Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
Not knowing how to say “tornado” in Lao, I quickly thought of as many words as I could related to tornado and it came out something like this, “wind that is very strong and very fast that destroys everything in places that have wind like this!” All the while flailing my arms around and around over my head followed by chopping the air with flat hands to symbolize total destruction. And forgetting how to say “pollution” when I was given the presentation topic of natural disasters (which I luckily DID know the word for) caused by burning fossil fuels, resulted in a pidgin debacle of the language, “industries that make to the weather bad results not clean like smoke cause weather changes temperatures go up a lot go down a lot not safe.” By this time I didn’t have any energy left in me for hand motions, or any more room in my brain to try to mime pollution. Don’t even ask me how I attempted to explain Jazz music, the last topic handed to me by my unforgiving stoic-faced examiners. They’re trained not to give you any acknowledgment that they understand what you’re talking about, which btw is so unlike any foreign language conversation you’d ever have in real life. By omitting all the useful little ques like a nod or eyebrow lift or turn of the corner of the mouth, I think they try to suck every ounce of humility out of you knowing that you’re destroying the language but you have to keep on going until that five minute (forever) mark is over. Some of them don’t even looking at you while you’re rambling on, taking notes instead, and in your head you lose all memory of the Lao vocabulary because all you can think about is how they must be writing all the things you’re mispronouncing or, worse yet, they’ve given up on you and they’re making a grocery list for dinner. And that’s how my “assessment test” went today that I mentioned in my previous post.
I love learning foreign languages and I’ve had great opportunities to learn several languages in-depth followed by a year or two living in that country. Knowing the local language has proven indispensable on many occasions but it has surprised me several times when I could not figure out how to say the simplest things like “eggs”. It escaped my mind this one time at a market in Uzbekistan. Usually, Uzbek markets are outdoors and sprawling with vendors, some have proper wooden booths, others just lay their wares on a blanket on the ground. It can be quite a labyrinth if you’re not familiar with how the market is organized. That day I was in a rush and couldn’t find eggs. Feeling flustered, I couldn’t remember how to say eggs in Uzbek either. So I resorted to the type of hand motion and miming mentioned earlier during my Lao assessment test. Try doing it yourself, right now. Mime eggs. Does it actually look like you’re hatching eggs? Or does it look like you have diarrhea? You think your movements are hatching eggs, over and over again pumping your hand taking each egg out of your butt one by one, but all the while the locals see that you are excitedly telling them that you have a continuous flow of shit coming out of your ass. And they direct you to the nearest toilet. So people, remember how to say eggs in the local language!
A less embarrassing but awkward exchange nonetheless was buying meat. After trial and error at buying different cuts of meat from this guy, I finally found a cut that was tender enough to not require hours and hours of braising to make it edible. When I asked him what this part of the meat was called, he said “meat”. Upon asking him again he kept saying “meat” since I obviously didn’t know how to say “section” either. We went back and forth like this for long enough that the wasps gathering on the slabs of meat (yes, wasps eat meat, eew) were starting to annoy me before it occurred to him that it was part of the thigh! I was asking for (a light bulb moment yay!). But instead of giving me a word for it, he just slapped the inside of his leg grinning happily that he finally figured out what I wanted. Unfortunately, every time I wanted to buy meat from him thereafter, I had to reach down between my legs and slap my inner thigh to tell him what I wanted, not exactly the most modest thing to do in a Muslim culture where most women still wear full-length long skirts everyday. Oh well. Language is language, right? Tell that to my examiners.
What language mishaps have you experienced? I can use a good laugh!
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