We watched a comedy movie on Monday, Asal Aswid (Black Honey), about a guy who lived in the US for 20 years and then came back to Egypt. We were with two Egyptians who laughed uproariously throughout. Even if there had been subtitles I probably wouldn’t have gotten it, since many of this guy’s foibles were very specific to Egyptian culture and customs.
The movie deals hilariously with his readjustment and the odd cultural differences and idiosyncrasies you have to be Egyptian to really understand. For me, it was weird just seeing what I’m going through fictionalized and put on screen, except this guy actually had the language down pretty well. Well, he was a bumbling idiot with the street smarts of a drunken Care Bear, but that’s beside the point.
The point is that I still have a lot to learn about this culture. My “notes to self” so far:
- You WILL f*ck up the language as a language learner. It is going to happen even if you review vocabulary every minute of every day, even if you fall asleep to language drills, even if you try to say as little as possible. I still crack up about one of the first language gaffs I had in Alex. We were at a very nice restaurant at the Library of Alexandria and I tried to order a strawberry juice. I forgot the word for strawberry (farawla) and knew what it sounded like, so I said the closest thing that came into my head. Very precisely and primly I said, “3aseer faraag, lawsamaht” (“chicken juice, if you please”). The waiter stood there confused and stifling giggles.
- Even if you make mistakes, commit to saying SOMETHING. I often have these language gaffs where it’s a simple issue of substitution. For example, I might confuse two words that sound quite similar, “Kazaab” and “gazaab” that are miles apart in meaning. Wanting to call someone out on a lie, I might accuse them of being the latter instead of the former and I will have called them “ATTRACTIVE!” instead of “LIAR!” Similarly, I might want to express my fatigue, but with a slip of the tongue I will have announced that I am, contrary to popular belief, a snake (“Ana ta3baana” vs. “Ana tha3baan”).
- When in doubt, go slow and use any available resources to make your point. I swear I will be a master of Charades and Pictionary by the time I leave here. Every other moment I am using gestures and facial expressions to explain or question something. I usually end up more satisfied and more likely to remember the word for whatever I just explained if I don’t use English or another language as a crutch.
you WILL look equally absurd
- Get someone to go through nonverbal expressions with you. Egyptians favor the “limp fish” handshake over the firm American one and if you’re of the same sex as whoever you’re meeting, you can expect to kiss cheeks. Also, know if your stock hand signals might be offensive. Your thumbs up could be another’s “please, take a dump.”
- Master the everyday expressions. Most of my interactions are made easier because I know the words for “Yes,” “No,” “Thank you,” “Please,” “Goodbye,” and “Where is the toilet?” and can pronounce them correctly. In a pinch, learning the numbers from 1 to 100 is a huge help and “Excuse me,” “Speak slower,” and “Leave me alone” are great, too.
- Put your best foot forward. As a traveler (not a tourist) I am here to acclimate myself to the culture. That means being at my best whenever possible to make sure people feel comfortable talking to me (even though I sound like a beluga whale sometimes).
your brain on foreign languages
Part of this is how I dress and how I carry myself, but some of it is watching my words. I have been known to curse like a sailor when the mood strikes so I am trying to resist the urge to learn the curse words in Arabic for fear of their becoming the majority of my utterances. They sound so much more eloquent in Arabic, too! None of that grating nasal stuff from English…
- Don’t assume you’ll automatically understand things that look familiar. Case in point: Egyptian traffic. IT IS INSANE. Everyone might be heading in the same direction, but the concept of lanes appears to be moot and cars may not stop for pedestrians. They will honk, definitely, but they will probably not stop. I feel like I’m in a massive game of Frogger every time I cross the street. (see cursing, above)
- Expected behavior will be different, too. For example, people seem to be ok with just throwing their trash anywhere. I watched a woman today throw all her used tissues, a sandwich wrapper and an empty plastic bottle out the window of the tram. If there are anti-litter laws, there isn’t any enforcement, so there is a lot of rubbish all around. This does not mean you are obligated to participate, but just don’t make a scene every time you encounter the foreign phenomenon.
- Even the appliances may not work in your favor. I was in the bathroom of the local mall and couldn’t get the toilet to flush properly (A pox upon you, low water pressure!) so I turned a knob I thought was the flush, but instead I was hit with the bidet function straight in the pants! Thank goodness I was wearing dark pants anyway, but still! Turns out I was just one hour of walking around looking like I’d suffered a bout of incontinence away from never underestimating the power of thinking I know more than I do.
- Things will be confusing and seemingly contradictory, but it’s best just to relax and have a good time with it. The worst or most embarrassing things that happen are usually the best stories.