It's the opposite of "lost in translation." Some bilingual people don't look the part. This can create an awkward situation, not because they don't get what's being said in a foreign language, but because they understand it all too well. It can be uncomfortable, sure, but also entertaining when the bilingual person reveals that he or she followed the whole conversation, including every insult -- or compliment.
To eavesdrop on the agonizing encounters, read these anecdotes from bilingual people. Each of them shares that satisfying moment when they turned the tables, revealing they actually speak the language quite well, thank you.
100. Isn't French Romantic?
99. Flirting In Sign Language
98. Learning A New language Is Never A Waste
97. "Such A Degenerate"
96. Wash Out Your Mouth
95. The Chinese Guilt
94. At Least She Knew Enough To Be Ashamed
93. What's Wrong With Camels, Exactly?
92. The Irishman Speaks Spanish
91. All The Kittens In The World
90. It's Your Manners That Stink
89. Groceries Aren't Free
88. The Rated R Version
87. The Cute American
86. That's Deep
85. The Answer Is: Neither Of You
84. You Know Your Rude When Canadians Snap At You
83. A German, A Frenchman, And A Translator Get In A Hores-Drawn Carriage...
82. Bringing People's Mothers Into It
81. Mouthing Off
80. Don't Be Rude To Those Who Handle Your Food
I was in Monaco on a school trip for my French class with some California students. We were ordering food at some small local place when the California students in front of me were trying to order in English only. They were pretty rude and demanding saying things like, "Oh my god I just want some ICE. Ugh these people are so dumb." The French cook was just looking confused and after a lot of bickering the California students walked off. Then when I went to order I tried to order in French (not very good but after 6 years of studying French in high school and elementary school). I think I said, "Puis j'avais de.." when the cook cut me off and goes, "Dude, I speak English. Those girls were just over the top rude. What would you like?" I thought it was awesome.
79. Looks Like They'll Be Learning Several Lessons
78. Changing Colors
I had gone over to a friend's house to play cards. I knew a few of the people there, but not everyone. So we are all sitting on the floor, I'm getting ready to deal, and one of the guys playing says (in Hindi) to my friend, basically, "So where did you pick up the lady from?," with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge in his voice.
I'm not even good with witty comebacks in English, so I just snapped my head up and looked right into the guy's eyes with a "shut up" look (by the way, this works better than witty comebacks or badly-pronounced expletives in a foreign language). My friend told him, "She speaks Hindi. And we work together." I have never seen a brown guy turn that bright red.
77. Do You Know The English Word For Inept?
I’m white, but reasonably fluent in Korean. When I went to an orthopedist in Korea for elbow pain, a translator was provided by the hospital and I figured I might as well talk through him in case there was any specific medical terminology I didn’t know.
After describing my symptoms and doing a brief physical exam where I was visibly in pain, the translator told the doctor that he thought I was only pretending. The thing was, he was doing an absolutely terrible job of translating even prior to that, so I quickly responded, "And you’re only pretending to know English" (in Korean). The doc actually cracked a smile and the translator spent the rest of my visit sitting in his seat without saying a single word.
76. At Your Service
75. Awkward Elevator Ride
I took Mandarin lessons when I was in school, so I understand a decent amount of the language. I walked into an elevator with a Chinese couple talking. After I clicked the button for my floor, I heard them talking about me and the conversation went like this.
Wife: "He's brown, but doesn't smell brown."
Husband: "Yeah, usually they smell really bad."
Wife: "Kind of like fish or curry. Are they dirty?"
At this point I begin to start laughing because I can understand what they're saying. But its awkward because there's no one else there and I'm not wearing headphones so I could only be laughing at them unless I'm crazy.
Wife: "Do you think he can understand us?"
Husband: "Stop talking."
Those lessons were so worth it. Uncensored people are the best.
74. I Came To Japan To Tour, Too
I was visiting Hiroshima in Japan and walking around alone. Then I see a caucasian guy walk up to me, and in fluent Japanese ask me to take a photo of him in front of one of the monuments. For context, I’m Asian but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. So after a couple of seconds, I said, “Uh.... do you speak English?” Awkward silence ensues. He goes, “Uhhh...yeah.” Easily made my day. We did make small talk after but went our separate ways.
72. Our Children Are Watching
Despite my parents speaking Welsh to each other every single day, they didn't bother teaching us kids who were born outside of Wales. For some reason they didn't think that we would would figure it out after a lifetime of hearing it.
Always nice to know exactly what you're getting for Christmas and how much of a disappointment you are to your parents.
71. Found In Translation
I was sitting at a communal lunch table for a big international event with coworkers who didn't know me and didn't know that I was their coworker.
I just listened to them trash talk all sorts of people including my direct supervisor, his direct supervisor, and the unknown professional translator with the unbelievably stupid sounding name -- Yuemeigui. They said all this in Chinese.
As they got up to leave, one of the English-speakers apologized to me for spending the whole lunch chatting in Chinese with her coworkers and asked me what I was doing at the event.
They presumably assumed I was media or an early arrival (who for some reason was in the Staff Dining Room).
"Hi," I said, "I'm the translator. My name is Yuemeigui."
70. That Hurts
69. Ciao, Bella
68. Pretend Not To Understand So We Can Stay In The Short Line
My wife and I lived in China, but don’t look like we would speak Chinese. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first child, about five months along. We were in Xi’An, renting bikes to ride on top of the city wall. There were two lines, one long line with Chinese signs, and another shorter line with signs in English. The first rule of China is never to let anyone know you speak Chinese, so naturally, we went in the short line.
When we get to the front, I hear one of the girls renting bikes ask the other if pregnant women are allowed to rent bikes. Rental girl #2 looks at my wife for a moment, then says, “She’s not pregnant, she’s just fat.” Naturally, we said nothing, rented bikes, and went on our merry way.
