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Wednesday, December 17, 2008  

Lost in Translation

A couple of weeks ago, we needed an ingredient for an unusual dinner I was making. So Trash sent me next door to see if I could borrow some.

I walked across the driveway to the neighbors' back porch. These are the neighbors who have lived here since before we did, whose college-freshman son was M. Edium's age when we first met them, the ones who used to come over and give Strat his insulin shots when we were out of town. I knew they'd come through for us. If they were home, that is; it was more late afternoon than early evening, and neither of their cars were in the driveway. But I gave it a shot and knocked on their back door.

Their dogs went apefuck, of course, but it was a long moment before I saw a shadowy human figure moving around slowly inside. I leaned around awkwardly to show it was just me, but the person didn't move any faster. When he opened the door, I finally understood why.

It was a middle-aged Japanese man.

This was startling, but not entirely unexpected. Our neighbors had mentioned that they were expecting a houseguest from the Land of the Rising Sun. This, then, obviously, was he. And he clearly did not speak or understand a great deal of English.

Which still wouldn't have been so bad, because I studied Japanese in college. Didn't know that, did you? Of course, I've forgotten most of it, and when confronted with an actual, confused-if-not-suspicious-looking Japanese person, what little was left fled my brain. I couldn't even muster up a simple "Konban wa. Sumimasen. Nihongo dekimasen. Eego dekimasu ka?"

He understood enough English that I think I was able to communicate that I lived next door and was a friend of the neighbors, and would be happy to come back later. I would have been happy to let it go and sumimasen for bothering him. But he insisted I let him try to help me. So I reluctantly asked:

"Could we borrow some Worcestershire sauce?"

Which is not a question I would feel comfortable asking most native English speakers, up to and including many close friends and relatives, yet here I was trying to request it from a guy I'd just met. Plus, I've been recapping The Amazing Race all season, so I was used to watching people traveling around the world and running into language barriers. And here I was facing one, twenty feet from where I'm sitting in my house writing this.

"Sauce?...To eat?" this poor patient man asked me. "Hai, tabemasu," I failed to confirm. He shrugged and vaguely suggested I come back later. I considered explaining, "In America, it is customary for neighbors to allow each other to rummage through their kitchen cabinets when they're not at home," but I wasn't sure I'd be able to get the concept across. So I agreed to come back later. And then went to the store.

I saw him a couple of times after that during his visit. His English had improved. My Japanese never did.

posted by M. Giant 8:32 PM 6 comments


Wait - Worcestershire sauce is considered an unusual ingredient? Huh. That's one of our fridge staples. I use it probably at least monthly.... It always goes in meatloaf or hamburgers, for example.

Too bad you guys don't live next door to us! We've lent out eggs and cinnamon in the past week alone. (Well, given, really, more than lent - it isn't like they returned what they used. Well, actually we did get some snickerdoodles out of the deal, so they *did* kind of return the ingredients after all, didn't they? In much more delicious form, too...)

By Blogger Heather, at December 18, 2008 at 6:57 AM  

Our neighbor is awesome - I stopped by one weekend to get an egg from him - and walked back in the house with an egg, a bottle of wine and a 6-pack of regional microbrew!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 18, 2008 at 3:31 PM  

I have to second Heather that Worcestershire sauce is a key ingredient around our house!! But I guess you wrote "unusual dinner," not unusual ingredient!!

By Blogger NGS, at December 18, 2008 at 4:22 PM  

Read the clue: "we needed an ingredient for an unusual dinner" not an unusual ingredient.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 19, 2008 at 10:57 AM  

So, cool borrowing from neighbor story.

I have a friend with a cousin in London. While she was visting her cousin turned to her son and said, "Honey, could you pop round and see if Sting could spare a cup of sugar?"

Yes, they borrowed sugar from their neighbor. STING!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 19, 2008 at 8:08 PM  

Read the post immediately above yours, Teresa: NGS made the same point and managed to do so without being nasty to another commenter.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 21, 2008 at 8:53 PM  

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