Monthly Archives: December 2005

Betel Chewing in Myanmar (and Elsewhere)

Betel nut is ubiquitous in Myanmar. Many people chew betel incessantly, despite half-hearted government attempts to curb the practice, or at least to stop the spitting associated with chewing. The streets are covered with big red blotches because, when locals finish chewing their quids, they hawk red gobs and streams of juice onto the roads and walkways, permanently staining the concrete.

The legendary British colonial chronicler of Burma, Sir James George Scott, also known as Shway Yoe, wrote, ‘No one can speak Burmese well till he chews betel’. That’s probably because ardent adherents have a quid stuck permanently in their cheek and this impediment affects their speech. It also affects their breath because it rots the teeth, turning them into gruesome reddish stumps, and it’s best to stay downwind from chronic chewers so as to avoid a whiff of the rank ‘betel breath’, as it’s called.

Thousands of one-man betel nut stalls are dotted throughout Yangon. Betel quid makers have a stack of small, green betel vine leaves, a pot of white, gloopy slaked-lime paste and an array of herbs and fillings, including cloves, aniseed, grated coconut, cinnamon, camphor, cardamom seeds, cumin and tobacco, plus small, broken pieces of the actual nut.

The ingredients are mixed on the leaf and a stick is scraped through the white gloop, which is liberally daubed over the leaf. The leaf is then carefully folded into a small packet or quid, and enclosed in a small cellophane pouch. Users place the betel nut quid in their mouth and slowly suck. The lime breaks down the ingredients quickly, leaving a pleasant but bitter spearmint-like taste in your mouth.

By the time the betel nut quid U Tun Htun has given me has totally dissolved in my mouth, with the hard nubs of nut softened into a mush, we have reached the outskirts of Yangon and it is time for me to do what all betel nut chewers do. When we stop at traffic lights I open the passenger door, lean out and expectorate a rancid red stream onto the road. Some Myanmar people in the car next to me are watching. They laugh and give me their version of a thumbs-up.

SOURCE: Land of a Thousand Eyes: The subtle pleasures of everyday life in Myanmar, by Peter Olszewski (Allen & Unwin, 2005), pp. 74-75

Well, I don’t know much about Burma, but I do know a bit about chewing betel. It sounds like the Burmese chew (or suck) just the dried pulpy core of the areca nut, and not the fibrous husk. Chamorros on Guam do the same, but as far as I know they don’t add spices, unless you count tobacco.

I first learned to chew in Yap, the betel chewing capital of the Pacific, where men, women, and children chew day and night, if supplies permit. Yapese prefer to chew young areca nuts, husk and all, wrapped in betel pepper leaf and sprinkled with dry slaked-lime powder. Baby bottles or babyfood jars are favorite lime containers these days, supplanting the small, hollow coconut or bamboo containers of old. If the nuts are small and plentiful, people will chew the whole thing, but people often bite the nut in two, then share half. Larger nuts might be quartered with a machete. In fact, the sharing of betel ingredients is a typical icebreaker in any kind of social interaction. People rarely have exactly equal supplies of nuts, leaves, and lime in the woven baskets everyone carries on Yap. (Brown paper bags often substitute when not in Yap.) The only additional flavoring Yapese sometimes use is tobacco. Dark, sticky twist tobacco is best, but some people will also bite off the end of a cigarette after popping the betel quid into their mouths. Yapese will often spit to clear the first, inadequately mixed juice from their mouths, but usually swallow after the juice gets redder and thicker. The betel mixture, especially with tobacco, is supposed to be a vermifuge of sorts, but chewing also helps to suppress hunger pangs. Betel makes your heart beat faster, and strong betel can make your head spin and your forehead sweat, but only for a short while.

Palauans chew a lot of betel, too, but they don’t tend to swallow, so people often carry around an empty beer or soda can to spit into, especially if they’re indoors. When I was in grad school at the University of Hawai‘i, you usually had to find a Palauan connection to supply your betelnut fixings, but nowadays in Hawai‘i little Korean convenience stores will often stock betel supplies in neighborhoods where a lot of Micronesians hang out.

