Monday, July 7, 2014

Extreme Language Barriers: San Francisco Edition

This past weekend, I found myself in the middle of several situations in which language and/or culture made conversing either awkward or impossible. I'm not a stranger to these situations, having lived or worked in other big cities, and I've usually been able to sort through them without turning into an awkward mess. That wasn't the case this weekend, so here they are:

1. I was casually chatting with my Indian housemate in the kitchen a couple nights ago. He was telling me some things about India and then told me he doesn't like the milk here, in the USA. He said it's too liquid-y here, and that he's used to boiling it back home. I said, "Oh, cool!" thinking it was something he did to enhance the flavor, like how some people heat up a glass of warm milk before bed. This wasn't the case. He told me it was not, in fact, "cool," and that it's done to kill the bacteria in the milk because it isn't always pasteurized. And so it was awkward and I felt like an idiot American.

2. As I was leaving the house to walk to the grocery store, our neighbor, a small, elderly Chinese woman, rushed up to me and started speaking to me in very fast Chinese. I took a semester of Chinese in college and maybe remember two words. "Hello" and "cat." She was saying neither of these things. And for all I know she was speaking a totally different dialect anyway.

She was also holding a key and kept gesturing for me to take it while also gesturing at her door. I assumed she was having trouble opening it, so I let her place the key in my hand and I tried to unlock her door. All the while, she was still rapidly speaking Chinese and then I realized I wasn't entirely sure she was my neighbor because I've only seen the neighbors from a distance and then I started thinking, "Is this even her house? Am I helping this woman break into this house? How did I get here?"

After a while, it was obvious the key wasn't going to work. I shook my head and said sorry even though I knew she couldn't understand. She continued speaking Chinese and started gesturing at her ear. I thought maybe she wanted to use my phone. I was afraid she'd run up a bill calling someone in China, but I wanted to escape the awkward situation so badly that I offered it to her anyway. It was apparently not what she wanted because she refused it. And so I was at a loss because I have no idea what else people hold up to their ears or what that might have to do with a key or a door, so I looked apologetic and mumbled an, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." And she smiled warmly as if to say, "That's okay. Thanks anyway" (even though she was actually still speaking very fast Chinese) and she waved me on. I still have no idea what happened.

3. Yesterday afternoon, I was lying in bed when my bedroom door was suddenly and very forcibly yanked open. I had the chain lock on, so it caught, but through the crack I could see (a different) small, elderly Chinese woman staring at me. I should mention that none of my housemates are small, elderly Chinese women. I should also mention I spent a good part of the weekend watching East Asian horror films, so my first thought was that one of them was actually real and this was the end for me.

I think it says a lot about how quickly I'd accept my fate in an actual horror movie by how quickly I got up to unchain the door. However, upon seeing the woman was holding several cleaning supplies and noticing the kitchen was looking especially tidy, I deduced she must be someone hired by the landlord to periodically clean this house (which makes sense, because the landlord is also Chinese). Also, she had apparently just mopped the floor and I wasn't wearing socks or shoes and so I was now wading in a puddle of what smelled like Lemon Pledge while she (like the other woman) immediately starting speaking in very rapid Chinese and gesturing around the kitchen. And (also like the other woman) she clearly wasn't saying either "hello" or "cat."

I couldn't really do anything except stand there looking sorry and saying sorry, but then one of my other housemates came out of his room and starting speaking to her (in Chinese, which I didn't know he spoke, but which was very convenient). So, since I was clearly useless, I just sort of shuffled my way back through the Lemon Pledge and into my bedroom.

And thus it was a very awkward weekend. All this on top of my landlord also coming into my room because I guess he mixed up his calendar and thought I was supposed to be gone by now (when I have this place rented until August).

I did, however, manage to squeeze in some retail therapy in-between the awkward moments and I purchased a sweater with Einstein's head on it (and also his eyes are replaced by huge diamonds, obviously), a polka dot cap, and some other things I'm sure I'll take selfies wearing later.
Because I'm obsessed with dressing room selfies.
Left: Trying to look creepy in the H&M dressing room (and also the polka dot cap).
Right: The most amazing sweater ever created.
-joe