I ADMIRE PEOPLE WHO PICK UP and move to countries without speaking the language. This young man I met at a recent party, for instance. The host introduced him as Hiroshi from Tokyo, and I was introduced as Noah from the States.
“Ah, I live in Washington State for two year. Before I move there, I speak no English.”
There are many countries you could move to without knowing the language and get by just fine, but America doesn’t seem like one of them. In a land where the average citizen speaks 0.2 foreign languages (this, I suppose, in the Taco Bell drive-thru), I envisioned Hiroshi having a tough time. “Speak English or go home!” says the beer-bellied man wearing the MY OTHER RIDE IS YOUR SISTER t-shirt. (I sometimes catch myself doing this — villainizing imaginary versions of real Americans — but the fact is most of us are pretty nice.)
“No one say bad thing,” said Hiroshi, “but they have hard time understanding me.” He told me that during his first shopping experience, he wanted to buy a frying pan.
“I ask lady for pans. She say ‘okay’ and I follow her. She take me to blue jeans. She say, ‘Here is pants.’ I tell her ‘No, pans pans.'”
As Hiroshi mimed the technique for stir-frying, I recalled an incident that happened a few months ago at Kaiser’s, my local grocery store. Browsing the fruits and vegetables was easy, but I was too nervous to order from the lady behind the deli counter: pink knuckled, stern, with blonde hair pulled back so tight it looked painful. Standing with her arms crossed, she looked like a bodyguard, a bouncer, some bewitched lunch lady in a German storybook. I spoke no German and was too intimidated to order in English.
Two months later I enrolled in German school, and two months after that I was ready to order deli meat. Waiting in line, I silently rehearsed my order, repeating (what I know now as) the German word for “live chicken.” Huhn huhn huhn. When I stepped to the counter to address this woman, I confused huhn with hund, which to her sounded like “I want 100 grams of dog meat, please.”
She looked at me like I had sauerkraut for brains. “Vas?” she said, planting both hands on the counter. “You want what?” She wasn’t mad, just confused: Who is this foreigner asking for dog meat? Where does he think we are, Switzerland?
Hiroshi went to grab a beer from the kitchen. As is my habit in other people’s home, I scoured the bookshelf and found a book by Milton Berle, the comedian. The jokes were arranged by subject. Flipping through it, I found a section titled “Accents.” I didn’t understand the Jewish joke, but I found one about a Japanese man who misinterprets the prognosis given to him by an American eye doctor.
I decided to read the joke to Hiroshi…then I paused — I didn’t know how they did things in Tokyo, but sharing a racist joke seemed like more of a third meeting type thing. He didn’t seem like someone who’d take offense. But if he was, my plan was simple: I’d point to my wife, who is Japanese, and tell him, “You see, I am entitled to make this joke.”
I carried the book over to Hiroshi on the couch. “This is a joke by a famous American comedian,” I said. Then I read it aloud:
A Japanese visitor went to an American eye doctor.
After an examination the doctor said, “You have a cataract.”
The Japanese visitor shook his head. “Oh no. I have a Rincoln!”
As he cocked his head and reread the joke, I determined how I would go about explaining it. One needed two key pieces of information. First, Japanese doesn’t have an “L” sound, so speakers tend to use the English “R” for “L” inadvertently.
I was about to explain the second part when Hiroshi said, “What is a Rincoln?”
“Well, a Lincoln is a type of car, and so is a Cadillac.” Hiroshi blinked at me and returned to the text. “When the doctor said cataract, the Japanese man heard Cadillac. A common stereotype is that Japanese people cannot pronounce the letter L.”
“Ah, yes.” Hiroshi nodded. “Japanese people have many problems with L and R.” He said this as though his clan had a long-standing blood feud with these consonants. “My biggest shame come from this confusion.”
Hiroshi told me that he was at a bar with his then girlfriend and four of her friends. They were sitting at a booth when someone mentioned a certain political candidate.
“So I say to everyone, ‘Germany has big erection coming up,’ and they start to laugh.” Hiroshi was beginning to talk louder. “I think, Did I say something wrong? So again I say, ‘It is big erection,’ and they laugh harder. I don’t know why they laugh, so I say, ‘What is wrong with erection?’ They cannot speak they laughing so hard. Like fool, I keep saying: ‘Erection! Erection! Erection!'”
One by one, the conversations around us fell to a hush. Our world is divided in many ways, but eavesdropping is universal. In Hiroshi’s defense, the difference between “election” and “erection” is slight, but it reminded me I wasn’t the only one struggling.
As embarrassing situations go, a mispronunciation like that ranks lower than, say, requesting dog meat from a deli clerk. A shame-laden relationship won’t last a week, whereas my humiliation will last until I move away or grow my own food. Because of the layout of the store, I cannot sneak past the deli counter without being seen.
I order in German when I can. When words fail me, I’ve been known to point and grunt like a caveman at ambiguous meats, a ritual I hope to end by next semester.
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