But nowhere is betel more commercialized than in Taiwan. When we passed through Taiwan on the way back from Guangdong in 1988, my wife and I were pleased to find prepared quids available for sale from most small tobacconists. Chewing was common enough to prompt fastfood outlets like MacDonald’s or KFC to post “No betel chewing” signs on their premises. But our impression at the time was that betel chewing was more common in rural areas and among older women. Well, that seems to have changed, thanks to the marketing efforts of scantily clad binlang xishi (檳榔西施). Taiwanese betel quids are sold ready to pop into one’s mouth. The quid consists of a small split areca nut holding dab of lime paste and either a piece of betel pepper catkin inside or a wrap of pepper leaf outside.

UPDATE: Reader Lirelou’s comment needs to be prevented from vanishing into Haloscan’s black hole.

My first experience with betel nut was in Vietnam. With only a few days in country, I tagged along with a Vietnamese reconnaissance platoon and one US Sergeant for an ambush. Moving up into our position at about 02:00 in the morning, we were in turn ambushed. After much firing with no casualties, the VC withdrew. We followed after them and caught site of movement within a small nearby hamlet. The sergeant sent a squad up along the edge of the hamlet, and put an observation post on the river ford at the other side. A quick glassing with our starlight scope (early version of night vision goggles) led him to believe that our ambushers had sought shelter within the hamlet. At dawn we moved up, cordoned off the hamlet, and began our house to house search, just as the village path began to fill with people about their daily chores. As I approached a house with half a squad of Vietnamese, I looked down and saw a large splotch of red colored liquid with I took to be fresh blood. Motioning for the squad to stand fast, I excitedly called up the sergeant, reporting that I had found a blood trail. The Vietnamese troopers looked at me and grinned, which seemed a bit strange considering that there must be a badly wounded and presusmably armed VC nearby. As the sergeant approached, I excitedly pointed out my discovery. He laughed, and was about to explain my “blood trail” when a passing peasant woman let loose a long stream of liquid that splashed an identical red splotch on the pathway. The Vietnamese troopers now laughed hysterically, and quickly spread the news throughout the platoon. Needless to say, our search was fruitless, and over the next few months I would hear his congenial “Hey Lieutenant, seen any more blood trails?” whenever he judged that I was getting a bit too big for my britches. As a postscript, on a walk through the village two years ago I discovered that it was not only larger, but that the habit of betel nut chewing had disappeared.

My first impression from walking the paths of Yap in Micronesia was that I was on an island sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.


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Hoder on Admadinejad and Blogging in Iran

Persian blogfather Hossein Derakhshan (Hoder) was interviewed last week by Sueddeutsche Zeitung‘s youth e-zine,, under the headline, Iranische Opposition ist im Netz. A translation is available on Hoder’s English-language blog: Editor: Myself.

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Vytautas Landsbergis on Putin’s Pipeline Politics

David McDuff of A Step at a Time performs an invaluable service by unearthing (and often translating) less accessible publications about the former Soviet realm. On 17 December, he posted a Korea Herald op-ed by Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first president after the restoration of independence, and now a member of the European Parliament, who warns the EU about Putin’s plans for a new oil pipeline under the Baltic Sea linking Russia directly to Germany.

Russia’s strategic task is obvious: cutting off Ukraine’s gas currently means cutting off much of Europe’s gas as well, because some of its biggest gas pipelines pass through Ukraine. By circumventing Ukraine, Poland, and of course, the Baltic countries, the new pipeline promises greater leverage to the Kremlin as it seeks to reassert itself regionally. President Vladimir Putin and his administration of ex-KGB clones will no longer have to worry about Western Europe when deciding how hard to squeeze Russia’s postcommunist neighbors.

Should Europe really be providing Putin with this new imperial weapon? Worse, might Russia turn this weapon on an energy-addicted EU? That a German ex-chancellor is going to lead the company that could provide Russia with a means to manipulate the EU economy is testimony to Europe’s dangerous complacency in the face of Putin’s neoimperialist ambitions….

