Let’s start with a little light housekeeping. Apologies for my absence. I have been thinking of all of you lately and wanting to write. I just could not find the time between:
- work. Ahem, I mean hiking in the park;
- a regional Peace Corps meeting. Oops, I meant to say slack-lining, yoga, and hammock laying with a good book (in Spanish!);
- weekend networking trips. Or, attending my rock climbing course with salsa dancing and BBQs in the evenings; and
- a long-weekend vacation to the place where chocolate was discovered.
Life has been busy busy busy, but I would not change a thing. Well, I guess that is not true. I would sneak in another hour or two to my day so that I could write to you more frequently!
Another piece of business: I have added to my post titled How To: with tips on how to say no gracefully to a salesman, how to dispose of your trash, how to walk on the sidewalk, and how to make a stranger smile. Check it out!
Now that that is out of the way, onward to this week’s post.
I am not funny in Mexico.
My story starts when my coworkers and I were waiting for our boss give us a ride back down the mountain at the end of the workday. While we were chit-chatting, Dante told us a joke.
What kind of fish wears a tie?
We waited for the answer, half-heartedly trying to muster a guess. Finally he gave in, excitedly saying: pescuezo!!
Everyone chuckles except for me. What is a pescuezo? I asked.
Well, it’s another word for “neck.” But the beginning of the word sounds like the word for “fish.”
Right; jokes are never funny when you have to ask for an explanation.
I was not disheartened, so I decided to jump in with my one and only Spanish joke. I took a stab at it.
Speaking of fish… what did one fish say to the other?…oh wait, no…what did one fish ask the other about his father?…wait, that’s not right either. Ummmm….let me think about how it goes…GOT IT! One fish sees another and asks: what is your father doing?
Pause. My co-workers look both bemused and confused. Not a good start. I was botching it! After a few seconds, they give up searching for an appropriate response.
With a big, proud look on my face, I say NADA! which means both nothing and swimming.
My coworkers laugh awkwardly, but I can tell that something is wrong. I messed it up, didn’t I?
Yeah, a little. But we understand…it was good! It’s just a little off with the grammar.
Of course it is.
But as it turns out, they loved that I tried. They immediately asked me to tell more. The problem was that I did not know anymore jokes in Spanish. I explained that I have a whole arsenal of bad jokes in English, but that they do not translate well. My coworkers did not care, they just wanted to hear me tell jokes.
OK, I thought. I gave them forewarning. Here I go… I then launched into my classic barrage of elementary-school-style zingers.
Why is being a pirate addictive?… …Because once you lose your hand, you’re hooked.
Silence. Confused stares.
Well, the thing is, hooked means hook, but it also means that you’re addicted to something.
Pause. Awkward smiles. Then, to my surprise, there was a collective and enthusiastic Tell another!!! from the group.
What did the ghost-teacher say to her students?… …Watch the blackboard. I’ll go through it again.
More blank stares.
OK, so “go through it” means I will review the information, but it also means I will pass my body from behind it to in front of it. You know, because she’s a ghost and she can do that!
TELL ANOTHER!!! These jokes are so weird! They were loving it.
Why did the skeleton choose not to cross the road?… …He didn’t have the guts!
What?? We don’t understand again.
OK, this one’s easy to explain. “Guts” is the word for internal organs, but it is also another word for courage.
This continued for a good 15 minutes. My coworkers loved hearing my jokes, even though they were not funny to them. I think that they just liked being exposed to my sense of humor.
The experience was an eye opener; as of yet, I have been very limited in my ability to make people laugh in Mexico. Now that I was succeeding, I realized that a good ¾ of a year had passed me by without me being funny to most people in my life.
Then I thought about it a bit more. Actually, I was seeing the whole thing incorrectly. In reality, I am really funny in Mexico. Just not the joke-telling kind of funny.
I have been working hard on expanding my vocabulary lately. Just like in any other language, there are many different ways to speak Spanish. As you know, you would never speak the same way in a business meeting as you would in a casual setting. Recently, I have been learning a ton of colloquialisms now that I have made some friends and moved in with a roommate. It’s great! The only problem is that I have to remember to use these familiar expressions in the appropriate setting.
