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on my toes.

February 10, 2011

There is no shortage of embarrassing incidents in my life these days. Whether it’s language or culture, there’s always something to force-feed me a slice of humble pie and keep me on my toes. Just in case I make the mistake of starting to feel comfortable around here. You know. I thought you’d enjoy a sampling:

During a discussion on entertainment in my conversation class, I asked one student if she preferred Arab or Western music. She said she liked Arab music better because she could understand the lyrics.

Me: “But what about the actual style of music? They’re really different, right? So what do you like better, Arab or Western melodies?”
Confused faces.
“Well…N and M, you two play piano, right? So you know something about music.”
“Yes.”
“Do you know the difference between major and minor?”
“No.”
“Okay…well. So, you know, a major scale goes like this: Do re mi fa so la ti do…”
Everyone nods in recognition.
“And a minor scale goes like this.” (Crap. How does a minor scale go?) “La la la la…la…la…” (That is definitely not a minor scale. That’s just off-key singing.) “La la…okay, my point is, there’s a difference, right?”
Back to confused faces. A few brave souls nod slowly. I clear my throat.
“Right. So moving on…”

There’s a three-year-old boy who claims he doesn’t like any girls except his mom–and now me. The other day I was playing around with him in their home. He was pulling out silly toys and stuffed animals and claiming they were me. “This is you! You’re a frog!” he cried, and I ribbit-ribbited at him. “You’re a duck!” Quack-quack. “You’re a dog!” And just as I opened my mouth to woof-woof, his mother swooped in with a sharp rebuke. “No!” she scolded, aghast. “Say you’re sorry right now. Tell Auntie you’re sorry!” He immediately shrank into himself, ashamed. After another threatening tsk from his mother, he darted across the room to me, leaned up to my ear and whispered, “Sorry.”

I kissed his cheek and tried desperately not to laugh out loud. Calling someone a dog is a terrible insult here, and I almost played right into it by barking like one. Actually, I think a little puppy whimper escaped me before I could totally stop myself. I hope Mama didn’t hear…

For obvious reasons, while I’m here my mind is constantly swimming in the vast linguistic ocean that is the Arabic language. Sorting through dialects, dusting off deeply buried classical vocabulary, and trying not to sound like a fool–my brain has its hands full, you know? So while I’m pretty sure I have a smattering of other non-English languages inside there somewhere too, they’re not exactly floating on the surface.

So I’m sure you can imagine how excruciating it ends up being when I attempt to converse in those languages. Last month I met a woman who’d just returned here after spending 18 years in Spain. She was desperate to speak in Spanish and was off like a runaway train once she realized I could understand her. Great for her, but I was dying inside. Every time I opened my mouth to respond, my sentences came out like this: “Yes…it’s…very…nice.”

Even better? I was helping at a community center’s health clinic yesterday, where the doctor is Korean and speaks…pretty much just Korean; helping her were a couple Arabs with fairly fluent English. So there were three languages being thrown around, and I was just trying to fill in the blanks. Translating from Korean to English or even Arabic wasn’t so bad, but my spoken Korean has always been atrocious and only deteriorated further as the morning went on. At one point I tapped the doctor on the shoulder to tell her something about a little boy in the waiting room and began, “Al boy gah…” As soon as the words escaped my lips, I realized I’d just spoken three languages in three words. She looked at me and burst into laughter. I hung my head in shame and started over.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. dad permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:10 pm

    ha ha!
    that’s just way i like you, immensely confused!
    you speak Korean? Spanish? Arab? and English, all at the same time?
    that must be the coolest thing ever! miss you. besides, being a dog might be
    a lot better than a mouse.

  2. Susie Han permalink
    February 15, 2011 9:26 pm

    ROFL. three words = three languages. omgoodness. so funny. also the little boy is adorable. 🙂

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