I live in a world where food tastes of socks, where men demand kisses from other men, where some worship belly buttons and cucumbers are known to ride three-wheeled bicycles.
Have I been imbibing some alcoholic beverage? Am I hallucinating? Is my beloved Bangladesh a den of iniquity and filled with mind-altering drugs or has the heat finally got to me and I have lost the plot?
Actually, none of the above (well, those who know me well may debate the last one). Instead, I live in the kind of world that is experienced wherever people from different cultures and languages meet. It is a wonderful place because those who are best in this world (such as myself – a definite expert in this area) are really the most incompetent. We excel because we fail – and in doing so are able to provide some humour, some ray of hope, some sunshine on an otherwise grey day for others to enjoy.
It is, of course, the world of communication (or, more accurately, miscommunication). It is a happy world because, in the very attempt to make contact with fellow brothers and sisters from a different culture to ours, we fail so miserably that the humour it creates actually makes a stronger bond than that which any correct communication would have achieved in the first place. In other words, everyone loves a guy who makes an ass of himself.
I could bore you with lots of examples of my own pratfalls here in Bangladesh, but if you know me you may well have heard them before and, over time I have picked up a few from others that make some of my errors just look amateurish. I share with you now – for your amusement and sage reflection – some recent ones I have heard as well as some classics. Almost all of them are from here in Bangladesh and, bar one, come from firsthand accounts.
Socks & Pigs
Our own first attempts at Bangla were, of course, pretty awful. In a country where respect and honour are so very important, we did not ingratiate ourselves with our first ayah by constantly telling her that the food she gave us tasted of socks. There was all the difference, it seemed, between mOja (socks) and moja (tasty). In much the same way, I regularly used to imply to shopkeepers that their establishment had killed me (ami shesh) instead of informing them that my shopping was finished (amar shesh) and I was ready to pay.
A friend of ours here at our NGO went one better by asking her ayah if her clothes (hanging on the washing line) were pigs. Confused, the ayah tried to clarify the situation but the conversation took quite some time until both realised that the confusion lay over the words for pig (Shukor) and dry (shukna).
That same ayah, who is a good friend of ours, then made her own faux pas in the English language with us, a few weeks later when she kept asking us to squeeze her. Not that I would have minded actually but it is not the culturally done thing so it was mildly surprising from a young married Bangladeshi woman until it quickly dawned on us that “Squeeze me” was actually meant to be “Excuse me”. I’m so glad I resisted the British urge to please even when really not sure of what someone is asking and refrained from giving a bear hug.
One Nod of the Head, Keep Moving…
Still, such small differences are easy to miss and all cultures have their little ways about them. The South-Asian ‘head wobble’ is one such mannerism that causes confusion. To us Brits it looks like “I’m saying yes but I’m not happy and don’t really want to do it”. To the Bangladeshi it can mean…well anything you want it to mean really! Usually it means yes, but don’t get on a Rickshaw on the strength of the head wobble and assume you won’t get a massive argument over the price when you reach your destination.
For this reason, one foreign couple came to a row of CNG’s (motorised scooters that, along with Rickshaws are the main forms of transport inDhaka) and asked the one at the front if the driver would take them to a certain part of town. The driver appeared to say he didn’t really want to so, being good polite Westerners they moved to the next driver who also signalled that he wasn’t interested. And so they moved to the next and so on all the way along the line and eventually walked there instead. It was only afterwards that they came to realise they had misread the head wobble and all the drivers had been perfectly happy to take them. Still, the exercise probably did them good.
John the Bellybutton
It is not just us beginners who make mistakes though. Nerves can attack anyone. One friend of ours who has lived here many, many years and speaks Bangla fluently attempted to give a talk to a crowded church about John the Baptist the Last Old Testament Belly button. Alas, our friend had not appreciated the similarity in sound of prophet (nobi) and belly button (nabhi) though Bangladeshis delighted in pointing out his error afterwards.
Children, of course, will make many errors and my son loves to babble away in Bangla bewildering our ayahs who look at him in much the same way that English friends do when he babbles just as bizarrely in English. He speaks well, but his mind is often on another planet – proof, if I needed it, that he is most certainly my son. No such excuse for our daughter who is older yet still aged her best friend by 10 years when wishing her a happy 23rd birthday (teish) instead of 13th (tero) recently.