67. Saving Polish Tourists In Germany From Themselves
I live in Poland near the German border. Once, together with my wife and daughter, we decided to go to a nearby German town for shopping. While we were entering a mall, my daughter (13-14-years-old) tells me how cool it is that nobody really can understand what we're talking about and we can practically say everything we want. In the same moment, a security guard standing next to entrance grins and greets her with perfect polish, "Dzień Dobry" (Good Morning). I didn't realize that her skin tone could get that red. I just thanked that man for a mild but practical lesson.
66. A Very Long Elevator Ride, And Not Because Of The Crying Kid
I am Indian and speak Vietnamese. I was in an elevator with two Vietnamese women and a roughly three-year-old kid. The kid starts screaming and crying. One woman tells the other, "He doesn't like people with black skin." For the remainder of our ride, I lectured them in Vietnamese about how prejudices are learned behavior etc. They were mortified.
65. That Radish Remark Was The Ultimate Revenge
Chilean born Australian here. I've lived several years in Japan and picked up the lingo pretty quick. I got rather chubby in the winters there and loved gorging my face with katsudon every chance I got. I'd have Japanese kids call me "large" all the time on the trains. I'd usually just giggle it off. One day, two girls were talking smack while sitting across from me and just before I got off I told them both that they'd also gotten really fat and that they had daikon legs (thick radish legs). The whole carriage just gasped and I awkwardly tripped as I left the train.
64. Long Live Irish Gaelic (And Irish Grannies)!
Was sitting on the London tube on the way back from a long day at work, and overheard two older Irish ladies who had moved to London a good 40+ years ago speaking to each other in broken Irish. They had just come from an Irish event and were lamenting the fact that the Irish language was slowly dying off.
I was dressed in my suit like all the rest of the other city drones so there was nothing to single me out as Irish. I leaned over casually with a smile and said, “Níl an teanga marbh fós,” which translates to, “The language isn’t dead yet.” The surprise on their faces and the smiles that followed were priceless, will never forget it!
63. So Happy I'm Able To Retort In Russian
I was on vacation in Turkey in 2016. On the first day, I was at the beach like everybody would do. Of course, I didn't know my way around the hotel so I just left my towel on the beach chair and went to my room to go to the bathroom instead of aimlessly looking around the place for one.
When I came back to my spot, there was an older Russian couple taking the chairs next to me. I laid back in my chair, put my hat on my face and just tried to snooze in the shade. A couple of minutes later I hear the woman next to me saying, "Look at those freaking Germans! Sleeping until noon but always having to reserve the best spots early in the morning! Freaking Nazis!" (She said this in Russian, of course.)
Sometime later, I woke up and had to pee again. I put my hat on the table next to me and asked them, in Russian, "Do you understand Russian? Do you know where the nearest toilet is?" The woman was turning so red you could mistake her for a tomato. Her husband told me where to go and so I said thank you -- in Russian again.
62. People Who Tour Finland Feel Free To Judge
I live in Finland and every summer we get some obnoxious middle-aged tourists who feel free to comment on people’s appearances in plain English. Just so you know, everyone here understands you from age 10 to 60, at least.
61. Collecting More Bad Debt By Being Bilingual
I'm one of the palest people I know; add to that blonde hair and a thick, northern (UK) accent I look like the last person on the planet to speak a Middle Eastern language.
I married into an Egyptian family and we spend plenty of time there. My Arabic isn't amazing, but I can get by. I live for the horrified look on people's faces when I switch to Arabic. I used to do debt collection for a utility company and had a gentleman who refused to pay his bill. He called me all kinds of horrific names. I quickly told him in Arabic that I absolutely wouldn't tolerate language like that, that I was trying to help him, and that he was bringing shame on his family.
He stuttered for a good few minutes, apologized and ended up paying. However, I got into trouble at work because all calls are recorded at the call centre and management was unable to review my call because they couldn't understand what I was saying. They were worried I could have said something offensive etc. So from then on, we were forced to use professional translation services only on three-way calls, which was an absolute pain.
60. Hush Now, Austrian Hosts
Was traveling in Austria, getting on a shuttle to go from Innsbruck to a little town higher in the mountains, I was chatting and laughing with a few friends as I got on. My American accent was on full display. There were two older women who gave us weird looks as we boarded, and we sat down across the aisle and just behind them.
Almost as soon as we sat down, one turned to the other and said in German, “Stupid American tourists are always so loud.” I was sitting nearest to them on the aisle, so I leaned forward and said in my far less perfect (but still understandable) German, “And you’re not as quiet as you think.” It was a looooooonnggg ride of pleasant silence up into the mountains.
59. It Can Be Awkward To Understand ASL
I know a decent amount of ASL (American Sign Language) and was in my second college course learning ASL when this happened.
My younger sister's friend was going to buy a puppy and wanted me to go so she wasn't meeting strangers alone. The group of people we are meeting get out of the car and we realize they are deaf. The girl selling the puppy to my sister's friend starts talking to her and I'm just chilling off to the side. Another girl and a guy were off to the side also. The girl was signing bad stuff about me and my sister's friend being 'hearing' and just rude stuff in general.
I don't remember much, but the guy noticed I was watching the conversation. He told the trash talker to quit because he thought I could understand what she was saying. She blew him off and continued. Eventually, my sister's friend buys the puppy and as we are saying 'goodbyes' I sign, "Thanks for meeting us. Have a great day and have a safe drive home." I swear to god the dude that was telling the trash talker to be quiet earlier just about peed his pants laughing at her. It made my day.
58. I Swear I Didn't Know You Spoke Dutch
This happened recently when I was in Malta. My friend is Bulgarian and she has friends from all over the place there too, so we all speak English. However, I'm Dutch and when we were eating at this restaurant, there was this one old Dutch couple relatively close to our table.