The EU has signed numerous agreements with Russia including one for a “common space” for freedom and justice. The Kremlin is very good at feigning such idealism. Its control of Eastern Europe was always enforced on the basis of “friendship treaties,” and the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were “fraternal” missions.

But look how Putin abuses that “common” space: barbaric treatment of Chechens, the businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky imprisoned, foreign NGOs hounded, a co-leader of last year’s Orange Revolution, Yuliya Tymoshenko, indicted by Russian military prosecutors on trumped-up charges. If Europeans are serious about their common space for human rights and freedoms, they must recognize that those values are not shared by the calculating placemen of Putin’s Kremlin.

The same is true of viewing Russia as an ally in the fight against terrorism. Is it really conceivable that the homeland of the “Red Terror” with countless unpunished crimes from the Soviet era, and which bears traces of blood from Lithuania to the Caucasus, will provide reliable help in stopping Iran and North Korea from threatening the world? It seems more likely that the Kremlin’s cold minds will merely exploit each crisis as an opportunity to increase their destructive power and influence.

Read the rest at A Step at a Time

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Linguistics & the Law of Unintended Consequences

In 2004, another University of Hawai‘i linguist with long experience of Micronesia, Kenneth L. Rehg, published a follow-up to Donald Topping’s article on attempts by professional linguists to foster the vitality of smaller languages. His article, Linguistics, Literacy, and the Law of Unintended Consequences appeared in Oceanic Linguistics 43:498-518. Here’s a taste of what he had to say.

At present, we have no predictive science of language vitality, and it is unlikely that we will ever have one, given the very large number of factors that impinge upon language survival. Topping was certainly correct, however, when he wrote (2003:527): “Our experience in Micronesia tells me that as long as the indigenous language gives the appearance of being robust, the alarm cries of linguists will go unheeded. It is only when the threat of cultural extinction becomes real that language and cultural retention becomes a serious matter of concern.” Ironically (or perhaps not), it is a fact about Micronesia that the major proponents of English have for the most part been the Micronesians, and the champions of the local languages have for the most part been the foreign linguists and educators. There are, of course, many exceptions on both sides, the most noticeable among the Micronesians being those individuals who participated in the University of Hawai‘i programs described at the beginning of this paper. What is also telling, though, is the fact that most of the funding that has been utilized in support of the Micronesian languages has come from external sources in the form of grants from the United States government. All too often, when these funds dried up, so too did the indigenous language programs they supported.

Thus, while it is clear that the Micronesians have the capacity to sustain their own languages, it is not nearly so obvious that their leaders have the will to do so. Ultimately, of course, the survival of small languages everywhere is beyond the control of foreign linguists. As Topping (2003:527) wrote, “… the real saviors of the endangered languages will be the people who speak them, not the linguists who talk about them.” But, if we are called upon to assist communities that care about the long-term well-being of their language, then we must carefully weigh our actions. In the case of Micronesia, some very good work was done on these languages, but the “Law of Unintended Consequences” also came into play. This is the law that reminds us that the actions of individuals–and especially agencies, institutions, and governments–invariably have effects that are not intended or anticipated. Thus, we set out to promote literacy in the Micronesian languages, but some of our efforts had just the opposite effect. Disputes over orthographies, unrealistic expectations concerning standards, an insufficient understanding of the literacy needs of these communities, and reliance on external funding all hindered progress toward that goal. Consequently, I have come to believe that if the linguistic community is serious about documenting and supporting the threatened languages of the world, we must move such endeavors into the mainstream of our discipline. What we need now, far more than good intentions, is excellent research that can serve as the foundation for excellent applications and excellent training. Further, given Topping’s observation that only the people who speak threatened languages can save them, I believe that linguistics departments everywhere must strive to recruit, support, and train speakers of such languages–in particular, those who evidence a wholehearted commitment to conserving their linguistic heritage.

