Friday, April 24, 2009

The Occasional Language Barrier

In general, Alexandre and I have no problem communicating, despite having different first languages. My students always ask me what language we speak in, and I tell them that we mix the languages, because we do. (We've been known to say things like "Tengo muito hungry" and "Estou drunkito.")

In the beginning, we used a lot more Spanish, but when I moved here and started learning Portuguese, we eventually phased out the Spanish and now only keep it around for specific words that we can't remember in the other's native language (or words like "ganas," and "pinche" and "sinvergüenza!" which just don't translate well into either language).

Alexandre's English is very good, and sometimes if I'm feeling lazy (or upset), I don't bother with Portuguese, and we speak only in English without any problems. Occasionally, though, we get a little tripped up. Here are some fun stories to show for it:

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A big problem for Portuguese speakers learning English actually comes from the writing system. A word that is written with a word-initial in Portuguese is pronounced as an [h]. So the word for recession, "recessão" is pronounced [he-se-são]. So when Portuguese speakers learn English by reading, they often have problems between words like "head" and "red."

Anyhoo, back when we had our first cat, Joey (RIP), Alexandre said that he wanted to train the cat to be a strong, manly hunter.

"I'm gonna buy him a hat!" he said.

I started laughing. "A hat?! That's going to turn him into a princess, not a hunter!"

Alexandre was confused. "What? No, a hat! I'm gonna buy him a hat! And then I can teach him how to hunt!"

"How is a hat going to teach him how to hunt?" I asked, bewildered.

Alexandre remembered the problem. "No no, no. HAT. Like emwemwemwemw" :: tries to make rat faces and noises::

"A RAT?!" I asked, figuring out the problem.

"Rat, rat! Yes, rat! Ugh!" At this point, Alexandre was so frustrated, but I had enough entertainment to last the rest of the evening.
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Another problem that Portuguese speakers have with English is word-final Ls (as heard in English words like feel, cool, full, mall). Portuguese speakers both perceive and pronounce them as a [uw]. So for example, there's no difference between pew and peel, or cool and coup, according to a Portuguese speaker.

Once, some bad 90s Angelina Jolie movie about computer viruses was on TV. It was playing the old children's song "Row row row your boat, gently down the stream..." I was half watching the movie and have cleaning the bedroom, so I called to Alexandre from the other room, "Why are they playing that song?"

"It's part of the virus in the computer," he called back. "There are boats rolling across the screen."
I paused. Rolling across the screen? Then I got it. And started laughing.

(Do you get it? Alexandre didn't hear a difference between row and roll, but his interpretation came to light when he added the -ing, moving the l sound to the new syllable. (Maximizing onsets, right Jamie?). He also didn't know the children's song, or possibly the verb "to row." So his conclusion? The song was invented by the hackers to say "roll, roll, roll your boat, gently down the stream...")

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Don't think that I am free from these linguistic blunders. As you may remember, I have a terrible time producing nasal vowels. (If you're still confused about what a nasal vowel is, you can watch this helpful youtube video by clicking here. If you can get over the creepy mouth shots and the guy's Rio accent, it's a clear demonstration.) I've told you before that I suffer greatly in trying to distinguish between pão (bread) and pau (penis).

This entertains Alexandre to no end, and he always insists that I ask for the bread in the bakery section of the store, just so he can laugh at me. Usually, I just point to the sign.

Anyway, one night, Alexandre was reading some article in English, and he got to the word "stale."

"Cariño, what's 'stale'?" he asked. ("Cariño" is another word we use in the Spanish way, not to be confused with Portuguese "carinho" in this context.)

I made the mistake of trying to answer his question in Portuguese.

"Stale é quando o 'pau' fica duro." I was trying to say "it's when the bread gets hard", but instead, I said, "it's when the penis gets hard."

He started busting up. "Ah, é?!" (Really?!) he asked, sarcastically. I immediately realized my mistake. "Damnit. Damnit" I mumbled to myself, as Alexandre laughed about it for about 5 minutes straight.

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I still think the best one though is Alexandre's confusion about the word "cash." Portuguese can just use the word "dinheiro" (money) to mean cash. Spanish sometimes uses that phrase "dinero efectivo."

