A conversation while ordering dinner:

Me: I’ll have the poached fish.

Waiter: Do you want milkfish or turbot?

Me: No, she’s not my wife.

Even in our native languages, we understand far less of what we hear than we realize. Try counting how many times in a day you say What?” A lot of time we are able to compensate by piecing together what must have been said from the context. In fact, I would argue that one of the main features of the human brain is its remarkable ability to impose order on chaos. That is why we see faces even in inanimate objects, and read meaning into inkblots.

Part of what it means to live in a country where the national language is not your first language is putting up with a lot more chaos. We simply don’t have access to the same tools necessary to recreate lost meaning. Even worse, those few tools we do have tend to be overused. For instance, if you learn a new vocabulary word, you are likely to hear it even when that isn’t what was being said. This is even more likely in a language like Chinese, which has so many homophones.

The above conversation make sense if you read what I wrote in May about learning the word shimu 師母 a formal term for teacher’s wife” which is how everyone refers to Shashwati. That’s because the word for milkfish is shimuyu 虱目魚. The tones are different, one word has three syllables instead of two, and there is no reason for the waiter to have known I was a teacher … but I was at a conference with a colleague who had already once that day been mistaken for my wife, and I’d never heard of shimuyu, so it wasn’t a completely random mistake on my part. (It is also not unusual for people to assume that whatever Taiwanese woman I talking with at the moment is my wife.) I just assumed the waiter was asking if my colleague wanted to order dinner as well.

At least this time I understood the cause of my confusion. I probably have a hundred such encounters a day. And, when I think about it, I probably did when I was living in the states as well. The big difference here is that I am less able to recover from the awkwardness of the mistake, less able to use those strategies we rely upon to effectively frame the mistake so it isn’t noticed. Fortunately, laughter is always a good strategy for dealing with such situations, even if its at my expense.

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