Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Taksi or Fright?

Fright number 89, Asia Air to Phuket boarding at gate number 66.

I looked around at the Chinese travellers around me. They were too busy clamouring over trinkets and sweets to hear the humour in the announcement. They wouldn’t have noticed it anyway. Such things are for Anglo-ears only.

“Fright 89,” I said to myself and laughed—because someone needed to. “I should hope not.”

The next gate announcement was a recorded voice that managed the “L” in flight just fine. I couldn’t help thinking that at some scary moment in the past the airport had hired someone to read the announcements due to the panic caused by calling one’s flight a fright.

As a US-American and an English teacher/writer, I’m blessed with the luxury of speaking the world’s lingua franca pretty darn well. And for this reason I almost never tell people I’m from the US when I travel. My travelling companions are invariably German, so it’s easy to pass myself off as one (although I’m a bit shorter than my companions and have a sillier sense of humour).

I always learn a few polite phrases when I go to a new country, but I’m never going to be fluent in Thai or Indonesian, so why spend my whole holiday learning as if I’m cramming for a language exam just because I’m embarrassed by my obvious linguistic advantage? Everyone speaks English to hotel receptionists and taxi drivers. Basic English language skills are part of their job. In Barcelona a few years ago, the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to my hotel griped at me the entire 40 minutes because I didn’t speak enough Spanish to have a conversation with him about football. I told him I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with him about football in English either.

Cuando vienes a Barcelona, debe hablar catalán!” He shouted this at me . . . more than once.

Really? Do I? It’s not that I don’t want to. I wish I had time to simply learn languages 24/7. That would be cielo en la tierra, Mr. Taxidriver. The reality is that I, like millions of other travellers, are squished under more pressing matters.

I try, though. I have to try, actually. I have a problem with gluten, so I have to make myself understood in restaurants. Most western countries have caught on to the fact that more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for a waiter in a restaurant to ask you if you’re a celiac when you say you can’t eat gluten; in Southeast Asia it’s almost impossible to explain what you mean.

“Excuse me,” I said, finally getting the chef’s attention. We were at a buffet in one of Bangkok’s tallest hotels.

“Yes?”

The floor at the buffet. Irrelevant but pretty.

“Could you tell me what’s in this?” I pointed to the bowl of soya sauce. I was at the sushi bar.

“Soya sauce!”

“Yes, I know, but I need to know exactly what’s in it.” Most soya sauces contain wheat.

“Moment!” Why he was shouting I don’t know.

“Yes?” This was another chef (supposedly the one in charge of troublemaking English speakers).

“Hi. I need to know what’s in this. Can I see the container?”

“Soya sauce.”

“Yes, I know what it is; I just need to know what’s in it.”

“Asian sauce. Japanese. For sushi.”

“Yes . . . I know . . .”

“Come with me.” He led me around to the other side of the buffet and showed me a small container that was recognisably soya sauce.”

“Yes, I know it’s soya sauce,” I said and tried to smile, but seriously I was losing it. “Can you read me the ingredients on the bottle?”

“Sorry?”

“The ingredients. I need to know what’s in it.”

“Sorry?”

I took the bottle and pointed to the list of ingredients, all written in Thai.

“Ohhhhhh.” He took the bottle and smiled, putting on his glasses. “Soy and, um . . . salt and, hmmm, powder.” He gave the bottle back to me and smiled grandly.

“Powder?” Like gunpowder? Or talcum powder? Or maybe an industrial zinc powder?

“Powder,” he said.

“Is it by chance the kind of powder you make bread with?”

“Yes! Powder!”
The Marina Bay Sands (Singapore). We did not go here.

“Thank you.” I put down my plate of sushi and headed for the table with the steamed rice. I ate a lot of steamed rice in Thailand, but I also ate a few excellent Thai curries when the waiter could list the ingredients (which was often the case).

In Singapore on the way to the airport, a Chinese taxi driver taught me how to tell the world that gluten/wheat is poison to me in Chinese. We had such a great time. In exchange he wanted to know how to tell his wife she was pretty (and also ugly, strangely enough) in German. He thought I was German, of course.

“Your wife isn’t German, is she?” I asked as we rolled up to the terminal.

“No, just funny. Ha ha. Potthässlich. That’s funny. Du bist potthässlich.” He prounounced the word, which means ‘extremely ugly’ in German, potthahsrich, and I told him his pronunciation was fantastic. I’m sure he was doing the same thing when he taught me the Chinese phrase.

“I wouldn’t say that to your wife,” I said.

“You don’t know wife! Have a nice fright!” he said as he jumped back into his taxi.

Ha. I must be off,
Christopher




10 comments:

  1. My friend! I do believe you might be the next David (or Amy) Sedaris. HA, is right! I laughed myself silly through this entire article.

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  2. Thanks, Jenn. That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me today. Wait, no one has spoken to me today. Still.

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  3. Nice fright... *snort* Oh, that's good. Interesting, too that for such a fright, you need to go to gate 66... one more six and you might be entering hell, yes?

    Why is it the romance language countries are the only ones to take issue with tourists not knowing the language. I speak enough Spanish to get by (or did when I was there many years ago) but French were very displeased with me, and it seems I've heard the same of Italy--everywhere else, they are accomodating. then again, if someone came HERE, all I can offer them is English or a tiny bit of rusty Spanish, so surely I'm being unfair...

    Interesting dilemma though, with the allergy.

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  4. Hey, Hart :)
    Sorry for the delay in responding. I have so many stories about trying to make myself understood in France. I mostly travel to Alsace, however, where German is spoken widely. I think the central and northern European countries are more accommodating because they speak English better.

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  5. this is hilarious - you're such a brilliant travel writer. you know the secret sauce. sushi. glad you see this as part of the > language > place carnival. it's a tad early for carnival, for taking your clothes off and dancing naked in the snow...or what do they do in brazil? cheerio!

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  6. Ha. Thanks, Marcus. I still have my costume from one year at carnival in Rio. It was a shell necklace.

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  7. ah, nice to have our paths intersecting at the language carnival. entirely enjoyed your post. i was once married to a german who had a sweet nickname for me, which he told me it meant something like "beauty". turns out it was the word for scarecrow.

    i look forward to more of your adventures.

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  8. Love this. How have I not found your blog before? I am glad for the language carnival.

    Hart - the way to get French people to get over that you don't speak French is to try to get them to speak to you German first. Then confess that you know some English, too. They'll be so thrilled to avoid German that they'll be delighted to speak English with you.

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  9. Thank you Sherry and Jennifer for stopping by.

    Ah, he was just playing with you, Sherry. My partner called me "Dicker" for the first couple of years. Taken literally I suppose this expression means "pudgy" but it's used in Germany as a term of endearment for someone who is adorable.

    Jennifer, great advice. Maybe someday I'll tell my story about the elderly French teacher at the language institute where I was the head of the English department. She had it in for Americans, and she chose me as her whipping boy.

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  10. Americans have a reputation for being linguistically intolerant, but at least when an American says that people who come to the US should learn how to speak English, they're referring to permanent residents, not tourists. We don't expect the typical Japanese/German/French/Saudi Arabian to speak English fluently when they just came to see the Grand Canyon or Los Vegas.

    The travel industry would be a lot smaller if people went only to countries where they were already fluent in the language.

    I am trying to eat primally, which means avoiding all grains, so people in Asia think I'm crazy for not eating rice and noodles. I didn't even realize soy sauce could contain gluten. I'd have been as mystified as your waiter even though I speak English too.

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