Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Did My Poetic Language Confuse You?

Cartoon from Minitrue.
This blog post is about cross-cultural communication. I communicate cross-culturally every day I live here in Tanzania, for better or worse. Now, there are numerous layers and facets to cross-cultural communication, but allow me to make a few simple generalizations for the sake of this blog. Obviously, the deepest and most vital layer is that of “meaning,” the understanding of right and wrong, proper and improper, and the contextual rationale behind an action. Understanding and navigating these types of differences are the truest challenge for a “stranger in a strange land.” Some things eventually make sense once you learn the cultural context, but other things will never make sense because they will always fly in the face of what you feel to be true and logical when viewed through your own cultural lens.
Then there are purely linguistic differences, differences that affect communication, but really just hinge on one person’s ability or inability to actually speak well in a second language. Now, language holds the key to culture, and I’m learning that in Swahili, the slightest nuance in phrasing can drastically shift the implied meaning of a statement. (It doesn’t help that the Sukuma people with whom I am immersed feel it is often better to indirectly approach most topics since being straight-forward is considered rude. Huh. That’s…inefficient. See: the paragraph above on “deep cultural differences.”) But sometimes, people just say things in a funny way, and you can’t help but laugh. (That’s is the whole idea behind this website.)

I’m certainly not MOCKING individual people for bungling English, because my Swahili is terrible and English itself is a big pile of crazy. But sometimes you can’t help but shake your head, giggle, and ask yourself ‘What the hell does this mean?” The following messages are texts I have received. I cannot tell whether these people were trying to impress me with big English words, or whether they were just trying to demonstrate their emotional investment in our friendship. Here are a few examples of text messages I have received over the last few months (with original misspellings). Again, I’m not making fun of these people, but it’s funny nonetheless. 

Text #1
How was your journey accomplished? I hope you enjoyed it. To me it has left a kindful memory that all people are equal and happier before GOD, GOD is blessing your couple as you love and respect people have a good night 

Text #2
How are you brother? Are you fine? Youre so silence. What is happening there? Did my poetic language confuse you I have guess I didn’t tell you that im a music talented student.

Text #3
It’s funny to have a rested breath after any of life trips, it’s accountably inevitable to interact kindfully with deferment people honestly to show your man kind. I’m still too young to know more about elder’s matters but I won’t meant to escape home obligations.

Text #4
What a place are you permanently settling, im not interested in making friends all over the world as it makes me funny enjoying life, I believe that no one can discover my talent but my real abriciative friends 

I get texts like this all the time. Again, I’m not making fun of the authors, but I cannot help but be tickled by the phrasing. It’s one of the constant sources of amusement we have here (and vice versa considering all the times people have laughed at my Swahili attempts). As for hyper-usage of big, dramatic words and phrases, Tanzanians tend to be pretty dramatic with their English anyway. I recently received a text from a women I met on a daladala. She paid for my ride, we chatted, we exchanged phone numbers, and she’s pretty consistently called or texted me since, for better or worse.

For better: a nice text asking how my day is going.
For worse: calling me at 7am and then speaking only Swahili and then sticking her 10-year-old granddaughter on the phone so I can chat with her. (After that one, I pretty much avoid her phone calls and text a follow-up “Sorry I missed your call” message later if she calls.) 

Anyway, I recently asked how her family was doing (via text), and she wrote this long, dramatic message about how her granddaughter had malaria and had been doing poorly but had looked up at her from her sickbed and asked if she could be sure that Mr. Chris was praying to God for her to be better, and that she assured her I was because I am a brother in Christ. (It must have taken her 20 minutes to type the text. It was a novel.) So, I have no problem with the sentiment in there, but since that was the first time I had even heard the granddaughter (who’s only met me twice) was sick, this struck me as a bit too intense and kinda freaked me out. I think I just wrote back “Uh, glad she’s feeling better,” and left it at that. (Poorly played, Mr. Missionary. Poor showing.) Anyway, this intense phrasing (as well as the inclusion of overtly Christian language) is common. Strangers stop us on the street (literally stop us as we walk by) and ask if they can have our phone number so we an be best friends. It’s just a linguistic quirk through the filter of a super-friendly people, but some days it’s funny, and some days it’s a bit disconcerting.

* Semi-Related Tangent: Is “Engrish” racist? I kind of think it is (and so does this guy), but some of my Asian friends are the ones that think it’s funniest. I do think its funny. And really, it’s not making a claim of superiority over another race; it’s just making fun of terrible, nonsensical translations and an illogical obsession with using English words on any/everything. However, the word itself does make fun of a speech pattern, which is racist. But I’m torn on this, too. The local language here in Mwanza, Kisukuma, doesn’t differentiate between “R” and “L” which leads to all sorts of amusing pronunciations such as “Do you want lice with your meal?” (No, thank you, I'll pass) or the fact that a friend of mine writes my name as “Kilis” because that’s how he hears it (say it quickly and you’ll see why.). The Sukuma people themselves laugh about this fact. So, racist or not? Or racist but harmless? Is there such a thing as “harmless racism?” Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.

No comments: