Friday, June 18, 2004

The Babel Effect

Last night I met up with two friends for dinner at The China Cottage. In most Chinese restaurants you run into those who speak their native language first, and English second. They are usually pretty good at getting across the necessary dining lingo – Smoking or non? What would you like to drink? Et cetera. We customers normally get what we want to consume in the end, and we leave happy after cracking open our fortune cookie. Pat our full bellies and drive on home.

Last night was a bit different experience for us. We had the normal enter, beverages thing, all good. Then this little man comes over to refill our water glasses and things got interesting. He wanted to talk to us, we could tell. As he filled up he second glass, which really didn’t need it at all, he pointed to the 3 of us and mumbled in his whispery, accent laden voice, “Best friend?”

We looked at each other and shook our heads…yeah, we’re all friends. He went on to say something in broken English about your only best friend being yourself. Others can’t be trusted, they can get angry, they can murder you. If you have one enemy, it doesn’t matter how many friends you have, because that’s not what matters. One enemy can make your life miserable. “Do you know what I mean?” He asks….and he can tell by the look in our eyes that we weren’t following. He gives a little chuckle, looks like he’s trying to decide if he should attempt his point with us again….then sees our waitress coming. He nods, and bustles off to fill others’ water glasses that may or may not really need it.

Orders now taken, we begin to talk about what we just heard. How this little man seems so lonely, how he seems to just really want to talk, how he has something he wants to get across to us- to make us understand- but he just can’t get passed the language barrier. Did any of us understand what he was getting at?

We get our food and start eating when we see him heading for our table again, sweating water pitcher in hand. “Water?” he asks, knowing full well he’ll top off our glasses no matter how empty they are. He begins to say something about knowing somebody important to get back to where he is from. Talking in circles about needing permission or a passport to go back to his country. Then it was about enemies again. And then he was from Indonesia, and if he goes back, he goes to Hell. But needs a passport to get to Heaven. Now we are really confused, and feeling bad that we don’t understand what he is getting at. I’m sure he can tell. “Your only best friend is yourself.” Asks us if we get angry…if we want to hurt our friends ever. We say only with God’s help…we are still human beings. Uh oh, here comes the waitress…he scurries off.

As we read our fortunes and paid our bills, we see our little water filler man and he waves and says "Bye, best friend." Hmmm...don;t know if that's a good thing or not, remembering how he said even best friends could murder us. We enter the humid evening air just shaking our heads. What was it that he was trying to tell us? Should we have told him that God is our best friend…would he have understood that? Even in the USA language can cause frustration and confusion. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to be on the building crew on the plain of Shinar and feel the first effects of not being able to understand your neighbor.

1 whatevers:

Anonymous said...

hey this is your roomie, amanda. =) just checking out your site and as i saw this post, i decided that you totaly need to fill people in on the follow up story...aka the identical conversation experienced by our friends!