On Becoming a Non-language Person

Apart from the occasional tourist passing through, there are really no other Westerners in this town that I can visit on a regular basis. In itself it is not such a huge problem, as my daily life is not dependent on my having another whitey to talk to. However I do feel my social skills are starting to deteriorate because of it.

When I do have the opportunity to socialize with other Westerners, I become a little apprehensive, and feel I may be thought of as someone who is about five slices short in his loaf of bread. I thought the Internet may be my saving grace as there are lots of westerners there chatting away and having a gay old time. (Remember when having a gay old time simply meant having a lot of fun with friends?) Back to the net and those chatters.

Well from my personal experience after almost a year, I have come to the conclusion that I don't need to communicate with other westerners that badly, that I have to lower my intelligence to that of a babbling moron who is suffering from a bad case of verbal diarrhea.

When I do get to chat with another westerner, it is what I would imagine a junkie would experience after a hit of high grade heroin. It leaves me mentally high and feeling very elated, although thinking that I didn't realise I missed western conversation so much.

Most conversation here consists of monosyllables and two or three word sentences in poor English. My Malay is not really all that good, and I must admit to being quite lazy about learning more. But it is the same problem I experienced in Indonesia, when I try to speak in the local language, the locals want to speak English so they can better their command of it. Where does that leave me? Having a conversation in half English and half Malay, with a lot of gesticulation thrown in for good luck.

Harking back to the Internet chatting, I would like to thank the following utterers of verbal diarrhea, for waking me up to the fact that there are people out there who actually believe cyberworld is a real place, where everything is fine, and one can actually conduct a normal conversation, and very much like Utopia. People such as 'Texas Queen', Stud', 'Italian Stallion', 'Nighthawk', 'Angel', 'Krudd', 'Jester', 'Foxylady', but to name a few, are just some of the kind souls that helped me move to a better mental plane. The limited conversation available amounted to monosyllables such as "Wow", "Oh yeh", LOL, and of course I saw a lot of "Goodbye".

What did I want out of it? English conversation on an ordinary level. Communication with people who also spoke English as their native language. I wasn't necessarily looking to discuss the ins and outs of nuclear physics, or Newton's theory on relativity, just general, sensible conversation that would cover general everyday topics. But they were all intent on talking about themselves in a childish, mundane manner, that made any hope of ordinary conversation a dream. Call me old fashioned if you like, but unless you live in a country where your native language is not spoken, you ain't got no idea what it's like Honey!

The other day I returned my vehicle the Nissan dealer here, who I might add has been very helpful ever since I purchased the thing 2 years ago, (another story for another time), and all it required was some minor adjustment. Unfortunately the language barrier reared it's ugly head once again. With me not being fluent in Malay, and my Chinese is just a joke, it was more than difficult to explain mechanical components to the staff that required attention. Most of the time it is a case of pointing and saying 'Rosak', (broken), and they generally get the idea. The happy go lucky staff have about as much English knowledge as I have Chinese, and it is always a laughing matter when I try to explain myself. Their comical approach to the language barrier helps to relieve any feelings of frustration that I get at times like that. They laugh and giggle at me when I try to explain things, and tell me it is like a chicken talking to a duck! A very interesting analogy.

Telephone conversations with anyone, including friends who speak English, are generally a nightmare, and I find it better to go to the trouble of visiting them personally than trying to make myself understood over the airwaves. Business houses, Government departments etc., well, you can just forget all about dealing with them over the 'phone, except for the one or two exceptions which are glaringly obvious because of their rarity.

One of the exceptions is a local bank, the RHB, I can actually telephone them and deal with anything over the 'phone. When I hang up after talking to the staff there, I have this strange feeling of elation that I have actually accomplished something very worth while, and the next step is to get onto the space shuttle for a moon trip.

But unfortunately my experience has been that whenever an Asian answers the telephone, the first few minutes are taken up with them repeatedly saying hello. Why they do that never ceases to amaze me, you call anyone, or answer your own 'phone, and it is a game of who can say hello the most, before you become so tired of it you just hang up in frustration. Case in point! "Hello, is that Arab-Malaysian Finance?", elicits the response, "Hello." So you repeat the question, "Is that Arab-Malaysian Finance?", again there is the plain, "Hello."

I'll cut this short to save you any further agony, as I feel that I have suffered enough for everyone. You eventually get it sorted that you have the right company and the next part goes like this. "Could I speak to the motor vehicle loans officer please." The response, "Hello." Five minutes later I am saying, "My account number is such and such." The response, "Hello." By now you might think that I imagine all of this, well, no, actually, it is correct in every detail. I will take you further into the conversation now. "Did you receive my cheque number 0215485, for April's loan repayment?" The response, "Hello". But then the person says "Yes." So I am quite happy that all is well until I hear, "You haven't paid April's amount yet." Me, "You just said you received my cheque." Him, "Yes, but you didn't send the cheque." Me, "Yes I did, but I didn't?" Him, "Yes, we haven't received it." Getting the idea folks? I am yet to learn that when someone here says Yes, they don't mean Yes, it could mean no. I fact I have found that there is an uncanny propensity for them to say Yes, to mean the negative.

Have I regressed into something akin to Neanderthal Man? I enjoy watching movies as it helps me to regain some of my sanity by allowing my imagination to give my mind some respite from the everyday frustrations of communication. I tape them and watch them later so I can FF the commercials, just like you do. I have noticed of late that I am not listening to the voices as much as used to, and that I am beginning to read the Malay sub-titles to keep following the plot. Why I do that I have not quite worked out yet, but it is a trend that is concerning me. Have I started to lose any ability I had to communicate in English completely? is it because of the total lack of English speaking people in my life? Are my skills at social intercourse deteriorating that much that I am becoming a non-language person? I leave it up to the jury to decide your honour.

Anthony Lee
Malaysia