Sunday, October 25, 2009

They're Round, They're Black, They're Made From Grapes

I just had the oddest conversation in the hospital cafeteria where I tried to ask a person for raisins. English is not his first language. He had no idea what a raisin was.

So I tried a different tack. "You know, they're round, they're black...they're made from grapes?" No go. As a substitute, I decided beets would work (I was making a salad and I wanted something a little bit sweet, and the salad bar was very thin on delicious toppings, so I was asking the attendant for a little more variety.)

Me: "Do you have any beets?"
Him: "Beets?"
Me: "You know...they're red, they're sliced, there's a lot of juice."
Him, eyes lighting up: "Beets! Yes!"
Me: "That's a tomato."

I didn't end up with raisins or beets, but it did get me thinking. It must be SO hard to function in a society where you don't speak much of the language. I speak Chinese (Mandarin) but god forbid I'm ever in China and someone asks me where the raisins are because I don't know the Chinese word for raisins any more than this person knew the English word for raisins. You want some grapes? Fine, your zi pu ta is right over there. Apples? Hong ping gua coming right up. Carrots? Get your hua loa ba right here. Zucchini? Uh....uh....nope. Don't know that one. But it's chong hua luisa due le? (long and green, right?) Fantastic. Here's your huang gua. (cucumber, oops.)

It must take so much courage to drop everything and go live in a country where you don't understand a lot of what people are saying. Or if you do understand, you can't communicate that back. That happens to me sometimes. Depending on what I'm talking about in Chinese, sometimes I can't find the right words. Also, I constantly say "I'm sorry" when I mean to say "You're welcome." I'm not sure why I have such a difficult time with that, but I do it constantly, saying due bu chi instead of bu cu chi. I am so horrible at pinyan. It's pronounced dway-boo-chee and boo-coo-chee, but I don't know how to spell it at all. Oh well. Not like anyone really cares, it just bothers me because I know it's not spelled right but I don't know how to do it.

Anyway! Occasionally I hear these people saying things like "Fucking XXX's, coming over here and taking our jobs" and I just want to smack those people. Repeatedly. My good friend's husband is from Mexico and he hears that all the time. He's a dishwasher. Really? You'd like to wash dishes for 7 dollars an hour and try to pay rent in this city? Be my guest, asshole.

If I were to move to China I could probably get a pretty good job since I speak English and Chinese. But what if I only spoke English? That's probably a bad example. English is one of those languages that opens a lot of doors. What if I moved to China and all I spoke was Amharic? Would I be able to get along half as well as the people in this country? Probably not. I'm not that sturdy.

But anyway. I have to go take report, it's time for me to actually start working. Adios, zai jian, sayonara, and goodbye!


  1. I'm totally counting on help with my WIP that is set in San Francisco/Chinatown. I don't know any Chinese and it would be cool to slip it in there:)

  2. Speaking of Amharic, I had a friend who had to learn it once. He carried around a little rag with him because he said it was not possible to speak the language without spitting.

  3. Hi Tina Lynn, my pinyan is horrible, so I don't know how to spell anything, but I have a bunch of friends from China who I'm sure I could get to help, so let me know if you have any phrases you'd like translated!!

    Travener, that's hilarious! My friend Blaine speaks it (she's from Ethiopia) which is what made me think of it. I'll have to ask her about the spitting thing...!!!

  4. There is a fantastic book called "The Arrival" by Shaun Tan that is about the difficulty of going someplace where you know no one, don't speak the language, and aren't familiar with the customs. It is told entirely without words, only in pictures, so anyone could understand it. It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I highly recommend it.

  5. I liked this post. And I completely agree with you on the people who complain that foreigners are taking their jobs. I am a self-employed truck driver now (they complain too, believe me)but for years I worked in the hospitality industry in Tucson, AZ. People there (because of the large Mexican population) always bitch about people taking their jobs.

    Really? I'm sorry. I didn't realize you wanted to clean rooms for minimum wage. Or be a porter and clean the hotel lobby. Or pick lettuce. Or cotton. Are those the jobs you're referring to that "these people" are taking?

    You're right. They are assholes.

    Yes, speaking the language in any country is a bonus, but the balls these people have to come here and work to better their lives or the lives of their families is nothing short of admirable. I don't think I'd be able to do it. I don't like to work all that hard.

    And apparently, neither do any of the people doing all that bitching because I can't tell you the last time I had someone other than a foreigner cleaning my hotel room. And most certainly, my friends and family members who have uttered that very same bullshit aren't doing those jobs either.