Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lost in Translation

Living abroad can be challenging sometimes.  For most people, I guess the biggest challenge is missing someone or something.  After this, I am guessing that the frustration of communication has to be pretty high on the list.  If there were anything to remind me I am in a new or different place, it is almost always the communication.

When I first moved to Turkey, I had that Carrie Bradshaw moment she experienced in Paris when she was with her Lover and his friends as they carried on in French and she could not join in the conversation.  Such a scene is expected. If you do not run back to New York with Big, over time you learn the language and become just as opinionated as everyone else.

But what do you do in the case of Dubai where everyone for the most part speaks fluent English and you sometimes cannot communicate effectively?  There are days when it can feel more challenging than not speaking the same language. 

Case in point.

I was out with a friend a few weeks ago.  Before she drove back home, she wanted a black coffee.  The conversation to order went something like this:
Can I have an Americano coffee please?
Would you like milk with that?
No, black coffee please.  Americano.
OK, I will bring the milk on the side for you?
No, just black coffee.
You do not want milk?
Ok. Just bring the milk on the side.

My friend was so polite and patient through all of this and finally obliged.  Coffee without milk just did not seem like a possible concept.

The same waiter arrived with the coffee and an elegant little pitcher of milk on the side.  After he put the coffee on the table, he politely asks, “Would you like me to pour the milk?”

I try not to smile too much.  My friend once again manages it and calmly responds, “You know what, I don’t need any milk. Thank you.”

The waiter smiled and walked off happily knowing that he delivered the best service ever.


A few weeks later we were with friends at a hotel over a long holiday weekend.  Her son wanted a cheeseburger for lunch.  The waiter came over and the boy politely ordered.

Can I have a cheeseburger please? 
Do you want falafel burger or beef burger? 
Um, can I have a cheeseburger?

Granted this waiter could be a vegetarian and perhaps where he is from there could be many vegetarians so falafel burgers may be more the norm.  Seeing where this was going, I chimed in with the answer.  Beef. 


My husband arrived later than planned from the airport after a business trip. He was never able to find the complimentary car service offered.  He called the number of the driver to find him, and so the conversation goes.

I will be there in five minutes sir.
Ten minutes passed, no car.  He called back.  Where are you?  
I am here sir. 
Where is here? 
At the gate. 
Which gate?  He gave a number.  The problem was that this number did not exist in terms of airport exits.  My husband explains in great detail where he is.  The driver ensures him he will be there in five minutes. 

At this point, a taxi would have been faster, but he kept trying to work the system, or lack thereof.  The driver never showed.  My husband went to an airport bus of the same company and had that driver speak to the driver of the lost car.  Even with directions in his own language, the driver never showed. 

My husband called again.  There was a lot more of  I am here.  Where is here?  Over there.  It is very challenging to not loose your patience after a 1am arrival.

These are harmless social examples.  What if you are trying to get something done at the bank, a work related transaction, something medical, or somewhere else critical?  It is not always so entertaining.

I don’t really have a solution.  Some situations have worked out with directness, almost to the point where I feel rude.  Realizing that our reactions and responses link back to our culture and education, not the language itself, is important. Things may not translate even though we speak the same language.

I do realize that altering expectations of things like service has somewhat helped to get past the frustration.  Throwing expectation out the window can be a good survival mechanism for living abroad….well, maybe sometimes.  And if that doesn’t help, then I guess there is counting and deep breathing.

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