The Art of Language Mishaps

I love talking with other Third Culture Kids. We have some of the craziest, most hilarious stories to tell. The nights I’ve laughed the hardest are the ones when I’ve sat with other TCKs around a dusty table at an outdoor restaurant in Thailand, slurping fresh mango smoothies and ping-ponging cultural mess-up stories around the table.

Guess what?

I have a new story to tell. It happened last week. I’m just now getting to the I-can-kind-of-start-to-laugh-about-it point.

“It’s that bad?” you might ask.

Yes. It’s that bad. Trust me.

It all started with the typhoon that blew through Japan last week. More specifically: with the piece of awning that flew off our roof and landed in our neighbor’s vegetable garden during the storm.

Good news: We successfully treaded through his tomato plants to retrieve the piece of awning early the next morning.

Bad news: We were then faced with the awkward task of relaying our roof damage in not-so-fluent Japanese to the not-so-bilingual realtor of our rental house.

My parents like to call stretching moments like these “humbling experiences” and “opportunities for growth.”

My twin sister Sydney and I tend to think more on the lines of “the epitome of embarrassing” and “the height of humiliation.”

Either way, they usually involve sign language, moments of confused silence, and fervent prayers. This particular day was no exception.

Wayward roof awning in tow, my parents left for our realtor’s office that afternoon. They planned to explain the roof damage before their weekly grocery run. Everything went well. My dad called me with enthusiasm. “We did it!” he said. “The realtor told us he’ll send workmen over later to fix the roof!” I congratulated him, daring to suggest that this language moment hadn’t been too bad after all.

Boy did I speak to soon.

Allow me to make a suggestion. If your roof awning blows off during a typhoon and you must visit your realtor to explain the damage in your second language…and he tells you he’ll send workmen over to fix the roof… clarify the timing of their visit. Especially if you live in a punctuality-focused country, like Japan!

Why?

Not twenty minutes after my parents called me from the grocery store, the doorbell chimed. Assuming it was our neighbor with fresh vegetables from his garden, my four sisters and I hurried to the door.

“Konnichi….” A cheery ‘hello’ promptly died from two workmen standing on our doorsteps at the sudden barrage of blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigners. Clad in hardhats and tool belts, they shrank back in shock.

Eyes bulging, we gaped back. Apparently our realtor had called workmen soon after our parents had left his office. And based on the workmen’s expressions, he’d forgotten to mention the helpful tip that they were “visiting a foreigner’s home.”

Appearing slightly dazed, the workmen confirmed the purpose of their visit in snail-pace Japanese. We nodded apologetically and directed them to the damaged section of our roof. They bowed. We bowed back and hurried inside.

An excruciating moment passed. They tiptoed outside. We tiptoed inside, desperately trying to avoid eye contact through our open sliding-glass windows.

“Miss Murray!!!!!!!!!” A Japanese call beckoned us. We rushed back outside.

One of the workmen gazed at us uncomfortably, shifting feet. “Do you have the piece of awning that blew off your roof?” He asked innocently.

A moment passed before it dawned on us: Our parents had the roof awning. The roof awning was in the car. The car was currently at the grocery store.

I have a dad,” my twin sister feebly answered in Japanese.

I stared at her, trying to understand how family introductions connected to our current situation. The workmen looked utterly confused. She blushed, realizing her mistake, and furiously backtracked. “My dad has it!”

“Oh!” I blurted loudly.

“Oh!” the workman cried in a burst of understanding.

“And he’s at the supermarket!” I added.

“Oh!” the other workman exclaimed.

We stared at each other. Their politely-pursed lips wobbled with precariously-contained laughter.

“We’ll come back tomorrow?” they concluded.

We sheepishly grinned back and nodded.

Oh the joys of cultural mess-ups. Care to share your most recent one?


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