I am sure that quite a few of you might be residing in cities where you don’t know the ABC or Ae-Be-Che or rather whichever way the script goes of the local language. People in such circumstances would have a lot of stories to share.
This becomes most problematic when you travel, or go shopping, and in case of vegetarians like me when you hunt for food. During my initial few days in Kuala Lumpur, there were instances when I would walk into a restaurant and ask if there was something veggie. Malaysian food is full of fish, meat and if nothing else anchovies for the flavor. People like me asking for vegetarian were a totally rare sight for them. The lady servicing this mad customer would give a blank look.
Okay! You did not understand, is it? Fine! Here I go again! Do-you-have-anything-veggie? I would stress each word to try to make her understand. She would give me a “Where-on-earth-have-you-come-from?” look and say “Don’t-have” with a wave of her hand. “I have better customers to attend to. Good riddance” I can almost hear the words in her mind.
Now the above belong to the “I know some English” cadre. The experience is best when you have someone for whom English sounds the way a tribal language in the deep jungles of Africa would sound to you and me. One such fellow was sent to do some general repairs in my home by the landlord.
I was alone at home with my three month old son. This guy rings the bell and comes inside and says Hi.
“Obang?” he says.
Now it was my turn to give a blank look.
“I am sorry I don’t know Malay”
Well, repeating it twice will not make me a Nobel Laureate in Malay Literature.
“Ladder?” I ask trying to help.
“Obang! Obang!” and he starts walking around the house and exploring
“Bathroom? Yes the heater is not working” I say slowly and firmly trying to make the best imitation of the lady who used to come on Doordarshan at 1:15 on Sundays. News for the hearing impaired.
“Obang” and he shows me his hands with three fingers open and the thumb and index finger closed.
“Yes there are three fixes to be done”
“O-baaa-nnn-ggg” now putting so much stress on each syllable is not going to drill any amount of Malay vocabulary into my head.
He puts his hands on his hips and looks to the left and then to the right.
I stand like a school student whose teacher has just asked her “now what is fourteen times twenty-three”. Not those prodigies who have the answers stored somewhere or the other in their brain.
There is a minute of awkward silence.
Now he looks at me with a “Lets try it again” expression and says “Obang” moving his hands backwards and forwards showing three again and again.
Is he telling me that the interiors are superb? I wonder. Naaaah.Why would he repeat it so many times?
“Obang Obang” and he peruses the walls.
Luckily my neighbor is at home and I rush to seek their help.
“There is a guy out there speaking only Malay and I can’t make heads or tails out of it.”
My neighbor’s son, a fifteen year old comes with me.
“Obang!” our man in question repeats with a relieved tone.
“Obang means hole. Is there a hole on the wall to be sealed?” the boy asks me.
Oh dear! All this while he was showing a hole with his thumb and finger and I was looking at the three shown by the other fingers.
Now that was a fix that was not there in our initial list and I had not remembered it. Even if I did remember, it would not have made any difference. I would have still been the non-Malay-speaking-idiot-who-has-landed-from-God-knows-Where.
With the help of my fifteen year old translator I managed to get things done.