Sunday, June 29, 2008

Small Balls, Big Faux Pas

And people wonder why I am nervous about speaking Chinese or Korean.

Most of my language skills are self-taught. Learnt laboriously through a bizarre combination of comics, kungfu movies, books, dictionaries and friends.

As such, it means my pronunciation is highly dubious and my comprehension severely suspect.

Thus, I try not to massacre the languages unless forced to. I've seen and heard too many horror stories of people committing major faux pas with the best intentions.

Like the recent one I heard.

I was speaking with a young Chinese lady who is living in Korea. Her Korean is probably worse than mine which made her recounting of this story doubly funny.

When we were introduced, the hostess mistakenly introduced her to me as Korean so I immediately greeted her in Korean and did the formal introduction of my name. To which she started and, thinking I was Korean, she hesitantly returned the greeting in even more mangled Korean than mine.

When we realised we were both not Korean (no! really?!!), it was with much relieved laughter and embarrassment. Then I tried to speak Chinese, which sent us both into another level of hilarity.

Finally, out of pity, she asked that I speak in English. I was pathetically grateful.

We started chatting about the Korean culture and language and she told me the story of how her American boss bollocked up his first big presentation to a large local client.

According to her, he went into the boardroom and greeted them by something she verbalised as "chanmaneul". I have never heard this before and the closest I can think of is "cheukamaneul" which is, probably, totally the wrong spelling but essentially means "wait a minute" or "wait".

However, she informed me that it was a major boo boo by her boss as it means "You have small balls". Or so she was told by her Korean colleagues. 

It did not help that the clients were all Koreans. And males.

Although I have not, as yet, insulted anyone's private parts unintentionally in a foreign language, I have had my share of language faux pas.

Like when I asked "whose flying brother's boat and ship" was about when someone was talking about an email in Chinese. And accidentally frightened someone to death when I told him "I love" ("sarang") him because he was interesting when I meant to refer to "people" ("sarahm") as interesting, in Korean. And I inadvertently called someone a biatch when I meant to say she was crazy in Thai. Not that that made much of a difference, really, as she incidentally happened to be both.

It makes me highly nervous using my uncertain language skills but I reckon if you do not practise it, you will lose it.

So till I tell someone, unintentionally, his balls are small, I shall continue to blunder my way through.