Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Old Rant Revisited

Today, five days into my new life in Brazil, I got pissed for the first time since I arrived. It was at the gym and it involved a cultural and linguistic misunderstanding. As my Portuguese leaves much to be desired, I was reminded of this short essay I wrote, almost four years ago to the day, while living in Barranquilla, so I thought I'd share. Careful...there's cussin.


When living in a country where the language is not one you were taught as a child, often there are no words. Literally.

So I'm grocery shopping the other day when I come out of the store with my food in a cart pushed by a teenage bag boy. We walk out into the very narrow parking area to get a cab to run me and all my crap the four blocks that i had just walked from my house to the grocery store.

Well, the width of the parking area is a serious issue because a woman was parked in her minivan, emergency lights flashing, reading a magazine, basically blocking any car from passing to her left, but also blocking my grocery basket from passing to her right.

All we needed was one inch of space. A pulgada.

The bag boy taps on her window and asks her to move up a little, as does the taxista. She’s like, I'm waiting on this parking space, pointing to the car next to the cab.

"Disculpa," the taxista says, apologizing for his error. I'm like, "No, no disculpa. She thinks the whole world has to wait for her. Other people have things to do today and all she has to do today is shop (I was 99% sure of that, given what I’m learning about the culture). I gotta get to work," I say. She hears me, which is good, ordinarily.

So the other car pulls out, she pulls up, and we start loading the cab with my groceries (well, the bag boy and the taxista do can pay people to do everything here). Then, and I got myself into this, she gets out of her car and starts talking, without looking me in the eye, "Lo que es aracataca. Aracataca bucaramanga bucaramanga barranquilla mompós.”

See, this is what happens to me when I'm annoyed or pissed. All the Spanish goes out the window and I end up having a thousand things to say in English and two words of Spanish.

Whatever she said, the bag boy and the taxista look at me for a retort, and all I can get out is, "I don’t know what the fuck she just said so lets just get this shit packed and get out of here" in English. Not having the time to engage in a lengthy confrontation with ol girl, nor trying to sound like a damn gringo who barely knows the language, I then say to their blank faces (in Spanish) that my Spanish isn’t good when I'm mad and I have to get to work. So much for going native.

(It's important to note here that I'm pissed a) because I would have won the argument and b) instead, I came off looking like a blithering idiot).

Later in the cab, when I'm calm, I say in Spanish, "All the she had to do was move up a fucking inch. She's a gotdamn sociopath, blocking the whole damn driveway when, if she knew the dimensions of her vehicle and how to drive the bitch, everybody could get to where they had to go." The taxista agrees with me, saying "Cali cali bogotá. Bucaramanga mompós."

I think I might be hard of hearing. Either that, or these fools ain't speakin' Spanish.

See, this is the thing. I've been blessed/cursed with the ability to mimic sounds almost perfectly. My French accent is so good, when i say "Pardon, parlez-vous anglais?," people ask me what for? (I guess that's what they say...they don’t say yes or no, so i assume that they assume i speak good French). I picked up the Dominican accent of Spanish so well during my time there, that people called me a liar to my face when i said i wasn't Dominican (more on that later) despite glaring grammatical and vocabulary mistakes. All that mattered was my ability to roll my r’s in words like ferrocarrrrrrrril and puerrrrrta and RRRRRRRRRRRRRepública Dominicana, whereas all the other Americans still said stuff like car-row.

So when I start speaking, my great accent is coupled with a decent vocabulary and a functional grammatical structure which indicates initially that I'm a native speaker. My "local" appearance also helps. But then, a few sentences later, folks start thinking, this muhfucka ain't from roun' heah. Hmmmm.

Well, when I'm angry about something, I really do lose it. It's like a foreign person in the U.S. who can hardly get a complete sentence together when she's short-changed a dollar at the grocery store. She might really need that dollar and she knows the cashier did the shit on purpose, so she's hot, all the while thinking, "Beeyotch, if we was back in China and you tried that shit, my posse woulda strung you up from a tree and slit you from guzzle to gut, then boiled the entrails and fed em to the pigs." But all the frazzled pobrecita can get out is a feeble, "" Cuz when you upset, you ain’t got time for all that thinking and translating foolishness.

So next time I see ol' girl in the parking lot, I'll just break out into a refrain of "Move bitch, get out the way."

Fly Brother welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment and/or click.


Anonymous said...

I know you wrote this when you were in Colombia, but how many folks in Brazil understand Spanish? I didn't think it was too many. Or is it close enough that they can decipher what you mean?

Fly Brother said...

Well, my Portuguese is decent enough to get the point across, but in the event I do have to fall back on Spanish, the more astute person can pick up the gist. The average person on the street, not so much (they think they understand Spanish). In Brasilia (and Sao Paulo), there are enough people who speak enough English to get by.

AmanZman said...

hahaha this was hilarious, i just stumbled on your blog. Good to see other black expats out and about. Quick question since ur in Brazil and I am in Mozambique, and apparently we both speak Spanish. I find learning Portuguese is really hard, cuz I just end up speaking Spanish an ppl have a general idea of what i am trying to they just let it go. Your thoughts/experiences?

Fly Brother said...

Welcome to the blog, A-Z. I think Brazilian Portuguese is a little easier for Spanish speakers to pick up than African Portuguese, specifically because the Portuguese spoken in Africa (like African English) is closer to European Portuguese (which sounds like Russian compared to what they speak in Brazil). There's also lots of influence from the traditional African languages spoken in Moz, with some English thrown in as well.

My problem has never been being understood; I'm a wiz at mimicking accents. It's my grammar that's fcuked up. So instead of people thinking I'm a foreigner, they just think I'm a local retard, because I can make all the right sounds. I will say that people who think Spanish and Portuguese are similar enough to be mutually intelligible are idiots who don't know shit about language. They're just far enough for people to be like, "whaa?" and just close enough to fcuk up your understanding of both languages. Often, they understand me. I usually don't know what the hell they be talking bout, myself.

chatnoir said...

LMAO! Chris Rock would have exploited every line of this post.At least you understand how we feel in a foreign country.

I think what you highlighted above wasn't understanding the language,it was "hearing" the words.You can pick up the subtle sounds and replicate them but you do not have the adequate tools to put a cohesive sentence together.

You have this sketchy perception of the Luso-african accent.It is almost offensive.That would be like me mesuring Lil wayne against a random scouser.

Je file f'ai trop de boulot à faire.