Alexandre had heard the word "cash" in the US, and so between Spanish, Portuguese, and English, he concluded that when he wants to talk about cash (vs. credit), he should say "cash money."

This resulted in many instances of him saying things like...
"Can you buy the drinks? I don't have any cash money."
"I was going to make copies of that document on my way home, but I didn't have any cash money."
"Can we pass by the bank? I need some cash money."

He eventually stopped, because I laughed every time and called him gangsta.
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SEE?! Being a linguist with a non-native speaker boyfriend can provide endless hours of fun. I highly recommend it. :)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Buckling Down

So I mentioned in my post about my new Portuguese teacher that I discovered that I am charging far too little for my English classes, and also that I am not very professional in the way I'm going about the structure of my classes and schedules.

After a couple of days of sulking over how "I don't know how to DO things here" (a phrase I repeated about 50 times to Alexandre) and how I'm totally letting myself get ripped off by my students, I decided to do something about it. I have all the material and ideas for how to have a GOOD English class-- I just need to organize it and streamline it into something presentable. I could maybe eventually have a bona-fide business from home.

I spent the good part of last night making 2 lists: one that was curriculum-based (how I can improve the classes themselves), and the other was business-based (how I can market myself better and be more professional as a teacher, as well as how to improve the admin side of private teaching).

I sort of get myself overwhelmed in situations like this, so I decided to start by strengthening the curriculum side first so that I have something available to actually provide and start teaching the "new classes" with. (People reading this who are more familiar with Brazilian business culture may realize that this goes against the Brazilian idea of "if you market it and SAY it exists, that makes it real!" Ugh.)

I'm also more comfortable with the curriculum side of things and I feel less overwhelmed by it than I do by the idea of making a website, business cards, logo, etc. I know much less about business and marketing than I do about teaching. I guess that's a good thing in this situation.

My first big project is developing a workbook to go along with the textbook series I use in my classes. I've already made a ton of documents over the last year that supplement these books; all I have to do is make all the formatting equal and organize them into units and stuff. Then I can SELL them. :)

At the rate I'm going today, that's probably going to take me like, 100 years. At least Open Office is slightly easier to work with than Microsoft Office. (And it's freeeee..... Open Source software plug!)

So yeah. That's my new long-term project. Operation: Be a Real Teacher.

On the marketing side, if anyone has any talents, ideas, or tips they'd like to donate (web design, graphic design, business ideas, Brazilians who know how Brazilian business works), I'd greatly appreciate it. I'm a bit slow in these areas but I'm trying to avoid overhead at this point. ;) Thanks in advance!

Hope everything's going well, wherever you are.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Break from Brazil (Blog-Wise)

I was browsing around on my computer and I found a little story that I wrote a few years ago about one of my many run-ins with "the locals" of the Bay Area. Thought you guys might enjoy it, even if it's not about Brazil...
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So I was on the bus today, on my way to work, when a little boy and two adults clambered on, rasping and wiping their brows in the summer afternoon heat. The little boy (we'll call him John Red, after his bright red, oversized shirt) walked ahead of the adults, standing next to 2 empty seats.
When the woman he was with approached him, he motioned to the empty seat in a "ladies first" fashion. The woman gave him an annoyed look, and sat on the seat across from him, leaving him to sit alone next to an empty seat. A man trailed in after them, grumbling to himself.
It was likely that the woman John Red was with was his mother. There was no way, however, that the man with them was his father. John Red was a pale, pale white, like the woman he was with-- the man, a dark chocolate black.
The adults were quite a sight. The woman had thin, dirty blonde hair, chopped and frayed as if she had cut it herself after months of malnourishment. Her teeth were rotting. She wore rows of cheap plastic and metal bracelets that didn't match her faded periwinkle fitted t-shirt and Wal-Mart-style jean skirt. Her dusty toes stuck out of her flip flops. She carried one of those vaguely Mexican-style purses that white American women wear to seem "cultured," or, probably in this case, that these same American women donate to the Salvation Army when they realize that a red and gold sparkly handbag with a rope for an arm strap doesn't match with any Anne Taylor spring pastels.
The man was small, and older than he seemed at first glance. He had a receding hair line, and wore a white, frilled oversized dress shirt, left unbuttoned at the top to reveal his pooka and conch shell necklaces. He wore black slacks that sagged in the thighs. He talked loudly, and a lot.

