. To keep them separate when taking-off or landing, the one on the left has an L suffix, the one on the right an R suffix, and the one in between left and right has a C suffix (for Center). IAD has 1L/19R, 1C/19C, and 1R/19L, but the left-most runway is quite new. Prior to that, what is now 1C/19C was called 1L/19R, but with the addition of another runway to the left, what was left became center (except on Thursdays with a full moon in leap years). So when you read a news story about a plane landing on the wrong runway it's likely it landed on L instead of R, or vice versa, as they are going in the same direction and might only be several hundred yards apart. Of course, you know that some airports just absolutely have to have more than three runways in parallel. In such cases, those beyond three are artificially "moved" 10° so they have a different designator. Of course, a runway designator without a letter suffix has no runways parallel to it at that airport.

The designation of a runway can change over time because the magnetic poles drift slowly on the Earth's surface causing the magnetic bearing to change. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?)

English is the language of international aviation and when a runway designator is spoken, all digits and letters are said individually, as in "runway zero six left" and "runway one four right", although a leading zero might be omitted.

The Spelling or Phonetic Alphabet

In this system, each of the 26 English letters is assigned a code word so that combinations of letters can be pronounced and understood by radio or phone, especially when safety is an issue. Here are the code words used in commercial aviation:

Alpha

Foxtrot

Kilo

Papa

Uniform

Zulu

Bravo

Golf

Lima

Quebec

Victor

 

Charlie

Hotel

Mike

Romeo

Whiskey

 

Delta

India

November

Sierra

X-ray

 

Echo

Juliet

Oscar

Tango

Yankee

 

Conclusion

The average distance from the surface of the earth to the moon is about 235,000 miles (376,000 km), so I've flown more than the equivalent of three round trips to the moon (or 60 times around the earth at the equator).

Can I have your attention please? We are on approach to Kitty Hawk International Airport, and this is our first time landing a commercial flight. Please stow all your belongings, fasten your seatbelt, put your tray table in its upright position, and say a few "Hail Marys." If we all make it down safely, we look forward to seeing you again very soon. Thank you for flying Wright Brothers Airways.

This is Romeo Echo X-ray signing off.

The Road to US Citizenship

© 2008, 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

 

Although many people emigrate every year, my guess is that most of the six billion people on this planet will hold only one country's citizenship throughout their whole life. Being (pleasantly) abnormal, not only did I choose to emigrate, but I also chose to obtain a second citizenship.

So, what does getting US citizenship involve? Although immigration is a hot topic in this country (especially illegal immigration), most Americans never go through the process, so it has been my experience that they have only a vague idea of what it entails. When asked, my standard response has been, "You have to show proof of purchase of at least two hand guns [some people think that's plausible], swim the Rio Grande [some think that's only a requirement for people of Hispanic origin], and name the capitals of all 50 states." Of course, the first two "requirements" are nonsense, and while the third seems plausible, the failure rate for American-born citizens would be very high. But to be fair, how many Brits can name all their counties? And how many Japanese can name all their prefectures? Of course, people from countries like Australia (which is so poor it can only afford six states and a couple of territories) have it much easier.

[Regarding knowing all the state capitals, the knowledge-challenged office worker with light-colored hair was tired of having co-workers call her a dumb blonde. The next time it happened, she replied, "I'll have you know that last night I went home and learned the capitals of all 50 states." When asked the capital of Wyoming, she replied, "W, of course!"]

What follows is a discussion about my initial visa status in the US, my getting permanent residency, and my eventual decision to take out citizenship.

The Devil Made Me Do it!

To paraphrase American humorist Dave Barry, "Should You Become a US Citizen? Should Anybody?" [See his very funny book, Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to make a tiny person in only 9 months with tools you probably have around the home, 1984, ISBN 0-87857-510-3.] But seriously folks, why did I want to become a US citizen? And why did I wait so long?

Let's start by looking at the "disadvantages" of living in the US without having citizenship:

  • No voting at the federal, state, or local level, and since voter registration rolls are used for things like public school board and sheriff elections, pretty much all voting for political positions is off limits. [That said I've heard it stated, "Why bother to vote when you can own your own member of Congress?"]
  • Cannot run for the Federal Senate or House of Representatives.
  • No security clearances, but since I'd always had a "No nukes, no spooks" rule that wasn't a limitation.
  • Must actually be in the US at least once a year. Specifically, if you leave the country for more than a year you might not be readmitted. The rationale is that if you want permission to live and work in the US then you should be living and working in the US, damn it! [Interestingly, once you have citizenship, this requirement goes away.]
  • No jury duty, because selection is taken from voter registration rolls.

You can join the US military without being a citizen, but (presumably) you must swear an oath to the US.

So what prompted me to become a US citizen?

  • After George H.W. Bush's unimpressive tenure, his pathetic vice president, Dan Quayle, and wayward son George W. Bush's two terms, I wanted to have a vote in the choice of my future leader. I thought, "Who will they elect next, a B-grade movie actor?" [Actually, I was a fan of Ronnie's.] And when friends abroad asked me why I wanted to be a citizen of that country I nobly replied that I had to separate the office of the presidency from the person currently occupying it. However, I was careful never to say that we couldn't possibly do worse. If it should ever happen that we get a President Palin, I may well be looking for a third citizenship! [Do you know that I can't see Russia from my house?]
  • Once the Guantanamo Bay detention center started to get publicity, I tried to figure out the practical meaning of the term citizen in the Constitution. If being a citizen really meant, "having US citizenship", I didn't, so what rights did I really have? Could I be jailed indefinitely without trial simply for farting in the general direction of some right-wing Nationalist law-enforcement officer?

After five years in the US, I obtained permanent residency, and five years after that I was eligible to apply for citizenship. So why did I wait a further 18 years?

  • Unlike many people who immigrate to the US, I was not a refugee or stateless person, and I wasn't escaping from anything. In fact, when I left Australia in 1979, life there was very good. I owned a house with a small mortgage, I had a good job, the weather was very nice, and Adelaide was indeed a fine city in which to work and play. I didn't need US citizenship.
  • Prior to 2002, Australia did not allow dual citizenship, and I was in no hurry to give up one reasonably respected passport for another. Why not have both if that were possible? [And if you have a problem with anyone having multiple passports, I respectfully suggest you probably have never had that option to consider for yourself.]

In The Beginning

I entered the US in 1979 with an H-1 visa, which allowed me to work for a period of one year (but only for my visa sponsor). I was classified as a non-resident alien (you know, like Robin Williams as "Mork from Ork"). To open a bank account I needed a Social Security Number, so I applied for one and got it.

At the end of the first year, I applied for a 1-year extension and that was granted. I could only live and work in the US in this manner for a maximum of five years, after which I needed to get a more permanent status.

Now when you apply for a temporary work permit, you must agree that it is not your intent to stay permanently. Then, once you have been here for "a suitable amount of time", you can inform the immigration authorities that you'd really like to stay permanently. For me that happened after two years. But it took three years for me to get that permanent status. The reasons were several: I didn't have a university degree, so I was mixed in with the "unskilled" workers; there was a fairly small quota on the number of Aussies admitted each year [and rightly so, those bloody larrikins!]; and during the process I moved interstate and back again, which caused my records to be transferred twice to different regional immigration offices (and misplaced once).

Once I'd applied for permanent residency and my current visa expired, I no longer got a new visa stamped in my passport. For more than two years, if I'd left the US I would not have been able to get back in. So the price to pay while the residency application was "in process" was to stay in the US, although I pushed that to the limits by taking a vacation in Hawaii.

After being in the US for a year, I started to notice situations in which race seemed to be a factor. I remember well one of my first exposures to racial profiling and prejudice in the US. I had been on a vacation on the Amazon River in northeast Peru, followed by a stay at the capital Lima, and then time at the famous Incan city, Machu Picchu, high in the Andes. I flew back to the US with a Peruvian airline and came in through Miami, Florida, at around 6 am. There were three immigration agents, two handling American citizens and one handling the 150+ foreigners, me included. Once the handful of Americans had been processed, the two agents started chatting to each other. Eventually, they decided to help their colleague with his long line. But instead of taking the next person in line, one of them waved to me, where I stood about 50 people back in the line, and beckoned me to approach his desk. I told him that I was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident and he leaned over and spoke quietly in my ear saying, "I didn't think you looked like you belonged in that line!" Welcome to the US of A, the land of equality. Apparently, some people are more equal than are others!