UPDATE: Beaupeep asks in the comments:

But doesn’t that go back to the issue of unintended consequences? And isn’t it fair to ask why it should be necessary for outsiders to encourage populations “who evidence a wholehearted commitment to their linguistic heritage” to preserve a language they already hold dear?

Or is this suggestion more about telling people what they *ought* to think and do?

Fair point. To me, it seems more about telling linguists what they ought to do than telling native speakers of threatened languages what they ought to do. But remember all those linguistically trained educators from Micronesia that opted for careers in politics rather than education that Topping mentioned (in the preceding blogpost)? Some years back, I also had the experience of meeting one of my wantoks (that is, speakers of the same language, in this case a very exclusive club of c. 300) from the rather educationally progressive village where I did fieldwork in New Guinea as he passed through Honolulu with his family–and a set of golf clubs–after completing an MLS degree in Illinois. He was already aiming for a career in politics, not library science.

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What Difference Did Linguists Make?

In 1994, University of Hawai‘i professor Donald M. Topping presented a paper at the Seventh International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics at a plenary session on endangered languages. It was the last session of the conference, held on a Saturday morning after some of the conference participants had already departed.

That presentation appeared posthumously in 2003 under the title Saviors of language: Who will be the real Messiah? in Oceanic Linguistics 42:522-527. Here’s a bit of what he had to say.

Linguists concerned about the fate of endangered languages appear also to be endangered, at least in terms of numbers. At the Sixth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics [in Honolulu in 1990], fourteen papers were given at prime time, about mid-way through the meetings. Here at the Seventh [in Leiden in 1994], we three—the last of our species?—have been relegated to the tail end. This is perhaps befitting, for issues of language survival may not be any of our business. Nevertheless, let me recount the experiences of one aging linguist who, earlier in his career, was convinced that he could make a difference….

In the early 1970s a group of us at the University of Hawai‘i felt, perhaps arrogantly, that linguists had not only a role, but a responsibility to help preserve the languages of Micronesia. Emboldened with this messianic complex, and a substantial source of funding, we launched a major project to ensure their survival….

How well has it worked? Let’s review some of the results. With the published reference grammars and dictionaries the results have been mixed. Aside from the Chamorro and Palauan reference grammars, which are being used as text materials in Palau and Guam, the others have been largely ignored. Of the twelve published dictionaries, four have been reprinted (Chamorro, Palauan, Marshallese, and Ponapean). Again, with the possible exception of Palauan and Chamorro, where the dictionaries are used in the education programs, most of the sales have obviously been to expatriates and tourists, and not to the speakers of the languages.

What became of the Micronesian linguists, some of whom took M.A. degrees in linguistics? Sadly, the majority of them have gone into other fields, especially politics, and have all but abandoned language concerns. Of the few who remained in Education, only two (one Palauan and one Chamorro) have maintained an active role in developing vernacular language education.

Of the 1,300 or so Micronesian language texts developed during phase 2 of the materials development project, few are to be found outside of the University of Hawai‘i library. Even though thousands of volumes were shipped to Micronesia as they were produced, they have all but disappeared.

The vernacular education programs in Micronesian schools, according to a 1989 report published by the University of Guam, are either nonexistent or very weak. The gradual loss of text materials, career changes by the Micronesian linguists, and parental pressures to teach their children English have all contributed to this decline.

Surprisingly, a major obstacle to the success of the Micronesian linguistics project is one that was unanticipated, and may be fairly assigned to the linguists themselves. That is the problems presented by the “new” orthographies. Mr. Leo Pugram, Coordinator for Curriculum and Instruction in Yap, made the following statement, “When the new orthography was established, it was a time for problems, confusion, and hatred for the new orthography. This still exists today on Yap.”

Obviously, the linguists left their mark: the “new orthography.” The complaint articulated so bluntly by Mr. Pugram was echoed by nearly every other Micronesian educator who attended the Guam conference. Although the University of Hawai‘i linguists involved made every effort to involve the community of speakers in the choice of orthography for the dictionaries and reference grammars, they are the ones who were blamed for the controversies that surfaced after the books were published.