The French show us how it is done…
I should stop at this point and make clear that I don’t pick on any particular type of person. We can all get it wrong and it is good that we do. When I first began teaching I was told a personal tale by my tutor of a teacher from France who came over to the UKto teach French there. Though able to speak English, she was nervous about using the language and made careful preparations. On her first day her class were standing outside her room waiting to be told to come in to the class in an orderly fashion and stand behind their chairs before being told to sit. Instead she greeted the class with “Good morning, pleeze sit down!”
Being a good class they promptly did. The horror on her face was a picture.
“No, no, no what are you doing you naughty children? Get up, get up!”
Bewildered, but obedient, the class returned to their feet.
“Thank you. Now. Pleeze sit down”
Well you can imagine the scene as an increasingly bemused class and angry teacher repeated this several times more, the French teacher becoming more and more flustered, until a kindly colleague, hearing the fuss and realising what was going on, stepped up to her and whispered in her ear that perhaps she had confused her carefully practised commands of “line up” for outside the class and “sit down” for in. Red-faced, embarrassed but now considerably wiser, she hurried the class indoors.
And I guess that is the point. Whilst we make these great gaffs, we are learning about ourselves and about others as well as picking up the subtleties of the language in a way that keeps us humble (always a good thing). In becoming wiser we also become more accepted. When people make mistakes which are harmless and funny, you cannot help but warm to them. Your enemy cannot seem threatening to you when they have just landed (metaphorically or otherwise) on their backside.
Nevertheless, there is a dangerous side to this. It is one that can give very false impressions. Thankfully, one of our foreign staff members at our NGO here a few years ago was well known when she stood up and announced she was going home to eat her husband. Much amusement, rather than shock was the response from her friends and co-workers who demanded, after the laughter had died away to know what she thought she had said in Bangla. One needs to know the difference in Bangladesh between shami (husband) and shemai (a kind of sweet wheat-like snack) if one is not in good company – and even more so if one is.
The closest to a difficult situation I know, however, came from one foreigner staying at our Guest House who turned to the cook in the kitchen and asked for a spoon from him.
“I’m sorry sir” the cook replied in Bangla “I can’t do that”.
Irritated, but aware that possibly he had been not quite properly understood, the man demanded a spoon again. Now.
“I’m sorry I won’t do that sir” said the cook.
This was the moment that things could have turned sour as the cook was most certainly not doing his job. The foreigner, raising his voice but just keeping calm said “I need a spoon from you now!”
The more sensible of the two (the Bangladeshi of course) at this point asked him what he thought he was asking for in English and the man told him again that it was a spoon. It was then that the humble cook gave this educated and highly intelligent Westerner possibly the most important lesson he would learn in Bangladesh. That a Chamoch is a spoon but a chumu (which he had repeatedly said with such certainty) was not.
It was a kiss.
Thankfully, both were able to see the funny side of it and one of them, at least, left a wiser man.
The benefit of your greens
As one wise person once told me, the only way to learn to play Chess well is to lose. How true this is in all walks of life. We learn as we make mistakes. The wonderful thing about language errors when you are in the country of the language you are learning is that in making these errors we make friends along the way. Laughter always breaks the ice.
Despite this, there must be at least one Rickshaw driver in Dhaka who does not think highly of a young foreign woman we met whilst doing our language training there in the capital. She came into the language school in fits of giggles one morning. “Oh my goodness” she said, gasping for breath “I’ve just shouted at our Rickshaw wallah and called him a fruit!”
In trying to persuade him to go straight on (shoja) she had got more irate as he continued to not understand her Bangla and shouted “Shosha, shosha” all the more. Shosha, of course, is a cucumber.
Not all mistakes are good ones.
Since writing this post originally it came to my turn to lead an assembly for the entire school. The staff attended as did several parents too. I had the children up and moving acting out the nation ofIsraelbeing led by Joshua into the Promised Land. I spoke in English but also used some Bangla to help (I thought) the younger ones.
I intended to say that Joshua needed great strength shoktishali but under the stress of having over 100 kids running around and not quite understanding what was going on I said shoktishala instead. I had no idea why the room erupted into laughter nor why the teachers hastily shushed the kids until later when my teenage students delighted in telling me how my words had been interpreted.
I would seem, in a classic bit of re-writing of Biblical history, that I had suggested what Joshua really, really needed was a really strong prostitute…oops…