Humour: When we're foreign, we're so foolish

Humour: When we're foreign, we're so foolish
Illustration for the article “When we’re foreign, we’re so foolish".

I haven't met this many people I couldn't understand since I studied in Manchester.

But I continue to make pathetic attempts at conversation. Human beings do this and I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it's the mammalian species' innate desire to interact. Maybe it's our genetic similarities and a need to share. Maybe it's because we can't get 3G on our phones.

Either way, I've watched in fascination as foreign visitors insist on making laboured attempts to converse in a monolingual, Portuguese-speaking country without knowing any Portuguese whatsoever.

I do it, too, and the conversations have been spectacularly lame. We desperately fumble around for common points of interest or a pop cultural connection. For example, I had the following insightful chat with a taxi driver.

"I, World Cup journalist," I said, in a slow, loud Tarzan voice, beating the media pass on my chest. I knew he understood me because I declared my profession while doing a bad impression of Antonio Banderas (and he's Spanish for a start).

"Ah, journalist," the cabbie exclaimed. "Coupe de Monde!"

"Ah, si."


Awkward silence.

"Ah, please, please," the driver suddenly piped up "Ah, rain, roo, neigh?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Ah, please… Rain, roo, neigh."

"Ah, Wayne Rooney, si, si."


Oh, how we laughed together at our ability to understand the name of one of the most famous footballers on the planet. The England striker was our entry part. We were off and running.

"Ah, Neigh-marr?" I ventured.

"Si, si, Neymar," the taxi driver giggled, clearly enjoying himself. "Ah, Jaw, dane, hen, duh, soon."

"Si, Jordan Henderson, very good."

The game fizzled out after that. He couldn't think of any other outstanding England players. Nor could I and I've been covering their matches for the last two weeks.

But we applauded each other's ability to repeat names in a way you might reward an orangutan for mimicking a zookeeper's hand gestures. Had there been bunches of bananas in the car, we would've thrown them at each other.

And once a point of connection had been established, we were desperate to cling on to it, like a poor Wi-Fi signal. I heard the taxi driver's cogs turn, working furiously to keep the pop cultural link alive.

Finally, he said: "England … Lun-dun … Bigger Bena."

"Si, Bigger Bena," I replied, still sticking with the Tarzan-Antonio Banderas accent.

Eager to play his game, I added: "Er, Rio… Christ the Redeemer."

He shook his head and frowned at me in the rearview mirror. He wasn't happy with my local pop culture reference for some reason. He waggled a finger.

"No, Christ," he replied, copying my pronunciation of 'Christ', rhyming it with 'heist. "Christ! Christ! Christ the Redeemer," he emphasised, making "Christ" rhyme with "wrist".

Well, I didn't want to play after that. He referred to one of the most cherished landmarks from my hometown as "Bigger Bena" and I didn't get upset. Even if he did make the Parliament clock sound more like an Italian porn star.

I'm sure there is an Italian adult movie with the title "Bigger Bena and the Bouncing Bello". If there isn't, then there should be.

But human beings can't help themselves. Clearly, we should say nothing. Most Brazilians here speak no English beyond Bigger Bena and my Portuguese begins with Eusebio and ends with Cristiano Ronaldo.

And still, we pointlessly persevere in one futile language exercise after another.

A lovely, kind Fifa volunteer at the media centre is determined to share every English word he knows with everyone he meets.

"I learn English," he told me. "I know so many words. I like to practise my English every day. I know all the words. You like my English?"

"Yes, it's great, mate. Could you tell me where the toilet is, please?"

In most instances, we have these endearing, puppy-dog desires to please, an eagerness to engage with those around us no matter how confusing the conversation. If we bumped into alternative life forms on Mars, our opening exchange would be: "Earth! Mars! Wayne Rooney! Martian! Same thing!"

And the inane conversations will inevitably follow me around Rio for the next fortnight. They won't understand me. I won't understand them. But we'll still shout at each other anyway. It's like school holidays with my grandmother all over again.

I suppose I could make use of online translators and improve my Portuguese. But I'm busy with the World Cup at the moment.

And any free time is spent searching Google for "Bigger Bena and the Bouncing Bello".

This article was first published on JUNE 29, 2014.
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