Ahhhh you have the syphilis !

Language miscommunications are awesome. Some are so frustrating, some are so hilarious, others, when you conquer them, are cause for celebration. I have a few I like which I will publish here. This article will be edited and updated with more stories as I find them.

First is my own.

I was dating this girl, and she spoke reasonable English because she had an English tutor who came every night, but sometimes her accent and the inability of Vietnamese people to speak certain sounds without much practice would result in her saying weird things. One time she was trying to explain to me her duties in the bar she worked at with her sister. At the end of listing a few tasks she said “And we are the mice”. I went “Huh ? You are the mice ?”

“Yes,” she said. “We are the mice of the bar”.

I was like “WTF does that mean ? You run around eating cheese and scaring ladies onto tables ?”

“Huh ?”

“Well that’s what mice do. I have no idea what you’re trying to say”

“Give me your iPad. I’ll write it down”.

She wrote down that she and her sister were the “maids”. I translated into Vietnamese what she was actually saying and her response was “EEK ! No ! I hate those !”

Vietnamese people cannot say an s or z sound after a consonant. They don’t pluralise like that and that sound is not part of their language. After that I knew what to expect when they would say a really bizarre thing ending with a “c” or “s” sound.

Second story is also my own.

I was travelling from Hanoi down to Saigon by motorbike (an epic journey), and I had the incredible misfortune to first “lose” my Galaxy Tab when it went missing in my hotel room in Hanoi while I was out, and then I dropped my Galaxy SII on the highway near Da Nang. So I was without any internet or means of translation since I don’t carry paper dictionaries as I normally have enough computing devices to always do the job. I had something in my eye and it was red, so I went into a pharmacy near Hue to get some saline solution because I wear contacts and I needed to clean them. The problem was that when you go into a pharmacy with a red eye asking for eye drops, they assume you have an infection and it’s very, very difficult to explain that you just want saline, or salt water drops.

As I’m standing there frustratedly being offered all manner of topical antibiotics and other eye medicine I rack my brains trying to think of a way to explain that I just want salt water. Then it occurs to me. She’s a pharmacist, therefore she’ll know the periodic table. I ask her for a piece of paper and I write down two chemicals. “H20 + NaCl”. She goes “Ahhhh !” and smiles with understanding and goes and pulls some saline out of the cupboard. Yeah bitches. Science and math. The universal languages.

This one is just a text message. My friend sent me this text message one morning:

Sorry. Will be late getting to your house. My mother wants me to pick up two death chickens this morning

Death chickens ? Wow. I didn’t know the chickens here were THAT dangerous !!

The last one is potentially the funniest travel story I’ve heard in recent years. I was at a street bar a couple of week ago when I overheard an Australian guy tell this story which caused me to laugh so hard I nearly cried. It also proves that the funniest and most embarrassing miscommunications happen in foreign pharmacies. I mean, have you ever tried to mime “I have diarrhea” ? If so you’ll know what I mean.

So my friend and I both walked into a pharmacy in the countryside, and we are looking for pseudoephedrine or cold tablets because we both have runny noses. We walk in and there’s an old Chinese woman sitting there with a grey perm through her hair and she says “Hello. I help you?”

I say “We have the sniffles”, demonstrating by holding my finger to my nose and snorting.

She goes “Ahh yes. You have the syphilis. One moment” and begins pulling out antibiotics.

“No. Not the syphilis. The sniffles” my friend says, snorting mucus back into his nose.

The old lady just says “Yes yes. I know”, pointing at his crotch and saying “You have the syphilis” and pulls out a leaflet on Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

“No no ! Not syphilis ! Not syphilis !” I say, extremely glad that the pharmacy is empty rather than packed with a bunch of mothers and their children or something. It takes another several minutes of miming cold-related symptoms and not mentioning the word “sniffles” again before she finally stops pointing at our crotches and thinking we’ve been in a brothel.

Have you got a funny foreign language communication story ? Email it to pawzlion@gmail.com and let me know.

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