I’ve been embarrassed so many times in matters of the tongue that I’ve become extremely accommodating when speaking to people who struggle with English. My heart is in the right place, but there have been a couple of occasions when a sense of superiority I didn’t even know I had has jumped up and bitten me in the rear.
A case in point: We were ordering dinner at a restaurant in Hanoi a few years ago, when I noticed “banana flower salad” listed on the menu. I’d read enough tourist menus in Asia to become fairly adept at deciphering their apparently random jumbling of letters, and although this particular menu was better written than most, I assumed that the dish was actually called banana flour salad.
Since I’d never heard of this strange variety of flour, I asked the waiter how the dish was made. It turns out there’s no such thing as banana flour, but the banana flower is — drum roll, please — the flower of the banana plant.
Our very patient waiter decided a little show-and-tell was in order for the ignorant foreigner. He brought a purplish, conical-shaped plant to the table and peeled back the layers to expose a ring of embryonic bananas. When he pulled these away, we could see the delicate blossoms inside. They were almost translucent and looked like sea anemones, with their pale, ghostly tentacles.
I know it was only a flower and I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but the encounter with that waiter was truly a magical moment. He gave me the gift of knowledge, and I was grateful to be leaving the restaurant with something I didn’t have when I walked in.
More importantly, he gave me a wake-up call against the kind of knee-jerk cultural arrogance that presumes only native speakers are equipped to handle the English language. I was grateful for that, too.
Oh, and the salad? Delicious!