The Little Green Card that Isn't!

A temporary visa is stamped in one's passport. When one gets permanent residency—i.e., becomes a resident alien—one gets a coveted green card. At one time green cards were actually—well—green. Mine was white, and I think that several years after mine was issued they went to pink.

A green card meant having the ability to live and work permanently in the US without restraint. However, green cards issued several years after I got mine had a lifetime of 10 years only.

I recall that for the first few years that I had a green card I had to report to a US Post Office once a year to register my current postal address. [Got to keep an eye on us foreigners!] Eventually, that requirement was struck down by the Courts.

I finished up having a green card for almost 25 years, and each time I entered the US I had to show that card plus a valid Passport (which in my case, was Australian). Around 2000 or so, I remember two separate, but identical, incidents when I came through immigration at my home airport, Washington Dulles International (IAD). In each case, the super-macho immigration officer said to me in a very gruff voice, "Isn't it about time you got citizenship?" He had no right to say that, of course, although he certainly could have invited me to do so in a friendly manner, but I deduced he was trying to impose his own immigration policy; you know, give someone a badge and a gun and a bit of power, and it can go to his or her head! Afterwards, I decided I needed to have a ready response should it happen again, but one that would not get me sitting in an interrogation room for four hours. It never did happen again, but my response was going to be, "That's an interesting idea. Could you please explain to me the benefits of getting US citizenship?" I'm sure the officer would have been angry for an instant and would have told me to "Move along now" while muttering, "Well if you don't know how great America is and why everyone wants to come live here then I'm not going to waste my time telling you!"

Interestingly, there must have been a lot of complaints about immigration officials' attitudes because several years ago, there was a big campaign to introduce the new "kinder, gentler immigration agency".

The Citizenship Application Process

Early in April 2008, more than 17 years after I was eligible, I applied for US citizenship. A month later, I received instructions to report to a Federal Center to be fingerprinted. At that Center, I was also given a book of American civics and history questions and answers to prepare for my in-person citizenship interview.

The application process was quite straightforward, but several questions are worthy of mention:

  1. How many total days did you spend outside of the United States during the past five years?
  2. How many trips of 24 hours or more have you taken outside of the United States during the past five years?
  3. List below all the trips of 24 hours or more that you have taken outside of the United States since becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident. [This one took the longest to research. Unlike most people applying for citizenship, I waited 22 years after becoming a permanent resident, and I had traveled abroad extensively. Between cancelled passports and diaries, I managed to piece together my travel record with only a few specific dates unknown. The rationale to this question is to see if the applicant has visited "unfriendly" or embargoed countries.]
  4. Do you owe any Federal, state or local taxes that are overdue?
  5. Have you ever been a member of or associated with any organization, association, fund foundation, party, club, society or similar group in the United States or in any other place? If you answered "Yes", list the name of each group below. [This one took a while, and I included everything I could think off from sporting clubs to professional associations to Parent Teacher Associations. The rationale to this question is to see if the applicant has belonged to "unfriendly" or extremist groups (you know, like the Judean People's Front or the People's Front of Judea).]
  6. Have you ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group or political opinion?
  7. Have you ever committed a crime or offense for which you were not arrested? [Say what! A trick question, no doubt.]
  8. Have you ever:
    1. Been an habitual drunkard? [A veddy Victorian question, what!]
    2. Been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution?
    3. Sold or smuggled controlled substances, illegal drugs, or narcotics?
    4. Been married to more than one person at the same time? [That would mean multiple mothers-in-law!]
    5. Helped anyone enter or try to enter the United States illegally?
    6. Gambled illegally or received income from illegal gambling?
    7. Failed to support your dependents or to pay alimony?

The rationale to these final questions is to see if the applicant is of good moral character. Specifically, lying on your application shows bad character.

Preparing for the Test

Part of the interview process involves taking a test on American civics and history. The booklet I was given had all the possible questions and their one-line answers, and that was all I was required to know. The booklet also gave some background details on each of the questions and answers. But rather than just remember the answers, I spent quite a lot of time researching the history of many of the questions. Some of the things I learned were:

  • In its 220-year history, the US constitution has been amended only 27 times, and one amendment repealed another (prohibition). Only six other amendments have ever been passed by Congress but they were not ratified. Two of those (Equal Rights Amendment for women, and giving Washington DC full representation in Congress) expired due to time limits. The other four have no time limits and are still "on the books".
  • The Bill of Rights is made up of the first 10 amendments to the constitution. However, these were Numbers 3–12 of a package of 12 that was originally submitted. One of the 12 failed to pass Congress, and the other took some 200 years to get ratified (by the required ¾ of the states then in existence). That became the 27th and most recent amendment, which prohibits a Congressional pay raise taking effect in the same 2-year Congressional term in which it was passed.
  • While the big Election Day most often occurs on the first Tuesday in November, it actually is required to happen on the Tuesday after the first Monday (to allow voters to travel to the polling place on the Monday, avoiding travel on Sundays). So if November 1 is a Tuesday, the election is held on November 8, the second Tuesday of that month.

While I was given the answers to learn, one question had an answer that was much more complicated that any of the others.

Question: Name the [constitutional] amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.

Answer: 15th (non-white males get the vote), 19th (women get the vote), 24th (state laws allowing poll taxes cannot be applied to Federal elections), and 26th (lowering the voting age from 21 to 18).

The Interview

I had no idea how long the wait for my in-person interview would be, but I guessed it would be at least a year. Every since 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, crossing the border into the US has become increasingly formal, and with the backlog of passport applications and such, immigration and state department officials were stretched to the max.

About 11 months after I submitted my application, I received instructions to report to my local immigration office in about two months. Meanwhile, I had booked a 3-week vacation to Slovenia and Croatia, and the interview date was right smack in the middle of that trip. However, there is no negotiating with Immigration; when they say "Jump" you say "How high, Sir?" So I cancelled the trip.

The big day finally arrived and I fronted up on a Wednesday afternoon. My interviewer was a young newly minted lawyer who appeared to be killing time in the Immigration Department until he could find a "real job". I was his last candidate for the day and probably his only native English speaker. He was very laid-back. He started asking me some civics and history questions, and once I'd answered the first six correctly, he stopped.

If one has been in the US more than 20 years and is over the age of 50, the English proficiency test can be waived; however, I was asked to take it. I had to read one sentence from a piece of paper and write another sentence that the interviewer dictated. I was not required to comprehend either sentence.

After some paperwork, I was asked when I'd like to be sworn in. I replied, "As soon as possible", so it was set for the following afternoon.

The Swearing In

The next day, I reported for the swearing-in ceremony where I surrendered my green card. About 50 people were sworn in as a group. We watched a video of President George W. Bush that was actually quite moving, and we each received a Certificate of Naturalization. Out in the lobby members of a volunteer organization were there to get us registered as voters.

From there, I went to a Post Office nearby where I applied for a US passport. [Previously, my green card was like a permanent visa. But since I had just given that up, if I left the US, I could only get back in again with a US passport.]

Here is the Oath of Allegiance I swore:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;

that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;

that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;

that I will bear arms of behalf of the United States when required by law;

that I will perform non-combatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law;

that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and

that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

[Applicants could get a waiver on saying the final phrase.]

I retained my Australian passport, which remains the property of the Aussie government.

On Being an American

July 4th, 2008, was my first Independence Day as an American. I joined friends at their house in Maryland where I waved my little flag, ate traditional BBQ and apple pie, and shot off fireworks. It actually did feel different.

I can safely say that I know far more of the American National Anthem than I do of the Australian one because the Aussies changed theirs since I left. Don't you just hate that when someone changes your national anthem when you are out of town? [Until 15–20 years ago, the Australian National Anthem was "God Save the Queen". Interestingly, there is a well-known American song that uses the same tune; it's called "My Country 'Tis of Thee".]

Then came Thanksgiving, the biggest American holiday, and that was followed by the big Presidential election when I was allowed to vote for the first time in 30 years.

Not being born in the US I am prevented by the US Constitution from being President or Vice President. However, I can run for office as a State or Federal Senator or Representative, but only after I have been a citizen for some years. Of course, I really could aim higher and work to get the constitution amended to allow foreign-born citizens to be eligible for the Presidency. When that happens, watch out for ze Austrian/Prussian Schwarzenegger/Jaeschke ticket!

Conclusion

Are most immigrants better off once they get to the US? If they are here illegally, the answer is very likely No. But even if they are here legally, I suspect the answer all too often is also No.

