I’m sure residents of tourist destinations all feel a strong wave of frustration toward (in this case) turismo. Dealing with helpless, unresourceful strangers sounds like a nightmare. I’d be annoyed. Completely. But at the same time, do they feel as actively grateful for their ability to switch languages merely on the queue of the first syllables in a heavily accented (or jumbled) salutation?
Employees working in Italian epicenters of tourism impressed me. So much. They made me jealous. Once they realized I wasn’t responding to “konichiwa,” they’d skip from French to English to get my attention. I only claim Standard American English as my language, and it makes me feel like such a lazy, entitled hack when I travel abroad. In Hong Kong I was able to converse in English with natives who kept apologizing profusely for their poor English even though theirs was perfectly understandable and proper. In Italy it felt like every person I interacted with had grown up in three different grammar schools at once in the most critical learning periods of their lives. Such alacrity! Such skill! Would that I could navigate languages so.
I had a major moment of fried brain when Bill and I stopped by his favorite Florentine place for lunch. It was a Japanese-Chinese-Italian tri-brid of a place, located just a couple blocks from our apartment. They sold solo pollo at a perfectly reasonable price, and in fact everything in their menu was pretty cheap and thus welcome to our vacation budgeting. Even though I knew intuitively that Japanese food prepared and served in Italy would be nothing like the real stuff I could get in Tokyo (or San Francisco, for that matter), I was still curious to see what it meant to order Asian food in Italy. I didn’t want to deviate from my plan to eat some sort of pasta or noodle every day, so I decided to go with the restaurant’s “ramen.”
Ordering from the older Asian woman behind the counter, I did my best broken Italian. “Una ramen verdura?” I got something across, because even though I lacked complete confidence in ordering, she repeated my order back to me and it sounded like whatever I meant for it to sound like, just better. I helped Bill order his solo pollo as we pointed and conferred with each other in English, and we went to sit down.
While we awaited our food, I heard the older Asian woman speaking with her young adult son, but it wasn’t what my ears were prepped to hear. They weren’t speaking in Japanese – not even Italian – they were speaking in Mandarin. Where the flip were we? When he delivered our food I uttered out a “xie xie,” because I felt the same as I do when I order in Fremont or Milpitas. In those turfs Mandarin is the primary language, not English. The man rattled off something really fast in Mandarin to me, and I froze. Even though I had just said “thank you” in Mandarin, I wasn’t wired and ready to respond to questions in Mandarin. I was still thinking I had to try to talk in really forced and awful Italian. Where was my English blanket? This was confusing. He said a kindly “Never mind” in English and walked away.
The ramen itself wasn’t anything to write home about. The noodles were flat rice noodles, not thicker ramen, not even like Top Ramen or Cup Noodles. The slipperiness of the rice noodles was really hard to eat with my plastic spoon and fork, so I got bold. I walked up to the young man and asked if he had any chopsticks – in Mandarin! “Ni you meiyou kuaizhi?” He grabbed a pair for me and handed them over, then said in English, “That’s what I asked you before.”
Again, not expecting English (At this point I was probably more ready for something outside of the Italian, Mandarin, and English we had exchanged so far.), I stammered my response, “Oh, okay. Grazie.” Shit, was that the right language? Did I even make sense? I didn’t think that was the most pertinent response, but I knew the longer I stood there the more I’d be expected to converse more, and I clearly wasn’t ready for that. Who knows how many new languages would be introduced to the mix if I didn’t move my feet? So I quickly shuffled back to our table. He smiled like he could understand why I was confused, but he was probably just laughing at me on the inside.