At around 10 or 11 years old, John Red seemed to be in surprisingly good health, considering his caretakers. Slightly chubby, he had thick dark hair and dark eyes that suggested that his father may not have been as white of white trash as his mother was. He sat rigidly, his hands in his lap.

The irritated bantering between the adults suggested a relationship founded out of necessity. By necessity, I mean drug use. I guessed that the man was the dealer, or at least had the closer connection to the dealer, because the woman wouldn't bring her son along on a bus ride if she was the one with the money and connections. Also, she had bought the man's bus ticket.

We passed the freeway entrance. John Red interrupted the arguing to ask, "When were these freeways built?"

"Shi-yut, hows I'm supposed to know?" The seashell man practically shouted. He wasn't so much shouting as talking loudly for attention. "Prolly about 35, 40 years ago."

"That would've been... " John Red squinted, doing the math in his head. "Between 1966 and 1971?" He looked to his mom for the answer.

His mother gave him an angry glare. "WHY are you always askin' so many fucking questions?" she hissed. "Why do you need to know that? You don't."

"I was just wondering..." John Red raised the pitch of his voice in defense, but only slightly. He had to have learned that careful balancing act of his tone years ago.

The seashell man gave him a condescending stare, pursing his lips. "Well you just gotta wonder in quiet. You know, to yourself."

Since John Red was sitting in front of me, facing his mother across from him, I could only see his profile. But he furrowed his brows, clearly confused by this impossible concept.

The seashell man stared out the window. He sat up straighter suddenly, and pointed importantly to a run-down car lot, full of dusty, rusting cars and surrounded by a barbed wire fence.

"That's where my car got taken by the po-lice back in '91," he said officially. "I ain't never got it back."

"Why not?" John Red asked.

"I just ain't. It was mine, I owned it right, but the circumstances, they prevented me from, you know, gettin' it back in my possession."

John Red was still confused, especially by the combination of this description of loss with such an imperious tone. John Red was also too young to understand the car towing/impound process.

"People in Japan have very different cars," John Red's mother piped in whimsically, staring into the distance. Most people in Japan live on the island of OkinA-wa," she added. She over-pronounced each vowel, to show that she knew that the Japanese pronounced things differently than we do in English. Perhaps the coke was just making her feel immensely fascinated that moment at the movements her mouth makes when it forms vowels.

"I've always wanted to go the great wall of China," The seashell man responded, trying to sound mysterious. "You gonna go wit me?"

"That'll be a trip you take alone," the mother answered, wrinkling her nose.

Not to be outdone, the seashell man turned to John Red. "YOU can go with me!" he shouted, slapping him on the knee, hard.

"Ow!" John Red squeaked.

The seashell man started babbling about something else, about a friend he knowed back in junior high who's on the TV now in one of those car dealership commercials, workin' for the big guys. He was scanning the bus for an audience. John Red kept his eyes on the seashell man, and each time he looked in a different direction, John Red frantically tapped his mother on the thigh. It took him about three tries to get his mother to respond.

She looked over at him, bored. He mouthed, "TELL HIM NOT TO HIT ME." She responded with a stern, skeptical stare, shaking her head.

John Red lost his rigid posture at this point. He looked out the window for a distraction. We were at a stoplight, next to an Enterprise Rent-A-Car office.

"How long has Enterprise been around?" he asked.

The seashell man sighed loudly. "Boy, WHAT did I tell you? Shut your damned hole and stop with the questions."

His mother nodded in agreement. "Don'tchu know how to listen? People don't know the answer to those questions 'cuz they don't MATTER."

"I just wanted to know for my comic book," John Red said softly.

"Fo' your WUT?" the seashell man yelled.

"His comic book." John Red's mother tried to stress "comic book" in a way to pretend for John Red that it was important, but to suggest, in secret grown-up tones, that it was actually ludicrous. She couldn't pull it off. She might as well have slapped John Red in the face.

