Friday, December 17, 2010

Just When I Thought I Understood...More Miscommunication

Sometimes I fool myself into thinking that I've gotten pretty awesome at understanding Singlish, and at making myself understood.  Clearly I'm delusional.  Recently, one of my American colleagues and I had the following experience:

We walked outside of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, where I recently started a new job.  We were walking across to Singapore General Hospital for a smoothie.  Upon walking outside we noticed that the air was thick and acrid, and the smell of smoke was harsh.  It was the first day of a haze that hung over Singapore for several days.  The haze was a result of smoke blowing over from wildfires in Indonesia, but we didn't know that at the time.  Naturally we were curious, which led to this ridiculous conversation with the Singaporean smoothie girl:

American Pal: Hey, so do you know why it's so smoky outside?
Smoothie Girl: Wah?
American Pal:  The smoke?  Outside?  Where is it coming from?
Smoothie Girl: Wah, cannot smoke inside.  Must go outside.
Me: No, no, no.  We don't want to smoke in the hospital.  There's smoke in the air (pointing outside) out there.  Like fog or haze.  But smoke.  Outside.  Have you seen it?
Smoothie Girl: No, lah, cannot smoke inside.  Not allowed.
American Pal: We understand.  We just want to know why the air is so bad outside.  It smells smoky.
Smoothie Girl: (speaks to other smoothie girl in Mandarin, probably saying something to the effect of "What the hell are these chicks saying?  They want to smoke in here or something.  Can you make them shut up?")
Smoothie Girl #2: Cannot buy cigarettes here.  Must go to Seven-Eleven.
Me: No!  Not cigarettes.  Never mind.
American Pal: Noooo...the smoke outside (points vaguely to the window)...OK.  Never mind.  Thank you for our smoothies!

One day not long after that, I realized that my miscommunications aren't exclusive to my interactions with Singaporeans.  Sometimes I even have trouble understanding my fellow Americans.  Take, for example, this exchange between Bryan and me, one evening while we were cooking dinner:

Bryan: (sheepishly) Can you help me find the ring?
Crystal: (prolonged silence as I attempt to digest the enormity of this statement and then handle it without jumping up and down and terrifying Bryan) If you feel like you need help, of course, I'd be glad to.  When do you want to do it?
Bryan: After dinner?  Wait...what are you talking about?
Crystal: What are YOU talking about?!
Bryan: The ring in my video game.  It'll help my character go faster but I can't find it...seriously, what are you talking about?!
Crystal: You're mean.
Bryan: What?!
Crystal: I thought you meant an engagement ring.
Bryan: (laughter)
Crystal: So mean.  So, so mean.

Yeah.  I think Bryan found his video game ring, but my left hand is still naked.  But what's a girl to do?


  1. just curious, does it ever occur to you that the smoothie girl you spoke to could be from China?
    Nowadays, Singapore is fast becoming like little China and little Philippine.

  2. The smoothie girl sounds more singaporean to me, cause Chinese do not mix Wah or lah in English.

  3. I think they're malaysians. Malaysians speak poor english but have the same accent and slang as us