The guy kept swearing because he thought we were too loud (we really weren't, it just seemed they were a bit bitter and sour because they had nothing to say to one another). Swearing in Dutch is a bit special too since compared to most languages it's incredibly harsh. It's basically wishing diseases like cancer and typhus to one another.
At some point, he was just kind of mumbling swear words one after the other pretending to look outside the window when even his wife was telling him to stop. So I turned and I asked in Dutch, "Everything alright? Nice weather out isn't it?" They replied back in kind and I didn't hear him swear for the rest of the evening.
57. Happily, The Husband Spoke German And His Wife Did Not
We were visiting the Grand Canyon and found ourselves on the same tour bus as a group of Germans. At the time, my mom was particularly heavy, which I guess one of the Germans took personal offence to; she loudly told her friends as much. Several laughed.
My dad speaks German and had a big issue with this, so he starts laughing with them and says in German, “That’s hilarious! I like to tell jokes too. Want to hear one? It’s about some very stupid Germans.” Needless to say, they did their best to avoid us after that.
He actually only recently told my mom what happened on that bus (at the time, he told her he accidentally offended them). She thought it was hilarious.
56. I Get You, Grandmother
I am fluent in Spanish because I lived in a Spanish-speaking country and my wife and her family are all native Spanish speakers. But as I am fairly pale, most don't expect me to speak Spanish.
One day, when I was working retail, I was helping this Latino family: an abuela (grandmother), husband, wife, and kid. They were buying a computer. All spoke English very well. Since they all spoke English I didn't mention I was able to speak Spanish.
I recommended a more expensive computer that they were looking at (the one they wanted sucked and wouldn't have been good for what they wanted to do). The abuela spoke to the husband in Spanish saying, "This gringo doesn't know what he's talking about, get the cheaper one." I looked her dead in the eye and responded in Spanish, "I actually know exactly what I'm talking about as I have been doing this for many years."
I then turned and walked away to check and see if we had the one I was recommending in stock. The abuela didnt say another word the entire time they were there and they bought the computer I recommended.
55. The Cabbie's Unintentional Compliment, Sort Of
I was living in Jersey and got into a taxi. The driver was on the phone and started talking in Spanish to the person on the other end about me, how he just picked up some white girl. They must’ve answered, “What does she look like?” The driver replied that I was cute for a white girl. I’m very light-skinned because I take after my dad, who’s Cuban. My mom, who is Puerto Rican has very dark olive skin.
Once he got off the phone, I said to him in Spanish that he shouldn’t always assume someone is a “gringa” just because he thinks they look it. His eyes about bugged out of his head and I laughed. He started apologizing and I told him it was okay because he didn’t say anything bad about me, but that I hope he learned a lesson.
54. Please Speak Some Other Language To Mock My Weakness
I am a tall skinny blonde dude with a degree in Spanish. I went to recycle my bottles and the Mexicans called me skinny and weak for not carrying all my cans at once. They said Jorge was stronger than me.
53. Turning Embarrassment Into A 25 Percent Tip
I’m a very pale person, and I was a waiter at a Tex Mex restaurant. A pair of customers came in and one of them said, “I don’t want this ugly white boy serving us,” in Spanish. I chimed in that I had started going to the gym as a joke in Spanish to break the ice. They were clearly very embarrassed and gave me a 25% tip to make up for it. So it worked out.
52. Danes Aren't All Blonde
In the early '90s, I attended an American high school. I'm Danish and I'm adopted from Thailand. There was a Danish exchange student who was a white native Dane. Americans always fell silent and would stare at us if we were speaking Danish to each other. It was as if they couldn't fathom how two people who look so different could speak the same language that none of the Americans around us spoke or understood.
Other Danes rarely assume that I won't understand them today. That used to be a thing with older generations who would loudly backtalk me for several minutes before I'd interrupt them and defend myself in fluent Danish (of course, because I am Danish) with as much respect and dignity as I could muster!
Twice in the US -- once in a California valley town in a Target where some Danish tourists were looking for camping gear and once in Yosemite at the foot of Vernal Falls who were talking about trip plans for the rest of their grand CA tour -- I surprised these Danish tourists by suddenly helping them in Danish. I'm very short and I looked like a little kid even though I was in my teens. The other Danes would look around for the voice but not at me until I repeated myself right in front of their faces. Both times it was groups of senior tourists.
51. Looks That Don't Match Language Skills Save A Life
I used to be a cop in Australia. Was working with a guy who spoke fluent Arabic because his parents spoke it when he was growing up. Guess he looked fairly Aussie, if not tanned. Got called to a mental health job one day by this girl's parents. They claimed she was threatening to take her own life. She told us she definitely wasn't. She walked away and screamed at her parents. In Arabic. I looked at him. "What did she say, bro?" "She just said 'I'm gonna do it when they go.'" Okie dokie. Let's take you to the nearest mental health clinic, love.
50. Using Flawless Chinese To Fluster A Bus
I was on the bus in Chicago and there was a bunch of Chinese students on the bus. This old white guy comes back there asking if it’s the “Chinese section of the bus?” People are looking up slowly like what the heck is this? Old guy busts out some perfect Chinese. Turns out he’d traveled all over China with his brother after WWII.
49. Actually, Ugly Is Insulting People You Don't Think Can Understand You
This happened to my church member many years ago. She had just moved to the States from South Korea. She was out shopping with a friend and started talking in Korean about how ugly the white, bald, American man next to them was. He turned to her and in perfect, fluent Korean said, "I'm sorry my looks and lack of hair aren't up to your standards. I hope you have a nice day." She and her friend were mortified.
48. When Mean Girls Speak French
I was doing a year abroad in Australia and went on a vacation with my boyfriend at the time in Melbourne. We were in the tram and he wanted to take a funny photo of something outside for a friend when this French teenager on a class trip started saying in French, “Oh my God, I thought he was taking a photo of me. Well, that wouldn’t surprise me, I’m beautiful and his girlfriend is so ugly. Imagine if they spoke French.” I turned to her and just said, “ Well, yeah I do” (it’s my native).
47. Dark Humor In The City Of Light
My husband and I had this happen to us when we were dating. He's born and bred Parisian and has never lived anywhere else, but is half Norwegian, and looks very Nordic. When he speaks English, he has a flat, Norwegian accent instead of French thanks to his mom. I'm an American.
Anyway, we were waiting for takeout at a restaurant one night, and discussing something in English to each other. Apparently, we were in the way of these girls behind us because they started speaking in French about how people come to Paris and just do whatever they want without concern for real Parisians, how we're jerk tourists, etc, just being nasty about 'foreigners in their city.'
My husband turned around, and said in the snootiest Parisian accent he could muster, "Considering your crappy Marseillais accent, I'd say you're the one that doesn't belong in my city." I've never seen someone go white so fast.
46. And He Wasn't Even A Language Instructor
I was on a school film set and I was hanging out with my friend (the sound mixer) and the boom operator was there. She's this very nice Korean girl going to school overseas with us. The faculty member that was our set supervisor comes over to us, and he's this tall, chubby black dude with a more clear Canadian accent than most of us. He just stands there for a second and then starts talking to the boom operator in fluent Korean. She got super flustered and caught off guard and had trouble responding (she's pretty shy as well).
45. They All Spoke Spanish But Only Two Were Terrible Roommates
I look super white but I’m half Cuban and know Spanish. One year I had some pretty terrible roommates, and I heard them talking crap about me in Spanish while hanging out in our kitchen, saying how they didn’t like me and other general insults. I was studying in our living room, and so they were essentially right in front of me for their entire conversation. I said the feeling was mutual and went back to working on my school work while they stared at me in a mixture of horror and embarrassment.
44. We Charge Less If You Know Our Language
When we go to France to visit my family and friends, since my husband does not speak French, I'm constantly talking in English with him. People assume we don't understand them.
The worst thing that happened to us was in a restaurant. The waiter happily brings menus "'Ello, 'ere are our menus in Engliche for you!" That's when I asked in French for a French one and leave the English one for my husband. He went all pale, the smile had faded real quick. I had some suspicion so I compared both menus; the English was slightly more expensive.
43. Culture Clash At The Hair Salon
I went to get my hair done at a Hispanic salon. Walked in and was greeted in English, so I responded in English and kept speaking English during my time in there.
The woman doing my hair starts talking to another stylist in Spanish. Talking crap about me and who do I think I am coming to a Spanish salon because apparently in their twisted view, white people should only go to white salons and blah blah. Well, I'm Mexican, just light-skinned. I let her finish while she'd jump back and forth in conversations in English with me and in Spanish with the other stylist. Just let her keep talking crap.
Once she was done, I got up and, in fluent Spanish, thanked her and told her I'd be sure never to come back. I walked out without paying. No one came after me.
42. She Never Used The Armenian Word For Gecko, Though
My dad decided to come with me to the pet store while I got crickets for my gecko. The cashier (who looked and sounded 100% American) ordered a dozen of them. It took an unusually long amount of time for the insects to arrive, and my dad kept mumbling complaints to me in Armenian. Things like, “She’s taking forever. Can she go any slower?” I replied in Armenian that it wasn’t her fault, it’s not in her control, it’s up to the other employee getting the crickets.
And after a good couple minutes of this back and forth the cashier joins our Armenian with her own. “You’re Armenian too?” My dad shut up instantly but she was so kind she carried on the conversation as if he hadn't insulted her in the first place. That still didn’t stop him from turning into a tomato though.
41. The Insult-Proof Fast Food Staff
At the fast food restaurant I worked at, we collectively spoke English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and German. I'm not fluent in anything but I'm decent in Spanish, Italian, French, and a little Tagalog.
It's a small college town so the population is an odd combination of people who've never left the state and immigrants. If people insulted us in a foreign language, someone on the staff would always give them a not-so-kind response back in that language. Most people just kind of freeze from embarrassment. One person walked out and never came back. There's a weird stereotype of all fast food workers being lazy poor idiots, so we appreciate getting to put customers in their place when they're being rude. We actually only hired college students, and many of us had foreign language requirements attached to our degrees.
40. Making A First Nude Sauna Visit Into A Naked Nightmare
I am English. Last year, I visited Germany and went to the thermal baths in Baden Baden. It’s important to point out at this point that in Germany almost every sauna facility is mixed and strictly nude. When I arrived at the place, I overheard an English couple talking. It caught my ear because their accents were close to my own, so they must have been from the same region.
I overheard the woman call her husband Jerry while they were walking to the changing rooms. A little while later, I sat down in one of the saunas. After a few minutes, the English couple came in and sat down opposite me. They were chatting away and must have assumed I was German. Jerry turned to his wife and said, “I could never do anything like this back home, I would be terrified of meeting someone I know.”
I looked up at them and said, “Hang on a minute, I know you. It’s Jerry isn’t it?”
39. You Never Know Who Might Hear Your Heartless Hungarian
My parents are Hungarian, so I learned to speak the language despite being in a part of Australia with a very small (and rather old) Hungarian community. I was walking around a shopping centre with my dog when I hear an elderly couple loudly saying horribly racist things about a passing Arabic family, calling them disgusting, breeders, and ironically saying they should 'go back where they came from.' I walked up to them and simply said, in Hungarian, "Be careful what you say, because you never know who might understand you," and casually walked away. The silence was golden.
