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SAVAGE: Misunderstood: How to embarrass yourself in 3 languages

• Sep 12, 2017 at 2:00 PM

We all have memories of self-induced mortification, moments when the words that slip out of our mouths are so time-stopping that they hang heavy in the air, unable to be retrieved but taking their sweet time to settle in on the recipient.

My life is literally marked by those moments.

At age 26, while browsing a fine china shop for a nice urn for my mother’s ashes, I simply told the saleswoman that it was “for my mother” — which was true, sort of. I dodged her questions about my mom’s tastes for the supposed “gift” until she cranked up the pressure to buy an urn that was both too small and more than I could afford, assuring me it would fit my mother perfectly. At a loss, I simply said, “Well, the urn might fit Mom, but I’m not sure Mom would fit in the urn.”

My mother, who had an irreverent and irrepressible sense of humor, would have absolutely loved that.

My linguistic shenanigans aren’t just reserved for others; I am frequently my own best target.

In my younger days, when attending a high school reunion involved more nerves and revisiting of old insecurities than the joys it now does, it happened that my 20th reunion occurred at a time when I had lost a significant amount of weight. As I entered the reunion venue, feeling pretty darn good about myself, the half-slip I wore under my dress fell completely to the ground. With my slip around my ankles and without missing a beat, I said, “It looks like I’m just slipping a little!” and proceeded to toss the garment in the trash.

Here in West Michigan, the Dutch influence is felt everywhere, as is the outdoor (hunting and fishing) lifestyle. While visiting a large and popular roadside produce stand, which also sells a variety of decorative wooden windmills (how the tourists get these home, I have no idea), I noticed a big selection of boxes on stilts, large enough for a person to stand in. “Why on earth do tourists buy so many outhouses?” I asked the owner.

Again, the long, incredulous look. “The boxes are deer stands. They’re used for hunting.” You could conceivably do your business in one, as well, but the rest of the time waiting for a deer to happen by would be arguably unpleasant.

Nor have I felt the need to make a fool of myself in English only. Needing the proper clothes to attend a Sikh wedding, I once visited an Indian tailor shop. Overwhelmed by dozens of bolts of beautiful cloth, I approached the impeccably dressed owner and carefully recited my rehearsed script, asking him to create a “salwar paneer” for me. He took a moment, sized me up for the miscreant I am, and said in perfect British-accented English, “Madam, you have just asked for cheese pants.”

Most of my language-oriented transgressions involve Spanish and people who speak it. In my previous lifelong home state of California, with a population of 35 million, there are only perhaps 4 or 5 people who don’t speak Spanish. I am one of them.

My children’s father was a first-generation American. My kids had a Mexican last name and just enough ethnic ambiguity to pass in either culture. I sent them to a Spanish-immersion elementary school and, although they started kindergarten without a word of Spanish in their vocabulary, by Christmas they were fluent. Little 5-year-old minds are amazing.

Being half-German was not so important. Most of us Europeans left our culture far behind us, and beyond a ridiculous work ethic and a thousand recipes for preparing potatoes, little remains to remind my children of where we came from.

When we had a construction crew at our house, I tried to make them feel welcome, leaving a box of doughnuts on the kitchen table and reciting my carefully researched script to the foreman. “La caja de bunuelos esta en la mesa en la cocina” (“A box of doughnuts is on the kitchen table”).

The next day, the owner called to tell me the guys appreciated the gesture, and to point out that “we don’t call them bunuelos.” Interested to expand my incipient Spanish vocabulary, I asked for the proper term, pen in hand. His answer? “We just call them doughnuts.”

I’m also notorious for misreading signs. The kids and I passed a large parking lot where a fundraiser was taking place. There were posters of a sweet grandmotherly lady with the caption, “Dearly departed, gone to heaven” — and I suppose they were raising money for a funeral. I, however, read the sign as “Dearly deported” and authoritatively told the children, “I’m pretty sure they just go to Mexico.”

My cluelessness even transcends demographic barriers. When the Los Angeles-based gang the Crips began appearing in the news in the 1990s, I lectured my young children sternly on the philosophy that the term “Crip” was never appropriate in any way as a term of reference for someone with a disability, all the while privately wondering how all those people managed to commit such crimes while in wheelchairs.

For those of you, dear readers, who have lived and re-lived mortifying moments of your own, I hope my blunders bring you consolation. You’re welcome.

— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist

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