Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I'll Take a Coke (And which kind of Coke would you like?)

Most people at my center speak pretty good English,but every now and then there is a funny "lost in translation" moment. I had one of these yesterday.

I have become a regular tea drinker in the mornings (coffee is available but only ground up and its kind of expensive). Yesterday, I ran out of tea bags and went around the office to ask for one. I used my Setswana to ask nicely for a tea bag: (A lo na le Tea?) One of my coworkers looked at me kind of funny and then asked me in English what "Tea" meant.

How does one really explain tea? I started, "Well, its the little bag you put in hot water... No wait, that a tea BAG, tea is the actual drink. Tea is a hot drink you get from seeping tea leaves in water."

"Ah," he said. "Here we have coffee, roiboos (an herbal tea), and five roses (black tea). We call all these tea." (And as an aside, tea with milk and sugar is surprisingly good. I have developed a taste for it. And, the coffee that we drink in the US is considered by many people I have talked to as "too strong." They drink an instant coffee that is mostly chicory. I haven't developed a taste for that yet.)

So, apparently, Tea is a generic term for any hot drink. Interesting. It reminds me a lot of the joke people tell about Southerners. In the American South, Coke is pretty much a generic term for any kind of soft drink. So the joke goes that if you ask a southerner for a coke they will ask you back, "What kind?"

"So, can I get a Five Roses Tea Bag from you?"I asked.

"Sorry," came the reply. "I don't have any. I don't take tea this early in the morning."

I then went through the office asking for tea. After going to one of the other buildings, I found someone who had some. "I have Five Roses but it is missing something."

"Missing something?" I asked. "Yes," she replied. "Ah, how do you say in English... You know the thing you want more and more of when you get it?" I stood there trying to think what in the world she meant and then it dawned on me; caffeine. I told her that that was okay, I just wanted tea. Then I unsuccessfully tried to make a joke about how if I didn't get caffeine then I would start getting headaches. Humor and sarcasm do not translate well apparently. She then asked me if I was addicted to caffeine and that I should see someone about curing me. I backtracked quickly and told her I was joking. (In Setswana: Ke a tsameka!)

Then she looked very directly at me and said, "I used to be addicted to coke." I coughed up the tea I was drinking and asked her to repeat what she had said. "Yes," she said. "I was addicted to coke. It was awful. I had to have it three times a day." I really don't know what to think at this point. So I smile and nod and agree that her addiction was not good and three times per day sounds like a lot.

"Yes," she replied. "Three cans per day was just too much." Ah, it finally dawns on me - she meant Coca Cola. I laugh and excuse myself. Another funny "lost in translation" moment but I did get some tea.