38. Taunts In Tamil Embarrassed Us At The End Of The Line
I'm the one who spoke badly about another person. About 11 years ago, a couple of my friends and I were travelling from London to Manchester by train. There was a really pretty-looking girl sitting opposite us and I had just come off a bad break up. So my friends, being the jerks they are, kept teasing me in Tamil, our native language. Stupid stuff like 'Raiden and the maiden sitting in a tree.' This went on for the whole journey.
Finally, we reached Manchester and were walking down the station when this girl comes bounding up past us, hugs this really big, burly guy and exclaims, "You'll never guess what happened on the train," in perfect Tamil. Needless to say, we bolted from there as fast as possible.
37. You Really Can Use Mandarin To Make Someone Sound Like A Dolphin
I'm white and lived in China and Japan. I am conversant in Mandarin, fluent in Japanese. People assume I can't understand them so often it doesn't even faze me anymore. The funniest time might have been when I was on the subway reading a French magazine and the couple standing behind me were chatting about whether it was Spanish or French and whether I was American, English, or German because I didn't look Spanish or French. I put away the French magazine and pulled out a Japanese one. The girl shrieked like a dolphin.
36. Take It As A Compliment
35. Madame, You Are Cruel In Any Language
First time I visited Montreal was on a school trip. I’m from Alberta, and our hotel receptionist knew this. I guess she had assumed we couldn’t speak French, which, looking back, was pretty stupid of her. What kind of school would send non French speaking kids to the only French province?
Anyway, one of my friends was having an asthma attack, and the receptionist muttered under her breath, “Etouffé, s’il te plaît” (suffocate, please). To which I responded, “Madame, parlez-vous à tous vos clients de cette manière?” (Madam, do you speak to all of your customers this way?). Not super clever on my part, but it shut her up.
34. He Finnished That Bigot's Rant
My father-in-law is Moroccan but has lived 30+ years in Finland and is completely fluent in four languages (including Finnish). He travelled a lot on business selling air conditioning units. Once, while he was on on a connecting flight in the United States, he overheard two young Finnish girls on holiday talking to each other about which one would have to sit in the middle seat next to "the terrorist."
They spent the flight being incredibly rude about my polite father-in-law who bit his tongue the whole way. Only at the end did he finally let them have it.
When they got onto the terminal bus, he gave up his seat to one of the girls and said in Finnish, "You can have my seat. After listening to you, I have decided to stop being a terrorist and start selling air conditioning units." He says they were absolutely mortified.
33. Coffee, The Universal Language
I buy my coffee beans here in Amsterdam from an Ethiopian woman in Dutch. My Dutch sucks and I probably sounded like an 8-year-old the other day describing the flavor of bean I was looking for. I didn’t know she spoke English until on my way out of the shop she said to a friend, “These are my customers. They know nothing about coffee.”
32. It's Too Early For This
I speak English and French and I live in Quebec. Everyone knows how some french Quebeckers don't take too kindly to the English.
So I'm at a café ordering in English because I'm in between classes and screw it, it's 7:30 a.m. and latte is pretty much the same in both languages. The cashier looks at me like I had vomit all over myself and walks over to her manager and says in French, "Take care of that Anglo, when will they understand that it's French in this province?" At which point I turned bright red and I said in French, "Pardon? Can I not order a coffee without having to have a political debate? Would you not serve travelers or immigrants?"
Free coffee for a year.
31. Calling Them Out
I'm Asian and I live in France, so my French is pretty fluent (spoken, at least). I was visiting some friends in London last summer and on the tube, there were a group of 5 French tourists standing around and pretty much complaining about EVERYONE else in the tube, saying that Brits are so ugly, dissing how they dress, really petty stuff. I was already side-eyeing the crap outta this group but pretty much kept to myself and my friends.
Then the tube started getting really crowded, and we had to move in nearer to said French group. I accidentally bumped shoulders with one of the guys in the group and he proceeded to groan loudly then turn to his friends and made a racial remark. His group started laughing and looking at me. At that point I saw white and COMPLETELY LOST IT.
I turned around and addressed his whole group calling them out on their ignorance and racist garbage, telling them off for being the exact stereotype of tourists that ruin the reputations of the decent people out there, and assuming that no one else can speak their language while traveling around in Europe, for Pete's sake. Ended by saying if you don't want to see any other races or ethnicities you should probably stay in that hole you call a home and not travel abroad if you're gonna act like a massive jerk.
Everyone was looking at me at this point. My friends were like "what the heck" and trying to get me to stop. I just said loudly in English to everyone else that this group of French people were making racist statements and deserved to be called out. They all pretty much turned red and one of the other people in the group mumbled a quick apology and they got off the tube at the next stop.
30. Good Looking Out
One time a friend was over in my dorm. His friend phoned him and he answered his phone in Chinese. I didn't think much of it; he was fluent and I figured it was one of his close friends. I was playing a video game and on Ventrilo, so while he was speaking a few feet away, I was cueing in to laugh at a joke or call out a boss pull.
Well, a few minutes later, someone whispers to me in-game and is like, "Just so you know, that guy is telling his friend he's about to score with you in Chinese."
Yeaaaaah. We never hung out much after that.
29. An Astute Observation
I was at the airport last week when there was a huge queue at the customs part of the airport, where we all have to verify passports/all that other jazz. There was a line specifically for people who needed extra help, and it was practically empty. My two muscly jerk friends (I think it was a joke) walked into that queue, and an attendant hurriedly rushed over and said "you're not in need of extra assistance," and this little old Chinese lady behind me in the queue, bless her, muttered "yeah they are, in the head," in Chinese.
