One way to prevent conversation from being boring is to say the wrong thing. — Frank Sheed
‘How do you say, ‘Your mother is a toad’?” I said, lifting my pen in expectation.
“I don’t understand,” said Josue, who erroneously attributes his frequent bafflement in my presence to English being his second language.
“Just…how do you say it?” I pushed.
“You don’t,” said Josue. “You never talk bad about the mommy. There’s the Virgin of Guadalupe and your mother. They are at the same level.”
“Yes, mothers are revered,” agreed Rosa, who was born in Tijuana. “They are off limits. What situation would you be in that you would need to say that?” Because I recognized that every answer I could give would be inane, I told Rosa I’d have to get back to her on that and then asked her how to say the more practical “Please speak slowly” in Spanish.
I had invited Rosa and Josue over for wine in exchange for a short lesson in Spanish phrases not found in the pocket translation book I planned to bring with David and me to Spain the coming week. My friends couldn’t understand why I was only interested in colloquial idioms or absurd phrases. I wasn’t much help, as my desire to use language to confuse or amuse the natives of faraway lands is impossible to explain. Even David, the person closest to me, couldn’t figure it out. When I shared some of the phrases my father has taught me in Korean, Japanese, and Italian, David said, “Why is it that when people are traveling as ambassadors of their country, the first thing they want to know is how to insult their host?” But he was missing the point. The phrases my father, my sister Jane, and I like to collect are not meant to insult, but to surprise and delight.
My father is a worldly man. As a war-game guy, he spends time on military bases abroad working closely with representatives of foreign governments. Though he insists the most important things to learn in any language are how to order a beer and ask for a bathroom, Dad prides himself on gathering esoteric idioms that he likes to strategically deploy. One evening, while out drinking with Korean officers, Dad gleaned a strong and creative way to shut someone up in Korean. He pronounces it, “Tak-cha-rah azsuma,” which, he told me with a smile, loosely translates to “Shut the fuck up, you old shop woman.” While drinking, one of the Korean officers taught the phrase to my father and goaded him into saying it to another Korean officer at the bar. “When I saw their reaction,” Dad remembered, “I realized this was a gem.”
Dad pocketed the phrase and bided his time until a few days later when, after one of his American colleagues and senior guy on the project was being particularly ornery, Dad tossed out the line. “Americans don’t know what it means, but Korean heads spin around,” Dad said. “It’s like an inside joke for the Koreans. Because they’re so face-oriented and status conscious, to do something like that is WHOA! They’re shocked when an American knows a colloquialism like that.” But it’s not only insider insults that Dad likes to collect. He often employs another Korean term (hyung, meaning “older brother”) to demonstrate his respect for the Korean commander with whom he works. “It’s a very polite and honorific term to use with another guy,” Dad said.
Jane was the first to follow in Dad’s linguistic footsteps — using language more as entertainment than exchange of information. As a teenager, Jane spent a day babysitting the children of a Japanese naval couple Dad was sponsoring. While Dad showed Mr. and Mrs. Shinohara around town, Jane kept their three children occupied by teaching them a song. When my father returned with the esteemed Japanese couple, the children were eager to show off their new talent. With her arm in the air like a conductor’s baton, Jane led the kids in an enthusiastic performance. As they began to sing, their parents watching proudly, Dad was having a different sort of reaction. He shot his eldest daughter a complicated look that Jane fully understood without the aid of words: This is not okay, what you did, but I’m way too proud of you to carry through on any punishment. Everyone wore smiles, but for different reasons, as the children chanted, “We like Jane! Jane is nice! Jane is good! We like Jane!”
While traveling through Italy as a single woman, Jane got by on two phrases. The first was Mi dispiace, ma sei stupido, which means “I’m sorry, but you’re stupid.” This collection of words spoken by a foreigner forced locals to wonder whether or not Jane knew what she was saying and, if so, whether or not she was serious. The other phrase, “Non rompere le mie palle,” meaning “Don’t break my balls,” was particularly enjoyed by Italian men, who found the idiom hilarious when spoken by an attractive young woman.
I have done my best to follow my father and sister’s path. Prior to visiting Japan, I studied the language with Rosetta Stone software. Unlike fast-learning travel and phrasebooks, Rosetta Stone treats language learners as children — it does not translate, but rather immerses one in a new language by way of photographs and labels. For example, a picture of a ball will appear, and a woman’s voice will say “bo-ru.” A cat will appear, and the voice will say, “nekko.” Eventually, one works up to “nekko to bo-ru,” for the picture of a ball and a cat.
The program took more time than I had anticipated, so I only made it to the third chapter prior to our departure. But that was enough for me to learn several childlike sentiments with perfect Japanese female newscaster precision. As I learned from my father, who says, “The weirder the shit, the straighter my face,” it’s all in the delivery. Dad has learned how to say, “Where is the shit ditch?” in Japanese and will sometimes throw out that question in lieu of a politer word for restroom. Dad told me, “I’ve perfected that stone face, to where they don’t know, and they’re always like, ‘Is he kidding? Does he know?’ and I go, ‘What, what?’”
At the party for David’s gallery exhibition in Tokyo, I applied my software lessons to breaking the ice. I walked up to Japanese businessmen and women at random and said, “Teeburo no shita ni iru otokonoko.” It means, “The boy is under the table” — a nonsensical comment at a gallery opening, but when said with a straight face and unquestionable diction, I may as well have been a monkey reciting Shakespeare.
“So you see,” I explained to David, with Josue and Rosa bearing witness, “I don’t want to offend, I want to befriend. Get it?”
“How could knowing how to say, ‘I have to pee like a queen,’ in Spanish make you friends?” David asked. Josue and Rosa nodded in agreement. I was alone.
By now the sun had set outside our living room window, and we watched as the San Diego skyline donned its evening attire. “Look over there,” I said. “You see that? All those sparkling lights? That’s Tijuana. Now that I think about it, speaking Spanish won’t be any problem at all for me. I can see Mexico from my house. That makes me, like, practically fluent. And, Rosa, I promise not to insult anyone’s mother.”