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Asia Isn't Babel: The Lack of Communication is Cultural, Not Linguistic

September 2008

By Antonio Graceffo

At 102 stories tall, the Empire State Building was the biggest building in the world from 1931 to 1972. The massive structure was built by immigrants, people who came from all over the world, speaking a sea of languages. The linguistic communication issues in the skyscraper’s construction must have been mind-boggling. And yet, the project was completed in just about one year.

On any given Sunday, in my native town, New York City, Catholic mass is said in 29 languages. Include the synagogues, mosques, temples and Orthodox churches, and the number of languages becomes staggering. According to the Board of Tourism, 138 languages are spoken just in Queens.

So, how is it that New York functions so well, but I can’t get my coffee the way I like it in Thailand or Cambodia?

The longer I live in Asia, the less I understand it. I constantly have misunderstandings and problems with people, and the most common defense is “I’m sorry. My English is not good.” But to me, it is clear that in 90% of these conflicts, language is not the issue.

For instance, once when I was staying in a hotel near Ban Thaton, the light in my room didn’t switch on. I told the woman at the front desk, “Yu ti hong, fi mai mi.” (I know this probably wasn’t right in Thai, and my Thai is far from good, but I was trying.)

She smiled and said “yes,” but did nothing. So I repeated in English, “The light in my room does not work.” She just giggled and stared at me. I took her to the room and showed her that when I flipped the switch, no light came out. She flipped the switch about seventy-five times and then left. I assumed she was going to get me a key for a new room. Through the crack under the door I could see that the rest of the hotel still had power. After fifteen minutes, I decided, and rightly, that she wasn’t coming back.

I found her at the front desk watching TV. I asked, “What about my room?” I was met by a blank stare. We were starting over from scratch. It was as if the interaction of twenty minutes before hadn’t happened. Once again, I told her “Mai mi fi.” I pointed at the light over the desk and said, “no light.” Still no recognition on her face. So I brought her back to the room, where she flipped the switch seventy-five times and left. This time, when she returned, she gave me a candle and matches.

Now, I flipped out. “Give me a new room!” I demanded. She kept trying to push the candles in my hand and explain to me that you use matches to cause the candles to produce light, as if my objection hinged on the fact that I didn’t understand how candles work.

“NO! I want a new room.”

She returned to the TV. And I waited. Fifteen minutes later, I was at the front desk, screaming. During all of this, her adult son had been sitting quietly at the desk. He had seen everything, heard everything, but said nothing. Now, he stood up and talked at excruciating length with his mother. It was clear that she was explaining to him what had happened. But why does it take so unbelievably long to explain that the light in my room doesn’t work? Soon the uncles, cousins, aunts, grandparents and the court jester all piled out of the family’s living quarters, having a heated and lengthy debate about the light in my room.

After so much time had elapsed that I thought they had forgotten me, the son asked me in PERFECT English, “What seems to be the problem?”

At this point, I would like to point out that I am relating one experience in this article. But this isn’t a unique problem. I have a thousand similar stories. And any honest expat who has lived in Asia has a thousand similar stories.

“You know what the problem is,” I said angrily.

“No, I don’t.”

“But you were sitting there the whole time.”

“No.”

This is the Asian No. It doesn’t actually mean that he is disagreeing with the fact that he was sitting there, only with the implication that this means he knows what happened.

“How do you not know what the problem is? Your mother just explained it you.”

“Yes?”

This YES is sort of a noncommittal yes with no meaning whatsoever, which Asians use when arguing. I still haven’t figured out why.

“Yes, so she explained it, so you should know.”

“No.”

“No, what? Your mom didn’t explain it to you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“She doesn’t speak English.”

“Your mom doesn’t have to speak English to explain the problem to you.”

I took the son and the whole family to my room. One by one, they had to try the light switch 70 times each. Finally, the son said, “I think the light is not working.”

If this guy had worked for NASA, the Challenger crew would still be alive.

“I will give you a new room,” he said. “All you had to do was ask. Why the foreigner they get angry all the time?”

“I told your mom it didn’t work. Why didn’t she just give me a new room?”

“She doesn’t speak English,” he repeated.

“And because she doesn’t speak English, she doesn’t understand that light is supposed to come out when you flip the switch?”

“Yes.”

Since this incident, I have done research and have been able to verify that in a number of non-English-speaking countries, including Thailand, light switches are common devices. So, speaking English is not a prerequisite for understanding the magic of electricity. In fact, my father speaks English as a second language, and yet is a licensed master electrician.

“She runs the hotel. She lives here every day. Surely she must have figured out how the lights work.”

“No.”

“If she didn’t understand the problem, then why did she try to give me a candle?” I thought I had him here.

“You want a candle?”

Touché!

As previously stated, this is not an isolated occurrence. It is extreme in Thailand and Cambodia, but similar things have happened to me in China, Korea, and even the Philippines, where I just can’t believe that the language was the issue. Some people blame this lack of communication on a lack of education, but everyone living in a house with electricity knows how a light switch works. Also, the educational level in Korea is very high, and yet you could have similar experiences. In the Philippines, English is the second official language. In fact, because at least 80 dialects and languages are spoken on the 1,700 islands, English is often used as the lingua franca among people from different areas.

Last night, in my guesthouse in the Philippines, I sat with a group of French travelers who spoke not a word of English. My French is so unbelievably bad that I am embarrassed, but we had no choice. If we were going to communicate, I would have to speak French, which is my tenth and absolute worst language (other than Thai). They asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a journalist. “What do you write about?”

“I was in the city jail today.” I answered.

“Oh, we were there, you mean the penal colony.”

“No, the penal colony is different, but also very interesting.”

Bridging the cultural gap, I mentioned Jean Valjean and Papillon. We had a good laugh about Victor Hugo, the film version of “Papillon” and the Broadway version of “Les Miserables.” We talked into the night. My French is baby talk: no grammar, really bad pronunciation, and sometimes I use Spanish or Italian words because those are my maternal languages. But the point is, I was the same intelligent person I normally am when I speak English or some other language I feel comfortable in. And I wasn’t any more content with an inane discussion in French than I would have been in English. I never asked “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” I didn’t point at every object in the room and ask “do they have that in your country?” I never asked “what kind of fruit do you eat for breakfast?” I didn’t care what they ate for breakfast. And they didn’t care how many siblings I had. But we did enjoy talking about the Spanish colonization of the island and what vestiges of European culture and language had survived.

I have never lived in France. In fact I have never spent even a single night there, but if I did, I am sure I would know that the laws of physics apply as they do in the rest of the world. And I would probably be able to figure out the light switches.

Why do Asians seem to find it absolutely impossible to communicate with anyone who doesn’t speak their language perfectly? In New York, I see a Serbian businessman get into a taxi driven by a Pakistani, and they manage to get to their destination. How is it over here even speaking the language doesn’t help?

I have been stonewalled trying to buy photographic equipment or computer accessories in specialized shops in a lot of countries in Asia. The excuse was always, “I don’t speak English.” And yet, the word for any of the components I wanted was the same in the local language as in English. I had this with trying to get digital photos made with 300 DPI. 300 is sam roi in Thai, and DPI is DPI. I had this trying to by CDs in Cambodia. The Khmer word for CD is CD.

A friend of mine was trying to buy 40 routers for his hotel. The router he wanted was sitting on the counter in the shop. Every time he asked if they had a router. The answer was either no, or “I don’t understand.” And of course, router was the same exact word in the local language.

The best one was yesterday, trying to order a sandwich in the Philippines. Suddenly no one knew what a sandwich was. In the end I had to eat a hamburger. When I got back to my room, I looked up the Tagalog word for sandwich. Sure enough, it was sandwich. In many countries, it doesn’t even help to speak the language, because all technical words are the same, and it is the technical words that are tripping them up.

While riding my bicycle from Chiang Mai to the Burma border, I stopped at a roadside eatery which only served one dish, noodle soup. I greeted the girl: “Sawadii krop.” When I knew she was looking at me, I pointed at my stomach and said, “Pom yu mack,” I am very hungry. “Anni ao krop. Anni yak gin krop.” I want this one, I said pointing at the soup. Then I repeated, “I want to eat this one.” I sat down and waited. Twenty minutes later, I went back and repeated the whole performance. After another twenty minute wait I started yelling. The girl called her father who spoke a little English “What is it you want?”

I want to eat, you chowder-head.

“What would you like to eat?”

You only have one dish, genius, I will have that.

He gave me my soup.

Is this a linguistic issue? Is it really that she didn’t understand my Thai? There is no doubt in my mind that my Thai sucks and is completely non-standard and wrong, but in a restaurant with only one dish, it might be a good guess that the person who came in and sat down wanted to eat that one dish.

In China, I picked up an item in a shop, held it up and asked the woman how much it was. At that time my Chinese was extremely fluid because I had been living in a temple for several months. She just stared at me and giggled, then went on about her work. I shouted again, a bit louder and she looked at me again, giggled and went back to her knitting. The third time, I shoved it right in her face and screamed “how much is this?” She said in Chinese, “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”

“But I am not speaking English. I am speaking Chinese.”

“No, foreigners can’t speak Chinese.”

“But you understand what I am saying, right?”

“Yes,” she answered reluctantly.

“And you don’t speak English?”

“No.”

“So, I must be speaking Chinese.”

“No, foreigners can’t speak Chinese.”

I put the item down and I apologized. “I am sorry. I wish I had learned Chinese, because then we could talk.”

“Yes, but foreigners aren’t really smart enough to learn Chinese.”

“Yes, we are real idiots.” I agreed.

© 2007, 2008 by Antonio Graceffo. All rights reserved. An Italian-American originally from Brooklyn, New York, Antonio Graceffo has lived in numerous Asian countries for many years, working as a martial artist and journalist. His most recent projects include accompanying rebels in Burma (see his YouTube films here), serving on an ambulance crew in the Philippines and teaching English, wrestling, Tae Kwan Do, writing and public speaking in Taiwan. Visit his website at www.speakingadventure.com and look for his books on Amazon.com: Rediscovering the KhmersBoats, Bikes and Boxing Gloves: Adventure Writer in the Kingdom of SiamThe Desert of Death on Three WheelsThe Monk from Brooklyn: An American at the Shaolin Temple and Adventures in Formosa.