28. Caught Red Handed
I was on the subway in Korea and these 4 high school boys were standing behind me, talking to each other like, "Look at her, she is so pretty. She has really nice hair! You should talk to her, NO WAY DUDE, my English is awful, you first." I turned around and just smiled and they freaked out and kept whispering like "Oh god, did she understand? No way, she couldn't have. Did she?!"
It was really funny, made my day.
27. Serves Him Right
I used to go to lunch with my assistant manager to a Mexican restaurant next door to where we worked. My assistant manager is Cuban and would usually have small talk, in Spanish, with the waiters. One day, he tells them about how he is the manager and I'm his assistant. This conversation gets more interesting when he tells the waiter about what a lousy worker I am. This is when I interrupted to say, in Spanish, that he, my assistant, is lying and I let them know that I speak Spanish. The waiter laughed his butt off and my assistant manager was very embarrassed. Ah, good times.
26. Your Ignorance Is Showing
I was in Brussels on the tram one morning when these two American girls with heavy southern accents began to talk really loudly about the city, how European guys are like when intimate, how they think Belgium is ugly and small and crowded and whatnot and generally trash talking Europe. After a while they went, "Hey, do you think anyone here speaks English?," and a guy who's getting off the tram said "We all speak English here," and left.
25. I'll Take That Offer
In high school, my dad and I went backpacking through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. We were in this small town named Lone Pine, which is about 4 hours north of L.A. There were tons of German and French tourists there who had been visiting the redwood forests. I speak both English and French fluently and I overheard these two French girls talk about me in a convenience store.
One of them nodded in my direction and said, "What about that one?," to which the other one replied, "He seems kind of dumb, but he's cute, so yeah." I thought I would try my luck and approach them about it. In French, I said, "So, I'd like to take you up on that offer if you're up to it." They were clearly pretty embarrassed, and just walked away giggling.
24. Learn To Appreciate Her
I was on an Amtrak with my boyfriend who was watching West Wing, and as it was 8 AM, I just didn't have it in me to really enjoy it, so I opted to read my book instead.
We were sitting at one of the tables with two benches opposite one another, and there were two French ladies in their mid-60s sitting across from us. They were having a great conversation in French, and then I heard one of them go (essentially): "Oh! The boys in every country, they are all the same. You put a pretty girl next to them, a girl they think will stay there, and they'd rather watch a screen. You take the pretty girl away and they go chasing after her, saying they never want to look at anything else."
I just started cracking up and they were really embarrassed and started apologizing profusely, but I thought it was hilarious. Boyfriend sat there looking confused, smiled awkwardly, and kept watching West Wing. I spent much of the rest of the train ride chatting it up with the French ladies.
23. It Was Priceless
So I went into a Russian store with my friend. We both know Russian but are Americans, and he's married to an American woman. As we walk in, he's talking to his wife in English. There's a Russian couple already in there shopping (it's a small store) and as we walk around she starts complaining to her husband about "Those horrible people, why are they even in here." She threw out a few swear words and just wouldn't shut up. Then, right as we walk past them, my friend says to his wife, in flawless Russian, "I've got to go honey, this shrew in the store won't shut up and I'm starting to get mad." The look on her face... Priceless.
22. A Wild Ride
I speak French and Portuguese and live in Brazil. One day I was walking home and this car stops next to me and this guy asks some directions in Portuguese but in a heavy French accent. I try to tell him where the place he wanted to go is, but it's kinda complicated, he doesn't understand. The place was near my home, so I ask him if he wants me to get in the car and take them there and he accepts.
Now I know this is awkward (and dangerous) but, hey, I trusted him and he trusted me. There is kindness, after all. Thing is, besides him, there is this old couple in the car, and as soon I get in, the old guy (not the one who asked directions) started screaming, in French, something like this: "HOW DO YOU LET THIS THIEF GET IN OUR CAR? THIS IS DANGEROUS, YOU DON'T KNOW WHO HE IS, WE ARE IN BRAZIL, YOU ARE INSANE!"
Nevertheless, the guy started his engine and followed my directions, and all the way the old guy keeps yelling in French: "YOU ARE PUTTING US ALL AT RISK, THIS GUY (looking at me) CAN BE A HOMELESS MAN" and so on... There is this one point when I say for the guy driving the car to turn left, but he doesn't understand it because the other one is screaming, so I repeat and he doesn't understand again. Then I say in French: "Tournez à gauche" (turn left).
Then a few seconds pass and the nice guy, the one who's driving, asks me in French if I speak French, I say, "Yes, a little." The other guy, the one who's complaining, turns white and stops yelling immediately. I tell him to stop the car (in French), because the place (hotel) they want to go was right there and my house was the other way.
That was a fun day.
21. Never Assume
I overheard a bunch of French tourists in Nepal discussing, in graphic detail, the digestive problems they'd been having for a few days (i.e. "I CAN'T TELL IF IT'S A FART OR IT'S POOP"). After a while, they turned to me and my friends and asked, in English, where we are from. My friends answered, in French, "We're from the same place you are, and he (me)'s from Quebec." Their look of embarrassment was just delectable; the awkwardness was palpable (more so than their poop).
20. The Cow Says...
One of my Israeli women friends told me that when she was pregnant riding a subway in New York, she asked (in English) to squeeze in on a bench seat next to two women. One of the women said to the other (in Hebrew) "Let the cow sit down." After she sat down, my friend then said in Hebrew "The cow says 'thanks'."
19. Give Me The Discount
I'm Pakistani, but I look white/Arab. I have very pale skin, light-colored eyes, etc.
Most other people who speak Urdu, Hindi or Punjabi assume I don't understand. I was in a mobile shop looking for a charger. I overheard one of the guys working say in Punjabi, "Just charge her £10 extra. She won't know."
I told him quite calmly in Punjabi that I'd like it for £10 off, thank you.
18. Move Along
About 10 years ago I was on a night train going from Rome to Naples. These 2 criminals were discussing robbing me while I was sitting in the same cabin with them. I told them I spoke Italian and that if they wanted to rob me, I wasn't going to make it easy for them. They actually apologized, told me they thought I was German, and moved on down the car.
17. Smart Tourists
My brother speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently. He had already lived in Taiwan for seven years when this little episode happened. This was many years ago, when it was very unusual for a Westerner to speak Chinese.
He and I were in a taxi in Beijing one night. We gave our instructions to the driver in English and chatted together only in English, so the driver of course naturally assumed neither of us spoke Chinese.
A few minutes into the ride the driver offered us a cigarette. We waved him off politely. He then said, according to my brother, "Only weaklings don't smoke."
Along the way the driver would point out places, saying, in a mock-friendly voice, things like, "That's where foreign idiots are given the bad and spoiled food they deserve." My brother would report all of this to me with bemusement. At the end of the ride, the driver tried to overcharge us. My brother for the first time spoke Mandarin, pointing out the correct amount on the meter and telling the driver he was making note of his name and taxi license number. The driver's eyes got huge with fear, he literally jumped out of the taxi and ran to open my brother's door, apologizing in a desperate voice and bowing over and over, trembling (no, bowing is not part of Chinese culture).
My brother said the driver probably figured any guy who spoke Mandarin would have the connections to make his life misery. We just shrugged it off, had a good laugh.
16. I'll Distract Them
I'm Indian, but living in California most people think I am Mexican. Getting ready to board a plane to Hawaii, and TSA is checking bags again at the gate for "random searches." My dad jokingly exclaims in Hindi that we are all going to get "randomly" searched to get ready to run. The guy in front of us starts chuckling, and then gets stopped instead of us. He turns around and says in Hindi, "You guys go on without me, I'll distract them!"
15. This Guy Speaks Spanish
I was at a Mexican restaurant with a bunch of my girlfriends and one guy friend. We were at the bar and my guy friend overheard the bartender joking with another worker saying, "Let's get this gringo inebriated." He looked at them and responded, "This gringo speaks Spanish, but if you're paying..."
14. Watch The Trash Talk
I was standing in line at a Subway on my university campus when I see these two Arab guys standing in the same line and generally just trash talking about everyone in the line thinking no one spoke Arabic. Little did they know that I have lived in the Middle East for about 10 years and learned fluent Arabic while I was there. When the time came to trash talk me, luckily for them, they just commented on how nice and spiky my hair is. Turned to them and thanked them for the compliment. Needless to say, they were shocked and shut up for the whole rest of their wait in line.
13. Where's McDonald's?
When we were 19, my two best friends and I were studying in Spain and decided to take a side trip to France. We were traveling light and trying to save money, as poor college students tend to do, and had stuffed our carry-on bags with lots of granola bars and snack foods to sustain us for the weekend. Apparently, we were also obviously American. At the security check, the conversation between the workers went something like this: "Look at this bag! Always eating! Can they not even make a flight without food? I think if they stop eating, they die! Why else would they be so big?"
The best part was the looks on their faces when my friend looked at them and said, in perfect Spanish, "Thank you, can you tell us where our gate is? And where we can find a McDonald's? I'm so hungry!"
12. No Pool For You
I worked at a pool a while back and I'm extremely white-looking but also very fluent in Spanish. A family came in at one point asking about memberships/if we had day passes. I could tell that English wasn't their first language, but I always feel awkward jumping into Spanish in these situations because of my appearance and I don't want to come across as presumptuous. Anyway, I explained to them very nicely how membership works and that no, sorry, we didn't have day passes but I could recommend some pools that do.
At this point, the wife turns and says to the husband, "This guy's just trying to make it more difficult," (presumably because she thinks I'm racist), "Let's try another pool." Incredibly uncomfortable for me, but not as uncomfortable as it was for them when I gave them directions to the pool with day passes and wished them a nice day and good luck in Spanish.
11. She Likes Me Fine
My wife and I have adopted two kids from China on two separate occasions. We had some time to wait before the first one so we learned some basic Mandarin to help with our trip and connect a bit with our daughter's birth culture.
While there, a day or so after we got her, we were in the Walmart (yes, Walmart) in Zhengzhou, when a younger woman walks by, sees a large American guy with a pale redheaded wife carrying a Chinese toddler in a sling, doubles back and with a fake smile says, "ni bu xihuan ni de mama, ma?" which works out to "You don't like your mom, do you?"
My wife spins around and, in Mandarin, basically says, "Oh yes she does." The look on that woman's face carried me through the day.
10. Y'all Got Detention
When I was in middle school, there was a group of kids (like 3 or 4 of them) who would sit in the back of the class and speak in Creole. Chatting and laughing, but nobody could understand what they said. The teacher would tell them to stop speaking in Creole since she couldn't know if they were saying something offensive, which was usually met with them saying something to each other in an obviously mocking manner and then the whole group breaking out in laughter.
So one day, this guy shows up in the class. He says that he's training to be a teacher and he's gonna be shadowing the class that day. So he's sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, jotting things down in a notebook. Of course, the Creole-speaking kids were chatting away as usual.
So the guy gets up out of the chair and walks over to this group of Creole-speaking kids, who all sat nearby me so I could hear them pretty clearly.
The guy leans over to them and very calmly says, in plain English, "Yes, my junk is huge, and no, your hot teacher ain't gonna touch yours. By the way, I'm your new English teacher, and y'all got detention."
9. Turn The Other Cheek
I'm half Japanese, half Scandinavian-- I was raised mostly by my mom (Dane/Norwegian), so I grew up speaking Scandinavian languages pretty comfortably. But you probably wouldn't guess it, looking at me--I'm short, dark haired and ethnically ambiguous. I'm living in the USA currently, and I kind of just blend in and look like a melting-pot American. As such, Americans and foreigners alike assume I can't speak any other languages.
