Jun 23, 2014

    Mind your language, ang moh

    YOUNGER readers may lose me on this one, but there was a British comedy called Mind Your Language.

    The show's most popular character was a Spaniard called Juan. He understood nobody and could say only "por favor" and "it's all right".

    I have become Juan. If my behaviour continues, I'll grow his afro and handlebar moustache, too.

    I'm here in Brazil for the World Cup to watch football and be reminded at every opportunity that I am a monolingual moron.

    Brazilians speak only Portuguese. A handful might understand Spanish. Even fewer can converse in English.

    When I order food in a cafe, I peruse the menu, point and say: "Por favor… it's all right!"

    When I take a taxi, I point to a tourist map and say: "Por favor… it's all right!"

    When I asked for a replacement part for my selfie stick, I said, "Por favor… it's all right" - which didn't even make sense.

    The Portuguese accent in Brazil is so thick and colloquial that I cannot even ask for directions to the train station. So how do you think I managed to ask for a replacement part for my selfie stick?

    I'd been using this monopod device to make videos for the TNP app.

    I needed to make a minor repair, but I couldn't describe a selfie stick in Portuguese. Frankly, I'd struggle even in English.

    So I mimed the operation.

    This was not a smart move.

    Using non-verbal communication to describe pulling out a long, straight object at waist height, repeatedly, while saying, "Por favor… it's all right" does not impress hotel staff.

    Miming the extending and retracting of a selfie stick faster and more excitedly only made matters worse.

    While performing my selfie-stick mime routine, I tried to reassure the woman at reception by saying: "I like to take photos. Por favor... it's all right!"

    Perverts have been arrested for less.

    Eventually, I found a Chinese-Portuguese woman running a camera accessories stall in an IT shopping mall and managed to describe what I needed using simple Mandarin.

    We wanted to hug each other, like we'd discovered a long-lost relative.

    She'd never been to Singapore. I'd never been to China. Yet, we bonded over some pretty awful Mandarin and a selfie stick.

    At least she was aware of Singapore and its people and customs. Other folks have been less informed.

    An England supporter said: "You're from Singapore? You must be a multi-millionaire then. You're all millionaires in Singapore, right?"

    Not really. He's not daft. He's seen the price of a five-room flat in Toa Payoh.

    In Sao Paulo, a journalist from Israel was rather confused that I was a Singapore-based writer, rather than a scribbler from Britain.

    "But... you're white," he spluttered.

    Nothing got past this guy.

    "What's it like being a writer in Singapore? Everyone is quite rich over there, right?"

    The stereotype was starting to irritate me. So I handed the Ferrari keys to my butler and put the journalist firmly in his place.

    But at least we could converse.

    In cafes, my slow, deliberate attempt to say "I'm a vegetarian" translates clearly into: "Give me half a cow on a warm bed of rice and beans, my good man... and please make fun of me."

    Through lots of pointing and miming, one waiter suggested that a) real men ate meat; b) I was lanky and lacked sufficient protein; and c) England were not a very good football team.

    Thanks to an English-speaking hotel receptionist, I now have a handwritten note in Portuguese, explaining my preferred dietary requirements.

    A waiter read it and ordered me the perfect meal. Then he reeled off the list of drinks on the menu in Portuguese.

    I nodded and replied: "Por favor… it's all right!"