On the other hand, the linguists probably had an equally positive influence by raising the awareness of the language issue in the various Micronesian communities where indifference had prevailed for so long. People began to talk about their languages and their importance to cultural integrity, albeit in a controversial frame. The publications themselves—bilingual dictionaries and reference grammars in nicely bound volumes—served to elevate the status of the Micronesian languages in the eyes of their speakers.

Still, one must ask the question: did linguists or linguistics really make a difference for the future of the languages? Did our work have any impact in preventing, or slowing down the linguistic adulteration and erosion that is seen today in many parts of Micronesia?

Perhaps the best way to address that question is to look at three communities in the Pacific where language erosion had progressed almost to the point of no return, and where we are now witnessing a linguistic and cultural renaissance: Guam, New Zealand, and Hawai‘i. Was it the linguists with their bag of tools that triggered the positive action? Or were there other more critical factors?…

What are the forces driving this renaissance? In my view, it is the real threat of cultural extinction more than anything else that gives it life. In all three of the communities, the indigenous people, many of whom are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, are vastly outnumbered by “outsiders.” There is growing resentment of the majority culture. And there is strong leadership emerging among the indigenous people who are demanding legal redress. These are probably the strongest forces behind the observed language renaissance.

Where then, are the linguists? Have they played a role? Do they now? Each of the three languages in question was described and lexified by nonnative linguists during the 1950s and early sixties. At the time of their work these linguists issued the call of alarm about the precarious status of the languages. Their calls, however, appeared to fall on deaf ears, for there was little response. It took the coming of another generation of young people who were not afforded the opportunity to learn their heritage language at home before the threat of total language loss became real.

Ironically, when the cultural/ethnic renaissance began to emerge with force, the “pioneering” linguists were often vilified for profiting from their published works, misinterpreting the language, or concocting an unacceptable spelling system. Nevertheless, their works are still used extensively for the development of language programs and materials that are having such remarkable success today.

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Far Outliers Blogpost 1000

I started blogging almost exactly two years ago this week, and this constitutes my 1000th blogpost in that span of time. My Sitemeter stats show I’m closing in on a fair-to-middling 85,000 visits, and 125,000 page views, but I know that some people rely on syndication via Blogger’s Atom/RSS feed, which bypasses Sitemeter. Still, these are far greater numbers than will have read all of my obscure linguistics articles and reviews within my lifetime (or perhaps even the current millennium).

In the past, I’ve assembled links to my own favorite blogposts before taking an extended break from the blog. This time, I’ll post some of the apparent external favorites of search engines and specialty sites, judging impressionistically from my referral logs. The following hit parade is in chronological order, not in order of popularity. If I’m reminded of more, I’ll add them to the list.

I’ll take this opportunity to add a link to my policy statement on extract quotes from published books.

I’m not planning another hiatus until March, but I need to spend a little more time over the next several weeks on an old-fashioned publication project.

UPDATE: My thanks to The Argus, now Registan, for the first external link, and to The Marmot for both the second link, and the latest spike of traffic sent my way.

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Chad and Sudan Now at War?

The BBC reported on 23 December that the government of Chad is now fed up with repeated cross-border attacks from the Darfur region of Sudan.

Chad says it is in “a state of war” with neighbour Sudan over the security crisis in the east of the country.

It accuses Sudan of being the “common enemy of the nation” after a Chadian rebel attack on a town last week.

In a statement, the government calls on Chadians to mobilise themselves against Sudanese aggression.

Relations between the two states have deteriorated since Chad accused Sudan of being behind Sunday’s attack on Adre, which left about 100 people dead.

The strong language in the statement will alarm observers who have already warned that tensions along the Chad-Sudan border are nearing breaking point.

via Black Star Journal

As usual, the Head Heeb provides more context.

