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.
“Could you tell me what’s in this?” I pointed to the bowl of soya sauce. I was at the sushi bar.
“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?”
“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?”
“The ingredients. I need to know what’s in it.”
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?”
“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.
I must be off,
Christopher Allen is a freelance editor, translator and business ESL coach. He is also the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins.