…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
My Mother often asks me why I don’t step up and help foreigners translate, as they stammer and gulp their way through the simplest things, like asking where the bathroom is, how to get to the bus station, what happened to their cell phone, which was on the table in front of them at the restaurant only moments ago, and so on.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My first instinct is to help people in need, and not just to stand by and watch them helplessly flail about, then capture the meaty bits on a blog for your reading pleasure. But I’ve decided that foreigners usually only require extensive interpretation, when things aren’t going so smoothly. In such cases, interpreting requires a great deal of finesse and may become tricky.
VIVE LA FRANCE!
The best place for tempers to boil is waiting in line for something that doesn’t happen as quickly as it should.
For your consideration: 7:20am at a Chinese commuter ferry terminal ticket counter, which doesn’t open till 7:30am and the ferry sails at 8:00am. There are 4 ticket windows and 2 lines of about 10 people each, including a Frenchman who smells like his cologne of choice is Eau de Cognac.
I think the commuter ferry company enjoys this game of Russian roulette it plays with customers. Passengers never know which of the 4 ticket windows will open and people line up at a random window, like placing a bet on a number – hoping their window will be the one to hit the jackpot.
When the windows finally opened up at 7:34am (2 of them), the Frenchman started snarling, as his window was not one of the ones which opened up, so he had to line up all over again. Then, he INSISTED that EVERYONE line up in ONE line, even though there were 2 windows:
(In a slurred heavy French-accented English): “No, no, no! You are lining up all wrong! Why can’t you people be more civilized! You should line up like civilized human beings! You should form ONE LINE, ONE LINE! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND ANY ENGLISH!”
As I stood stupidly gaping at what I’d just heard, the Frenchman had started to forcibly push people into one line, since nobody could understand him.
This started a Tourette’s syndrome of profanities from one mousy-looking Chinese man, who must’ve been delighted to finally use the few words of English he knew:
“You..f-f-fuk! F-f-fuk you! Fuk you, you FUK! Shit, man! F-f-f-fuk! How you FUK! FUK!”
Others were wagging their fingers at the Frenchman and cursing in Chinese: “Who do you think you are, pushing us around like that! You don’t like it, you go back to where you came from!”
The funny thing was, even though all the Chinese were FURIOUS with the Frenchman, nobody had dared to line up at the second window. Everyone stood obediently in one line.
Finally, I decided to line up at the second window, right behind the Frenchman.
Frenchie: (turning around looking bemusedly at me, eyebrows raised) Oh, a nice lady, hello….
Me: Yes. AND I speak English BETTER THAN YOU, AND I can tell you that we CAN line up in two lines, so STOP PUSHING US AROUND.
Suddenly, chaotic voices erupted behind me:
“Yea, Miss! Yea! You tell him! You tell him to get his mother fucking smelly foreign ass out of our country! Tell him to go back to where he came from! Stupid mother fucker!”
“Stupid foreigners! Who does he think he is!”
“F-f-f-fuk! FUK YOU, YOU FUK! YOU FUK SHIT! SHIT SHIT FUK FUK!”
“Someone get this guy out of the line! We have a ferry to catch!”
The Frenchman glared at me, muttered something in French, bought his ticket, called us uncivilized a few more times, then toddled off to catch the ferry.
Being the only one who spoke to the Frenchman in a way that he actually understood, I ended up having to calm the crowd down; everyone was too excited, as if we managed to collectively deflect some imperialist invasion. I almost missed my ferry.
Where’s Ghandi when you need him?
I had no idea that the commuter ferry serves up corn in its cafeteria till I became a very unwilling interpreter between an East Indian passenger and the cafeteria staff:
East Indian: I would like some of the corn (on the cob) you have please.
Staff: No…no corn, sorry, no.
East Indian: Yes! I have corn here last time, you have corn, yes!
Staff: No, sorry. No corn today.
Curiosity-killed-the-cat Me (in Chinese to staff): You serve CORN on the ferry?
Staff (to me in Chinese): Yes. But we don’t have enough to sell today. It’s not for sale. We’re saving it for our own lunch.
Me (to East Indian in English): They do have corn usually, but just not today.
East Indian: No, I saw the corn today just now. You give it to me, I buy two.
Staff: No, no corn!
Me (in Chinese to staff): He seems very adamant on having the corn.
Staff (to me in Chinese): You tell him we have no corn today, this is our policy. (To the East Indian) We have no corn, NO!
Me (to East Indian): Look, they have corn usually, but they don’t have enough to sell today, so you just can’t buy any today.
East Indian (becoming visibly agitated): I just want two corn! It is not a lot of corn. You have two corn, you sell to me! You are keeping corn from me, you are being racist! I am vegetarian; I can only eat corn!
By this time, we were attracting a small, increasingly impatient crowd…mainly the people who were lining up behind us.
Me (in Chinese to staff): You must have something else that’s vegetarian; he’s getting pretty pissed off!
Staff (to East Indian): We have noodle soup, just noodle?
East Indian: The broth is beef! I cannot eat beef broth, I must have corn!
Me (in Chinese to staff): He can’t eat the soup which is beef.
Staff (to East Indian): You just have noodle then! Noodle good!
Now, the East Indian’s buddy had joined him and the cafeteria staff Supervisor.
Me (in Chinese to the Supervisor): The East Indian thinks you’re racist because you won’t sell him corn.
Supervisor (in Chinese to the East Indian): Lookee here! Nobody is being racist on this ferry. We just can’t sell corn today and that is that. You can buy anything else (produces a box of almond cookies). Here are some almond cookies – they are very good and very vegetarian! (then to me) Miss, you tell him we have almond cookies!
Me (in Chinese to the Supervisor): Hey, I just want to buy a Hong Kong phone card! I don’t want any trouble!
The two East Indian passengers look at me expectantly.
Me: OK, LOOK. (by this time, all of the passengers waiting in line are looking at my expectantly) The ferry cannot sell any corn today. They would LOVE to sell YOU the corn, if they could, but they just don’t have enough to sell. The corn is not for sale. They are very, VERY sorry. But there is just NO CORN FOR SALE. NOBODY can have corn, it’s not just you. You can have these almond cookies.
The two East Indian passengers take the box of almond cookies and examine the box carefully.
Me (in Chinese to the Supervisor): Can I at least get a phone card while they’re looking at the almond cookies?
While I pay and get my card, the first East Indian passenger says:
OK. We get the almond cookie, but we get also ONE corn, please. It’s OK?
I run back to my seat and never look back.