18 September 2012


When I moved to Singapore a year and a half ago, I figured I would have a bit of culture shock. There were things I was going to need to learn, including a new language. I had a work colleague teach me to say, “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Where is the toilet?” in Mandarin before I stepped onto the plane. In the last 18 months, I have used hello…..maybe once. I have used the thank you phrase only when being served dim sum or thanking an elderly person I just assume understands Mandarin. I have never once used the third phrase.

When I imagined myself living in a foreign country and endeavoring to learn a new language, I never in my life thought it would be English. However, at a typical Saturday night dinner with the Browns last month, I honestly felt like I was a complete fool in a foreign land.

Clare Brown, a proper British mum, was visiting from Mother England, sharing with me her stories and her cooking. On one occasion, Paul and I were visiting, sitting in the living room, and the three Brits just took off with words and phrases that were so unnatural, I was giving Paul crazy telepathic gazes like, “Ummm….did you get any of that?”

It started from the time we walked in the door. Several times throughout the evening, I found myself butting into the conversation.

“Excuse me,” I said, hand in the air, looking at Nicola. “What does [that] mean?"

Duncan could not even think of the American translation. Nicola did.

Before I knew it, we were hearing about snogging and taking the mickey out of someone. When Duncan’s mom was talking about boot sales – and I don’t mean a girl’s favorite fall accessory. Boot sales are the British versions of garage sales (by the way, “garage” rhymes with “carriage”) and, while learning about them, we heard about pounds and quid and p. It took me a few times to figure out that “p” referred to what I call pennies. But, in a conversation where expensive items are being sold for “50p,” how am I supposed to figure out that’s cents and not dollars? Or quid. The conversation continued and I learned that people would drive their cars into fields or parking lots and sell their no-longer-needed goods out of boots.

Where I come from, boots and bonnets go on people, not cars. We vacuum, not “hoover,” and we fall head over heels, not “ass over tit.” We don’t often say “li-trally.” “Chalk and cheese” are definitely two different things but we would never put them in the same phrase together. When we give someone the peace sign, it's the peace sign, not something derogatory. 

I don’t remember another dinner we spent laughing so much. We were definitely “happy as Larry” by the company and the conversation that evening. One more thing - who is Larry, and what makes him happy?

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