My daughter M goes to a daycare run by a woman who’s Cuban. When I go there at the end of the day, Carmen the caretaker would say to M, “Beso,” and M would lean forward and kiss her goodbye. Having been brought up in a traditional non-demonstrative Chinese family, I never thought of teaching her the word: kiss. So one day when we got home I thought I’d try out the new Spanish word I learned. I said to M, “B-a-a-z-z-i-l”. She just looked at me the way French people look at tourists brutally murdering their language.
“Sounds like ‘basil’,” my husband said.
“That’s what it sounded like,” I said.
I tried again. And she continued to stand there staring at me.
If she could express it, she would probably say, “You don’t really know how to say it, do you?”
Maybe I inherited my linguistic ability from my mother. My parents used to own an oriental grocery store, and all sorts of people including Filipinos, Vietnamese, and anyone who liked oriental food as well as Chinese went there. One day, while my sister Carol was home from college, a woman brought her grocery to the checkout counter in the store. Not Chinese – probably Filipino or Vietnamese, since she communicated with my mother in English. As my mother had a friendly exchange with this woman, this is what my sister Carol heard:
“One dollar?” She asked like she discovered a treasure.
“No. Three dollars,” answered my mother.
“Three dollars, no cents?” The woman became quite excited.
“Three dollars, no cents,” said my mother, smiling.
“Three dollars, no cents!” The woman laughed like they were sharing a secret.
“Three dollars, no cents!” My mother said, also laughing.
Carol was very puzzled by this point. After the woman left, she asked my mother what was so interesting about “three dollars and no cents”. My mother slowly pronounced: “Three daughters. No sons.”