01 April 2009

A different Farsi (Persian)

One of the reasons I am aware of the need to be sensitive to the peculiarities of a language is my experience with Farsi (Persian). Although English was allowed as a medium of instruction in "foreign literature" classes, I felt I had to learn Persian to effectively teach undergraduate classes in American Literature in Iran in 1976. I took formal lessons in a classroom, taught by a male Iranian professor. Since I did not feel confident even after I had finished the short course, I engaged the tutoring services of a female Iranian professor (who, btw, following the custom in that country, was always accompanied by her husband, who quietly and patiently sat through our sessions). After a couple of months of daily tutorial sessions, I felt ready to give my first lecture in Persian. My students appeared appreciative of my lecture. After the class, however, one of the male students stayed to talk to me. "Sir," he said in English, "you speak like a woman."


  1. "You speak like a woman," sounds like Prof. Higgins' diatribe against Scottish Brogue, Irish Cockney, or Liverpool patois:"Why can't the English speak English?"

    On a lighter note, that would have been an April Fool's "pleasantry". (Except that the Iranian student would not know about that "tradition", nor westernized enough to pull a prank with.)

    If one were acculturised in Muslim Iran, however, that quip might appear to have been tinged with a machismo that only a male-centric culture would muster. Then, that would not be amusing, indeed. It could also mean, "Whatever are you learning another language for?"

    Politese and political correctness would, however, not allow one to take umbrage over the flippant remark in a foreign country. Did Dr. Cruz protest?

    Can I top this, Isagani? Let's see.

    Ilocano is my birth language; Spanish is a second; [(to slumber by grandmother's lullabies in that tongue, and to hop by marionette-like to my abuelo's marching orders: "Afuera, afuera, chiquito! Quiero dormir!" Better be outside in two seconds, the old man must nap, or I would get the "latigo" (horse whip)!]; Tagalog a third (which I learned in high school's Balarila and the Rosa del Rosario-Rogelio de la Rosa postwar movies); Filipino, a fourth, the national language, as a lingua franca in Manila; English a fifth language learned in school and used in my profession, abused in my writing, now my lingua franca in North America; and now French, a sixth, so I could exchange pleasantries with my son-in-law, be regaled by the sweet endearments of my two Francophone grandchildren; and retirement has forced me to pretend being cosmopolitan by learning a language to visit/tour a country by -- a mish-mash of media, but not without amusing/fond/infuriating remembrances of their use and misuse.

    My mother once told me that my first English word was "milk" --(my parents went througth the colonial Philippine-American educational system in our public schools, ca. 1920s-30s) and that came in handy when an American military officer, evacuating with us on foot down to lowlands of La Union from the mountain city of Baguio (where I was born) which was then being bombarded by the Japanese who ignored Baguio's being declared an "open city." The GI Joe stopped a jitney-riding evacuation marshall, got a canteen and a can of powdered milk from him, gave it to my mother, and told my father to prepare the infant's sustenance. The act of kindness spared my mother from exposing and pressing on her now-dried-out and empty breasts to silence my wailing for "milk, milk, milk." Despite misgivings I grew up with about "American imperialism", I hold this memory dear and sacred, so that I always check myself whenever I am tempted to yell down a rowdy, cocky, noisy American tourist group making a--- of themselves in public wherever I travel as a "senior" citizen of the world.

    Spanish, you say? In one of these travels, in a Can-cun, Maxico resort, I tried to wheedle the most sumptuous omellete out of a harassed and grumpy Mexican cook with my educated Castillian. He smiled, he cooked furiously, and handed me the large plate of omellete-a-la-Mexicana with a sense of triumph, and said: "Hefe, habla Espanol como un hefe de Inca; yo se, porque tu piel y los ojos, y voces aparecen como ellos calidades de mis patrones -- los fundadores de mi pueblo."

    The guy was certain that I am an Inca chieftain because my skin, my eyes, and my voice are like those of the founders of his land -- trademarks of the Incas.