Now that I have my citizenship [he says tongue-in-cheek], we gotta put a stop to all this immigration. All these people coming over here taking the good jobs, undercutting our wages, mixing with our women, and generally carrying on like they belong here; it just ain't right!

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne, and you can learn the names of the UK counties here and the names of the Japanese prefectures here. Y'all take care now, ya hear!

What is Normal? – Part 1: Getting Started

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

 

This is the first in a series on this topic. It contains observations I've made after the following experiences: living for 25 years in Australia and another 30 years in the US; working with and hosting people from other regions and countries; and making more than 350 domestic and international trips for both work and pleasure.

Introduction

Ask anyone what the word normal means and it's very likely they'll understand it to be something like "according to formal or informal rules, usual, ordinary", while its opposite abnormal means "to deviate from the usual or normal". Being normal is often associated with being socially accepted while to be abnormal has negative connotations. This is not always fair; it might just mean different. As for me, I have never claimed to be normal and I've never aspired to be usual let alone ordinary. And, many years ago, I decided that it was easier and much more useful and interesting to be different than it was to be better. [Like normal, better is another of those relative words, better than what?]

What is often forgotten about normal is the fact that its meaning depends on the context in which it is being used. For most people their everyday interactions are with people in the same local area in the same local language using the same local customs. They are all operating in a normal fashion. However, 100 miles away, people from another community interact with people in their local area, in their local language, using their local customs, all of which might be quite different from those of the first group. Yet the second group is also behaving normally. As for me, in a normal week I speak by phone with and write via email and instant message to people from a number of countries, from Asia through the Americas to Western and Eastern Europe.

Well that might be interesting from an anthropological point of view, but why should the average (dare I say, normal) person care? As long as there have been humans on this planet, they have grouped together in small bands, and then larger ones, right up through states and nations. And this has resulted in the creation and evolution of language and customs. They have traded with their neighbors, intermarried with them, and gone to war with them. And quite often, they have had significant misunderstandings with each other, based on differences in religion or custom.

In today's highly interconnected world very few of us can avoid being exposed to the customs of other groups, some of which are radically different from our own. Unless we are intent on becoming isolationists the challenge is to try and understand things from their perspective, probably without having experienced it or anything like it ourselves. Our normal is not their normal, and suggesting they should behave like us is at best naïve or ignorant and at worst foolish.

We are Products of our Own Environments

While we certainly inherit some things genetically, I'm a great believer in people being shaped by their environment; the larger their environment the greater the number of influences on them. In my own case, I spent my first 16 years in a rural community of South Australia (SA), most of the time living 5–30 miles from a town of about 5,000 people. My parents had a 6th-grade education. I had no role models for higher education or any profession, no or limited access to television, and limited choices of radio stations. Once every few years we made a day trip to the state capital. The most exotic thing I did was to spend several weeks on an Aboriginal Mission (which is much like a Native American Reservation here in the US) when I was 15. My environment was quite small.

Despite its enormous size, Australia was a country in which most people got from Place A to Place B by driving, and if it couldn't be driven in a reasonable time people didn't go there. [This changed somewhat once airline deregulation happened just as it did in the US.] As a result, people didn't go far on vacations and their exposure even to people from neighboring states was very limited.

After WWII, Australia supported a series of large immigration waves, each of which had a significant and permanent impact on the nation. The first to come were the English and Scots, then the Greeks, Italians, and Yugoslavs, and they came in the tens of thousands. After that, the economic refugee "Boat People" from Vietnam arrived, followed years later by the Sikhs, and more recently by people from various parts of the Middle East. As many of these people worked as itinerant fruit pickers, they took seasonal work on my hometown's citrus, grape, and stone fruit properties. Over time, they stayed permanently and started social clubs, sporting teams, newspapers, and radio programs, and for the most part, they integrated into the local community.

From age 16 to 25, I lived in Adelaide, a city of about a million people that is the capital of the state of SA. While there I bought a car, traveled to several other states, took my first airplane ride, became politically aware, and started voting (which is compulsory in Australia; is that normal?) I also discovered music, theater, and computers. My environment got substantially bigger. [However, I realize now that I didn't take advantage of it nearly as much as I could have.]

At 25, I left Australia for a multi-year adventure abroad. At that time, I had visited a number of regions of my large home state (which is nearly 150% the size of France or Spain) and I'd visited small parts of a few other states. Then, over a 7-week period, I visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England. By the time I arrived in the US, my environment had become much larger, especially as I wasn't going home at the end of the trip. In fact, those seven weeks were just the beginning of the adventure.

Despite my extensive travels and interactions, I can still be surprised when it comes to normalcy. One such example occurred during my first visit to the state of Western Australia (WA) several years ago. [Each time I go back to Australia, I try to visit different bits of it to see what it was I had unknowingly left behind.] I was touring the southwest corner of that state when I came across a small town with a butcher shop. Right about then I had a yearning for some smoked sausage of the kind with which I'd grown up called mettwurst. Interestingly, the butcher knew exactly what I wanted, and asked me if I was from SA. I replied that I was, at which point he reminded me that the recipe for mettwurst came to Australia with the German immigrants in the 1840's, but they only settled in SA, so mettwurst was not normally available in other states. [Subsequently, I spent time discovering more about my own family background and state's history. As a result, I found that much of my knowledge about Australian customs really was specific to my home state or region.]

Another example involves books. I have worked with Nihon-jin (Japanese people) for more than 25 years. I've visited and travelled in Japan on numerous occasions, and I've hosted quite a few in my house, so I've come to learn quite a few things about their culture and customs. Being a book lover, I like to go to bookstores when I travel, and I do so in Japan. Most books written in Japanese have the front cover where we Westerners would say is the back cover, and vice versa, with the text going down the page in columns from right-to-left, and with pages being numbered from right-to-left. So when I see a stack of books on a table in a Japanese bookstore, I have this incredible urge to go and "turn them up the right way". I know they are already the right way up, but after all these years I still have not yet adjusted to that difference.

Getting in the "What is Normal?" Mindset

So what does normal mean to you? Without thinking too hard about them, answer the following questions:

  • On what date does summer begin?
  • If it is 11 o'clock in the morning in New York, ignoring any adjustment for Daylight Savings Time, what time is it in Paris, six 1-hour time zones to the east?
  • What date does 1/12/2009 represent?
  • Write the following value as a number: Three thousand four hundred point five.
  • How many lowercase letters are there?

Now let's go over each question and see how your answers compare with those from other readers of this blog.

On what date does summer begin? Here in the US summer begins with the Summer Solstice, on June 20th or 21st, when the sun is furthest north. For countries in the southern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice is on December 20th or 21st. However, in some places equinoxes and solstices are considered to be in the middle of the respective season or at least some weeks after that season's start, but never actually at their start. For example, in Australia, summer starts on December 1 and ends the last day of February.

It's 11 o'clock in the morning in New York, and Paris is six 1-hour time zones to the east. From where I'm sitting near Washington DC, I'd say it was 5 pm in Paris, but my friend Stéphane—who lives there—would probably say it was 17:00. [It has been many years since I've worn a watch. However, I do carry a pocket computer that has a clock. When I travel to a country that uses a 24-hour clock, I change my computer clock to use the local time display format just to "get with the program" and to experience a different kind of normal. This is also useful when I look at transportation schedules as they typically use the local time format.]

What date does 1/12/2009 represent? In the British Commonwealth (and numerous other) countries, dates are written "day/month/year", in which case, this date would be December 1, 2009. However, in the US it represents January 12. [I am reminded of two things regarding date format differences. I had a traveler coming to stay and she informed me by email that she'd be in my area around 5/6. She was from Australia, but had been touring the US for some months, so I didn't know if she meant May 6 or June 5. I had to ask; otherwise, I might have been preparing for her visit on the wrong day. The second has to do with the attack on the World Trade Center (is that spelling normal?), which took place on September 11, 2001. Here in the US, that date is referred to as 9/11; however, I was surprised to also see it written and hear it spoken the same way in Australia where it would normally be 11/9.]

I write the value "three thousand four hundred point five" as 3,400.5; but my German friend Astrid would write it as 3.400,5. In France, Stéphane would write 3 400,5 (with a non-breaking space as the thousands separator) and in Geneva, a French-speaking part of Switzerland, Daniela would write 3'400,5. What we native English speakers generally refer to as the decimal point is actually known to others as the decimal comma or decimal separator.

