Tuesday, September 6, 2011

JDM on Mexico and Mexicans

Take along your little phrase books and take a shot at the language everywhere you go except China and France. The Chinese and the French don't care to have you trying to speak their language. Both of those civilizations think they are placed at the exact center of the known universe, and foreigners had best stick to their own barbaric gabbings and not sully the best language in the world by trying to speak it, no matter how fluently.

A pretty Chinese woman in Mexico explained to me why, when I had been stationed in China some years ago, they absolutely refused to understand my phonetic Mandarin.

She frowned, trying to think how to explain it to me, and then her expression cleared and she said, "It would not be wise to understand your dog if he asked you for a meatloaf, would it?" And then she realized what she had said, and blushed. A pretty Chinese woman blushing is even prettier than before.

The great shame of the United States citizenry is the huge numbers of us who go to Mexico and make absolutely no attempt to speak the simple phrases of courtesy. Buenos dias. Gracias. ¿Como está? Muy bien. Adios.

Of all the people in the world the Mexicans seem to me to be the ones most anxious to be tolerant of someone stumbling along in their language. Anxious to help. Never laughing, as we so often do at the foreigners trying to speak English. It is their country, and making no attempt at all is gross and rude.

I remember being in a small Mexican Supermercado and a tourist man was in there -- purple pants, blue sneakers, yellow shirt and a fresh green palm-front hat. Evidently he couldn't find something he wanted and he started yelling, "Dozen no one speak English in this dump? Dozen no one speak English?"

I was of no mood to help him, and hoped the Mexicans present took me for a German. But one tall elderly man in wrinkled seersucker went over to him and said, "Yes. Somebody here does indeed speak English. One person, and it is certainly not you, you vulgar little twit." And with enormous dignity, the Englishman left.

We have driven all over Mexico, getting along well enough with our pidgin Spanish, wherein all the verbs are in the present tense. I go yesterday. I go tomorrow. Etc. We have broken down on rural little roads to nowhere, and have received far more courteous help than we could have anticipated north of the Rio Grande. It is the way to see the country and the people. We buy bread and wine and cheese in little towns and picnic in the hills. They are fabulous instinctive mechanics. One need only look at the age of the busses that still lumber through the countryside.

-- from "Nice Things to Know About Traveling" (1983),  published in various newspapers throughout the United States via the Chicago Tribune Syndicate.

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