Monday, December 05, 2005

Americans Abroad, Pt. VI

...a continuing series on people, perceptions, and stereotypes discovered on the road

When I was in Laos, an English girl asked me why all Americans call Europeans European. Apparently it annoyed her. I told her that when we say 'European', we are referring to Europe in the general sense. For example, we might say, "When it comes to travel, European countries are more expensive than Asian countries." It's much more economical than saying, "When it comes to travel, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland , France , Germany , Greece , Hungary, Ireland, Italy , Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg , Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal , Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain , Sweden, and the United Kingdom are more expensive than Asian countries." I'm sorry to have put you through that, but I'm making a point. Don't you agree -- it's more just more economical to say European? For the purposes of this blog, I will henceforth type European in italics to point out the economy of not listing out the entire EU.

I went on to tell the English girl that when we are speaking of a specific country, we do not refer to it as 'Europe' or the people as European -- take things like food or drink, for example. Rather than saying European, someone might say, "I like to eat German food for brunch because it's a good excuse to drink beer in the morning," or, "I had English food for dinner last night; boy do they sure know how to work a pot of boiling water." I should have asked her, "Why are a lot of Europeans so nitpicky?"

I don't like to make sweeping generalizations, but I have met a number of nitpicky Europeans. Take, for example, a Dutch guy I met here in Thailand. He's been coming to Thailand for 10 years and speaks the language well. Actually, I don't really know if he speaks Thai well because I don't speak Thai -- let's just say he can hold a lengthy conversation in Thai. I shared with him a few words of my limited vocabulary. He laughed and said (in a snooty tone of voice I might add), "Why do all Americans speak Thai like Americans?"

After a few moments of quiet deliberation, I replied, "Well, for one thing, we are... how shall I say... AMERICANS -- duh! And for another, until we know how something is pronounced correctly, how else would we say it -- we have only the sounds made by combinations of verbs and nouns known to us, in our language. So excuse me if I say something that sounds like 'may' instead of 'my' when it's spelled 'mai'."

He went on to thank the barkeep for the arrival of his drink by saying something that sounded, in English, like "Thank Yo-ow." He bulldozed his way through English like Frankenstein in a field of Daisies: monotone, droning, and coarse. I wanted to be a smartass and ask him why all Dutch people speak English like Dutch people. Actually Dutch people speak English very well, but there's still an accent.

That's the thing about English -- it's a forgiving language. People, Europeans for example, can massacre words when speaking them in their accented way and English speakers still understand what they're trying to say. We accept words pronounced 'the wrong way', like 'dis and dat' instead of 'this and that'... Hell, many native English speakers in America say 'dis and dat' themselves (they mostly live in the south). 'Yo-ow' instead of 'you' is acceptable, too, in the case of this Dutch guy.

Here in Thailand, the language is tonal, so the flexibility for speaking with the wrong inflection on certain syllables or for saying it the wrong way doesn't exist. You could try saying 'banana' and end up saying 'penis' very easily. That's why I never ask for bananas.

Americans, Canadians, English, and Australians are actually pretty lucky when it comes to travel because, at least in Asia, English is the 'bridge' language. If a person speaks a second language, be they Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, and even Chinese (granted, there are fewer of them), it's going to be English in most cases. I've met Europeans (and in this case, I use the word because I don't remember which country they were from) who say they have friends back home who won't travel because they don't speak English well enough to get by. They would be stuck, language-less and unable to communicate.

I've seen Europeans teetering on the fine line of those who travel and those who stay home. They are locked in time consuming conversations -- actually they are not so much conversations as they are a simple string of words -- but getting to the point... they are locked in a stressful linguistic battle with a Vietnamese speaker, for example, trying to find out where the bus station is. When it comes to speaking English, the Vietnamese person does not understand their garbled accent and the European does not understand the Vietnamese accent. Their speech is equivalent to the result of making a xerox copy of a xerox copy of a xerox copy.

A bit of an aside from the topic of language -- or perhaps not, as "money talks" -- traveling Americans are lucky because the dollar is the global standard for currency. In many places in SE Asia, prices are quoted in American dollars and people prefer to receive dollars as opposed to their local currency. In fact, in some places, one might think the US dollar is their primary currency, such as Cambodia. I found this especially ironic in Vietnam.

When I say Americans are 'lucky' for this, it is not because I prefer to use my own currency when traveling -- I would actually prefer not to because using foreign currency is all part of travel's fun. The reason we're lucky is because we don't have to do the tree-part conversion like the Europeans. If we are quoted a price in say, Cambodian riel, we only have to convert it to dollars. Europeans have to convert to dollars and then euros. I hate to do a lot of math in my head, so it's lucky for me I'm not European.

At a market in Laos, I heard one woman say to a merchant who'd quoted her a price in dollars, "I don't know dollars -- I'm not American." For what it's worth, she actually sounded Canadian to me and in light of having forgotten to wear her lapel pin, she was probably making sure everyone around knew she wasn't American. It's not that the merchant assumed she was American, it's just that they like the dollar in Laos.

So, what's the whole point of this entry? Before I got onto the bit about currency, it was supposed to call out the nuances of language and the perception of Europeans that Americans are dumb when they a) use the word European and b) are bad at speaking foreign languages. It is, in a way one of those 'us against them' things. Europeans think Americans are self-centered, judging by the aformentioned conversations with the English girl and Dutch guy. Perhaps we are... but then again, we share the whole continent of North America with only 2 other countries as opposed to the Europeans who share their continent with -- how else can I say it -- a buttload of others. Perhaps because of our sheer size as a country, Americans use 'short cuts' when speaking of Europe at large and in regards to language, we have to go thousands of miles to encounter a foreign tongue. It's not that we are totally lazy, although I will admit we are a little lazy in regards to such things, it's just that we are who we are. Like it or not, we are Americans.


Post a Comment

<< Home