The many languages of Suriname

If you’ve been following any of the recent language controversy in Philadelphia, you begin to see that a country’s language is a constantly evolving mix of the cultures, customs and the people who use it. Here at home, this interplay is at often work between our country’s de facto official language, English, and an increasingly populous minority of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Now imagine this same language debate among as many as ten languages, and you begin to get a picture of the small South American nation of Suriname as featured in this article.

Suriname is a former Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America. Due to the country’s colonial heritage, the official language is Dutch. But continuous waves of immigrants have left a unique mark on the country’s language culture. This includes a recent influx Brazilians, who speak mostly Portuguese, a small population of Chinese-speakers from the Far East and Indonesian residents of Suriname who speak Javanese. Add to this mix a local language called Sranan Tongo, a dialect passed down from West Africa by many of the former colony’s African slaves, and local indigenous languages like Arawak and Carib. AND, on top of all this, politicians in Suriname are urging the government to adopt English or Spanish as the new national language, hoping to create closer ties to with neighboring countries. Sound confusing? I’m with you.

It remains to be seen how this complicated language issue will play out in Suriname, but it raises some interesting questions. What factors should determine a country’s official language? The U.S. for instance, will always speak English, but what concessions, if any, should be made as our country becomes increasingly multi-lingual? Should we base our decision on economic circumstances? Political? Cultural? It seems to me it’s some combination of the three. What do you think?

[Via the New York Times]

Band on the Run: Chinese History in Lahaina, Maui

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

I had to get away from resort land today. I packed my shoulder bag and computer, sunscreen, a camera, a hat and a book to read and slung it over my shoulder before I hopped down the stairwell to the lobby of the hotel (the elevators take too long.)

No one was around from the wedding party and I hung around the front entrance for about fifteen minutes before I decided to just walk. I had no idea how far it is to Lahaina by foot, but I was willing to do the trek. Anything to find some history and culture and conversation with locals.

Twenty minutes into my walk, I could tell it was going to be about an hour’s walk before I’d hit the town. I was still walking by the grounds of other resorts and other golf courses, so I hadn’t even made it from the overall resort-world “campus” yet.

I saw a bakery truck pulling out of one of the resort driveways and I flagged him down. Turns out the driver, “Jules,” a native Hawaiian guy, is an ex-musician and visual artist who still plays guitar for himself when he’s got down time. We had a great chat as he drove me into town. The whole drive took another fifteen minutes, nearly, and so it was great to meet an interesting (and generous) person and even nicer to not have to walk.

He dropped me off on “Front Street” with a smile and wished me well. I was then in Lahaina where tourist shops are bursting from every opening, t-shirts and bathing suits and postcard racks extending their advertising onto the sidewalk like tree roots on a wooded path to trip you into the shops.

Shopping is the last thing I’m here to do so when I saw the Chinese historical museum I turned in without a second thought.

Sitting behind a desk and looking gentle and open was an amazing woman with silver hair and a brilliant smile named Busaba Partacharya (in Thai — Thailand being her native country — or Yip Gwai Gee, in Catonese). She has been in Hawaii for fourteen years researching “the ancestors here,” as she put it – or, the history of Chinese settlement in Hawaii. She’s just volunteering but has put together several documents and traced several family clans to Maui over the years.

She and I spoke some Mandarin together and she asked me all about my trip to China. We bonded over research topics and our love for China and the notion of ancestry. I stood there at the front entrance for about fifteen minutes before she invited me to look around the museum and I remembered where I was. She gestured widely with her arm in a slow and graceful sweep outward as though she were sitting in a perpetual state of tai chi calm.

I had been so taken by her that I hadn’t even looked around me until then. I put down my shoulder bag by her desk and wandered in. I already felt at home.

The museum is a large wooden house-like structure that used to the clubhouse for the early Chinese settlers. Originally, many Chinese came to Maui (and the other Hawaiian islands) to work on things like the railroad, the sugarcane plantations and irrigation drilling into the mountainside. Many Chinese returned back to China but several stayed. This clubhouse was built in 1912 by the fraternal Wo Hing Society, a chapter of the Chee Kung Tong society that has roots in 17th century China. This society formed a social gathering place and also helped the Chinese in Lahaina maintain social and political ties with China.

Around the 1940s, most of the Society members had moved away to greater opportunities and not many Chinese people chose to remain in Lahaina. This building fell pretty to termites and rot until 1983 when the Lahaina Restoration Foundation entered into a long-term agreement with the Wo Hing Society to restore the building and open it to the public.

The first floor is a collection of Chinese artifacts gathered in Lahaina, as well as old photos from the Society, and the second floor displays the old cook stove and cooking utensils from when the cookhouse was located there. There is also a temple upstairs that offers incense to various Buddha or Bodhisattva shrines around the room.

When I came back down, Busaba motioned me over to her desk again and began to talk to me in greater detail about her work. She is in the midst of a long-term translation project for documents that were printed by the Wo Hing Society that were discovered in 1999. Some date back as far as 1906 and chronicle the activities and stories of the Chinese society in Lahaina at that time and until it largely dispersed.

She is currently the only one working on the project and she is looking for help. She’s volunteering and looking for people to help her with the work. She gave me several fliers to put around Toronto when I got back there (or any place I thought it would find others, she said) to hopefully connect with the diasporas of Chinese people around the world. There’s no money in it, she said, but the translation is slow and needs other minds and energy. The stack of papers on her desk were testimony to this truth. Too much for one person, for sure.

I said I would offer what I could and she said, “The ancestors always bring the answers. Maybe you’re one of them.” And then she winked at me and wished me well. I wished her well too and told her I’d try my best.

And I will.

I felt thoughtful as I continued into Lahaina to check out the rest of the town. Thoughtful and peaceful. “Wo Hing” means harmony and prosperity (in Cantonese) and I think some of that hopefulness had come up through those museum floorboards and found its way into the breathing of this visitor.