Saturday, July 25, 2009

Language Is Not A Barrier

I spent this morning in the company of my mother and a lovely teenage Japanese girl called Rea, who we were meant to be looking after/teaching English to. We decided to take her over the hill to Lyttelton, and stopped at the lookout point, where Mum ran into a bus driver she knew and left me alone with Rea.

Rea and I walk up to the lookout point, which is called, cryptically*, the "Sign of the Takahe."

Rea reads the "Sign of the Takahe" sign. "What," she asks after a slight hesitation, "is Takahe?"
"New Zealand bird," I say, " a big pukeko."
"Pukeko?" Oh, right.
"A, um, another New Zealand bird. It is fat." (The other features of the pukeko have temporarily escaped me.)
"Does it fly?"
"No," I say, with more confidence than I feel, "it doesn't."
Rea looks unimpressed. "Our birds are not very good," I say, apologetically.
A pause while this sinks in.
I attempt to restart the conversation, sticking with the bird topic, which seems to be going OK.
"Are there many birds in Japan?""
Rea thinks about this for a long time. I am giving up hope of an answer when she says, with the air of one who has just come to an important conclusion,
"About one million."

When Rea imparts her new wisdom to my mother it turns out that in fact the Pukeko and the Takahe can in fact fly, and that our birds are perfectly all right and not 'bad birds' at all. I am reprimanded for providing false information ("Alice!") and my comment about loose lips sinking ships is not appreciated either ("Alice!")

Mum moves smoothly on from this by enquiring if Rea has seen any kiwi. (Mum teaches ESOL for a living and knows the right questions to ask.)
"Yes," Rea says, "but hidden." Presumably like the time I thought I saw a kiwi but it was actually a rock (kiwi enclosures are dark because kiwi are nocturnal (I think.)) "Was it a rock?" I ask. Rea looks at me with kind indulgence and Mother looks at me like I have gone completely off my gourd. I try to explain to Rea that 'kiwi' is Maori for 'secret bird', which it isn't, but this attempt at livening up New Zealand culture is unappreciated ("Alice!")

Eventually I had a cup of coffee and settled down, but I like to think that Rea had a morning both entertaining and educational.

This all reminded me of my favourite cross-cultural misunderstanding to date, which was a couple of years ago. I was at home for the holidays and was chatting to the family's Japanese homestay student, Shu, in a rather desultory fashion. Having exhausted the standard 'do you have brothers and sisters,' 'what do you find most different about New Zealand' and 'have you seen a kiwi' range of questioning, I decided to steer the conversation in a more meaningful direction. "What," I said to him, "are you going to do for a career?"

He spun around, eyes ablaze, and shouted, "I not Korea! I Japan!"

I tried to explain that I meant 'career' as in 'job' not Korea as in 'apparently the ancient enemy of your race' before he got his katana out** but somehow this translated as me explaining that Koreans were more employable than Japanese, which wasn't what I meant at all, and at the end of the conversation he thought I was a big fat racist which I'm really not (if you ignore that katana crack), and I felt simply terrible.

No more multicultural experiences for me.

*it probably wouldn't be so cryptic if I looked it up but fuck that

**not a euphemism


Holly said...

Hahaha oh dear! At least she did not get attacked and mugged by a kea, though, that would have been even worse!

Isn't it funny how some English words are much more difficult to explain than you'd think they would be! I have found that "principal" and "submarine" are rather tricky. Also "echidna" and "platypus"; but those are not terribly surprising.

Reaction of my ESOL student upon seeing a photo of a platypus on Google Images: "Is it...real!?" Yes. Yes it is. Not that I blame her for asking, the things are so bizarre looking1

Oh no at Shu and the Korea/career misunderstanding! That would have indeed been rather uncomfortable!

Kelly said...

There's an often told, very embarrassing story about kiwi from my childhood. I had pet rabbits and it was my bedtime ritual to go out and say goodnight to them before I myself went to bed. One evening, just on dusk as I went out to tuck them in for the night I saw something snuffling and poking its nose into the ground. I ran screaming my head off inside that there was a kiwi on our back lawn!!! Now had I stopped to think for a second I would have realised how absurd that was. I lived in the rural Manawatu, surrounded by nothing but dairy pastures for hundreds of kilometres. A very bemused Mum and Dad duly hurried out with me to inspect this national treasure on our back lawn....which was a humble hedgehog.

Charlie said...

My friend tells me many an awkward story of small talk and homestay students who cant speak much english. The Career/Korean incident sounds too funny for words, poor your!

jo said...

Seriously, that's one of the funniest things I've ever read/heard (Korea/Japan misunderstanding. Love your blog, it's great.

IT IS ALLY said...

Holly - yes, I know! It's always the weirdest words, too, and then when you try to explain them they make no sense to you either.

Kelly - hahahaha, that's awesome.

Charlie - yes...there were others, but that was the best one.

Jo - thank you! And thanks for commenting, I always get excited when I have new commenters. you have made my morning