Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle: Gulaim
and Begam-ai
SEOUL, South Korea
August 26, 2008

I changed my ticket to fly directly back to Asia from Chicago rather than backtracking and going through Seattle. A 14-hour non-stop flight connects Chicago and Seoul. Somehow, that's not a long time in the air anymore.

I remember when I felt even a flight across the U.S. to be agonizingly long. Each time before I flew I would prepare reading material, buy snacks, and select several cassettes for my Walkman. Even with all those distractions, I would always find myself bored at some point, with hours yet to go before arrival.

The difference today is not just that I have more experience stuck in vehicles for long stretches. There's no comparison with flying now and how it was then. In the old days, headsets to watch the in-flight movie weren't handed out for free. I wasn't likely to pay even a few bucks to rent a set during the period when I often flew from coast-to-coast, back in my university days. Today, those headsets are not only handed out for free, there are so many more entertainment options available. About half the times I fly these days I find a screen on the seatback in front of me. It offers video games, movies, music channels--about all the distraction I can handle. And if the magic screen should fail to capture my attention the long-haul flights do still provide free booze--those coast-to-coast runs never did.

Free or not, I seldom drink while aloft. It just feels yucky.

Now in Seoul, I'm staying again at Jochen's family home. He's been busy at work today, so I spent the day with his wife Gulaim and stepdaughter Begam-ai. The three of us got out and spent time around central Seoul. We happened to step off the city bus just outside Deoksugung Palace a few minutes before the changing of the guards ceremony began. We stayed to watch, then strolled through the grounds of the palace, finishing with lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Changing of the Guards:
Deoksugung Palace
Most of the day was spent back in the cozy family home in the northern hills of Pyongchang-dong. The four of us share an unusual mix of language ability yet have no common denominator. Jochen's family speaks Russian at home. There are a couple other languages which everybody in the household speaks (i.e. Korean and German) but, as with Russian, I don't speak those languages. English isn't really a good option, either. My level of Uighur is better than Gulaim's English. She understands me when I speak Uighur, but it doesn't work the other way around. I'd need more exposure to Kyrgyz to fully understand what she's saying. It's a moot point, anyway--Jochen doesn't speak Kyrgyz or Uighur.

Stuck between languages, we've defaulted to activities that require no common tongue. At 11, Begam-ai knows most of the cat's cradle transformations I too knew as a child. (Though I had to teach her how to undo the hexagon we referred to as "fish-in-a-dish" in my elementary school day.) I also taught her a couple designs: "Jacob's Ladder" twists the string into four diamonds bound by a rectangle. The Patchydora is an even more ornate pattern of geometric shapes. I wonder if elementary-school children today in the U.S. still make these same cat's cradle patterns with string; if they still call them by the same names I knew them by.

When trying to translate the word "cat's cradle" into Kyrgyz/Uighur, I found that those two words form a neat rhyme in Turkic languages: mushuk is the word for "cat", bushuk is cradle.

Our next activity for the afternoon formed another multi-lingual rhyme. On several previous occasions I've played the card game SET with some new player who would call out too quickly then immediately retract: "Set! No!"

I've found that tic turns into "Set! Nyet!" when playing with Russian speakers.

We also played a game new to me (no rhymes involved): Kniffel. Kniffel is pretty simple, but lots of fun. There's not much more involved than rolling five dice and marking a scorepad. Jochen's family had a nice boxed set from Germany; why do the Germans have so many more cool table games than everywhere else?

I should be spending about a week here in Seoul with Jochen's family. At the beginning of September, I fly on back to Urumqi. I have a wedding to attend in Hong Kong come October, but my direction is yet to be determined after that.

I've been toying more with the idea of a return to India. When pressed to come up with a favorite city, I usually say Calcutta. I haven't been anywhere in India for 15 years. If I don't return to the U.S. for Thanksgiving, I will probably be in Calcutta instead.