Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Spanning the cultural divide

I've dealt with a few languages on this recent adventure, a bit of Korean, a lot of Chinese, some German and a smattering of Gaelic. It's been a bit of a challenge at times to keep straight where I was and with whom I was speaking, not unlike the beer I tried to order in Mexico over the Christmas holiday by asking for "yi ge cerveza" in my best Mandamexicanglish.

Tonight Tom and I went out for Chinese food at Miss Wong's in Leixlip. Feeling frisky and falling back into the food ordering routine of just 5 days ago, I decided to toss a bit of my Mandarin into the conversation with the three waitresses who were taking care of us. I started with a simple "xie xie" and moved up to a more agressive "kuazi" asking her to leave my chopsticks. I told her I spoke a little and she laughed and told me that my accent was really good. The next one came over and I chit-chatted with her a bit and she told my my Chinese was excellent. Following the cultural imperative of understating compliments, I said "nali, nali" which is what you say to deflect praise. She broke out in a big giggle and went over to the other girls and the bartender and told them that I had said "nali, nali" which put them all into a fit of laughter. Now we were speaking across the room and everyone was having a blast. Tom told me that if I had come in alone, I'd have had 3 dates for the evening. As we finished up, one of them came over and asked me how I had learned and why. I told her that Tom and I would be moving to China in one year's time for work, and that I had taught myself using a computer program. She was very impressed and told me that I was doing well. She asked if I had learned just Mandarin or Cantonese too, and I explained Mandarin only as we would be moving to Liaoning province in the north. Then we talked about the snow up there and how China was getting hammered this week by the weather. She was interested to know that it had snowed on me during my week in Dalian and again while I was in Shanghai. I asked for the bill by using "maidan" and they all started laughing again and repeated what I had said over and over. We finished up to a round of "zaijian!" from everyone and I honestly don't think the mood could have been better.

I think everyone's day was made by that little hour of fun. The restaurant in the tiny Irish town was empty on a cold January night when in walks a foreigner who blithers along in choppy Chinese much to the amazement of the workers. He laughs, they laugh, everyone's day is made a bit brighter. We can all work harder to make it a smaller world than it is, and how much gain from such little effort. For a moment, we were all of us Chinese, Irish and American simultaneously. What could be better than that on an average day when no one expects anything more than what happened the day before. Nothing I think.

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