As to how many lowercase letters are there, being an English speaker, I'd say 26. However, my Russian friend Sonja would say 33 (using the post-revolution Cyrillic alphabet) and my Danish friend Keld would say 29 (the 26 English letters followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å, in that order). [Years ago, during a lecture I gave in Copenhagen, I said naïvely that the Danish alphabet had three extra letters (meaning the 26 English letters plus three more). A member of my audience raised his hand and politely informed me that his alphabet had exactly the right number of letters; there were no extra ones! That day, I learned a valuable lesson about normal.] On the other hand, my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet! (Which begs the question, "Is there such a thing as a crossword puzzle in Japanese?") She writes using Kanji ideographs from Chinese, and symbols from the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries. [You should have seen the stunned look on the face of the young sales person here in the US when during a stay with us, Misa signed a credit card slip using Kanji and the clerk had to check it against the "signature" on the back of her card! "That doesn't look like a real signature," he said.]

Having done that little exercise, let's go back to a statement I made earlier: "The meaning of normal depends on the context in which it is being used."

Computer Software and the Concept of Locales

In my initial blog post, I said that I was going to write about things outside my work, but bear with me while I get a bit closer to that subject. After all, my work is my life and my life is my work! [I promise not to be a complete computer nerd, however.]

You are reading this blog post using a web browser, and its controls and menus very likely are annotated in your native language, whatever that may be. How then does someone design and implement such a program so that it supports multiple languages and conventions? 25 years ago, I attended my first meeting of a committee that was producing a standard specification for the very popular C programming language. As some implementers of the resulting standard wanted ways to support different cultural conventions the committee invented a foundation stone—called a locale—for doing that. Simply stated, a locale is a named collection of local conventions of nationality, culture, and language.

Here are some examples of locales. A US locale supports the English alphabet, a 12-hour time format, a month/day/year date format, a comma thousands separator, and a decimal point, among other things. On the other hand, a France/French locale supports the French alphabet, a 24-hour time format, a day/month/year date format, a space thousands separator, and a decimal comma. Note the use of "France/French". That is necessary because former French colonies, which still speak French, might have conventions different to those used in France. Likewise for the languages of the other colonial powers, such as the Dutch, English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

In the two examples above the whole country uses the same set of conventions. However, that is not always the case. For example, Canada supports two official languages (English and French), Belgium supports two (Dutch and French), Finland supports two (Finnish and Swedish), and Switzerland supports four (French, German, Italian, and Romansh). And to make it interesting, some towns near one or more borders use one or more conventions borrowed from across those borders.

Implementers of computer programs determine which locales they will support and produce corresponding versions of their products. The larger topic of supporting customs and conventions in computer software is known as internationalization (or I18N for short, as there are 18 letters between the first and the last) and the application of I18N techniques to produce a particular flavor is known as localization (or L10N). As my involvement in information technology standards increased and globalization in business took off, the ideas of I18N and L10N dovetailed very nicely with my own interest in natural languages, customs, and travel.

Broadening Your Own Horizons

Not everyone has the opportunity, time, or budget to travel abroad, to work with or host foreigners, or to do any number of seemingly exotic things. And not everyone wants to. [That said, I've long maintained that by definition experiencing foreign travel must be positive. Either you have a good time, meet interesting people, and possibly even adopt some changes in your lifestyle as a result, or you have a bad experience that causes you to appreciate more what you have back in your own country and home. Either way, you will learn something about yourself and your own circumstances relative to the rest of the world.]

Here are some small ways to be pleasantly abnormal without expending much effort or expense:

  • Travel to the next town, county, or state just to have a look around and meet the locals
  • Read an article, book, magazine, or newspaper that it outside your ordinary fare; spend time browsing at your local library or bookstore
  • Talk to people who've traveled and asked them why they did and what they learned about themselves
  • Select a radio station at random; listen to music in a different language or from a different culture
  • Talk to visitors from other towns, states, and countries; talk to immigrants
  • Visit a museum or art gallery; go to a concert or see a play; try to sit through a ballet [I fell asleep during Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, Russia. You wouldn't believe how long that damned swan took to die!]
  • Look at alternate news sources [I get my daily world news in English from DW-TV (Deutsche Welle in Berlin, Germany) and I watch programs regularly from and about Japan, in English.]
  • The Internet truly can be your oyster, and if you don't have a computer, get free access to one at your local library
  • Look up in a dictionary new words you come across; improve your word power; do a crossword
  • Set out to learn something new and useful at least once a month

Now, add at least five of your own ideas to this list.

Conclusion

In future installments in this series I'll look at a number of different aspects of cultural differences. These will include writing systems, calendars and dates/times, numbers and counting systems, currency, measurement systems, forms of address/names, computer keyboards, electrical and phone plugs, driving, address formats, country and place names, surviving with chopsticks, and some cultural things such as which gestures might get you in trouble and which indicate to observers that you are dead!

I'll close this first part with a story about the first night I ate in the US after arriving in August 1979. I was seated in the restaurant at my hotel in suburban Washington DC and I'd ordered a salad and an entrée (which in the US is a main course; go figure!) The salad came, but being a good little Australian I waited for the main meal to arrive before I started my salad. After all, everyone knows that you eat your salad with your meal! Well I waited and I waited some more and finally I asked the waiter. I was politely told that he was ready to serve my main course just as soon as I finished my salad. Welcome to normal!

Where’s My Damn Gold Watch?

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

On December 12, 2009, I achieved a significant milestone: I completed 40 years in the workforce. That's 280 in dog years! How time flies when you are busy working to pay taxes!

Of course, as I'm still just a young whippersnapper you may well ask how I've clocked up so many years. Well, I was sent out to work in the coalmines of darkest South Australia (SA) at the age of six where I worked 20 hours a day. And when I got home to the hole in the ground in which all 14 of us lived my dad thrashed me to sleep with a broken beer bottle. And that was on a good night! [Thanks to the Monty Python gang for that inspiration.] Of course, I exaggerate; the shifts were only 18 hours and our hole was one of the more comfortable models. At least we didn't have to eat cold gravel every night; that only happened when we were bad.

All right. Ok, I'll start again. Being six months younger than students in my own class and then having completed two elementary school grades in one year, I started high school (Year 8) at the grand age of 11 years and 2 months. As a result, I completed Year 12 one week before my 16th birthday.

So, with all that experience and maturity under my belt what was I to do with my life? Well, I had two things going for me. I was a decent math and science student with good enough grades to get admitted to the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT), but only as a part-time/evening student. And I had enough ability to be offered a spot with the Under-17's team at a semiprofessional Australian Rules football club based in Adelaide. [This was in 1970, well before the national professional league (AFL) began, and when Adelaide—a city of around a million people—supported 10 semipro clubs. It still has nine of them, and two pro teams as well.]

The sport would keep me fit and give me something to do with my spare time, and it would even generate a little income, but that would be invested for a rainy day. And the studies would keep me busy two nights a week from February through early December; however, I'd have to have a job of some sort to pay the rent, pay for school tuition and books, and to buy polish for my football boots.

Hoe Hoe, Hoe Hoe, a Hoeing We Will Go!

At the time I finished high school, my father worked for Simarloo, an American fruit conglomerate owned by the Mariani family from Silicon Valley, California (back before electronics arrived there, when it was a valley full of fruit growers). While local growers in Australia were content with their 20–50 acres of citrus, stone fruits, or vines, not so those big-time Yanks. Simarloo put thousands of acres under irrigation. In fact, just before I started work there, they planted 10,000 almond trees.

Now classes at SAIT and training for the new football season—which ran from April to September—didn't start until March so I had 10 weeks to kill before moving to the state capital 150 miles away. As such, I signed up as a general laborer at Simarloo making AU$1/hour (which was comparable to US$1 at that time). There was plenty of overtime available, but it paid the regular rate. I distinctly remember earning $100 one week; yep, I worked 100 hours, which is probably one reason why I like to keep it around 25–30 now.

Each morning, someone drove me to some remote patch of young fruit trees that were 1–2 feet high, and left me there alone with a large water container and a freshly sharpened hand-held hoe. You know them there gardening implements for weeding, with the long wooden handle! At noon, someone drove me back to the main shed for lunch with the other worker bees. And in the afternoon, I'd do it all over again. My job was to walk up and down 250-yard rows removing weeds from anywhere within a foot of the base of each young tree. And as my water was left at the end of a row, I had 500 yards to go to the next drink, and it was high summer with average temperatures reaching at least 95 degrees F (35 C). Fortunately, it was dry heat. To this day, I have to say that I'm not much into gardening!

