My English Faux Pas
Right from the early days, my life was full of faux pas. I grew up in a virtually all-white urban town where the biggest prejudices were between the various Europeans (with Poles getting the brunt of it) and various Christian faiths (my father told us to stay away from Catholics). So there was not much real diversity.
I had never met Jews until my first year of college at Cornell University where half my dorm floor were Jews. I learned a lot about Jewish customs in the next year — well, New York, non-Hassidic Jewish customs. And like many of my learnings, they were born of mistakes.
It was Autumn and my new friends (80% were Jewish) and I were all sitting around a noisy cafeteria table talking. One guy across the table said something about doing something with a “Kike” — which I didn’t understand. So I yelled out across the table, “What is a Kike?” But it ends up he was talking about a “Kite”, not a “Kike” and my comment was met by very stern faces. And quickly someone said, “That ain’t funny.” Only later did I find out my mistake.
My Chinese Faux Pas
When I lived in Sichuan, China, one of my favorite hobbies was the board game called “WeiQi”. It wasn’t hard to get a good working ability in basic WeiQi terms and very few people socialized during the game, so it was easy to fit in at the local WeiQi parlor.
Of course learning food terms was more important than WeiQi. I loved Sichuan food and tried to taste every dish I could find. I even created several menus to help the Peace Corp volunteers who I was employed to care for. During my food studies I learned that monosodium glutamate (MSG) was used in much of the local cooking. So when I became a bit braver with my language skills, I decided to experiment asking cooks to leave the MSG out of my food. But my first few attempts went very poorly. The conversations seemed to go like this:
Me: I don’t want MSG.
Cook: We don’t have MSG.
But I knew they used MSG and didn’t know why they did not admit it that they even had it. And indeed, after my requests, I could always taste the MSG in my food. After several attempts and failures I decided to look up monosodium glutamate again — and I found my mistake. First, I had not really understood the importance of tones, next my pronunciation was bad.
monosodium glutamate (MSG) –> 味精 (Wèijīng) here, Wei is a falling tone
The Game of Go –> 圍棋 (Wéiqí) — here, Wei is rising tone
It seemed that I got my two language realms mixed up. To the cooks, the conversation sounded like this:
Me: I don’t want WeiQi.
Cook: We don’t have WeiQi.