Lost in Translation

May 9, 2014

Once every couple of months, I like to treat myself to an Indian lunch buffet. It's a little family-owned joint, located in a quirky, Bohemian part of town that never fails to fill the restaurant with an eclectic variety of eccentric people. So, it's worth going, as much for the people-watching opportunity as for the food, which is spectacular.


What I find interesting about this demographic of customers is that tend to be a rather self-absorbed, artistic type.  And it had been my observation that they have often invested so much of their time and energy honing their outward persona, in a presumed effort to perfectly match their inward complexity, that they have somewhere along the line, lost their ability to empathize, to the point that they are unable to read body language, or intuit much of anything about the reactions and thought processes of the people with whom they are interacting.


Case in point: the Indian family members speak very little English. They run a great restaurant, work hard, and do their best to understand and meet the needs of their customers. A server came around, filling water glasses, offering baskets of flatbread, when a diner from an adjacent room came scuttling in, and proceeded to engage him.


"Everything is ok?" the server asked, smiling warmly.


"Not exactly," the guy replied.


I looked up from my plate.  The guy had his hair styled into a gelled faux-hawk.  He wore rectangular glasses, and a pastel shirt tucked into his tight-rolled skinny jeans, which rode a good eight-inches above his loafers. He had earbuds in, still jakced into an iPad, that was still rolling the movie he'd been watching, back at his table.


"I was hoping to relocate," he continued.  "My neighbor over there has hay fever so bad that when he blows his nose, it sounds like the ocean."


The server stared at him, blankly. After an awkward moment, the server repeated what was probably one of the few English sentences that he knew. "Everything is okay?"


The customer slid closer to him, and spoke just a little more loudly. "Yes, I was hoping to relocate, because when my neighbor over there blows his nose, it sounds just like the ocean."


The only word the server probably understood was "Yes," so he smiled and nodded, continuing on with his duties. The customer stood there, looking baffled. He turned, and nearly bumped into an Indian busboy, who was carrying a heavy armload of dishes.


"Excuse me," the customer said, pulling the busboy to a halt. The busboy already had an anxious look on his face, probably because he spoke even less English than the first employee. "I'm just trying to relocate. I've got a neighbor over there with hay fever, and when he--"


The busboy muttered something unintelligible, and masterfully gestured with his head, in one sideways hitch, that perfectly communicated to me that he apologized, but he didn't speak English, but if the diner would be so kind as to wait a moment, he would drop the dishes off at the kitchen and promptly return with a better translator.


I got this, all from a head twitch. The diner did not.


He stood there petulantly, as the busboy disappeared into the kitchen. "This is un-f@$king-believable," he murmured, jerking the earbuds out of his ears, one by one.


After a moment, the family matriarch appeared. She speaks better English than the rest, but not a whole lot better. She usually works the register, and so long as you don't deviate from the ordinary Q&A, you and she will get along just fine.


"How can I help you?" she asked.


"Yes, I am really needing to relocate. I have this neighbor over there with really bad hay fever, and when he blows his nose, it sounds like the ocean."


"Sound like ... ocean?  Over there?"



"Yes. Just like the ocean."


"Ohhhh, okay for you." she touched his arm reassuringly, then she walked behind the register, and she turned down the music.

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