If I Had a Hammer

In March 1970, I packed my meager possessions and moved to Adelaide, the capital of the Aussie state of SA. My family had arranged for me to live with a widowed old-age pensioner within walking distance of my football club's stadium, but that was all the help I got. I also had the name of my "minder" at the football club and around AU$500 in my bank account.

I started night school with classes in chemistry and lab-related studies and my goal was to get a job in a science lab; however, as a 16-year-old in a strange city I found it hard going. After three weeks of looking at the job situation and spending money, but not earning any, I took a temporary job at D.B. Harrison and Son, a small factory that made wooden boxes for the wholesale fruit and vegetable trade. Each of these boxes had a lid, which was held in place by two small wooden stays nailed one on each end. My job was to nail those on by hand. I soaked the rather small stays in an old bathtub of cold water for some hours so they wouldn't split when nailed onto a box. I worked with two other drones and the son of the cantankerous owner. I earned AU$16 for a 40-hour week and paid $12/week for room, laundry, and meals including a cut lunch on weekdays. After a few weeks, I was given a $4/week raise. I worked there four months.

Extruders Beware!

I took a cut in pay to move to BG Plastics—a firm that specialized in plastics extrusion—making those nice little molded plastic packages in which brush and comb sets were packaged. The highlight came when the state fair was held and we made plastic spacesuit helmets for kids and sold them there. I took a turn working at the booth; however, almost all the buyers wanted them assembled. And as I was the fastest assembler they had, I got to work the fair for two whole weeks. That job lasted six weeks.

Oil be Loving You, Oo Oo Ooh

A fellow student knew I was looking for a lab job and as he was about to quit his he recommended me to his boss. I fronted up to Adelaide Margarine for an interview and got the job. That company was a subsidiary of Vegetable Oils Australia, which operated an oil refinery near Sydney as well as thousands of acres of olive groves around the country.

Although I was hired to run the quality control lab, I was really being trained in factory management. We made cooking margarine, most of which was packed in 50-pound boxes for commercial bakeries. The rest was in half-pound blocks for retail sale. Once every hour I'd do routine testing on the new batch of margarine that had been made. Other duties included testing the milk reconstituted from powder, testing the water, and placing Petri dishes in various parts of the factory to detect the presence of molds. It was routine chemistry with a little microbiology thrown in.

Although I was still only 17, once I proved to be a self-starter I got to help manage the ordering and shipping of the bulk vegetable oil from the city rail yard and I served as an emergency driver for the transportation department. Quite often, I got to drive one of the company cars (even though I didn't have one of my own), and I even managed to drive one up the back of a car that stalled at a traffic light. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) I also became proficient at driving a forklift.

Being a non-union employee, during several union strikes I also got to put on white coveralls and a hair net and cap to actually make the margarine. On one such occasion, I had to "supervise" the company President who had no clue as to how things worked out in factory.

At age 18, I had my first business trip—a week in Sydney to visit the refinery and the main labs. It was heady stuff to catch that Boeing 727 and to have a driver pick me up on arrival and again each day at my hotel to go to work.

For quite a while, I had a separate contract with the company to bottle vegetable oil at nights and on weekends. That was my first entrepreneurial fling and it went well.

Rex Learns about Chemical Aids

After 2½ years, I was ready to move on and I chose pure lab work rather than the applied world. I had also completed my first 3-year program at SAIT so I could command a better deal. I joined the South Australian Department of Chemistry where I caused a ripple with their pay grade system. No one had ever gotten that qualification before age 21. [Back then, full adult pay started at age 21.] So at 19 they agreed to pay me as though I was a year older.

The Department was small with fewer than a 100 people, and it had five divisions: Forensics (doing stuff for autopsies and all the state's blood alcohol testing), Agriculture (looking at mercury in fish and DDT in the state's food supply, among other things), Cereals (playing with cereal grains and cooking in their test bakery), Gas and Explosives (testing public gas supplies and issuing explosive permits), and Food and Drugs, of which I was a part. I was assigned to the Pesticide Residues lab as a Technical Officer Grade 1, complete with white coat, safety glasses, and a pocket protector containing pens and a spatula.

This was the age of 2-4-D, 2-4-5-T, Chloropicrin, and other nasty chemicals that were being sprayed onto all sorts of aspects of the human and animal food chain. And aerial sprays caused wild bird's eggs to have very thin shells. Pesticides collect in fatty tissue and professional hunters would go out, shoot foxes, and send us batches of fox fat to analyze the impact of sprays in rural areas. My principal job was to check the Adelaide metropolitan area supply of eggs, milk, and fresh fruit and vegetables to monitor their pesticide levels. Occasionally, I'd get one-time tasks. The most exciting things that came our way were the stomach contents of a farmer and his dog. Wishing to commit suicide by drinking a concentrated chemical—Hey, sign me up for that plan!—Farmer Brown forced a dose down Rover's throat to make sure it was quick acting. Once he saw that it was he took a solid swig himself. Forensics got the case and handed off the pesticide component to my group.

Once, I was on-loan to the main Food and Drug lab to test 240 bottles of red wine for artificial coloring. I took a 20 ml sample from each bottle, gassed it with CO2 to preserve the contents, and resealed it. After many weeks of negative tests, and checking and rechecking my control process, about three bottles from the end I found one that was over the limit. The Deputy Director of the Department was so excited when I told him that he had to come and repeat the test himself. Months later, after I had given away most of the bottles of wine to staff members an agriculture inspector came by and asked what happened to all that wine. Of course, I had to inform him that it had been "consumed" during the testing.

I had taken on the task of handling lab maintenance requests for the whole department and enjoyed getting out of the lab to work with the maintenance staff. The electricians and plumbers I used supported the state library, state natural history museum, and Government House as well. On one visit to find them at Government House I had the good fortune to meet and chat with the Governor, Sir Mark Oliphant, a noted Australian scientist who worked on the Manhattan project in the US during WWII. [In Australia, the head of government in each state is an elected politician called the Premier. The (largely ceremonial) head of state in each state is the Governor, appointed by the Queen and who represents the Crown.]

While I was taking classes in my second 3-year course at SAIT, I discovered computers and programming. Minicomputers were becoming affordable and labs were starting to install them to automate all kinds of things. And while I loved programming, the Department didn't have any computers. It was time to move in a different direction.

Along the Highways and Byways

The SA Government had an acute shortage of computer programmers so they had SAIT develop and teach a 3month training program to be run in the summer when the campus was otherwise empty. They announced an opportunity for state civil servants to take an aptitude test to see if they would qualify for selection to this program. In my case, I had already taken the test as part of an effort to see about transferring to another department. As for the other 500 applicants, they all had to cram into a very large hall and compete with each other and the clock. I was one of the "25 chosen ones" and in January 1976, we went off for 13 weeks to be full-time students on full pay and benefits to learn COBOL on CDC mainframes. Along the way, we also did a bit of FORTRAN.

Each student was assigned to a state government department and mine was the South Australian Department of Highways. After that, we served six months "on the job training" before moving to the ranks of Computer Systems Officer Grade 1. And for those of us already with a pay grade ahead of that level, we kept it. My team leader was a former high school teacher who delighted in teaching.

After a solid stint in coding standard validation, update, and reporting applications in COBOL, I literally attached myself to an engineering group that got me my own office—only the Grade 4 boss had one of those—and a project processing statistics from highway and bridge concrete crushing compression results. From there, I transferred myself to a Digital Mapping group that had its very own DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. There, I designed and implemented a system to digitize from topographic maps all the state-owned or maintained roads and their adjunct facilities like bridges, rail crossings, and quarries. That got me into real-time data acquisition. I then tied that system to a cadastral system of land use and valuation information allowing planning engineers to figure out where to run new highways through neighborhoods. That project involved a lot of plotting and graphics. Others in my group worked on a system that gathered traffic statistics by punching holes in paper tape when cars ran over those rubber hoses you see stretched across a highway, and they were on the fringes of the first work in SA on computerized traffic system controls.

The state government was a classic British Commonwealth operation; you waited for someone to retire or die to get ahead. And I was a young man in a hurry! Once again, it was time to move on.