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News Censorship in Myanmar

I discover censorship defines life at the Myanmar Times and depletes the buzz and excitement that’s generally a feature of good newspaper offices where ground-breaking stories are regularly broken. Censorship at the Times is absolute and total, but the system itself is quite simple. All articles selected for possible publication are faxed to Military Intelligence and are either accepted in their totality, completely rejected, or partly censored, with words, paragraphs and sections removed. Such information is relayed to the editor, Goddard, usually by an officer named Wai Lin. Sometimes the Brigadier General himself rolls up his sleeves and pitches in, and if big issues, especially political issues, are discussed in an article, Wai Lin will pass the material to him for ‘instruction and guidance’.

Inside page layouts and story placements are mostly left to the staff to determine, but the front-page layout is carefully scrutinised and stories approved for publication might not be approved for front-page publication, or the emphasis of such stories might be downplayed.

At times, there can be dialogue about decisions. I am told a story about breakdancing becoming a fad among trendy Yangon youth was axed by MI because they only want to promote traditional dancing. A query, asking if there was any way the story could be saved, resulted in a new ruling that it could be used if breakdancing were not defined as a dance but instead as an American fitness regime.

I discover that Myanmar has a mind-numbing myriad of rules regarding publications. New laws, new variations to new laws, and new amendments to old laws relentlessly emerge.

I don’t even try to grapple with this complexity because I am told that ultimately only one law applies–the law of the day as detennined by the Brigadier General and his boys at Military Intelligence. If they say no it means no, and there is no burrowing through laws and statutes to find precedents or technicalities to present to lawyers. If the Brigadier General rules it out, it’s out and anyone who publishes against his will could well be on the road to Insein prison–which, incidentally, is appropriately pronounced ‘Insane’ prison.

But the most stultifying aspect of the insidious, all-pervading censorship is that the paper is denied an entity or a voice. All aspects giving a Western paper its character, personality and identity–editorials, letters to the editor, causes and crusades, opinion and analysis–are no-go zones. The term ‘political analysis’ does not exist in the Myanmar Times lexicon.

SOURCE: Land of a Thousand Eyes: The subtle pleasures of everyday life in Myanmar, by Peter Olszewski (Allen & Unwin, 2005), pp. 28-29

Asiapundit has a few more uncensored news reports on Myanmar/Burma.

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A Latvian Migrant Worker in Ireland

Irish Rainy Day blogger and professional journalist Eamonn Fitzgerald commends a Washington Post story on 28 November headlined East-to-West Migration Remaking Europe: “This is seriously good journalism and we’ve picked it as our Article-of-the-Year by our Newspaper-of-the-Year.” Here’s a small taste of what the article has to say.

“I have to leave Latvia,” he says. “There are no possibilities here. We have nothing.”

His last job was sandblasting the hulls of huge freighters in a Riga dry dock, enduring icy winds off the Baltic Sea for $50 a week. So at 39, never married, with nothing to lose, Neulans sits in the lonely dullness of the Aurora Hotel with a black nylon athletic bag at his feet. He has packed one pair of pants, a shirt, a pair of no-name sneakers, three packets of instant mashed potatoes and eight cans of processed meat.

It’s late October. He has a $190 plane ticket for the next night on airBaltic’s midnight flight from Riga to Dublin. It will be the first plane ride of his life, a simple three-hour hop but a journey that illustrates a historic flow of people that is changing the face of Europe.

Since Latvia and nine other countries joined the European Union in May 2004, almost 450,000 people, most of them from the poorest fringes of the formerly communist east, have legally migrated west to the job-rich economies of Ireland, Britain and Sweden. Germany, France and other longtime E.U. members have kept the doors closed for now but promise to open them in coming years to satisfy the bloc’s principle that citizens of all member states share the right to move to any other.

Perhaps nowhere is this feeling stronger than in Ireland, a country of 4 million people with one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies and memories of how the world took in destitute Irish migrants in generations past. About 150,000 new workers — mostly Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians — have registered with the Irish government in the past 18 months, statistics show, although officials say that some may have already been there.

