Friday, March 18, 2005

Linguistic curiosities

Hey! Okay, so I don't know that very many people read this enough to miss it, but my last post was well over a month ago! How terrible of me! I never did write about the other issue I was going to bring up, but I will try and post on that next week. Life has just been busy! BUT I will write about an experience I had with my girlfriend Bianca, who is Brazilian, the other night.

In America we have a silly version of the Birthday song that goes like this:


Okay, so Bianca was asking me what I said to a friend of mine about her. Jokingly, I said: "I tell him you look like a monkey, and you smell like a monkey, but I like monkeys, so it's perfect." I thought this was so ridiculous as to be amusing, but Bianca was kind of concerned. She said: "But I am not a monkey. And this person doesn't know me." We had some more discussion. Finally, it came out: In Brazil, the term "Monkey" is used this way in the same way people use the term "nigger" in the U.S. Okay, forgive me for using this deplorable word here. But these kinds of misunderstandings happen a lot crossculturally, so I thought it would be useful to examine it a little here, as it is very on topic for this blog.

So in Brazil, black people are called "monkeys" and it is very degrading. She said she knew that I knew she was not black and so she did not take offense, but she did not want me to joke like that around Brazilians because I might make a lot of trouble for myself. And she would appreciate if I not call her that because, even though she knew I was joking and meant no insult, culturally it is not a good thing to hear said about you. No problem. I, of course, apologized, and we moved on. And of course, Bianca missed the joke. I later explained about the birthday song. But she had not heard that in her time living in Miami, Florida. So the humorousness kinda bombed. Oh well. I hate when that happens. But see this is one way I make trouble for myself in Africa and in other places.

I remember doing a similar thing with a friend in Ghana once and people got upset that I was insulting him. They apparently have heard Africans called "monkeys" by whites in a degrading sense. Funny how I forgot all about that until now. BUT truthfully, because I simply adore Bianca, and she knows it, and we have a very playful relationship, I doubt I would have thought anything of it anyway. I would have thought she might get the culture reference and said it. So I am lucky she is patient and forgiving enough to allow me the error, but this kind of error is very important for those of us working cross culturally to note and try and not repeat.

Another example is when we were in Ghana and one of those street vendors so common in Third World countries kept bothering us to buy his wares. I made a sound and ran my finger across my throat to say "silence." A lot of people do this in the U.S. in my experience. Well, he looked very shocked and walked away and told friends and they all stared at me horrified. When I explained to my Ghanaian friend and hostess, she laughed and told me I had just threatened to cut his throat, so he probably thought I was an evil spirit now -- the scarey juju man, Bryan Thomas, bane to innocent Ghanaian street vendors. She and my companions found this quite amusing. I was horrified. That certainly is not the reputation I want in Ghana.

In Brazil the sign we often use for "ok" of the first finger curled back to the thumb with other fingers extended is the same as flipping the bird (middle finger alone extended) in the U.S. My first two trips to Brazil I really struggled to remember that, as sign language was an easy way around the language barrier. I did this several times without thinking. Luckily my Christian friends in Brazil were not only gracious but aware of the American use of this, so they did not take offense. But anyway linguistic curiosities, whether verbal or body language, do matter in this type of work. Please write of any other incidents or issues you have discovered, so we all can learn from them.

Be blessed!

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