Painful experience has taught me that two people can have a meaningful conversation only if they talk the same language. It’s difficult communicating in English to a native of China who speaks Mandarin, but it’s even more difficult communicating in English to a native of America who speaks American.
Recently, on a domestic flight between two cities in the USA, I was seated next to a large American with an equally large voice and, I soon discovered, an even larger laugh.
“Drink, Sir?” The flight attendant was on the aisle beside us with the trolley.
“Whisky and soda,” I said. She nodded and looked enquiringly at my neighbour.
“Copy that!” he said. I was baffled. Surely she would point out to him that she was in no position to copy anything as she was in the middle of dishing out drinks and therefore not carrying a notebook and pencil.
But she said, “Sure!” and poured him a whisky and soda.
He took a huge sip, grinned and asked me where I was from.
“Singapore,” I said.
“What a ridiculous place!” He let out a guffaw so loud, his tray table trembled.
“Singapore,” I said coldly, “is a very nice country.”
“Yes, I’ve been there,” he said, “It’s awesome! It’s beautiful! It’s ridiculous!”
Oh! It was a compliment. Feeling less miffed, I continued: “Yes, I’ve lived there for 11 years and love it. It’s modern, clean and safe.”
“You can say that again,” he said.
“I’VE… LIVED… THERE… FOR… 11… YEARS… AND… LOVE… IT,” I said again, speaking loudly and slowly, “IT’S… MODERN… CLEAN… AND… SAFE.” He nodded encouragingly, so I went on: “Everything works. Even when traffic is slow, it moves at a fast clip compared to Los Angeles, for example.”
“You can say that again,” he said; then, seeing me fill my lungs, hastily added: “No, I don’t mean repeat it. We’re on the same page.”
This was impossible because neither of us had a book open, but before I could pursue the point, the attendant was back and he was ready. She refilled his glass and turned to me.
“What about you, Sir? Are you good?”
I was a little embarrassed by the sudden personal question.
“Well, I think I am, most of the time. But not always… the other day, for example, I downloaded a pirated video.”
“Very interesting, Sir,” she said, looking bewildered, “But would you like another drink or are you good?”
When she had gone, my neighbour said, “You’re not understanding us. Let me learn you some American phrases.”
“Let me teach you some American phrases,” I said before I could stop myself, years of correcting my children’s grammar automatically kicking in.
“But you hardly know any!”
“Sorry, I meant you should say, ‘Let me teach you, not learn you.”
“Oh, my bad,” he said.
I waited but he didn’t finish the sentence. While I was wondering whether he meant his bad comprehension of my English or his bad back or the bad plumbing in his house, he spoke again.
“If you travel to America often, you need to jump on the bandwagon of Americanisms.”
He explained that this was yet another Americanism meaning to join the movement.
I liked the phrase and decided to employ it back home. I was at a bar when a friend walked in. I waved him over.
“Hi Krishna,” I said, “I’m having a drink. Why don’t you jump on the bandwagon?’
“What?” he said.
“Join me for a drink.”
“I’m on the wagon.”
“No, you’re getting this all wrong,” I said, “You’re supposed to jump on the bandwagon and join me.”
“But I’m already on the wagon,” he said, “because I’m off alcohol. But wait… shouldn’t I then be off the wagon?”
“I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” I said.
“OK, I know another phrase: I’m totally into tea nowadays.”
“Sorry, I meant I’m totalling the tea.”
“I’m still clueless.”
“Sorry again,” he said, “I’ve finally figured out the right phrase. I’m a teetotaller nowadays.”
“Oh, are you?” I said, “Well, I need a drink. My mind is reeling.”
“So is mine. You know what? I’m going to get off my wagon and jump on your bandwagon. Get me that drink. And for God’s sake, let’s switch to speaking in Tamil.”
Paddy Rangappa is a freelance writer based in Singapore. Read more on his blog: http://theflip-side.blogspot.com
© Paddy Rangappa