Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dangling By A Linguistic Thread

One of the drawbacks (one of the many, actually) of living in a foreign country is that people sometimes talk to you. Shocking perhaps, but nonetheless true. No way around it, really.  Even in a country where the indigenous inhabitants generally abhor outsiders, consider them overly provocative, prone to rash and unpredictable verbal outbursts. And it's usually the deep, existentially challenging sort of stuff they want to talk about - can you eat fermented soybeans? do all Americans carry guns?
And you're thinking, damn, I wish I had my gun with me right now.
Adopting an expression that conveys scary intensity, or some quasi-dangerous version of mental illness, doesn't much help either.  Basically, people can't resist the urge to talk, even if it's to someone they consider the last person on Earth they'd care to speak with.

 Namely me.

I've tried wearing a sign around my neck conveying in several languages that I definitely do not want to talk to anyone, about anything, under any circumstances. There's always some guy who has to walk up and talk about the sign.
"So, like, what's with the sign?"
I point to the sign.
"Yeah, right. So, like, what does it mean?"
"It means," I say through gritted teeth, "fuck off!"
"So you do want to talk."
"Only to insult you and your entire family. Is that your wife over there? She's not pretty, not even a little bit."
"Yeah, tell me about it. She can't cook either. You married? Does your wife wear a sign? I wish mine would wear one."
At which point I remove the sign and begin whacking him atop the head with it.

Due to a brain injury suffered in childhood my primary foreign language processing center tends to be erratic; it splutters, yawns, fades in and out on a misguided neuronal whim. Most people's F.L.P.C.'s resemble a smoothly functioning computer network manned by highly efficient, smiling nanobots; mine looks like a telephone switchboard from the 1950's, run by one tiny, demented leprechaun. So when I'm forced to listen to someone talking in one of these jargon-riddled lingos, a typical sentence comes through something like this: 

 word - word - void - word - void - void - word (maybe) - void - word - void - void - void - word

And that's on a good day. By the time I've weighed all the variables and pasted together a possible meaning the speaker has generally given up and stormed off in a repressed rage.

I occasionally have the opportunity of spending a brief amount of time in a rather small room with several Chinese people (I know, it sort of sounds like a punishment, and in a way it is). They generally pretty much ignore me, but just having to observe them interact amongst themselves can be disconcerting. Chinese is a fairly aggressive-sounding language, laced with no small amount of barking and spitting; combine this with the Chinese person's proclivity to stand very close to anyone he or she is speaking with and the whole thing starts feeling a bit like happy hour in the psycho ward.
Anyway, recently one of them broke protocol, got close enough to actually touch noses with me and commenced what I can only describe as an all-out linguistic assault, Cantonese style, complete with waterworks.  Content, of course, was mostly elusive - the withered neurons in my foreign language center having immediately begun waving little white flags - but I definitely sensed a threat in progress; some sort of tirade perhaps on the corrupting influences of American culture, or possibly a not so subtle boast of emerging global Chinese superiority.

So I said,  "Oh yeah? Well at least where I come from people don't eat dogs."
"Dog?" he said in English. "I like dog."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"You have dog?"
"Like I might give you that information."
"I love a puppy."
"You monster!" 

Turns out that the guy keeps a Chocolate Lab as a pet and had merely come over to me to ask if I'd care for a cup of tea.

Not that sticking exclusively to one's native tongue ensures risk-free communication.

Recently I was foolish enough to attempt downloading the updated, 'new and improved' version of Skype, which surprisingly was simple enough, until the new version demanded my password.
My, uh ...
I have no idea.
What's the point of a secret password if it's so easy to remember?

Long story short, I had to open a new Skype account and choose a new password, which I can't exactly recall now, but that's neither here nor there. The only problem was that all the contact information from the original account had vanished. Okay, no big deal.  I want to call my daughter, so all I have to do is go into the Skype phone book and find her name. Except that there are like a hundred Skype users with the same name. How is that even possible? I decide to go into 'Skype Help' and inquire.

How is that even possible? I ask.
Everything is possible with the new and improved version of Skype, Skype informs me.
What now?
Start calling numbers. You have nothing better to do, and who knows, you may get lucky.

Call 1:
"Hello, this is your father."
Sustained silence.... "Look, just because my mother was stupid enough to marry you, like what, a month after my real father's bizarre death in that chicken coop, doesn't mean you're my father now."
"Well, I ..."
"And if you're calling to ask me to set you up again with one of my friends, just forget it."
"Uh ..."

Call 2:
"Uh, hi. This is your Dad."
"What? Are you out?"
"Of prison. Ma said another five years. At least that's what she's hoping."
"Uh, I am out, but I'm chained to the, uh, chicken coop."
"And just so you know, Dad, I never believed you mugged all those old women."

Call 3:
"Hello, it's Daddy."
"Oh, so that's your thing today."
"My ... thing?"
"The Daddy fantasy. Okay, Daddy, but I have to tell you that I've been a very bad girl."
"Well I hope it had nothing to do with the mugging of the elderly."
"Okay, look, the naughty little girl thing I get. But the elderly? No way!"
"But ..."
"Screw you, weirdo!"

And all of a sudden the void starts looking a lot more appealing....

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