The other day, my office hosted a meeting to celebrate International Biodiversity Day. Many regional government officials were there, including the boss of another Peace Corps Volunteer. I approached him to say hello. While we were chatting, I explained a bit about my latest work project. Excited, I forgot that I was speaking in a formal setting. I let slip: la neta de mi proyecto es… I paused. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew that I had used a really informal term. I looked at Alejandro with an apology on my face. He was stifling a smile, trying not to laugh. No pasa nada…all was fine. In fact, it was pretty funny. We both started to laugh. It really broke the ice.
Sometimes though, I use colloquial words or Mexicanismos correctly. It always feels great! But when I do, all of my friends can’t help cracking a smile; the foreign girl with the accent sometimes sounds exactly like a Mexican girl, all the way down to the rhythm, the syllabic emphasis, and the tone!
During dinner, my former neighbor said something surprising. In response, I gave a quick tongue-click: tsssk and said a-po-coooo?!? while punching the emphasis on the “po” and letting the “coooo” drop and fade out. This means really?! But just like in English, when you say really with the wrong tone and emphasis, it does not sound right and does not carry the same meaning.
When I got it right, and I mean really right, my neighbor was so surprised and happy that she laughed, crying out Oh my GOD! You sound MEXICAN!
My response: a drawn out Aaaaaaaandale pues, which means right on! in the most Mexican of ways. We all fell into a hearty laugh.
Apart from expanding my vocabulary, I have also been working on my grammar. Just like in English, there is a verb that means “to go” and another that means “to come.” Sometimes I get tripped up remembering where I am, and I make the mistake of saying something like I went to class late instead of I came to class late. So when my roommate excitedly yelled down the hall Hey, come here right now! I just found a scorpion in my laundry pile! I responded Hold on, I’m going right now! Then I thought: no, that’s not right…I should use the other verb to yell out that I am coming to him instead. I corrected myself: No, ahorita me VENGO!
He poked his head out into the hallway with wide eyes. Then, he broke into hysterical laughter. Finally he choked out the words: Never say that again! “Why, what’d I say??” What you said has a doble sentido. It can mean something really sexual.
My mind pieces together my words into a different meaning, and I joined in laughing as we trapped the scorpion and talked about Mexico’s richness of doble sentidos and alburs.
In Mexico, I am basically an adult placed in a kid’s role. I am still leaning the idiosyncrasies of the language and culture. Just like a child, I don’t always get things right. But I have the mind and body of an adult, which makes the mistakes that much funnier!
Now that my command of Spanish is becoming a bit more solidified, I was finally able to deliver a reasonable joke in Spanish! Once. I was so proud.
Apologies, but I have to explain two things before I can recreate it. This of course makes my joke less funny. Trust me, it was good.
- The verb for “to help” is ayudar. Conjugated to mean “help me,” it is ayudame!
- I was in a region famous for a distinct kind of food called a tlayuda.
You can probably already see the set-up. I had seen the connection right away and had been waiting for three days for my opportunity to meld these words. Finally, on our last evening in that region, my friend could not finish her dinner. She asks our mutual friend if he can help her finish: Por favor, ayudame?
I was quick to jump at my opportunity. No, mejor decir TLAYUDAME!!! No, it’s better to say tlayudame.
A classic word-play joke, finally! They loved it.
Someday I hope to be funny on my own terms in Spanish, consistently. But that will come later, when I understand much more of the intricacies of the language and culture. Until then I will be happy laughing at my silly child-like mistakes. I will continue to invite my friends to laugh along with me. Life in Mexico is so funny!
Making me smile
- Noticing the use of Spanish grammar with English words when I chat with other Peace Corps Volunteers. “I won’t preoccupy myself over that;” “In serious??;” “Nothing more than two hours to get here.” They all sound so awkward. My mind is clearly stuck between languages.
- Getting into my exercise-swing: yoga, trail running, climbing, and in incredibly lovely places. Finally I will being working off some of my tortilla-induced 15 pound weight gain!
- Watching my friend model and then attempt to remove the dress from her quinceañera