A few months into our living and learning experience in Cambodia, fresh from a Khmer language class and full of positive energy, I approached a woman holding an ill baby in the Russian Market to engage her in a conversation in Khmer.
Just jump in, our instructor had enthusiastically instructed us.
So I did.
“Knyom kit ta koin neak chikuit,” I said, smiling at her and gesturing toward the listless child, thinking I had just told her with great empathy, “I think your child is sick.”
She glared at me, and I realized I had substituted the word for sick (chew) with the word for crazy (chikuit.)
I suspect she forgave me, but if looks were daggers I have been in ICU within minutes.
My well-intended linguistic exploits have yielded all sorts of challenging moments.
Like our recent trip to Mondulkiri with my friend Sarath to bond with the owner of the guesthouse Sarath will manage starting in August. We were eating dinner with the owner and his wife, who doubles as cook for the place. The server placed the food on the table and I decided to engage the owner’s wife in some complimentary banter.
“Mmmmm…mahope nih sa-ooey,” I said, smiling, also realizing in horror that I had substituted the word for yummy “chingoey” with the word for stinky “sa-ooey.” I corrected myself, but not before the damage had been done. She was kind to me, but I don’t think I’ll be on her party invitation list in the future.
My errors are always innocent but severe.
Chatting with my friends Heang and Konthea about a dinner Gabi and I went to which was attended by a bunch of wealthy business owners (called “Ai Ka Dum,” or excellency), they pointed out that my mispronunciation of the word (“Ai Ka Dom”) though a subtle difference to my ear had actually called these esteemed leaders pieces of excrement.
Maybe that’s why we weren’t invited to take part in the constant toasting that’s a staple of the big shots’ tables.
I’ve committed any number of linguistic sins here, where a slight change of sound or inflection can spell disaster. Western brains struggle with the weird combinations of sounds, and Western tongues turn the simplest of phrases into searing insults.
Making matters worse, Cambodians have a hard time cutting a well-intended baraing (foreigner) any slack. You can wave your arm straight forward like an NFL referee signaling a first down and tell a tuk tuk driver, “tow trong, tow trong” (go straight, go straight) but they’ll baat sdam (turn right) or chwain (left) if they don’t precisely get what you’re saying. Three years into this experience and I still cannot order a coffee with milk “café duk da kho teuk gaw” without encountering a furrowed brow and glazed-eyed confusion. Conversational language is unlike horseshoes and hand grenades: there are no close, only direct hits.
For example, “chew” is sick, but “choo” is sour. “ “Teuk se-ew” is soy sauce; “teuk sa-ooey” is stinky water (see above.) “Twerr kha” is work; “trow kha” is need. So you can appreciate the importance of being accurate in your word choice. Otherwise you can wind up with a sick soup made of stinky water, which I suppose would indeed a lot of work to endure and stomach (“pua” vs. snake, which is “puh.”)
Cambodians are mostly good-natured about our flailing attempts at the language, usually gracing us with overstated compliments about our language skills: “Oh, cheh Khmer banh la-or.” (Oh, you can speak Khmer very well.)
Then there are other times.
I have a friend who married to a Khmer woman but possesses language skills that fall short of my own. One day he decided to use the native tongue while ordering his daily coffee from his regular shop. He practiced in his head and steeled himself for the experience as he approached the vendor, who as usual was surrounded by a collection of tuk tuk drivers and other customers standing around and drinking coffee sweet enough to melt your bicuspids while you sip.
These collections of clowns have nothing but time on their hands and love a good laugh at the expense of a hapless baraing.
“Knyom jang banh café tom kmaow kadoie.” He crunched through the request, thinking he’d just ordered a large hot black coffee. He failed, however, to acknowledge that he had substituted the word for hot “kdaow” with the word for penis “kdaoie”, which explained the knees-on-hands outburst of laughter from everyone within earshot.
Coffee time had never been so much fun for the locals, who repeated the errant phrase time and again, each course prompting a new round of screeching laughter. I’m not sure my friend left the stand with anything more than wounded pride and a note to himself to speak English in the future and hope for the best.
To do anything else would be “chikuit.”