Citizens of E.U. countries do not need Irish visas or work permits, and there are no restrictions on how long they can stay or what work they can do. They are generally eligible for government health care and other services. There is no special system for them to seek citizenship.

From Dublin to Donegal, it is now difficult to find a construction site, factory, hotel or pub where some of the workers are not speaking Polish, Russian, Latvian or Lithuanian. They are changing the country’s ethnic character. Multi-language newspapers cater to the job-seekers. Banks have hired tellers who speak their languages. East European grocery stores sell meats and cheeses from home, and phone companies post flyers in Internet cafes listing cheap calls to Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn.

Immigration, of course, also brings social friction and occasional violence. In Ireland, as in other once-homogenous European societies, people are struggling to accommodate newcomers with different cultures, languages and religions, and make room in already strained welfare and school systems.

But many here see the movement of workers as pure opportunity, for themselves and for the immigrants.

‘Tis indeed a story well told and well worth reading in full.

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Notifying the Next of Kin

Donald Sensing, a Methodist minister in Tennessee who used to be an artillery officer in the U.S. Army, remembers when he had the solemn duty of notifying the next of kin (NOK) after a soldier on his post died.

It was peacetime, the early 1980s – before cell phones or GPS to navigate. I was a first lieutenant assigned to Fort jackson, SC. My name reached the top of the installation-level duty roster just in time to be tabbed for NOK notification. I reported to the post’s casualty office for instructions. There I was assigned a government van and driver and given a written packet of information about the deceased soldier, the address of his NOK, a map and a government credit card.

My instructions were simple: “Memorize this paragraph. You are required to state it verbatim, without notes, to the next of kin. That’s all you have to do.” Unlike the Marines, the Army assigns different officers to notification duty and survivor-assistance duty. An assistance officer (actually a senior NCO) would be assigned to help the dead soldier’s parents with the funeral and settling his affairs; the soldier had not been married.

I got one final instruction before departing: “You must make the notification between 0600 and 2200. Use the credit card for any expenses related to this mission, including food and lodging if you need it. Don’t come back until you have made the notification.”

The dead soldier had been a member of the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He had died in an auto accident (fact was, he was DWI, but relating that fact was not my problem). The civilian casualty staffer at post HQ told me that tthe soldier’s father already knew his son was dead (via unofficial grapevine channel from his unit), but that it didn’t matter: the Army always sent an officer, in Class A uniform, to deliver the official word. Unlike Maj. Beck, I was alone; my driver was a driver, that’s all. I was also distinctly forbidden to call the NOK by phone, even to ask directions….

“Sir,” I said to him, “I am Lieutenant Sensing from Fort Jackson. I am told this is the home of Mr. ‘George Smith.’ If so, I would appreciate very much speaking with him.”

The man motioned for me to come in and said, “That’s me.” I stepped inside two steps, removing my saucer cap as I did. A young man in the room yelled at a boy to turn off the music, who quickly complied. I recall that there were a couple of women in the room, too.

“Mr. Smith,” I said very formally, “on behalf the secretary of the Army, I extend to you and your family my sympathy in the death of your son, Sergeant ‘Jim Smith.’” I don’t remember after so many years the paragraph I had memorized then. I know I said that another officer would contact them about making arrangements and settling their son’s affairs, and that he would be able to answer all their questions.

Uttering those words was 100 percent of my duties. I finished and Mr. “Smith” mumbled, “Thank you.” He offered his right hand. I shook it and said, “I really am very sorry for your loss, sir.” We dropped hands and briefly looked at one another face to face: he of a weatherbeaten black face, an uneducated farm laborer who had toiled in tobacco or bean fields all his life, who had worked dawn to dark to see his eldest son graduate from high school and become a soldier with a bright future. Then his son got killed one day on a rural road in North Carolina. And the next day I, a lily-white young officer, walked into his home from the night’s darkness. With no personal connection to his son, I stood in his sharecropper’s home purely by random chance of a duty roster to tell him that the secretary of the entire US Army mourned his young son’s death.

via Winds of Change

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