Friday, September 07, 2007
Me talk pretty one day...or not
I first read "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris back in 2002, on a transatlantic flight from Chicago to Ireland. I laughed so hard, neighboring passengers asked me to read some of the book aloud. Within a few minutes, I was surrounded by a growing group of snickering listeners, several of whom demanded the title so they could purchase the book after landing. To date, I think "Me Talk Pretty One Day" is one of the most hysterical collections of non-fiction I have ever had the privilege to read.
For those unfamiliar with his work, David Sedaris is an American humorist and frequent contributor to NPR's "This American Life." In "Me Talk Pretty," my favorite of his books, he writes about his life as an expatriate in Paris and a strange childhood spent with a foul-mouthed brother, a sister that wears fat suits and cosmetic bruises, a father that hordes spoiled fruit and a mother who fills Easter baskets with cartons of cigarettes.
So why am I blathering on about Sedaris? Because I found myself in a very Sedaris-esque situation the other day.
Long story short, I mentor for a refugee family of 10 from the Middle East. They recently relocated here and I'm helping tutor them in English, as well as American culture and traditions. During a visit earlier this week, they pulled out "The Night Before Christmas," a gift someone gave them. I'm not sure why anyone would give a Muslim family a Christmas book as a gift, but bygones. Anyway, what do you think their first question was? Who is the man in the red suit?
Here's a quick recap of the conversation.
Me: Santa Claus? You've never heard of him?
Me: Jolly St. Nick? Kris Kringle? Ho ho ho?
Them: Confused look.
Me: Do you know what a legend is? A myth?
Them: No understand.
Me: Santa is big man in red suit...who travels with reindeer...comes to homes on Christmas Eve when...people asleep. Leave presents for good children...but not really...because Santa doesn't exist. Just story parents tell.
Them: Confused look.
The longer the broken-language conversation went on, the more hilarious it became.
Compare that to a passage in "Me Talk Pretty One Day," when the author is in a French class in Paris and tries, along with fellow students from various nations, to explain the concept of Easter, in beginning French, to a baffled Muslim classmate:
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. "It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and ..." She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid. "He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two ... morsels of ... lumber." The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. "He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father." "He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples." "He nice, the Jesus." "He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today." Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such a complicated refexive phrases as "to give of yourself your only begotten son." Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. "Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb," the Italian nanny explained. "One too may eat of the chocolate." "And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked. I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, "The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate." "A rabbit?" The teacher, assuming I'd used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. "You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?" "Well, sure," I said. "He come in the night when one sleep on bed. Which a hand he have a basket and foods." The teacher sighed and shook her head. As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything wrong with my country. "No, no," she said. "Here in France the chocolate is brought by a a big bell that flies in from Rome."
I still crack up whenever I read this. Hopefully, one day, my refugee family will be able to understand enough English that we can chuckle over it together!
As a fun little extra, here's a recipe I found for a pomegranate jelly popular in the Middle East. This one, though, utilizes Splenda.