Another cardinal rule of learning to speak a foreign language is to keep a chuckle handy. Let’s face it: unless you’re a linguistic genius who ingests language like a Labrador gnawing on the corners of a coffee table, you’re going to make some language blunders. And if you don’t, I’m done talking with you anyway. But let’s assume that you’re a loveable human who needs practice and slips up on occasion. When you do, people will be present; and these spectators will be vastly amused, because, after all, you’re the one who looks like a buffoon. In these cases, it’s best to belly laugh along with them. And if you need an example of how to do that in a truly embarrassing, absolutely mortifying scenario, read on.
My Indonesian language teachers did their best to keep my sessions lively. They took me on field trips, fed me food, and once I graduated from toddler status and could actually hold a conversation of more than two sentences that didn’t request directions to the bathroom, they began throwing in tidbits that related to new vocabulary. The day I acquired the word for butterfly (kupu kupu), my teacher lowered her voice and told me that if I added a word (kupu kupu malam), then the meaning morphed into slang for prostitute. I nodded and made a note of this, but as I was assimilating this newly acquired info into my brain, I dropped the mental file folders and accidentally stuck the wrong term in the Safe for Public Pronunciation folder. This grave error went unnoticed into the recesses of my brain until one fateful day.
I stood at the jewelry counter, tapping a fingernail against the glass display case, trying to figure out what was wrong with this man. Clearly, he was hiding something. I had entered the silver filigree store with one goal in mind, to purchase two butterfly brooches for my mom and sister, and this guy was giving me attitude. Of course, what I was trying to communicate and what he was actually hearing made all the difference.
“So what you’re telling me is that you don’t actually have any prostitutes today.”
He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot and refused to meet my eyes. “Of course not! We never have those in my establishment!”
“But I was in here just last week, and I saw several of them in here. What happened to those? Did you sell them all?”
He mopped his forehead with a rag and stuttered over his words. “No! I would never sell those! We don’t sell those here!”
Ok, now he was just lying. “Look, I remember seeing them spread out on a velvet backdrop with their wings open. Perhaps you moved them?”
The man raised his hands to his head and clutched two fistfuls of hair. “No! I didn’t move them because they were never here! Who told you this rumor?”
“I saw them with my own eyes!”
At this point he broke off muttering something about the devil and disappeared behind a curtain. A woman emerged with a confused expression and inquired as to how she could help me. Finally. Maybe now I could make some progress.
“I’m looking for some prostitutes.”
Her face looked like an Etch-o-Sketch that has recently been shaken. “Prostitutes.”
“Yes. I saw them in here last week.”
She pulled a piece of paper from beneath a nearby desk. “You can draw for me?”
I shrugged. Whatever gets the job done. Besides, I was a prodigy at drawing these in elementary school. I did one of my best outlines, complete with antennae, and as I slid the paper her way, a smile turned the corners of her eyes into crinkles.
“Oh . . . you want butterfly pins.”
Wasn’t that what I’d been saying for the past ten minutes? “Yes, prostitutes.”
She shook her head and repeated for me, “Butterflies,” and I caught on to the difference. And then wished I could drop straight through the floor.
But as she pulled a small tray of a lovely selection of winged brooches from beneath the counter, the hilarity of the situation struck me like a sugar-crazed kid on a piñata, and mirth spilled out. I laughed as I chose the pins, laughed as I paid for them, and laughed as I bid the lady farewell and exited the store. All I could think of was a modified Mohammad Ali phrase: Search for the butterfly but avoid the police sting.
© 2013 – Traci Carver