Food For Thought

May 1, 2010

The phone rang and Aikamus, my office-mate, said Dina, it’s for you. It’s Aigul.

For me? Aigul? Are you sure? Which Aigul? Aigul Kadirova. I gulped and picked up the phone. Dina, arr you free to deescuss your report. Chuhyld abandonmint yeas.

Two weeks ago I submitted my first report on Child Abandonment. I was supposed to review a study conducted on Moldova, critique it, and write up a two-page report on how a similar study can be constructed in Kazakhstan. Of course that was my first day at work and I had absolutely no idea where to be begin. So when my supervisor nonchalantly added that it was due by the end of the week, I stared, nodded and marched off chin-balancing an armload of reading material. My big hair got slightly bigger as a rush of frantic excitement overcame me.

True to form, a week later, after going through pages of asininely inscrutable UNICEF acronyms (MICs, MoU, CRC, MoSLP, MoE), I submitted a report three times longer than it had to be. I made a mental note to include this in the evaluation I have to submit by the end of my internship. Excessive and expendable jargon left intern feeling incapacitated as it hindered intern’s ability to fully comprehend UNICEF’s operations.

In any case, ever since submission, that report has been batted back and forth between the various section heads for feedback. I soon learned that this process typically transpired in the convenience of the virtual world of 1s and 0s. Emails are very popular here. On average, I get an email every 10 minutes. Face-to-face meetings were a rarity and though I’m a major advocate of the Face, the realities of Russianized English made grateful compliance the more prudent course of action.

Thereafter developed an unhealthy relationship with my computer as I punched away one Dear.. after another in conformity with the uncomfortable overfamiliarity imposed by email etiquette. The feedback flow was inconsistent and the process elapsed over the protracted course of two more weeks.

All was fine until that day the phone rang.

I share an office with a delightful young woman who goes by the name of Aikamus, Aika, or Aia. The humdrum of our unsynchronized typing reverberated through the office until sound acclimation made it fade-out as inconspicuous background noise. The periodic ringing of the phone was the only thing that broke the spell bringing the humdrum back into focus and nicely dispelling the lethargic mantle that often lingers over office workers.

Early on, however, I learned to ignore it as it was almost never for me. Which explains my surprise when Aia said it was for me. And it wasn’t just anyone. It was Aigul Kadirova.

Aigul Kadirova is the Youth Participation Programme Officer. Lean, tall and big-boned with short jet-black hair, she struck me as very Russian looking.  When she spoke, it almost seemed like she was growling as her somber countenance twisted into an unseemly rictal expression. Although she turned out to be a wonderful light-hearted person, at the time, the woman still deeply intimidated me.

Khi Dina, com een, she said in her heavy Russian accent as she closed the door behind me. The scene was very Hansle-and-Grettle-like. There was no candy covering the walls, but I still felt like I was walking into a witch shack guised as an office. Had I been wearing a tie, I would have been nervously tucking at it by now.

So Dina, chuhyld abandonmint. I only skeemd ovar eet but I geat z general eeffekt.  Zees…zees ees kreat. Relly Dina. Ees food for sought.

As soon as she said this, this Food For Thought, my head flooded with a series of flashbacks that drowned her voice and left me with nothing but a vapid smile to offer her. I could almost her the thwack of every flash back as it hit me and it was momentarily hard to concentrate.

Obviously I knew-of the expression. Never used it, barely-ever heard it used. But ever since UNICEF, I heard it a bunch. First time was in a discussion session that followed a presentation downgraded to mediocrity by the presenter’s low self-esteem. I was surprised when I heard one of the listeners comment that the presentation was really good and that it really presented all of us with Food For Thought. Inwardly, I raised an eyebrow since it seemed like such a clichéd thing to say. But when I looked at the person saying it, she seemed rather sincere. Around the table too, no seemed to have paid it any particular attention. Some even nodded absentmindedly their agreement. Although I had ideas about what the expression meant, I didn’t actually know what it meant. I assumed though that it had positive connotations. Personally I thought the presentation was rather prosaic so I was surprised at the prevailing consensus confirming that it wasn’t. I concluded, however, that by virtue of being a tyro, and as such lacking the insight the others have, I must have missed something. Somethings.

Time and again after that I heard the expression used and the people nodding and in my head it became one of UNICEF’s jargon, used sincerely and meant to convey positive appraisal. But when Aigul used it, in the context of our feedback session, and when I realized what she was trying to say, a light went on. In a second I stripped all the positive connotations that I had associated with Food For Thought and reconstructed it with slightly more negative ones. In that same second, I relived all the previous scenarios where I’d heard it and slightly altered my perception of what I thought other people were saying.

Food For Thought didn’t necessarily imply the erudite insight that I thought it implied. But rather it meant that it gave one things to think about. If anything, it was the most neutral and diplomatic of terms because it allowed a person to say something without forcing them to make an actual statement. It was also often used as a prelude to criticism and as such was meant to disarm the presenter. It made perfect sense that it was part of UNICEF jargon.

This was a revelation to me. Because all the other times that I thought my slightly negative assessment differed from the others’ seemingly positive ones, and attributed that difference to my lack of experience, it actually wasn’t that different. Which meant that I wasn’t missing as much as I thought I was.

Aigul said my report was Food For Thought. Even though that meant that she wasn’t particularly satisfied with the outcome of this report, it also meant that overall my understanding of UNICEF wasn’t terribly inadequate. Success!

My vapid smile turned into a genuine one as I defended my report, my confidence boosted. Food For Though indeed. Bring it on Aigul. Bring it on.

2 Responses to “Food For Thought”

  1. ben a said

    Well said and food for thought. You’re totally right in your understanding of that phrase. It’s usually used when you can’t really think of anything nice to say, actually when you don’t know what to say but you know you have to say something…like when you feel sort of sorry for someone and you say “well they have a nice personality” but remember English is their 2nd language so when said to you I might mean “great job, we’re so lucky to have you here” In either case, I can say , great job, and we’re so lucky to have you here. ben

  2. Noor said

    nice topic

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