    Brown, stocky, arrogant, and self-contained, I got my omellete pronto. We looked alike is why. The Castillian? I am afraid he thought it was ethnic patois.

    What about that English businessman who had a shop (yes, not "store", please)in Manchester? We were sipping endless glasses of Jamaican rum and some such Jamaican cocktails-to-end-all-cocktails. We began to converse, and I -- topped up with beer and rum -- was quite inebriatedly mimicking his British accent. Out of the blue, he commented: "You must have some kind of high education. You speak British quite well, I must say." (It worked -- my drama and theatre avocation, my speech and public speaking tutorship! By Jove, I've got it!)

    But, was that a put down? Brown chap, diminutive, and identified as Asian from Canada, dramatically theatrical with the King's English? Sounding educated, too. Hmmm.

    And tourist lingo while on R&R abroad? What about that tratoria-stop in Rome where I ordered pasta, and when done -- [(eating standing up by a counter, because you would have to pray (and pay!) to get a dinky, stand-up-to-eat table (looked like one of those flower-vase furnitures, I would say)]--I asked with stentorian flourish: "Aqua per favore." (Water, please. I could not afford their glass of vino to go with pasta.) The Rossano Brazzi-looking bartender pointed me to the direction of the water-closet. WC or washroom, you see. Language vs. culture? When in Rome, drink as the Romans do.

    In Navarra, at the Spanish-Italian border, I dropped by a roadhouse for lunch: Arroz la Valenciana. Yes. Morcon de hamon. Why not? "Y un vasito de Pedro Domecq", after the modest meal. The Spanish brandy was hot on the collar, so I asked for "Un vasito de agua fria, con mucho hielo, por favor." (A small glass of cold water with lots of ice, please), and the matronly lady waiting on me said, "Senor, tenemos casillas alla. No te preoccupado, los servicios son limpio." (Sir, we have a toilet there. Don't worry, the toilets are clean.)

    No lesson learned, this hombre forgot that one does not ask for water after meals --(Italian) "un cafe per favore" or (Spanish) "una taza de cafe caliente, por favor" (Did one know that there is also cold coffee on the menu?). Perfect accents on the language? That helps. But, hombre, mind the culture and the practices wherever you are.

    The world has not yet become a hegemony of polite communication and tolerant civilization. Standup comics all over world have mastered accents enough to pick on the Indians, the Scottish, the Mexicans, etcetera. (Brampton, Ontario in Canada has raised a world-class comic Russell Peters who can kill with his hilarious impressions of Indians, Scottish, Italians, and what-have-you. Language vs. Culture? Or accents to laugh by?)

    But this one tops it all -- When my wife and I were touring Pisa, in Italy, we spent 45 minutes of our free time looking for a Chinese restaurant! My sweet spouse just could not take the pasta-cuisine. "There must be a Chinese restaurant here, somehwere. There is always is one." She cried hungrily. Then, from out of nowhere, appeared some Filipino-looking lads who volunteered welcome information on a Chinese restaurant downtown Pisa. They walked us there, and the grateful Chinaman owner served us a meal-to-end-all meals, and gave the Filipino lads who worked at the tomato farms (on their week-end furlough) the free meals they deserved.

    Thereafter, whenever our tour group would see a Chinese restauraant along the way, they would point out to my wife gleefully: Veronica, Veronica. Chinois restaurant! Chinois! (Our French then indicated, they were happy to recommend the Chinese resturant they just spotted while our bus careened through the highways of Italy.--ALBERT B. CASUGA

  2. When I consulted Iranian linguists about the incident, they told me that there was a different register or kind of Farsi for men and a different one for women. I obviously did not get to learn enough Farsi to appreciate the difference. I am told, although I do not speak Japanese, that the same gender differentiation occurs in the Japanese language.

  3. Butchered syntax coming out of my hastily-typed comments? Will edit. No excuse, but I plead culpable on April Fools.

    Thanks for the post-comment comment.

  4. Enjoyed the vignettes!