Along the way, I dropped out of my science course, one class short of completion. Then I started a 3-year Computing Science degree as a halftime student—without any previously earned credits transferring—with time off with pay from the Department. By the time I left Australia in mid-1979, I'd completed one year of that program. And just like Bill Gates, I never did get to finish university, yet somehow he finished a few billion ahead of me; however, due to a drop in the price of Microsoft stock I've managed to narrow the gap.

Laboring in Chicago

After traipsing around Asia and Europe for seven weeks playing tourist, in August 1979 I entered the US via New York and rode the Eastern Airlines Shuttle to the Nation's capital. A week later, I was living in Chicago and consulting to the US Department of Labor, Region 5, which covered six mid-western states.

My main project was to design and implement a system to track all apprenticeships in that region. Each state office had a computer terminal and dial-up modem to access the minicomputer in Chicago. When I delivered the system, users moved from an antiquated error-prone batch system to an interactive system, the contents for which they controlled directly. And they could query it in real time. It was very successful and I was asked to demonstrate it for other regions.

My second project was to design and implement a system for the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Numerous public and private organizations and companies sent their lab instruments to OSHA for repair or calibration, and my system was used to track instruments from arrival to shipping.

Achtung Gesundheit!

After 13 months in Chicago, I started with Software AG of North America whose headquarters was in Reston, Virginia. The company developed and sold database management software. I was the first non-IBM mainframe person at HQ. Nominally, I was the technical support manager for a new product, the company's first foray into the world of minicomputers. In reality, I did whatever it took, developing installation procedures, writing training manuals, delivering training, and working with developers, sales, and marketing staff.

It was a stormy 2½ years involving quite a bit of travel, the company going public, and a lawsuit around my project. Along with that, I was thrown in at the deep end to manage staff and I had the unenviable task of hiring people for a project I knew was going to be cancelled! [To this day, I have no interest in hiring or managing anyone.]

So what does "AG" stand for? The parent company was German, and Aktiengesellschaft (AG) is a suffix indicating public trading and limited liability in Germany. Whenever I was asked its meaning, I usually said the (nonsense) title above, which means literally Attention and To your health.

Farming out the Cash

For some months in 1983, I worked on a contract with the US Department of Agriculture where I developed spreadsheets to manage federal grant money for agricultural research. I also worked on various database systems. PCs were becoming popular and lots of groups wanted to control their own computing destiny.

Becoming a Mainiac

Late in 1983, a major opportunity came my way when a company had need for a person experienced with DEC PDP-11s, real-time process-control, and FORTRAN. It was a great fit and I soon found myself in the wilds of Maine at Great Northern Paper Company's (GNP's) Millinocket papermaking factory. For each of three weeks a month, on Monday mornings I flew from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts, and then to Bangor, Maine. From there I drove more than an hour to the town nearest the north end of the Appalachian Trail. On the following Friday afternoon, I did the reverse process. It took six hours each way, and so began my extraordinary flying experience.

GNP generated a great deal of the power it used at its papermaking facilities at six hydroelectric dams and two steam plants. My project was to maintain, document, and later to enhance the software that ran on a network of minicomputers to monitor the steam plants and control the hydro plants. I got to hang out with a great bunch of engineers, electricians, and power dispatchers and I made some good friends.

By the way, rumor has it that if you spend one or two winters in Maine you are a Mainer. If you spend three or more, you are a Mainiac! I spent a lot more than that.

Doing It My Way

After five years in the US, in mid-1984, my application for permanent residency was approved and I got my green card. Very soon after, I started in business as an independent consultant. I continued to work on the GNP project for another 14 years, first as a subcontractor and then as the prime contractor. And I implemented the software changes for some major engineering additions to the power generation system.

Along the way, I started writing for publication and I spun off collections of articles into some seminars. As I wrote more, I started to plan each series, turning the resulting work into a seminar and then a textbook. And I continued this approach for some 15 years. Early on in that process, I started a quarterly publication and was its editor until it was sold three years later. Some years thereafter, I published and edited another quarterly. By then I had a very nice writing and publishing business on the side.

In December 1984, I attended my first meeting of a computer technology-related standards committee. It was a US committee, but before the end of my 15 years as member, international representative, then chair, it had spun off an international counterpart. That got me onto a regular schedule of national then international meetings, usually with some personal travel as well. And when I retired from that activity, I was hired by a software company as a consultant to help them build their own standards capability. 10 years later, I am still working with them in a number of forums relating to computer programming languages and office technology. Almost all my work is as project editor where I write and/or edit some or lots of a specification, and I help manage the maintenance process. For quite a few years, this meant attending 2- or 3-day international meetings every month, and on one project, 2-hour phone meetings every 1–2 weeks.

After a long break, I'm back to writing and teaching and recently I started a website with a partner to sell a lot of my previously published and unpublished intellectual property. (See www.ProgrammingClassroom.com.)

Throughout my 25+ years of being self-employed, I've had two very important rules: never ever hire anyone, and take as much time off as I can afford. And I am very happy to say that I have never reconsidered either of those and in fact, I have reinforced them many times. For 15 years, until 2006, I worked halftime and now after a few years of working more than full time on several interesting projects I'm back to part time. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Conclusion

Now my boss is an understanding bloke so recently I had a chat with him about cutting back my hours or even retiring. Of course, he laughed aloud, but said nothing. So for the foreseeable future I guess I'm stuck with a good income, a part-time job, plenty of interesting work, a good amount of travel, a chance to work with some really good people, and no gold watch. Oh well, I guess someone has to do it, right? And as for retirement I guess that will happen when I die; however, I can't help thinking that maybe, just maybe, Hell might be a technical support job at a software company!

Travel: Home Stays

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

It has been my experience that people who travel for pleasure fall into two main camps: tourists and travelers. Tourists tend to have less time and less frequent trips and they don't want to spend time on organizing lots of logistics themselves. They want the security of having their itinerary locked-in in advance. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and go on guided tours. Many want the romance of an international encounter but at arm's length from the locals. Travelers, on the other hand, often take long and frequent trips. They want to "make things up as they go" and might not have any accommodation or travel tickets booked at the destination. They stay with host families. They buy food at bakeries and supermarkets and they picnic in scenic places. They wander the back streets in search of the unexpected opportunity, photo, or personal encounter. To be sure, many people have a leg in both camps and one approach does not fit all circumstances or personalities. Both have their place and their adherents. As for me, I prefer to be a traveler as much as possible.

Many of my trips have involved stays with strangers, most of whom I had contacted in advance—but maybe only one or two days before—through one organization or another. Some hosts were people I met while on the road and others were "friends of friends". Some of my travel diary readers have commented on how exciting it must be to arrive in some far-off place with an as-yet unknown "friend" waiting to meet me and to share hospitality and a cross section of their life and community. And yes, it generally is exciting. Inevitably, I am asked how I organize a home stay and whether I have encountered any problems. And since I also host travelers, I am asked about that too.

What follows are some of my experiences, both as a host and as a traveler. I also offer some advice for anyone considering hosting or traveling in this manner.

Europeans Tête-à-Tête with the Philistine Americans

My first experience in hosting via an organization came through American Host Program (AHP), a group that, unfortunately, is now defunct. During the Cold War, a teacher couple from California was traveling in Europe. They were disturbed at the negative view that many people had of those arrogant war-mongering Americans ("What? Us warmongers?"), so they decided to do something about it. They invited teachers and librarians to come to the US for 30 days and to stay 10 days with each of three families or 15 days with each of two families. Guests had to have reasonable English skills so they could have a prolonged and meaningful exchange with a small cross section of the real America (you know, with people like me, immigrants!). Hosts provided accommodation and meals and were asked to be ambassadors for their country. To be sure, it was a big commitment for both parties, but it was only once a year and it was a great opportunity to have a meaningful exchange and to make lasting friendships.

From 1988 through 2000 Jenny and I hosted 12 sets of guests, 10 of whom were on their own (seven women and three men) and two who brought spouses. They were from Austria (1), Finland (1), France (2), Germany (7), and Sweden (1). Three were born and raised in the former East Germany. As well as hosting them, I have stayed with or visited eight of them at least once and one of them, Astrid, numerous times. She has also visited me again. I keep in touch with four former guests via my trusty and cheap Skype internet phone software.

Peace, Brother!