I had to do something. It had to be between me and him, because he and I both knew that making a comment to the adults would be useless.

All I had in my purse was a grocery store receipt. I tore off the small white space from the bottom, and wrote a note for him as neatly as I could with shaking wrists and sweaty palms.

When my stop came, I folded the little square of hope in half. As I stood up, I tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up to me, but before we had enough time to make eye contact, I dropped the note in his lap and ran down the bus's back exit staircase.

The note said, "Never stop asking questions."

I wanted so much to be a metonymy for him. I want that each time he is faced with this grossly angry and illogical sense of rejection, that he remembers my tiny phrase on a thin scrap of paper and is relieved and comforted. I want him to finish his comic book. I want him to feel that he understands something, that he is understood. I want him to feel accomplished.

But I'll never know if it mattered. I had made it around to John Red's side of the bus as it pulled away, and he looked at me with a stare I couldn't read. I only smiled at him and watched the giant vehicle lumber slowly away.

Makin' Progress

So, I had been on a slightly extensive hunt for a decent "PSL" (Portuguese as a Second Language) teacher.

A student told me about a Portuguese teacher for native Portuguese speakers, but I already tried that, and it didn't go over very well.

To put it in perspective, imagine your high school English teacher teaching English to immigrants, and telling them things like, "don't end your sentence with a preposition!" (but teacher... then why do we ask 'Where are you from?') and "the only correct plural of 'you' is 'you!" (but teacher... then what does 'you guys' mean?).

In short, I needed a teacher who was smart enough to distinguish between things that are technically, socially incorrect, but very common (like "me ajude"), and actually grammatically incorrect constructions that I have invented (like "momentinho" and "leja esse livro"). For the linguists reading this, I needed a descriptive language teacher, not a prescriptive one!

I also needed a teacher who wasn't going to charge me an outrageous price. (This search has revealed that I am charging my students far too little for classes, a realization that was both frustrating and good to know.)

I finally got hooked up with a girl a few years older than I am. She studied translation and worked in the US as an au pair, and now she teaches English (biggest Brazilian English teacher stereotype ever). She has never taught Portuguese before, but was willing to give me a fair price (after some negotiation, still not a talent I possess) and was also willing to create activities.

I've only had 2 classes, and it's been fun so far. She's not quite as on the ball about the rules of her native language as some people are (coughI'maSnobcough) but she's not afraid to say she doesn't know and will get back to me (important... you'd be surprised how many teachers here lie, at least when they're teaching English). She also gives me good activities and explains the things she does know very well.

My grandparents also bought and sent me a textbook that I really recommend for any intermediate Portuguese learners reading this (wonderful grandparents!). It's called "Crônicas Brasileiras." It's here. It's a collection of short stories that not only teaches new words and helpful slang but also gives insight into different cultural issues. Each page has footnotes with a few translations of difficult words, and after each story, there are comprehension questions and grammar activities. I've started working on it on my own so that my teacher can check my answers.

Half of having a language teacher is purely psychological. All the money you're shelling out for classes seems to motivate you to study more, even though you could've done most of that studying on your own. I guess I feel better knowing someone's going to check my work. I wish it worked on all of my students...

I think a true sign of my improvement in Portuguese is that I realized that Brazilian singer Vanessa da Mata is from Rio de Janeiro because she rhymes "demais" with "paz" in her song with Ben Harper. Not sure if it was as big in the US as it was here, but either way, you can check it out. They're saying exactly the same things in English and Portuguese:


Not much else to report. Pretty busy with work. Hope you all are doing well!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Brazil Anniversary

Here are some pictures from last night, when Alexandre and I celebrated my one-year anniversary in Brazil:

also, a shot of the in-laws' house.


We went to a beautiful Italian restaurant in the next city over for dinner. There was a long wait, but the restaurant had a rustic-styled bar/waiting area where we could sit and order wine and appetizers while we waited for our real table. We ordered the second-cheapest wine on the menu (come on... it's only the first anniversary) and the bread-olive-spread platter.

