…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
In North America, I communicate in English and also a stripped-down version of English that’s devoid of all articles, prepositions, words that have more than three syllables, and conjugated verbs. The latter version of English is very useful in Asian markets and restaurants and at my Vietnamese mani-pedi spa. I’ve often seen customers at the spa speak to my nail technician as if her name’s Sidney, she grew up in Tallahassee, has a perpetual tan and blonde hair, and can understand every single word they say. They’ll go on and on about what terrible shape their nails are in, ask for advice on colors, then tell long rambling stories about why they’re getting nails done in the first place. I wonder what these women think when the nail technician finally looks up from her work, sighs, wipes her forehead with the back of her hand and responds, “O.K. What shape you want? Round or square?”
Actually, I’m convinced that, when their customers are talking about themselves in English, the nail technicians are talking to each other about their customers. It’s a common activity among bilingual people, and I call it Talking About Other People Behind Their Backs Right in Front of Their Faces. Sometimes, the manicurist doing my nails will stop the conversation with her coworker mid-sentence and ask me things like, You Chinese? You how old? You married? Why you no married? You have kids? Why you no have kids? then resume her conversation about me with the other nail tech each time I answer one of her very personal questions. I can only imagine – from the expressions on their faces, their 100lbs bodies and waists smaller than the size of my right thigh – they’re talking about my girth, ancient age, and hideous appearance. Because we all know that a single Chinese woman over the age of 35, who more closely resembles a stinking corpse flower than a lotus blossom and is a size anomaly in her culture, will need all the help she can get from a Vietnamese nail salon whose employees can’t even pronounce the word cuticle, much less know what it means.
When I purchased my first house – a lopsided, turn-of-the-century Victorian with five layers of old-lady wallpaper and a basement foundation that was just sitting precariously on a pile of dirt – I’d hired a Chinese contractor who subcontracted the work to three Hispanics led by a man named Manuel. Manuel’s first order of business was to tune their boombox to the only Hispanic radio station in the city that played non-stop, frenetic mariachi music punctuated with a desperate-sounding male announcer. His voice was smooth, like a sip of fine, neat whiskey, but from the modulations in his voice, which ranged from a startled whisper to one of evangelical proportions, I think he was urging all Hispanics to adequately prepare for the zombie apocalypse or the impending earth implosion. From 7am till 6pm – and sometimes even later – my house was hosting a Jose Cuervo promo/end-of-the-world party, even though all the workers were drinking gallons of Coca Cola.
I tried to find out the workers’ names, but Manuel told me that they didn’t speak any English, and if I had questions I should direct them to him. I asked Manuel about the mariachi-sounding music that all sounded the same to me.
“Oh nooo, Miss. The music, it’s very VERY different! You hear this one…you hear…it’s sad, because he sing about his lost love…she’s gone…and now…now this one, you listen – it’s fast…very quick, it’s very happy!” Manuel then turned to his crew, said something in Spanish, and everyone laughed and nodded enthusiastically. One even clapped his hands in delight, almost forgetting he was holding a nail gun. I also smiled and nodded as if I’d understood, but the difference in speed and the timbre of the songs weren’t noticeable to me at all. It was like comparing Wile E. Coyote’s Road Runner with Speedy Gonzales.
Of course, the main obstacle to learning any language is the ability to understand the language when someone’s directing it towards you like a foreign movie without any subtitles that’s being played at the speed of Speedy Gonzales. You think you’ve enough knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary to make a go of it, but after catching only a few words, such as hello, good bye, yes, no, and, the, this is, please, thank you, you’ll know all the time and money spent on language tapes and schools were in vain.
Recently, due to my globetrotting status – or more likely my Skype phone number – I’ve been receiving telemarketing messages in foreign languages. Early in the morning, my phone would ring with a pre-recorded friendly reminder about the Chinese Communist persecution of the Falun Gong. At 4am, while still trying to find my tongue in my mouth, I’d answer the phone and would be greeted by gut-wrenching violin-music amid a backdrop of something that sounded like a war, complete with 21st century cannons and blood-curdling screams. A highly- serious Chinese male announcer – the kind you’d hear narrating Chinese Communist propaganda – would speak of Chinese Communist atrocities against the Falun Gong and how the fight must go on. At least, this is what I think he says, as I usually fall asleep or hang up the phone before the message is over.
Then there are the very lengthy, telemarketing messages in Spanish from a 1-800 number. Other than the Buenos dias! at the beginning, I have no clue what comes after. There are no cannons nor melodramatic music – the Hispanics aren’t as morbid as we Chinese. In fact, the pre-recorded lady sounds very upbeat, but also seems anxious to get me to do something – save the rainforest, recycle my burrito wrappers, support my local Menudo, take a salsa and meringue class before the zombie apocalypse. It made my ninth grade Spanish class with Mademoiselle Beaumont seem like a waste of time, as Mme. Beaumont also taught French and I often mixed the two languages up – ¿Voulez usted avez un burrito de frijoles? la musica mariachi me donne un mal a la tete.
I played the message for Doug, my boyfriend, who had lived for several years in Mexico and frequently travels to South America for weeks at a time. He listened solemnly to the message twice, back hunched over, holding up his hand so I wouldn’t interrupt him. Then, when the message was over, he looked at me with the eyes of someone who had no freaking clue what he’d just heard and said, “Susan, I think that’s your client from Costa Rica. She’s calling you about an order.”
“My client?! Nooo, she knows I can’t speak Spanish. She never speaks Spanish to me… and from a 1-800 number??!!”
“The woman called you darling, I think. She said, Hello, my darling!”
“Why would a Hispanic woman calling from a 1-800 number call me darling? Is this a sex chat? She sounds too cheerful for that. It doesn’t sound like, Hey, darling, I want to get into your pants. What I want to know is, how the hell did I get on a Spanish telemarketing list? I never do anything Spanish-related. My last name is Chang!”
The most frustrating part about being an English speaker is knowing that English is not enough, because most people in the world speak other languages, as well as English, much better than I speak English and their native languages. I think I’m set to conquer the world with my English and feel put out because I’m forced to dumb down my English for others. But in actuality, I should be learning some Speedy Gonzales Vietnamese, Spanish, or French…or any other language – to avoid looking like a bigger ass than I am.
Several weeks after Manuel taught me the joys of mariachi music, I came home from work and saw a police car parked a block up the street from my house. My Chinese contractor, who arrived the same time as I, quickly went inside my house and told the workers – in English – that “there are cops one block away’. Immediately, Manuel’s crew – the ones who didn’t understand any English – turned off the radio and worked more quietly. As we waited in awkward silence, someone’s stomach growled, and I realized that while I really didn’t understand my Mexican workers’ Spanish, there was a reason why they pretended not to understand my English. Then, that universal word, which looks and sounds the same in so many different languages suddenly crossed my mind and I learned my first useful Spanish phrase: soy estúpida.
***French: stupide. Portguese: estúpido. Afrikaans: dom. Italian: stupido. Danish: stupid. German: dumm. Swedish: dum. Norwegian: dum. Latin: stupidi. Haitian Creole: estipid. Galician: estúpido. Dutch: dom. Catalan: estupid.***