On one holiday in Barbados we came across a language barrier that was unexpected. A word of warning first. This may be a little more difficult to understand than usual, but it’s because I do want to let you have a better idea of what actually happened and why things turned out the way that they did.
I’m not trying to be deliberately awkward or anything like that and I am certainly not trying to make any kind of racial stereotype, but sometimes it is incredibly hard to understand people for whom English is not their first language.
It began when we decided to eat in our apartment, but couldn’t be bothered to do anything as strenuous as cook.
‘How about getting a Chinese meal? No cooking – and their sweet and sour shrimp is delicious.’
‘Sounds good – but let’s not be long, I’m starving!’
So it was that we bowled into a local Chinese restaurant / take-away and ordered happily. Experience had taught us that the portions were simply huge and so we opted for half portions of shrimp and spare ribs, then we sat and waited. Which was when we somehow got onto the topic of Chinese Years. You know the sort of thing, one year is named after an Ox the next after a dragon and so on.
‘What year do you think this one is?’ asked Da Boss.
‘Oh it’s the year of the Rat!’ I answered airily.
‘Don’t start trying to sound knowledgeable!’
‘No, I’m not fooling you. I’m pretty sure it is the year of the Rat!’
‘Well I don’t trust you on this. You’ll try and get away with anything.’
‘No, he right. Is year of Rat!’ came a supporting comment from the other side of the counter.
I beamed at Da Boss.
‘See, I told you it was!’
I turned to the young Chinese guy who had confirmed my rather fortunate guess. And that was when the fun started.
‘So, could you tell me what year 19XX was?’ I asked, looking rather pointedly at Da Boss.
‘If you make anything of this, she hissed. Then you will regret it for a long time. There’s no need to broadcast my age to everyone in here.’
‘I’m just asking.’ I replied as innocently as ever. It’s one of those general questions that could relate to anyone.’
Da Boss’s eyes narrowed nastily. It was clear that I was pushing things just a touch too hard, so I backed off quickly.
‘Oh and what about 1978 or 1980?’ I asked, trying to muddy the waters slightly. By now the rest of the customers waiting for their orders had joined in with requests for various years and soon everyone was talking about the merits of whichever animal their year related to.
‘I a rabbit’ announced our Chinese expert.
‘Ahh and what does that signify? Does it mean that you are peaceful?’
‘No it mean I am quick and happy!’
‘What about the Monkey?’ I asked. ‘What does that signify?’
‘Monkey is quick too and fast at swimming!‘ came the reply.
‘No,’ I responded. ‘Monkeys can’t swim!’
‘Yeah man!’ said another customer. ‘I’ve never seen a monkey swim!’
The rest of the group looked at each other slightly quizzically but it was pretty clear that nobody could imagine monkeys swimming, let alone being quick at it. Our host was clearly a fool.
‘No you wrong! Monkey swim very fast, much faster than rabbits!’
‘We don’t have rabbits on the island, so I don’t know how fast they swim’ came the response from one customer. ‘But if they do swim I reckon they would be as fast as a monkey anyway!’
‘No, Risten. Monkeys swim alla time. Especially when they being chased. They swim away from danger!’
It was clear that our Chinese expert on the various years was absolutely sure about these swimming monkeys no matter what we thought.
‘Risten. When monkeys on ground and they frightened they crimb into trees and swim away evah so fast!’
That was when it dawned on us that he was absolutely right. We were the ones at fault. Well, to be precise it was our hearing that was faulty. The monkeys weren’t swimming at all. They were SWINGING, as in ‘Swinging through the trees’.
We all started to laugh when we realised our mistake and the rest of our wait for our meal was filled with giggling couples as we tried to imagine swimming monkeys as opposed to their swinging brothers.
So next time you think you hear about swimming monkeys or some such strange thing, do check first on the accent of the speaker. It could save a lot of embarrassment, but on the other hand it might mean that you miss out on a few moments of silliness and foolish images in your head.
Long live those swimming monkeys eh?