I need to start this post with a disclaimer. While it’s all apart of the story and learning curve, take it with a grain of salt and don’t be afraid to laugh at my expense.
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Mila, who is from Puerto Rico, moved to the US for college when she was 19. She was recently telling me that she had studied English in high school and knew the basics, but when she moved to Indiana she spoke with a very thick accent. Her English is perfect now; speaking, reading, writing, graduate school, etc. She said she knew she was really fluent when she could watch stand-up comedy on TV and finally understand the jokes.
I guess that conversation has been lingering on my mind for a while now and I find myself paying particular attention to the ways I relate to my colleagues and talk to my neighbors. I know I am not nearly fluent in Portuguese, but what about my sense of humor here. Have I had a real, hardy, honest laugh of late? Am I getting the subtleties of the language and culture, or have I dismissed that part of learning?
I started a mental note of how many times I could make my favorite colleague, Roberto, laugh – 4 quality chuckles this week. But he’s particularly kind to me, so maybe he was humoring me, literally. Then I tried to make a joke with my field extentionist – it didn’t work. In truth, most of the best laughs here have come from the failings and miscommunications that are lost in translation. Mix ups and mangled words are always good fodder for entertainment, and recently I had an excellent opportunity to re-learn the value of a good laugh.
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So a few months ago I was talking with two of my Mozambican neighbors and the subject turned to the topic of a recent rat infestation in our housing compound. Excitedly I mentioned how I was on a killing spree and had caught seven rats (with a trap) in the last few weeks. Basically translated in Portuguese, I said: “Eu já mataram sete ratas na minha casa.”
I instantly knew I had made a faux pas because immediately both my friends started laughing hysterically. “Okay okay,” I said “–what did I really say???”
Between uncontrollable giggles, my friend Sonia yelled “RATO not RATA!” Which led to the following gesture:
So that is how I learned what the colloquial term was for vagina. I had basically told my neighbors that I had surprisingly found and assaulted many of them in my house recently. Then I lost it too. When I had finally composed myself and apologized in full, I took a moment and reflected on another related event.
My boyfriend recently came for an extended visit and along with other misadventures, Merritt participated in the rat hunting. In the morning we’d inspect our trap to see what we’d caught. When we found a victim, I’d make him take the bag with the carcass to the trashcan by the front gate. In an effort to discourage local kids and curious neighbors from going through our trash (which is normal here) Merritt would point to the bag and say in Spanish, “No abra este. Cogí otra rata anoche.” Which in Spanish means not to open the bag because there is a gross dead rat inside, but in Mozambican-Portuguese that means, “I got some last night.”
Blissfully unaware of his crude comment, Merritt would walk back to the house feeling proud that he had made a few locals crack up with his broken Portuguese, saying he was confident they wouldn’t open the bag.
And I bet he was right.