Our wine came in a little karafe and giant glasses. Alexandre offers his hand for perspective:
While waiting for our table, We (and by "we" I mean "I"...part of my present was a DD) more or less finished up the wine and made fun of the older couple at the next table. We wanted to take pictures inside the bar area of the restaurant, but we were embarrassed about being the youngest ones there and ordering the second-cheapest wine. (So we snuck in just that picture above, without flash.) But then the older couple next to us ordered the cheapest wine AND took a ton of pictures with flash, so we felt a bit better.

We eventually got moved to our well-lit dinner table (I sort of danced over to it after 3 glasses of wine and no food) and I got to order cheese, cheese and more cheese:
The food was DELICIOUS and the place was lovely and we looked mighty spiffy, if I do say so myself!

All in all, it was a marvelous evening. :)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

LOL cats, and Schmoozing in Portuguese

I was so excited last night when I checked my email and saw a message from the LOLcats site! It said that a picture I put up was chosen as a finalist for their new, forthcoming book! (It's the picture of Gatinha on the couch.) I had to email them a bigger version of the picture plus my permission to print it (acknowledging that we won't get paid for their use of Gatinha's image or the likes of it), and they'll email me back with a form that I have to fill out. I also have to write a "shout out" that will give us credit in the back of the book... does anyone own the first LOLcats book? What kinds of things do people write? I really hope we get chosen! I'm not sure how many people receive this "finalist" email, so maybe my chances aren't that good. But here's hoping!

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In other news, my boss invited me (+1) to a snazzy anniversary party that the local TV channel was putting on (it was the TV channel's anniversary). They invited people from local companies that had advertised on the channel, so our English school got a few tickets. I was the only teacher (non-admin person) that the bosses invited, so I felt some pressure to go, even though I assumed it'd be totally boring and everything would be in Portuguese. I passed this pressure on to Alexandre and begged him to get dressed up and go with me. He agreed (good man).

It was exactly how you would expect a local TV channel's gala to be...with a little Brazilian flair, of course. It was held at a local party hall, and had low lighting and tables around a dance floor. There were the old women trying to look young, the young women trying to look old, the D-list models, and lots of cheek kissing (though remember that, in Brazil, cheek kissing is not restricted to the wannabe elite). A couple of reporters went around interviewing people (our school's director being one of them). But, of course, since this is Brazil, the party also had cheap exotic dancers. Classy. They were dressed (just barely) in psuedo-Indian getup. Indian clothes are all the rage right now, as as result of the current soap opera set in India. (Click here to see more Brazilians pretending to be Indian... a better video than the one I first put up a while back.)

I searched for the TV channel's website, hoping to get some pictures of the event, but the site hasn't been updated since October 2008. Haha.

We had a dinner of finger foods and champagne, and I had to pretend like I didn't know all of the bad stuff that my boss told me about her boyfriend at the last work party. (She was drunk, so luckily, I don't think she remembered.) I'm really grateful Alexandre was there because it WAS all in Portuguese. It was pretty boring for me because of that; it was kind of boring for him because they were just talking about MY work. (I'm really not sure when my Portuguese is going to be good enough to follow and maybe even participate in group conversations.) But at least we got some free food!

Those kinds of parties are so funny for me because no one actually wants to be there. As soon as everyone finishes eating, they start humming and hawing and checking their watches and whispering with their significant others about what excuse they can give to bow out early. Then, as soon as one couple takes the plunge and says something like, "well, we'd really better get going... the wife's gotta get up early tomorrow," the rest of the couples start piping in, "yeah, oh yeah, you know, so do we..." and, before you know it, the table is empty, except for the couple that got too drunk and insists on staying "jus' a lil longer!" This party style certainly breaks international barriers.

Though it wasn't necessarily fun, it was always entertaining, if that makes sense. If any pictures show up, I'll get them here for you. :)

Happy Easter! (And Happy Day After Easter-- the day when all the candy's super cheap!)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Inspection!

So yesterday, while Alexandre was volunteering at the hospital as the lead ophthalmologist for a child eye exam day, and while I was grading papers at home, our intercom phone rang. (You know, the little intercom outside the apartment building so visitors can call to be let in.)

I typically don't answer it if I'm not expecting someone, because 99.9% of the time it's some annoying shmuck trying to sell gas for my stove or Sparkletts-style water or internet and he speaks impossible Portuguese and doesn't understand me trying to say "no, thank you" and then I end up hanging up on him.

So, I ignored the call. But then the mystery person called again, holding the button for a good 5 seconds to show they meant business. I answered the phone, ready to scold some over-eager salesmen, but instead was greeted by a woman's voice: "Danielle?"

"Yes? Who is this?"

She rambled on something I couldn't understand (the intercom's sound quality is atrocious) but in it I heard "inspection" and "policia federal" (the office that deals with visas) and quickly remembered that, months ago, when I FINALLY got my visa approved, the stupid tiny visa man said, "expect a visit to your house to verify that you two are actually living together as husband and wife." I figured it was just a scare tactic, as it had been almost 6 months, but nothing is ever too late on Brazil time!

I said, "oh, okay! Momentinho!" (I'm trying to say "Just a second!" but I invented this word in Portuguese from Spanish's "momentito") into the intercom and rushed down the 4 flights of stairs to let them in.

I was expecting, you know, police, but instead they were 2 young agents dressed in casual clothes-- a man and a woman. At first, I thought the man was there as a sort of safety measure / backup, since the woman did all the talking. But the woman was carrying the form she had to fill out and didn't bother with a clipboard, so she had to keep resting on the guy's back to write stuff down (his true purpose is revealed!).

They asked if they could come up to our apartment to make sure that we're actually living together and all that. Like all visitors to our apartment, they complained about the trek up the 4 flights of stairs. Like all visitors to our apartment, they were also immediately distracted and amused by Gatinha's shameless pleas for affection (perking up at the possibility of new friends and rolling over onto her back expectantly). As they rubbed her belly and cooed at her, I smiled, thinking, "Good Gatinha, you perfect little symbol of family and stability!"

After the agents managed to pry themselves away from the cat, the woman asked if I had any pictures of me and Alexandre that I could show them.

I thought, "Printed? You want printed pictures? This is Brazil, lady!"
But I said, "well, I have some on my computer..." and booted it up. I think it helped that my desktop is a picture of Alexandre and Gatinha in the bed. I showed them the festa de milho pictures (mostly trying to lighten the mood a bit) and a few random other ones. She asked to see some older ones, asked if I had any of us in the US. I managed to drag up a couple (and at this point quietly thanked Danette for forcing me to organize my pictures on my computer), and they seemed satisfied.

She asked where we slept and I had to show her the bedroom to prove that we share a bed. (We do have an extra bed-- Alexandre's old twin-- but I don't think they noticed it because we currently use it as an extra couch and it has a blanket on it and is also was covered in our crap: books, papers, clothes.... it's a piece of furniture with many functions!)

She asked if I was working, which I still wasn't sure if I could do legally or not. So I said, "well, the man at the visa office here didn't know if I could, so I've just been giving private English classes at home."

"Oh, you can work with this visa!" she said. "You can go down to the Ministerio do Trabalho and show the stamps in your passports to get a temporary working card. After this all gets processed, you can go back and get a permanent one. Then you can work anywhere, you can teach at a school."

(Okay, Molly? All cleared up! :D)

"Great!" I said. That was nice of her.

"And where do you give your classes here?" She was a bit confused, because our second room just has 2 desks pushed against the wall.

"Oh, well, we only have one table, so I move the dining room table into this room whenever I have a student. See? That's all of my material." I pointed to the mess of English and Portugeuse grammar books and accordion folders on my desk. In America, I would be a bit embarrassed about this sort of ghetto setup (moving the table back and forth a couple times a day), but they seemed unfazed.

After that, they asked which neighbors I knew that could verify that I live in the building and live with Alexandre. We only talk to a couple of them, and it's little more than "hello," but 2 people were home that were able to say "yup, she lives here with that young man."

With that, the agents had all of the information they needed. The woman explained what will happen next, but even though I tried to ask her some confirmation questions-- "So, is the form going to come in the MAIL, or do I have to go to your OFFICE?" -- she wouldn't break out of her legalese speak so I have no idea what we have to do and Alexandre has to call to figure it out.

But all in all it seemed pretty successful, and it's good to know that I can work legally and maybe can have some other job opportunities if the situation presents itself!
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