Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lost in Translation

A few mornings ago, I woke to the sound of our part time maid Ah Chuan screaming at Saffy. It says something about how immune I was to the whole thing that I flipped over and went back to sleep for another ten minutes.

When I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the living room, I found Ah Chuan standing over Saffy waving her arms and shouting at the top of her voice in Hokkien. Saffy nodded and smiled reassuringly at Ah Chuan.

“Really?” said Saffy, who doesn’t speak a word of Hokkien. “That’s so interesting! Oh there, you are, Jason. What’s she saying?”

“Why are you asking me?” I said. “My Hokkien is as good as your’s!”

“The way she’s yelling, you’d think I’d just peed in her soup, or something!” Saffy said cheerfully and shouted back at Ah Chuan, “Would you like some coffee?”

Ah Chuan came to us highly recommended by one of the secretaries in my office who’d heard that I was desperately in need of someone to clean my flat. Though I’d only just moved in with Saffy and Amanda, it became clear very quickly that none of us knew how to clean. The first day Ah Chuan showed up on our doorstep, she immediately started screaming at the top of her voice and scared us half to death.

Saffy ran to her room and rang the police, while I retreated to the kitchen and eyed the knife rack. We should have taken our cue from my beloved adopted mongrel dog Pooch who immediately flipped over onto his back and, with a shaggy wag of his tail, invited Ah Chuan to rub his belly.

Thank God, Amanda arrived just in time to translate. “She’s saying that we’re all too thin and that we should be eating more and did we, uhm, oh yeah, did we want her to make us soup when she comes to clean?”

“Why is she yelling at us?” Saffy shouted from behind her locked bedroom door.

“That’s just the way she talks.”

“Really?” Saffy asked, poking her head out. “My God, if this is her being pleasant, what’s she like when she’s mad?”

“She’ll be whispering, I imagine,” Amanda said. “That’s when we should all be very scared.”

And that was that. Since that day, every Thursday, Ah Chuan will show up at the flat at 7.30 am. She takes one look at the mess and then starts yelling. She seems to save the worst for Saffy which, according to a very put out Amanda, means that Saffy is her favourite.

“She says you’re too thin and wants to know why you are still single!” Amanda translated in the second week, after a particularly virulent stream from Ah Chuan.

Saffy’s impressive bosom inflated. “Oh my God, she thinks I’m thin? I love this woman! Thank you very much!” she shouted back at Ah Chuan under the assumption that if you say something loud enough, the other person will understand everything you say, and that’s been pretty much the volume of their conversations ever since.

The fact that Ah Chuan’s can’t speak a word of English and Saffy’s Hokkien is limited to swear words she picks up from the courier man at her office doesn’t seem to bother either of them. Every so often, Amanda will translate, but by and large, they seem to get on like a house on fire.

“I’m surprised the neighbours haven’t called the police on us yet,” Amanda said the other day while Saffy and Ah Chuan yelled pleasantries at one another. “It almost sounds like someone is being killed!”

Saffy was showing Ah Chuan some photos she’d taken during a weekend trip she’d taken in Bali with her new boyfriend Brad. “Isn’t he cute?” she sang in a note that technically only dogs should have been able to hear.

Ah Chuan bellowed back something. Saffy looked at Amanda who sighed.

“She says he’s puny and she wants to know why he looks like an angmoh.”

“His mother is German!” Saffy shrieked happily, but you could tell from Ah Chuan’s expression that Saffy was much too good for the likes of Bradley who couldn’t even claim full Chinese ancestry. And as if to prove her point, her only comment – “Ridiculous!” – was delivered several octaves lower. Saffy glowed at all the attention she was getting.

Saffy later said there are moments when she literally believes that she was switched at birth and that Ah Chuan is her real mother to which Amanda said that it’s exactly the sort of inflammatory statement that gets people disinherited.

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