Thursday, July 11, 2019

We Call Them Melons In America

A few days ago, I was practicing my typical morning routine of sitting on the toilet with my phone catching up on the news. In the middle of reading the latest on Black Ariel and the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker, I got a message from my wife.

I immediately knew who she was talking about. We've been dealing with this guy for the last few days. Right next door to us, a construction crew has been putting up a new building and we share a gate with that property. So, we cross paths with the workers daily. Every now and then, one of them comes to us to use our electricity or inform us of excess noise that day or the shutting off of our water. It is always a difficult conversation since we do not speak the local language and have to do everything through inadequate translation apps.

However, this particular guy is especially "friendly." He frequently wanders over to make small talk when he sees me outside. This usually involves lots of hand gestures and pointing at the construction site with a big smile. I never know what he is trying to convey, but it seems like it is not pertinent information. Just friendly banter. Until he stepped up his game a few days ago.

He sat on our porch one day, so I grabbed a Pepsi and my phone and went to join him. I like to be friendly most of the time. Through our translation apps, we tried to talk to each other. After a couple of minutes, he asked to borrow my motorcycle. I made an excuse about how we were about to leave so it wouldn't be available. So, he asked to use it at lunch the next day. As I was telling him no, I started closing up the house so Red and I could leave. He then asked me how I secure my doors when I leave.

What kind of creepy question is that?

This made me nervous because he basically lives right next to us until the house is built. They always know when we are coming and going. And now he wants to know how well I lock my doors.

Due to my inability to effectively communicate all we can really do is try to be aware.

Not being able to communicate has been a common theme in my life. When I lived in Puerto Rico twenty years ago, I saw a sign on a counter that said CUIDADO: CALIENTE.

This sign made no sense to me. CITY: HOT

I leaned closer to contemplate the meaning and it occurred to me as soon as my arms contacted the metal counter. Cuidado does not mean 'city.' It means 'CAUTION.'

The Spanish word for 'city' is ciudad. They may look similar, but the meaning is quite different.

As I rubbed the aloe on my forearms, I knew I would never forget those words again.

Living in Beijing, I almost did not get my work permit due to a communication error. I was asked to send off for my official Master's Degree for the paperwork that had to be filed. They told me that it must be sealed when we turn it into authorities. I did as they asked and it arrived two weeks later. I handed the envelope to my boss and she immediately ripped it open. I yelled, "NO! It has to still be sealed when we give it to them." She gave me a confused look as I sat and put my face in my hands. I had dropped a significant amount of money to get this and have it specially shipped. She had just ruined it.

She looked the degree over and asked, "Where is the seal?"

After a frustrating back-and-forth, I learned when they told me it must be sealed, what they meant was it must have the official State of Illinois International Authentication Seal. This seal is what proves to foreign governments that this is an official document.

She thought she had communicated clearly and I thought that I had understood. We were both wrong.

I have hundreds of stories like this, but let's come back to the present.

That 'creepy little dude' is now talking to my wife when I am not present and chooses to comment on her 'grapes.' If you have met my wife then you are probably aware that she is quite gifted in the area under her shirt. And in a culture that is known for not possessing those assets, it is even more apparent. But that does not mean he needs to be commenting on her grapes.

I head downstairs to confront this man and in my head I am running how I should play this. Should I be firm or gentle? Should I confront him in front of the other workers (to help keep him on their side of the wall) or take him to the side in private? I don't want to create too big of an incident. We do have to live among these people and we are the foreigners.

We may be the foreigners here but this cannot be allowed to happen?

I get downstairs to discover that is has escalated to the point that another worker is now involved and talking to my wife in the doorway. I start to step in to put an end to this harassment and I hear her telling the new man (who speaks a little English), he said: "Chau grapes are very big." Everyone (including my wife) laughed.

What is happening?

It turns out the 'creepy little dude' was wanting to plug into our electricity because the work site was having some work done and would be without power for a few hours. He wasn't being inappropriate at all. The Google Translate app just sucks when dealing with Vietnamese.

I even learned the reason he was asking about how I secured my doors a few days earlier was because our water pump was being replaced. When he discovered we were leaving for the evening, he was wondering how they were going to test the pressure once the new one was installed. There was no ill intent. We just don't have the ability to fully communicate. The extra speculation and guesswork about intent was misguided…again.

I have been putting off receiving official language instruction, but I believe it may be time to change my stance.