Bramovich: Mind your language (a cautionary tale)

I was reminded this week of an incident from my past by a very amusing story that I came across about a caucasian girl working in a retail store. This particular girl spoke Mandarin. One day she was serving two Chinese customers, a husband and wife.

The wife was talking to her husband about the girl. Insulting her looks, her service standards and a number of other things about her, obviously under the assumption that a white shop assistant was unlikely to be able to speak Mandarin. This particular shop assistant just so happened to be fluent in the language.

She spent the majority of the interaction just going about her business, scanning the purchases and packing them into the bags. Ignoring the insulting Chinese woman and pretending that she didn’t understand what was being said.

At the end of the interaction she started responding to the couple’s Chinese conversation in English. Which obviously caused the insulting woman to stop dead in her tracks when she realised that everything she’d said — from “tell her not to bruise the bananas” to “she looks like a boy” — had in fact been understood.

The shop assistant in question laughed it off and one very embarrassed Chinese couple left the store.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns I had the good fortune to grow up in Asia. I also happen to be 6’2”, over 90 kilos and just about as white as they come. When I was younger I decided to go and “work overseas” — this meant heading for New Zealand, a country that I held a for but had only ever visited on holiday.

So off I went, fresh faced, 18 years old into the “wild west”. Up until that point of my life, apart from very brief trips to New Zealand and Australia, I had lived entirely in Singapore and Hong Kong. As a result of my kindergarten years in Singapore (where I went to a Chinese language kindergarten) and my pre-teen and teenage years in Hong Kong, I understood a fair amount of both Mandarin and Cantonese.

Upon my arrival in New Zealand I realised that I was going to have to get a job — not something I’d entirely thought through before leaving the family home in Hong Kong. I had no work experience outside of working in newsrooms and certainly didn’t have enough experience to get onto a New Zealand newspaper without a degree at that stage.

So I found myself wondering what on earth I was going to do to support myself. With dwindling funds and sleeping on my cousin’s sofa I ended up writing letters to a whole lot of hotels in Auckland telling the general managers about my dreams of working in the hospitality industry.

Amazingly a few of them believed me and I got a number of interviews, eventually getting hired at a three-star hotel in downtown Auckland. The hotel dealt primarily with Chinese guests so I figured my language skills would be useful.

They were, when groups from China came in I was always the one put on the meet-and-greet job and I used to get some pretty good tips when I threw in the odd Chinese language quip. One day I was working with a Swiss gentleman on the front desk. He was a very large man and while we were on the shift a group from Hong Kong checked in.

The tour guide knew me, and knew I spoke Cantonese, but he clearly hadn’t warned his guests of this fact. As we were going through the check-in process, one of his guests very loudly remarked about the slow moving fat “gwailo” (“white ghost”, a derogatory term for white people used in Hong Kong). She continued with the insults and had her co-travellers in fits of laughter.

My Swiss friend carried on, blissfully unaware of the insults being thrown at him. It was then time for me to do the meet-and-greet for the group.

This involved standing up in front of them and explaining things like “we’ll charge you a damage fee if you cook noodles in our electric kettles” (yes, we really had to stress that), as as more mundane things like fire procedures, breakfast times and directions to the casino — which, being Chinese, was the main point of interest for most of the groups.

So up I wandered to the front of the group, there were only 12 of them and they’d all been participating in the merriment at my friend’s expense.

The tour guide sat down on a sofa, relieved that he didn’t have to translate for me, as he did at all the other hotels, and I began my introduction to Auckland.

I opened (in flawless Cantonese) with: “Welcome to Auckland, we hope you enjoy your stay…” I then proceeded to carry on through the spiel. My closing statement was: “Me and the fat gwailo behind the front desk very much hope you enjoy your stay and, while tipping is not customary in New Zealand it is always much appreciated.”

Upon checkout myself and my colleague received $250 between us. Not bad for a job that paid $10 an hour.

What does this teach you? No matter where you are or what you think people understand, it’s always possible that someone will not only understand you but take offence.

So be careful when you’re travelling, lest you find yourself with a red face and your hand in your pocket.