Multiculturality, My life

Just call me Gaspode

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, there is a dog that spent too many nights sleeping in the shelter of Unseen University (the school of magic) and has developed the ability to speak. Since dogs don’t speak, people who hear him usually think they’re hearing their own thoughts. The dog (Gaspode) uses this to his advantage: “Why don’t I give the nice dog a biscuit?”

Yesterday Alicia and I visited a pleasant Hispanic church a couple of miles from our house. As soon as we walked in and found a seat, someone on the platform started interpreting everything the worship leader said into English. An usher came over and introduced himself in English. I answered in Spanish. He responded in English, and we went on this way for a couple of minutes before he finally caught on and switched to Spanish.

A few minutes later, a boy came and asked if I needed an interpreter. I said no.

We participated actively in the singing and the greeting time and the offering, all of which were done in Spanish. Then the worship leader took the pulpit and gave his entire message in English, with a lady interpreting to Spanish. It was followed by the Lord’s Supper (led by a different man), done in Spanish with interpretation to English.

I got the distinct impression that the English was all for my benefit.

On our way out, we greeted several of the church staff. Two of them talked to me in English even after I spoke in Spanish.

It seems people can’t believe their ears: This guy is obviously a gringo, so there’s no way he speaks fluent Spanish. It happens all the time in stores and airports and churches.

I need to find ways to use this to my advantage. Otherwise I’ll just keep being frustrated at how dense people are.

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16 thoughts on “Just call me Gaspode

  1. Have you considered wearing a sandwich board that reads “I speak Spanish fluently, save your interpreters for someone else”? If they can’t believe their ears, maybe they’ll believe their eyes.

  2. That’s interesting. It made me think about the European Americans that I know who can speak fluent Spanish. Living in Texas, you would think there would be quite a few, but the ones I know, either grew up in Mexico or are married to a Spanish speaking person.

  3. incredible! As if we lack points in common… yet another one. If I pause even for a millisecond to remember an obscure word in Hebrew, the other party often offers, ‘You can speak English.” I’m always thinking ‘Righto, bud, but can you? I mean, at a level which won’t take us all day and result in my building three roofs instead of one for the same price.
    My theory, to justify staying in Hebrew 99% of the time is that at least I’ll ‘get’ all the insinuations and inuendo. That, and hebrew is such a ‘borrower’ language, but they never pay much mind to the real meaning of the stolen word in its original setting. Disgusting, and I could give examples till the cows come home. luckily, I won’t, ha. Who needs cows in the kitchen?
    Pratchett’s Gaspode is a typically deep and subtle creation of one of my most beloved minds. i pray for his health often.
    Oh, and one other anecdote apropo. i use the fact that no one would guess I’m fluent, on my trips to the States, to hob-nob in the background where Israeli tourists are talking amongst themselves, supposedly secretly. Funny what you overhear, and I so enjoy revealing myself, to their embarrassment.

    • My dad told a story about a couple of Germans traveling by bus in southern Colombia near Pasto in the very early 1960s. They were having a lot of fun joking in German about the people sitting near them. When they reached their stop and were getting off, someone said to them in perfect German, “You aren’t so beautiful yourself.”

  4. Ha! the Gaspode story is so funny! 😀

    Ha, so is your experience! Yes, might as well laugh about it! It’s nice that they were being so nice and accommodating! 🙂

    Next time , when they speak to you in English, keep asking them, over and over again, in Spanish if they speak Spanish! Ha! 😀

    HUGS to the gringo!!! 😀

    • 35 years ago I had phone duty in my dorm and a call came in, someone with an accent asking for Carlos, the Bolivian guy. I buzzed Carlos and got no answer, so I said, “Parece que no está. Can I take a message?” When they responded I understood what they were saying but had no clue what language they were talking! Using two languages at the same time had confused my brain. I think the people at church have the same experience.

  5. My profound Tourette’s sufferer(?) from Jaffa, Moshe, who doesn’t speak a word of english none-the less shocked me and a fellow worker from Boston a couple years ago by standing on his nearby porch and repeating back whole conversations he’d overheard us have. He even captured both of our distinct accents, as if we were listening to a tape recording (which was what we thought until we watched him in action). The mind sick or well, is an awesome thing.
    Tim, I’ve also noted that looking at the face of the conversation party is probably what cues the language choice in the brain. On a visit to the States once, a fellow working in a sub shop, (he was Puerto Rican, turned out) looked so damn Israeli that I absent-mindedly placed a long and complex order, plus asking for directions, in Hebrew. I remember not understanding why he had a dumb-struck look on his face, until I recognized my error. perhaps this helps to explain the phone confusion: no face to look at.

    • When I was in college, I played ping-pong and attended pre-engineering classes with a collection of Iraqis, Iranians, and Egyptians. In my experience everyone with their complexion spoke Spanish, and I constantly had to bite my tongue and force myself to use English.

      • Aha! I think we’re homing in on the explanation.The churchies, trained to be especially polite to a ‘stranger among us’, couldn’t handle the mixed messages their brains were sending/receiving..
        Oh, and I talk to my cats and kittens in English, if they’ve been good, and Hebrew or Yiddish if they’ve been bad. Don’t want to think too deeply about what that means, ha.

  6. RuthG says:

    They didn’t have a category for you. Or maybe some of them just wanted to practice their English. Lina Sanchez e-mails me in English most of the time, & I try to remember to answer in English because I know she always wants/needs to practice using it. But when we’re together we always speak Spanish.

    In shops in my neighborhood, however, when I speak Spanish to a Latino/a the person almost invariably switches to it immediately. Maybe the very diverse mix of the area (with something like 60 languages spoken) has taught our brains to make those transitions more seamlessly.

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