Thursday, May 27, 2010

No English? No problem.

In a few days, I head to Australia, my first native English speaking destination since London. And, really? Can I even count London since all I did there was spend a night at Heathrow? So, for the first time in eight months, I'll be among native English speakers again and it's got me thinking.

Not knowing the local language and lacking an ability to speak  a language other than English has been less of  a hindrance to me than I could have expected. I had the hardest time in Barcelona (although I know a little Spanish), but for the most part people I interacted with knew at least a small amount of English.

Except when they didn't:

* An old woman, noticing my difficulty in crossing a busy Saigon street, gave me a knowing smile, grabbed my hand, and walked me across. She gave me  a friendly nod and walked off before I could even thank her.

* In Lombok I was on a bemo on my way back to my guesthouse.I was the only foreigner among six or so locals. It was getting dark and I was intently watching the road for where I needed to get off; I had a habit of walking or riding right past the guesthouse and I didn't want to make the mistake again. The man across from me said something in Bahasa, the woman next to me patted my leg and said something else, and I smiled and shrugged because I didn't know what either of them were saying. The man watched as I looked out the window and he made the same comment again. I surmised that he was asking where I was going so I said Pondok Siti Hawa, the name of my guesthouse. From that point, he kept a watch for me and had the driver stop when it was time. I said kasih (thanks) and selamat tinggal (goodbye) as I got off the bemo and was rewarded with smiles all around.

* In southern India I was looking for a cathedral that I'd seen from a distance. I stopped at an intersection, trying to pick which road to take. A woman yelled to catch my attention and, when I turned to look, she was smiling and pointing to the other road. I'd chosen wrongly, but her simple direction got me right to where I wanted to be.

* My host Dina deposited me on to local transport, but I wasn't really sure how to get to the museum, even with her directions. I got of f the bus when it stopped only because everyone else got off. I'm positive I looked more than a little confused. A guy questioned me in Arabic and motioned for me to follow him when I said the museum name. He walked me all the way there, clearly going out of his way because he turned and went back the way we'd come once I was dropped off.

* On a bus in Sumatra a man turned to me and offered a cigarette. (It's the polite thing to do in Indonesia and they're always offered all around.) At his stop, he gave me a nod of his head and a wave of his hand in goodbye and he was off. He never spoke, either in Bahasa or English, but the kindness in his gestures told me all I needed to know.

I'm sure there are many more examples, but these are what came to mind straightaway. A good number of others involve me pointing at a dish at a food stall and the vendor showing me the exact notes I'd need when it was time to pay the bill. :-)

The moral of the story is that not knowing the local language is NOT a reason to stay at home. Particularly if you take the time to learn even a few basics - hello, goodbye, please, thank you - people will be kinder and more helpful than you could ever imagine.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. why was your dad's post removed? only being curious and nosy . . .

    love those stories!! esp the first one.

    and how did i miss two psts? i have been looking every day . . . huh. xoxoxoL

  3. I've been a bad, bad boy. I hate it when Shannon pulls the administrator card on me :-O

    I was just being a smart-ass and going for a cheap laugh. It worked, I lmao! A couple of others got a chuckle out of it as well :-)

    I asked Shannon to remove it since it was not my intention to hurt her feelings or embarrass her. She made me promise to behave in the future though ;-)