Friday, March 6, 2015


One time I took funny to the name 'David Beckham' while conversing with a sports enthusiast. The way he said it, quickly and slightly slurred made the name sound like 'deli-baked ham'. At least, that is what I understood. That great footballer might not take kindly to this mistake on my part but, to this day, when I hear 'David Beckham' I think of a lucious, juicy shank of deli-baked ham.

Such misunderstandings can result in hilarity and I am often prone to hearing what I want to hear rather than what is being said, such as the time when I was an industrial mechanic/engineer.

My supervisor called me to help a fellow technician repair a conveyor belt. The factory we worked at was so loud and clattery that we had to wear ear plugs or risk damaging our hearing. To make matters worse, I worked the overnight shift, when things always seem a bit off kilter to begin with. So, when I found Robert, the tech I was assigned to work with, I asked what the problem with the conveyor belt was. “It has a prophylactic” he shouted.

Prophylactic = condom.

I don't care if it is 3AM or 3PM, at no time should a conveyor belt ever have or need a prophylactic. I shook my head in disbelief and asked again. “IT HAS A BROKEN BRACKET!” he carefully enunciated. Then, I felt my help was warranted and I put forth my very best effort to help him fix it. After we laughed till our jaws hurt, that is.

I can't blame my hearing for misunderstandings all the time, such as when my imagination runs away with a totally innocent idea.

Once, I was guest lecturing at a university and I invited the students to tell me about the first time they ever met or saw a foreigner. One brave young lady popped up and carefully said: “When I was ten years old my father took me to the zoo...”

And that is as far as she got. Immediately I envisioned entire cages full of foreigners pleading for food and release, with some just lying around, and hordes of Chinese looking on, taking pictures and banging on the bars to encite some sort of reaction from the captive foreigners. All of this came in a split second. Before the poor girl could fully recount that magical time at the zoo with her father, I had already erupted into peals of laughter. She didn't know what to think. She thought she had said something wrong.

I did my very best to stifle my laughter. Not an easy task seeing as the vision had expanded to include foreigner feeding time, foreigners doing tricks during zoo show times, and those placards detailing what type of foreigner, their habitat and feeding habits mounted in front of the enclosures. I tried (between gusts of merriment) to explain that she did/said nothing wrong, and then attempted to illustrate my imaginings. She looked dubious but continued her narrative at my urging. It was a lovely story; much better than the one I had imagined. But not quite as funny.

From then on I vowed I would try to keep my twisted imagination to writing, and away from fragile young egos that could be scarred or discouraged by my laughter.

I've not had much luck with that. This week I met my students for the first time: a whole new crop, seeing as the other foreign teacher and I rotate classes. He had these groups last semester. This was my first chance to work with them and boy! Was I eager!

Maybe we should blame the broken leg or the pain medication I took in order to stand and teach. Perhaps I was just overeager. Maybe you can help me decide.

The day's activity was introductions. We were each to give our English and Chinese names, and then mention something we like, and something we don't like.

“My Chinese name is 王玲玲.
My English name is Lillian.
I like running.
I don't like to take bath”.

At least, that's what I heard. She said 'bass' \ˈbas\ - as in 'a large fish'. I put it down to her – and most other students' inability to properly make the 'th' sound. I thought she was incredibly brave to make such a statement in front of her whole class, and it was borne out by her unkempt hair. How should I respond to that in a positive manner and forge a connection?

I talked about how I don't like to take my clothes off for a bath in the winter because it is so cold in my apartment. She looked at me like my nose was on upside down. I went further to explain how I simply don't like the cold and I think it is perfectly OK if she doesn't like getting undressed and stepping into the shower in the cold either.

Gotta give me props for being supportive, right?

Then, the girl sitting next to her cleared things up: “She said she does not like taking bus.”

That makes a lot more sense. And, while I take credit for counting on a mispronunciation, it was not the right mispronunciation. Now with a sensible and not quite so private revelation about her, we were able to enjoy a good laugh. I hope she will forgive me for suggesting she likes being filthy. 

How to recover from a mistake like that? Would you even call it a mistake?

Now, reading this over, I wonder: does David Beckham like deli-baked ham???

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