Seventeen years ago, I read an article in the travel section of the Washington Post newspaper about a couple traveling in Wales with their 3-year-old daughter and staying with host families. The host organization was Servas International. Soon after, Jenny and I joined as both hosts and travelers and three years later, we also became interviewers for new members. [As it happened, our first Servas trip as a family was to Wales where we stayed with three completely different hosts.] Servas has members in more than 60 countries and is a peace-based organization intended to facilitate dialog between people from different countries, regions, or cultures. [I host and stay with members from other parts of the US as well as other countries. After all, the US can be viewed as 50 different countries.]

Most Servas hosts provide accommodations and meals for two days and nights. The rule is that a traveler doesn't just "use" a host for an overnight stay or wear out their welcome over a longer period, although hosts and travelers can agree to other terms. For example, a veterinary surgeon in Mexico offered a month's stay provided guests helped him in his practice. Some hosts offer longer stays if you buy language lessons from them. One man offered a long stay if you worked some hours each day helping him renovate his large villa.

There are also Day Hosts, people who cannot—or chose not to—have people stay overnight; perhaps they live in student dormitories or are priests or nuns. They like to meet guests for coffee or a meal, to take them on a walking tour, or to practice their English. Day Hosts are great! They allow for meaningful contact with little commitment. In either case, travelers arrange directly with hosts based on entries in host books, each of which covers a single- or multiple-country region. Membership runs for a year at a time and each country charges an annual membership fee.

I've stayed with hosts in Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Uruguay, the US, and Wales. [As I write this, I am staying with the second of two hosts in Normandy, France, where I'm spending a 7-day holiday after a business meeting in Paris. The experience has been fantastic, despite the inclement weather, and I'm already planning a return trip; thank you Jean-Claude, Brigitte, and Martine.]

Given the "competition" from internet-based hosting organizations, Servas is looking at going online in some form or another. However, one of its strengths is that membership requires personal references and an interview.

Servas conducts an international conference every few years. Some countries host annual conferences and some local chapters hold regular events. In the Washington DC area, we have a summer picnic and a Christmas party, with occasional functions through the year as members chose to organize them. The idea for these is to allow local members to meet each other in addition to the people from out of town who they host.

Bring out the Best China

My first internet-based hosting experience was with Hospitality Club in 2005. I was planning a vacation to Hong Kong yet there were no overnight Servas hosts there—only Day Hosts. As it happened, Hospitality Club only had Day Hosts too, but I made contact with a number of members living there, and an expatriate American and two young Chinese businesswomen each agreed to meet me. The American took me on a walking tour of the financial district and had a meal with me at an Irish pub where his wife joined us. One Chinese woman took me to a banquet with her extended family. The other took me to a neighborhood restaurant and brought two friends who wanted to practice their English and to pepper me with questions about travel.

Can I Surf Your Couch?

In mid-2008, I was staying with a Servas host in Philadelphia and he introduced me to CouchSurfing (thanks Todd). This internet-based organization is very popular. There are members in pretty much every corner of the planet. Although I have yet to stay with a host—I tried to in Rome, Italy, in May 2009, but without success—I have hosted quite a few members, mostly domestic travelers within the US. One of them finished up living with us for five weeks while he worked on the Obama Presidential campaign, a cause dear to our hearts.

The Second Viking Invasion

Some friends of ours were involved in a Danish program that needed extra hosts one year. Jenny and I were "pressed into service" and discovered that that year's group was made up of retirees from the island of Fyn who were amateur folk dancers. They were traveling around the eastern US having a holiday and performing. We hosted the leader and his wife and had a great experience. (I have stayed with them twice since and met their extended family.) In subsequent years, we hosted other adult groups as well as members of several Danish national youth gymnastics teams.

Konnichiwa and Domo Arigato

In 1999, I read in our local newspaper about a hosting opportunity. A company nearby provided business English lessons and customer service training to employees of foreign companies. Most students were from Japan and their companies sent them for 2–12 weeks. Over the 3-year period before the school's closing Jenny and I hosted 14 Japanese men and woman, most of whom stayed with us for two weeks. The school gave us $120/week towards the cost of meals and we were asked to spend at least an hour a day speaking English with our guests and helping them to use the skills they were learning. We had some great experiences and I visited several of our guests back in Japan. On one memorable occasional at a dinner party we hosted I prompted Harusa to "sing us a song", and without fluster she broke into a Japanese girl-scout campfire song.

Don't Wait for a Knock at Your Door

You don't need to be a member of a hosting organization to host, however; you just need to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, while staying in a youth hostel in New York City I gave my contact information to a German traveler called Frank who was headed toward Washington DC. I invited him to stay, and he did. (Separately, I had also invited a Chinese professor called Frank to stay, so when someone called Frank phoned Jenny to be picked up at the station she looked for Chinese Frank when it was German Frank waiting!) Whenever I meet interesting people on my travels, I hand them a business card. I do so more to keep in touch on a personal level than for possible business connections.

Once, I was waiting at the Toronto airport for a flight that had been delayed by the first snowstorm of the season. I got talking to a young Brazilian mother who was flying home to Rio with her 5-year-old son. We were together more than an hour before our flight was called. We didn't sit together in-flight but I saw her at the airport on arrival. By then she had missed her connection to Brazil and was going to have to spend the night until the next flight 24 hours later. Although she was prepared to deal with that, I told her that in 15 minutes, my wife would pick me up, and we could host the two of them. She hesitated for all of five seconds before accepting. The next day, she gave me a music CD by well-known Brazilian singer and songwriter Tom Jobim. Although it wasn't something I would have bought for myself, I came to really like it and 10 years later I still play it regularly, thinking often about that fortuitous meeting.

I remember well a very nice random act of kindness bestowed on Jenny and me when we traveled to Brussels with our 3-year-old son. We'd ridden a public bus to the Waterloo battlefield and were eating our picnic lunch at the top of the huge earthen memorial. There our son played with a girl about his own age so we got to meet her parents, a Canadian couple posted to their embassy in Brussels for several years. They invited us to ride back to the city with them and to spend the afternoon and an evening meal at their house, after which they'd drop us back at our hotel. We cheerfully accepted and had a very nice time.

Opportunities are all around us; we simply have to recognize and take advantage of them.

Some Host and Traveler Considerations

There are many things for a potential host or traveler to consider. Based on personal experience, these are the main ones I cover when interviewing new members for Servas:

  1. Home Access: Should the host give the guest a house key? Some hosts require that a guest leave when the host does—possible early in the morning—which means that the guest typically cannot get back in until the host is back home. In general, this is very inconvenient for the guest. Traveling can be hard work and some days you just want to lie in bed, read a book, and write postcards, do laundry, or rest.
  2. Food: Discuss any food restrictions and allergies. Hosts or travelers may be vegetarian or vegan. Don't be shy as a host about asking guests to contribute food or, if you are a guest, to bring food or offer to buy food. Remember, the host is already providing accommodation without charge.
  3. Generosity: Hosts are well advised to not say "Make yourself at home" since they have no idea what the guest's home life is like.
  4. Helping Out: Good guests offer to prepare food, cook, clean, and help with other household chores without needing to be asked.
  5. Phone use: Understand the rules about phone use and the cost of calls.
  6. Smoking: Do not violate any smoking rules of the host. [I have heard of a case in which the host said, "You may smoke in my house, but if you do you may not exhale!"]
  7. Appropriate Expectations: If a guest wants a choice of food, that's called a restaurant. If they want an en suite bathroom or a private bedroom, that's called a hotel.
  8. Computer stuff: Is internet access available and, if so, what are the costs and limits? Travelers often take many digital photos, which fill up memory cards. Offering guests to burn pictures on a CD-ROM or DVD is very thoughtful, but don't be shy about charging for the media you use.
  9. Space: Give everyone his or her space. Don't s/mother your guests but don't ignore them either. Don't over plan.
  10. Convenience: Discuss things that might be needed unexpectedly such as umbrellas, hats, gloves, water bottles, and picnic equipment.
  11. Interaction: Unless it has been pre-arranged otherwise, be prepared to spend some quality time with each other and to have a meaningful exchange. A host stay should be more like a good bed and breakfast experience rather than a cheap hotel visit.

 

What's the Worst that can Happen?

So what are the risks of inviting strangers into your home? Should you be worried about them stealing all your stuff or running up large telephone bills with international calls? What if they are escaped mental patients who killed their families with an axe?

After 20 years of hosting, I am very happy to report that I have had none of the problems most people think might occur. And, apart from some family photos, home movies, and personal effects, household goods are replaceable. It's just stuff, right? My experience has been that if you are that much in love with your stuff you probably aren't a real traveler. [I met a man who complained he had no shoes until he met a man who had no feet!] As for the escaped mental patient, if he stays at my place he'll simply think I'm a fellow patient. We'd probably get along just fine.

The worst I can report is a lack of synergy, punctuality, or sensitivity. (Fortunately, not all were with the same guest!) In the latter case, Jenny and I hosted a young Russian man who lived three hours away on the mid-Atlantic coast. He was using the program to stay with families on weekends to get to meet Americans and to learn about their culture. However, a few hours after we met him we decided that we needed to have a serious talk with him about his approach. When he didn't understand something or didn't agree with it he expressed very strong opinions about it even saying things like "Why do Americans do such stupid things?" and "We had much better ways of doing that back in Russia." The next day we told him that sooner or later he was going to stay with someone less understanding that us, and they would simply tell him to go back home if he was going to be that ignorant and arrogant, and rightly so. While his intent was good, his execution was seriously flawed.

In this internet age, I have computers and gadgets throughout the house with protected wifi access. However, because my internal network is not secured from one machine to the other (to allow Jenny and me to share files), I don't give open access to my computer systems. If guests have their own laptop, they can "plug in" without breaching my security. Take sensible precautions and you should be fine.

As far as staying with strangers, I have never felt any environment was unsafe or unhealthy. I've had a couple of experiences that made me wonder why the hosts bothered, however.

Conclusion

As with many other aspects of life, problems in hosting can arise from a lack of communication and unreasonable expectations. Most can be avoided with a little planning and some common sense. As a host, ask yourself what you'd reasonably expect as a traveler, and as a traveler ask yourself what you'd reasonably expect as a host. While it's not necessary to be a traveler to be a good host or vice versa, experiencing it from both sides certainly can help. I've had many great experiences from hosting and from being hosted, and I have made some long-term friends. I've really gotten to appreciate that "normal" is relative to the experience of each person even within the same country or region.

Is hosting or traveling for you? Are you more interested in the journey than the destination? Are you more interested in the cultural aspects than the sights? Do you want the challenge of being an unofficial ambassador for your country even if you disagree with your country's policies? (One Mexican host held me personally accountable for much of the illegal immigrant policy that was being enforced in California!)

You never know what new friendship, experience, or adventure is waiting for you around the corner. But don't sit at home and dream about it, go make it happen. Create your own luck. Oh, and beware of hosts and travelers who list "axe murder" under their personal interests!

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s Off to Blog We Go

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Dear friends and colleagues, welcome to the first posting on my personal blog.

A World of Publishers and Writers

As A.J. Liebling wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Of the many millions of people having access to the internet, a significant percentage of them have decided that as they can easily create their own blog they too can be publishers and writers. Unfortunately, having something worth publishing does not appear to be a prerequisite.

I arrived in the US in August 1979. Very soon after, I recognized that for a product, idea, or person to be successful in the US [and maybe in most countries] packaging was paramount with substance being a distant second. If you can't get potential customers to look at your wares—typically via some flashy advertisement, scantily clad woman, or other promotional vehicle—the quality of those wares is unimportant. And, as best as I can tell blogging and social networking provide the masses with tools to promote themselves—and to do so shamelessly.

Without substance, you don't get many repeat customers for your products but with a potential customer base of 300 million one-time customers here in the US [and many more if you can sell to the world] you can still do a lot of business., For example, take the prestigious [and fictitious] legal firm of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, which has been screwing over its clients since 1902! Of course, with substance as well as attractive packaging you literally can "write your own ticket".

Regarding setting up a blog, it is very easy; once I got the software installed, I had a reasonably decent mockup operational within 30 minutes. But what to do after you have played with all the dazzling features? The blogosphere is littered with "publications" having only a handful of entries, fewer than 5 followers (excluding family members, who are "required" to subscribe and to appear interested), and with very long delays between posts. Once the novelty has worn off, most bloggers simply run out of things to say, assuming that is they had anything to say to begin with.

So, does the world need yet another blog? And if so does it need one from me?

Why I Want to Blog

I enjoy writing [I really do], I like reading good and clever writing—George Bernard Shaw, W.S. Gilbert (of the team Gilbert and Sullivan), and Oscar Wilde come to mind immediately—and I've even been known to take an English grammar book on holiday! [That coupled with the fact that I have a copy of the US Constitution by my bed might make me rather odd but then I never was accused of being normal.]

Instead of writing about work-related topics, I've decided to push myself into other areas. However, that doesn't mean I intend to write about things I'm not familiar with. As many of you know, from about 1990 to 2005, I worked only halftime, and after some four years of working more than fulltime since then, once again I am back in part-time mode. As such, I have a very full life outside of my work and I'll draw topics from that.

With this blog, my goals are to do the following:

  1. About once a month, write and post a substantive essay.
  2. Share my perspectives with friends and colleagues in a manner not possible during phone calls, emails, or short in-person visits.
  3. Stimulate discussion and encourage lively interaction and constructive criticism from my readers. (Yes, dear reader, I mean you specifically.)
  4. Take responsibility for my words and set a reasonable example of writing.
  5. Set a respectful tone and discourage knee-jerk reactions. The world definitely does not need more flaming/ranting on blogs, in emails, or other public forums.
  6. Be informative, educational, and, hopefully, a little entertaining.
  7. Do my bit to improve the quality of the blogosphere. You can't improve the process if you don't participate, right?

 

I see no reason why any of my postings will need to be published in a hurry. To that end, it is very likely that I will write each one over a period of weeks or months so it can be fully baked before its public debut. I certainly plan to have at least two people—with whom I don't always agree—review each one before it is posted. That way, most—if not all—of my errors, missteps, and faux pas will have been detected and fixed.

A Few Rules

This is a personal project; at this time, I do not plan to announce this blog to the world, just to invited guests like you who might be interested readers and possible respondents. And while I'm open to suggestions for topics, style, and so forth, ultimately it's my blog. If you don't like the rules, you can always invent your own game just as I'm doing with this blog. After all, we can all be writers and publishers now!

  1. Although I encourage you to submit comments, they will be moderated. Specifically, they will only appear on my blog once I have reviewed and accepted them. The reason for this is to eliminate spam and other malicious postings. It is also to guard against knee-jerk and potentially offensive replies. If ever you should disagree so much with someone's writing or speech that you "just have to dash off a rebuttal that very instant", then it is highly likely you will embarrass yourself more than them once everyone reads what you wrote while so overcome with emotion. [Regarding emotion, I am a Vulcan.] In such cases, by all means write the response but sleep on it for at least a night if not two or three. Make sure your brain is in-gear before you press the "send" key.
  2. When you submit a comment, I expect you to be responsible for what you write. Specifically, you must use your real name and email address. I can assure you that the comment, "Rex, thou reeky, flap-mouthed clack-dish!!!", posted by someone calling themselves "Aphrodite" or "JuliusCeasar" will be rejected, whereas the same comment from a reader willing to put their real name behind their words will almost certainly make it through the process.
  3. As you write comments, remember that more than a few of my intended readers have never lived in the US, and that their native language is not English. I say this not to try to confine your or their responses in any way, but to remind you that "normal is relative". Not everyone drives on the right, writes a date "month/day/year", has Christmas in winter, or uses the term college to mean a 4-year university.
  4. In order to help me improve the quality of the blogosphere, if you have an English-language spelling checker please run it over your responses and add grammar checking if you can. It has often been said that, "You are how you dress." or "You are what you eat." I'd add to that, "You are how you write." Try to set a good first impression.
  5. Above all, have some fun and don't be intimidated, especially if English is not your first language. Enthusiasm and a willingness to engage in constructive conversation count for a great deal. And if you learn something in the process that's great.

 

Conclusion

Several years ago, I came across the following poem by the great American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin. It so impressed me that I memorized it, printed a copy, and taped that to the edge of my computer screen where I can see it every time I write.

"If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
Or do things worth the writing."

According to some readers of my technical materials, I have been writing "things worth reading", and more than a few of the readers of my travel diaries have reported that I've been doing things "worth the writing." As such, I am encouraged to try to bring the same success to this blog. I look forward to hearing from you. And, as the dwarfs sang in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's Off to Write I Go."

 

[For some background on Rex's introduction to English and writing, see the link "Rex on English and Writing" off to the right, under "Useful Information".

Thanks much to John, Scott, and Tom for their help in getting this project launched.]