This is good.
Two days ago, Gus and I took our Cantonese tutor out to dinner as an end-of-the-year Thank You above and beyond our weekly monetary Thank Yous. We were laughing, talking, reminiscing (not in Cantonese, we don’t speak any Cantonese), just having a good wholesome time, when Serena’s dessert came: a seafood-papaya soup (I don’t get it either), complete with a little tropical umbrella. We made a few jokes about how exotic it was, and then I decided to tell her that, in English, it’s called a “cocktail umbrella.”
At least that’s what I tried to say.
Again, this requires a brief foray into murky Chinese waters. Bear with me. There are some Chinese words which are really fun to learn because their translations are totally literal. Take “bluetooth,” for instance, which in Chinese is 蓝牙, “blue tooth” — exactly what you’d expect, if you had never studied another language before and are an idiot. (If you’re reading this blog, and are an idiot: congrats, you can say “bluetooth” in Chinese.)
Cocktail is like that. Chicken is 鸡, tail is 尾巴, and alcohol is 酒, so “cocktail” is 鸡尾酒. Chicken-tail-alcohol. Umbrella is 伞, so cocktail umbrella is 鸡尾酒伞. This is easy Chinese. Preschool Chinese, if your preschool was into pre-naptime old fashioneds. (My preschool was Methodist, so we did grape juice instead of communion wine, and straight bourbon before naps.)
So yeah, I should have said 鸡尾酒伞. But 尾巴, tail, is two characters, and in a moment of thoughtlessness, I chose the wrong one.
“In English, we call this a 鸡巴酒伞.”
Serena, ever the professional, said nothing.
Gus and I sat there for a moment. I think both of us knew that something, somewhere, was terribly wrong.
“Wait,” said Gus. “You mean 鸡尾酒.”
I thought about it. “Oh, yeah, you’re right.”
He continued, “also, doesn’t 鸡巴 mean…penis?”
“YES,” said Serena, and, finally free of the burden of having to politely ignore my mistake, she put her head in her hands and laughed and laughed.
To recap: I tried to say cocktail, what I actually said was just: cock alcohol. Jungle juice o’ the penis. The hard stuff. LITERALLY. I did not say this in the course of making a “joke”, I said it while trying to make friendly, polite conversation with adults at a restaurant. This is why my life in China is different from my like in America: here, I open my mouth and out comes penis alcohol. (We’re nearing single entendre territory over here.)
Anyway, I am going to try to turn cock alcohol into a “thing” as soon as I get back to America. (I mean a thing that people say. That may have been a little ambiguous.)
(I’m going to be in America in four days. Can’t wait for the packing gnomes to come by and put all my stuff in my suitcases, because at this rate I’m certainly not going to get it done myself.)