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Saying what you mean

The Spirit of Tehachapi

I travel north occasionally to visit one of my sons. Sometimes we go out to have dinner and one establishment is a restaurant which we Americans call a Chinese Restaurant although that is not what this particular café is called. They often employ people who originated in China and speak perfect English and understand it; literally.

I am quite fond of Orange Chicken and one evening ordered it and anticipated the usual fine dinner they served. Egad! It was spicy hot and after two bites I felt the "hot" in my mouth and even my ears kind of tingled. Forget it. I gave the whole dinner to our dinner guests who shared it and shared some of their "not hot" food with me. I should have said, "Not spicy." They had added the new flavor to their menu.

My next visit to the "Chinese Restaurant" found me prepared. I said, "I want Orange Chicken, but I don't want it hot!" Wrong choice of the adjective, hot. I received my Orange Chicken still very spicy but with a temperature of STONE COLD. My word, "not" in front of my incorrect usage of the word "hot" was correctly interpreted in the English textbooks. As it was, the food was colder than a well digger in the Klondike. My fault. They understood exactly what I said and what I said meant stone cold. They probably said to one another in their native tongue; "Man, that lady is a real case. She wants a cold dinner." That's what I asked for; that's what I got. I should have said not spicy.

My next visit was uneventful. I had my son order for me. He said, "She wants Orange Chicken, not spicy." No language barrier, there. It seems I had been the barrier.

I admire anyone who learns to speak English as a second language. Our language has a rule for everything. Then, we promptly say, that the rule doesn't apply in that case. Remember the little verse they taught us in fifth grade? It goes, "I before E except after C or when sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh." That is just a sample of exceptions for new language users. As for "hot" well, it's perfectly clear, I goofed.

Another example of language goofs. I began writing to a German girl, age 18, in 1947, when I was 19. Finally, in 1978 she and her husband came to this country to see us for three weeks. She spoke and wrote perfect English; no problem there.

We picked them up at LAX and drove them back to Tehachapi in a terrible rainstorm in the dark of night. I'm sure they were frightened but I still remember the look on my friend's face when I asked her, at the airport, if we need to "get your bags." I slowed down my sentence and used luggage and suitcases instead. All during their visit I used the king's English and we got along beautifully.

Her husband spoke no English but I'm positive he understood for he seemed to when I spoke to him. He and my husband got along beautifully. My husband, in his Marine career, had been exposed to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and could manage in a one word description of what he meant and managed to pick up a few German words while they were here. He also spoke "American" and dropped word endings and used slang. Everything went well.

When we showed them the giant redwoods in Sequoia National Park, General Grant and General Sherman, my friend's husband said very clearly , "Oh gross!" In German, gross means large. In American it can mean several things. I agreed with him. They must have had a good time for they came back the next year.

By 1983 my husband and I flew to Germany and visited our friends whose names were Liesel and Lorenz Vetter in their small city of Roxheim. They were very gracious and hospitable. I had hinted broadly through the years of our correspondence, that I would someday like to see the Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Of course, the dear folk drove down to Bavaria so we could see the castle. It was an overnight trip and the castle was all I had hoped for to see.

We stayed in the area of the Black Forest and this is where the tale I tell finally gets to the point. They took us to a fine restaurant near the Black Forest. I don't know what my husband had for dinner but it was a nice assortment of food. I think he had Liesel order for him. She kept telling me that "forelle" was very good. She told me that forelle was trout. I said, "Yes, that would be fine." Then she asked me what else I would like and I told her the trout would be fine. I naturally thought that it would have some sort of accompanying food such as potatoes or vegetables. She looked surprised and when my order came a solitary black trout complete with open mouth fins and tail lay on a plate staring at me. It had been steamed and they served it looking at me, head first. It looked as if it could have been mounted and in someone's trophy room. I guess when she said, "What else" she meant that one ordered side dishes as well.

Foiled again by a language barrier. I ate that lone fish. No tartar sauce came with it; I guess one had to order that extra.

My friend's mother, Anna, was a delightful woman of 84. She was determined I was going to have a good time and I did. She spoke no English but Liesel, my friend, told me what she said.

One afternoon, Liesel was away for a short while. "Oma" the name for grandma, kept talking to me but since we were both Catholic, we began to sing some of the old Latin church songs. What fun. She was a good alto and we did some great harmonizing. No language barriers there. We both could sing in Latin.