Anyway, recently, I was sitting on a train platform, and I overheard a couple of guys conversing in Norwegian. From what I gathered, they were both grad students at a nearby university, working on research. Normally, when I hear Danish or Norwegian, I am overjoyed and introduce myself so I can get some well-needed practice with my speaking. However, these guys were in a really heated conversation, basically complaining about classmates, fellow researchers, etc. I figured I would leave them to it and mind my own business.
I had been sitting beside them, but at one point I stood up to get in the queue forming to board my train, which was pulling into the station. I'm standing a few paces in front of them, and one stops the other abruptly mid-sentence and says, "MAN, she looks nice."
I turn around, and they stare back a little guiltily. One mumbles, "Oh, she understood?" "No way."
I respond, "Thanks very much" in Norwegian, with a wave and a wink as I step forward to board the train.
The expression on their faces was an awesome mix of surprise, confusion, and excitement.
8. Dirty Lingerie
When I was in high school, I was working retail in the women's department of Marshall's. One day, my boss sends me to clean up lingerie, because corporate says we have to hang everything on fragile plastic hangers and people never put stuff back. So I'm sitting on the floor when this young Hispanic couple and their three kids (oldest was maybe 6) come into the department.
The kids are ducking around the aisles, giggling and making hand puppets out of the little disposable nylons they got from the shoe department, but they're not being rude, messing anything up, or running into people so I don't care. While they're doing this, their mother is looking at undergarments, asking her man what he thinks, and he's telling her all sorts of dirty things in Spanish. The most tame comment was "Mmm, those would look good on you....but they'd look better coming off." or something along those lines. I'm trying to look like I'm ignoring them, because he obviously doesn't think the girl kneeling on the floor understands.
As they made their selections, the oldest girl came up to me with her nylon puppet and asked (in English) "What are you doing?" and I responded "Oh, I'm just picking up all the clothes on the floor so they don't get dirty." at this point, the mother looks at the girl and says to her, in Spanish, "Don't bother the nice lady, she's working." Without thinking, I said to her in English, "Oh no, it's really no bother! She's okay"
The look on the Mother's face when she realized I caught every dirty word. They booked it out of the section soon afterwards.
That's one of a few of those moments I had at that job. But my personal favorite.
7. Elevator Chit-Chat
My grandfather comes from the island/country of Malta, a very small land mass with not too many people. The language they speak there is called "Maltese".
Anyways my grandfather and his dad were in London England where absolutely nobody has heard of Maltese let alone speaks it.
They were in an elevator together when a women walked in, and my great grandfather said to my grandfather (in Maltese) "This women's face is so ugly she could stop a clock"
My grandfather laughed, but when the elevator got to the lady's stop upon exiting she turned around and said in perfect Maltese "WELL YOUR MOTHER WAS UGLIER"
Moral of the story; never assume the random lady in the elevator can't understand you.
6. Creeps On The Train
I was on the train in Brisbane on my way home from work, and there were some (male) French tourists on there, plus the usual gaggle of schoolgirls from the local Catholic schools.
The guys started talking and pointing to some of the girls (clearly kids in uniform) and saying some disgusting things. Along the lines of extremely inappropriate.
Bear in mind these girls are like, year 8-9 (so like 13-14 years old) and definitely under age.
I was getting increasingly ticked off at the comments and turned to them and yelled: Honte à vous, vieux pervers rampant! (Shame on you, creepy old perverts!)
I've never seen someone look so shocked in my life. They got off at the next stop, but not before practically melding into the walls.
5. Driving A Hard Bargain
Ohhh the fun I've had being able to speak Indonesian. My family and I, like most Australians, go to Bali in Indonesia quite a bit. I learnt the language for 12 years, and was fluent enough to pass tertiary entrance exams. The Indonesians just aren't used to tourists making much of an effort to speak their language so, as a consequence, they say a LOT.
My two favourite moments would be from my first trip. We were being driven from our hotel to a really popular restaurant. We were being driven by three young guys. They were happily chatting away, blissfully unaware that I understood every word. One of them cracked a joke about my mother (they were very much just cracking a joke. No real ill-intent) and when they all laughed I laughed REALLY LOUDLY.
They stopped immediately and said in Indonesian "How long have you been learning Indonesian? Was a pretty quiet car ride after that.
The other time would be at the markets. I was buying some crappy jewelry from a small stall by the side of the road and I made a point of bartering in English for a change. In the middle of our transaction she turns to her daughter, who was sitting next to her in the stall, and says "Make sure you never barter much when the young ones are alone. They're easier to make more money". To which I said "Could you please repeat yourself but slower?" And her face!! It was magical! I had never seen someone so shocked. Her daughter ended up giving me the things for their cost price and we chatted and hung out quite a bit too. All in all, victories all around.
4. Subway Gossip
This didn't happen to me, but I still think it's a good story.
Every Afrikaans woman I know living in England, including my sister and mother, love to gossip in Afrikaans to their fellow Afrikaners. Once a family friend was riding the Underground with her daughter, and she was criticizing literally everything about a man sitting opposite them, his hair, his clothing, his weight etc. Now, he says nothing the entire journey, doesn't even look at them, but when the train stops, he stands up, walks past them, smiles, and tells her to enjoy her day.
In perfect Afrikaans.
3. This One Is Truly Heartwarming
2. Not That Effective
I was on holiday in Moscow, and in the subway I heard another tourist tell his mate, in my native tongue, "You know, when we speak Dutch, nobody here will understand a word of it. It's kind of a code language here!"
To which I replied, "Yeah, about that. It's not as effective as you might think."
1. Don't Plan A Criminal Conspiracy In Public