Hubby, exhausted by a heavy day, still had the energy to put on a tired smile and tell me about his colleague, a first generation immigrant like him, who, in the midst of a conversation, advised him in all seriousness that they should “nick the problem in the butt.”
Nick the problem in the butt. Nip the problem in the bud. Just another case of I say po-tay-to, you say po-tah-to in the great obstacle course that is learning a new language for a first generation immigrant. You can get a lot of verbal black and blues while stumbling around trying to get a grip on a new language. We’ve all been there.
Some funny qui pro quos come to mind. Often, they play out like an episode of Three’s Company, with both parties (and sometimes a third party) each giving a different meaning and interpretation to what they hear from the other. My secretary once announced that I had “Foster Farms” waiting to speak to me on line 2. Foster Farms. Like the chicken company? I asked her to elaborate and realized she meant it was someone calling in relation to a case I had been working on, trying to secure a client’s juvenile court documents showing he had been in foster care as a child. I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end answered, to my great surprise: “Hi, this is Janice, from law offices of Morrison and Foerster.”
When I started learning English at the age of 11, I did not go to an ESL class (not sure why). I sat day after day with a very worn out copy of the Larousse French to English dictionary trying to translate verbatim my thoughts for my English teacher. This resulted in many memorable essays such as “My summer vacation” where I expanded on how “the day was such a good day that I was feeling very gay.” Not knowing of course the connotation of the word “gay” in a North American contest.
My mom did attend an ESl class for a short time. A very proud woman, she did not want to let on in front of the others that she did not understand a word of what the teacher was asking her in front of the class. (Why the shame? They were all as badly linguistically equipped as her after all or they would not be in that class). So when the teacher looked at her nodding her head, waiting for a response, my mother proudly responded with a resonant YES in answer to the incomprehensible question. The gasp that came over the class left her a bit shaken but she smiled brightly and kept nodding her head at the teacher. Later, she found out if the teacher had asked if she had ever been in jail before.
A friend’s mom was trying to order the delicious French treats known as “crepes” at the local bakery. Naturally, she asked if they had any “creeps” at the store.
Another memorable day was when, at the age of four, I was speaking to my grandmother on a long distance phone call to Iran, after my family had moved to Nice. Nice being a very hot climate, there were a lot of flies and mosquitoes flying around, or “mouches” in French. When my grandmother asked me how things were over there, I enthusiastically responded that things were super except that “khoonamoon por az moosheh.” I shudder to think the series of expletives she later directed at my parents for having moved her beloved granddaughter to a barbaric abode run amok with filthy rodents!
One added problem for us immigrants who left Iran at an early age or were born outside, we have stumbling blocks in our so-called native language too. I once watched in horror as my husband was explaining to a very respectable elder Iranian lady how the “Aghed” who married us also performed the ceremony for his sister’s wedding and his brother’s wedding. “Ham mano kard, ham baradaramo kard, ham khaharamo kard.” He elaborated innocently.
The journey is not over. It is always continuing, for all of us. We just have to look at the bright side of it and learn to cope with the sometimes awkward situations we find ourselves in.
Please to enjoy Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing “Let’s call the whole thing off”: