If a tree falls in a jungle and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound? If a local speaks Chinese around a bunch of American tourists does anybody understand him? The answer could be surprising! Being bilingual has its perks. Playing dumb and eavesdropping is certainly one of them. These stories cover some of the most embarrassing, funny, and genius times that being bilingual has really paid off for people abroad. Some advice, don't judge a book by its cover, or a person by their language.
"While living in Japan as a service member I went out with some friends to a local bar one night. We have to ride an elevator to get there and was just making casual talk with the friend I was with.
A bunch of business guys get in the elevator before our floor. Next stop was ours and we get out. As I am leaving, a person guiding them to another bar says in Japanese, 'Good bye sir chocolate!' I am African American. As the elevator doors were closing I say in Japanese, 'That's lord master chocolate to you.' I swear everyone in that elevator screamed in surprise and laughed in delight.
Later ran in to a few on the guys in the elevator in a different bar, and they bought me drinks the rest of the night. Fun times."
"I must have been 10 or 11 years old. We had taken big family trip to Disney World. On the way back we had stopped outside a McDonald's for dinner and my little cousin was misbehaving and just not eating. There were two middle-aged black guys a few tables down from us and my aunt kept telling my little cousin that the two black guys would take him away if he didn't eat. She was telling him this in Vietnamese and when the guys were done eating they walked over to her table and said 'Hello' in almost perfect Vietnamese. My aunt was so mortified, she almost started crying. We all thought it was funny because my aunt deserved it for being prejudice."
"I'm a white woman living in Taiwan. I can speak Chinese fairly well, but according to the Taiwanese, the idea of a foreigner speaking Mandarin is utterly baffling. One day, I was on the bus to school when a group of snotty looking kids get on and sit right behind me. As soon as we make eye contact, they immediately start talking trash.
Them: 'Oh! An American! She must be a dirty floozy. That's how all of their women are over there. I bet I could get her number, take her on a date, and get laid the same night. Think I should ask her?'
I instantly turn around in my seat, give them my best smile, and say in Chinese: 'May your child be born with hemorrhoids.'
They did not say another word for the rest of the bus ride. I would pay good money to get a picture of the humiliation on their faces."
"I lived in Bolivia for over a year after high school. When I returned to Minnesota I got a job at IKEA loading furniture for customers. One day I was helping these two older Mexican women and they started to talking about how attractive I was, how they would love to sleep with me, all sorts of inappropriate stuff. I stood there like I had no clue what they were saying, because I am the most gringo looking guy ever anyway. I listened to this dirty conversation about me for a minute as we go down in the elevator with their furniture. When they pull the car up to the loading area I ask them in perfect Spanish about how they would like everything packed up.
The two women looked at each other with the biggest eyes and started laughing. They had no idea that I understood what they were saying about jumping my bones. They jumped in that car so fast!"
"I live in Canada and I'm half French Canadian. Once my dad yelled out to me in the middle of a crowded grocery store that he was 'Bleeding from my butthole and has to go to the bathroom' in French, thinking no one would understand. Like, three people turned around with horrified faces as he walked away. I just shrugged. What can you do, guy has hemorrhoids and no sense of shame, not MY fault. Now we all have to live with this image."
"I was taking the bus across town, and I have a bad habit of listening in others conversations. Anyways, I'm listening in on these two guys talking about their attitudes towards immigration. I live in Australia, and there is a lot of xenophobia here. They were spewing a bunch of rhetoric like 'Oh, foreigners don't assimilate into our culture, they shouldn't be coming into our country if they're Muslims' etc. Eventually they notice an Asian couple get on the bus. The couple begins talking in Malay. The two morons continue their conversation about how they shouldn't have to learn their language and they should have to speak our language in public, because they wouldn't understand it if the couple were talking about them.
This annoys me and I try and tune out of their conversation.
Eventually due to my terrible habit, I tune into the couples conversation. I speak Malay because I had learned Indonesian in high-school which was extremely similar, and my step family is from Singapore and they speak a variety of different languages. They were talking about general day to day things. Then one of the guys, shouts 'Speak English!'. That was the last straw, for both me and the guy from the couple.
The Asian guy was built like a tank and ready to knock these guys out. The bigots on the other hand were some harmless looking small fries. The Asian man got up to talk to the loudmouths before I did. To deescalate the situation I yelled out to the Asian guy, 'Hey come on man, it's not worth it. Just leave them be.'
I hated these guys too but if a fight broke out the Asian guy would give the prejudice people all the more reason to hate on foreigners. The Asian guy was pretty surprised to hear me speak Malay, but he recomposed himself and got off the bus with his girlfriend.
I felt pretty awesome telling those pricks afterwards that their yelling almost got them into some hot water, and that if it weren't for me, a fellow Aussie, dialing down the situation they would've been beaten to a pulp.
They reluctantly thanked me but I replied that I don't need thanks from prejudice people and that next time they might not be so lucky."
"My stepsister speaks both Spanish and English. We were in a very small, packed nail salon getting our nails done, when a couple behind us started speaking in Spanish. I had no clue what they were saying, but my stepsister had the 'what am I hearing?' look on her face. (She wasn't trying to listen in, but they were literally right behind us and speaking rather loudly.)
This went on for a few minutes, my stepsister's face getting more and more shocked. She'd had pulled out her phone and dialed 911 at one point, but she was speaking softly and I couldn't hear her for sure over the Spanish-speaking duo. Few more minutes passed, when the female asked something to her male colleague to which he replied with an 'I dunno.' My stepsister answered, in Spanish, and the looks on their faces were priceless. The duo started begging for something in Spanish to my stepsister. That's when the cops walked in and arrested the couple.
When I finally got the chance to ask what happened, my stepsister told me they were talking about how they robbed the local drugstore a few nights ago. It was big news in our little town at the time, as there were no leads or anything. It was extremely bizarre."
"I was out with a friend of mine who speaks Hmong, Laotian, and several other Asian dialects. We were at a Chinese buffet and there were a pair of pretty girls and a two guys sitting at a booth next to us. They were chatting when I tried talking to my friend, and he shushed me. He told me to wait. When the guys got up and left for more food, my friend turned around and said something to the girls for a few seconds. I couldn't hear them, but they looked freaked out, grabbed their purses then ran for the door. I asked him what was going on. Apparently the two girls were paid companions, and they were negotiating their rates with the two guys.
Bob, my friend waited until the guys left then offered the girls whatever the guys were paying them plus 20%, then told them that he and I were both into jello wrestling, tapioca pudding, and Hentai.
Apparently, this creeped out the girls, so they booked it out of there. When the guys got back, they cluelessly waited for the girls as if they went to the bathroom. Eventually they went outside to look for them, came back in, then spent the next 15 minutes griping at each other for messing up the deal. We left laughing our heads off and left."
"So this is a fun story my friend told me about a time she was vacationing in the Dominican Republic. She’s Hispanic but born and raised in North America and speaks Spanish fluently. When she travels to Spanish speaking countries she likes to pretend she doesn’t speak the language because it’s fun hearing what the staff have to say when they don’t think you understand them.
Anyways, on this trip she meets an older woman from the US. This lady was loud, boisterous but very sociable. She would have lunch with my friend and her boyfriend along with other couples they met on the trip. On one particular day she brings a young man with her, obviously local and introduces him as her 'special friend'. He doesn’t speak any English so he spends most of the time on his phone. At one point someone calls him and he starts telling whoever is on the phone that he’s with the 'old woman' and proceeds to tell them how much she disgusts him but that he has to continue sleeping with her because she gives him money and buys him stuff. He basically spends the whole conversation trashing this woman not knowing my friend understands everything he is saying.
My friend at that moment doesn’t say anything as she doesn’t know this woman well and it’s not her place. Next day, the older woman shows up again with the young man and this time the guy stars trash taking the woman with one of the waiters. At this point my friend is disgusted, and asks the waiter to bring her a drink in perfect Spanish. She does this while staring down the young man. He apparently turns beet red and starts stuttering over some form of apology.
My friend sweetly tells him that she doesn’t care about his arrangement with the older woman but when he’s in her presence he should be respectful and not trash talk about her. He apologized (probably terrified she was going to say something to the other woman) and kept quiet the rest of the meal. My friend was leaving the next day so she left it at that. I asked why she didn’t say anything to the other lady and she said the man was literally half her age and they were both obviously getting something out of this arrangement. Plus she had just met the lady and did’t think it was her place to say anything. Lesson of the day: never assume people around you don’t understand you."
"My wife (Norwegian) speaks 11 languages at varying levels of proficiency, and has a few good stories. The best one is from her time studying in Prague.
She went out with some Czech friends, all girls. They ended up in a bar, at a table next to a group of Norwegian guys that were on a weekend party trip. The guys were somewhat inebriated, and of course immediately started flirting with my wife and her friends, in the typical heavily accented English spoken by Norwegians. While flirting, they discussed among themselves the various physical attributes of each girl, how attractive they were, how they'd perform in bed, what they'd do to them later that night in graphical detail, 'I'm so getting laid' comments, and so on. My wife translated everything into Czech for her friends.
A lot of fun was had at both tables, the Czechs got more and more flirty as the Norwegians bought drinks, got bolder and became more and more certain they'd all actually get laid. After several hours, when the girls decided rather abruptly to end the evening, the Norwegian guys were a bit confused, as the girls all got so cold so quickly. Then my wife said, in Norwegian: 'Nice meeting you guys, good luck,' watched them all turn blood red, and left."
"I'm a white-as-they-come American from the Midwest. I absolutely do not look like I speak any languages besides English. You know, the stereotypical stupid American who thinks if I just speak English really slowly and loudly everyone will suddenly understand me.
But I've actually studied quite a few languages, including Chinese (Mandarin), Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish, German, and Italian. But again, I really don't look like I understand any of them. I've found the best thing to do is to keep a vacant expression on my face whenever people are talking around me, like I don't have a clue what's being said.
One time I was in Seoul, just sitting outside relaxing. I had about 15 minutes before I had to go back inside and keep working, and I was just enjoying the day. There were several Korean men standing around not too far from me, smoking, laughing and talking, so I started listening in.
They were talking about the 'fat, stupid American man' sitting near them. Lots of insults and making fun of my character, intelligence and looks.
I didn't let on that I understood a word of what they were saying. I just sat there minding my own business and if any of them looked at me, I just smiled at them.
When it was time for me to go back inside to work, I walked past them and, in Korean, told them that not all Americans were as stupid as they seemed to think. The look on their faces when they learned I had been listening to everything they were saying about me was one that still makes me smile when I remember it."
"I was on a class trip to Montreal, we got totally lost in the Eaton Center (for those of you who don’t know, it’s a huge underground mall). I think I was about 13/14 at the time. Before moving to this school, I had been in French Immersion for six years.
The parent we were with insisted that she should be the one to ask for directions, even though she barely spoke French. I kept offering to be the one to ask, but she refused saying it was her role as the parent responsible for us.
At this point, we had passed the same ticket kiosk about three times. Every time, the two 20-somethings at the counter refused to help us, telling us that we had to go to the help center since their English 'wasn’t good enough.' One of the sales people turned to the other to make fun of us. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was pretty clear she spoke English, but was enjoying sending us in circles. I, the quiet teenager, finally lost my patience. I spun around and told the woman off in perfect French, finishing up with 'now, you’re going to give me directions and you’re going to give them now.' Once she explained to me where we needed to go, I smiled sweetly, told her to have a lovely day and get an attitude adjustment.
I’m not sure what was more satisfying, the parent whose expression matched a goldfish or the chastised 20-something year olds behind the counter."
"I was in northern Maine and some lumberjack looking guys walked into the restaurant I was in and shortest one said something along the lines of 'I bet you five dollars that American eats another waffle' in obvious complicated French. I know enough French from taking multiple classes in school and college and I say 'Hey mind your own business curd eater!' in perfect French.
This guy looks shocked and scared, that me a 240 pound 6'4 man is now standing behind him. He apologized profusely and paid for my meal for being rude. I only had one waffle and a water."
"When my 6’4 white-as-snow brother was our province’s ambassador to Hokkaido, he and a Japanese speaking friend from back home went to visit a castle on a trip through Honshu. This friend was a cowboy back home and had lost two fingers in a roping accident, and he also had tattoos on his arms. In Japan, usually only the Yakuza (a criminal organization similar to the mafia) have tattoos. They also have a tradition of cutting off the tips of certain fingers, moving down the joints as they move up in the organization.
Anyway, as my bro and his friend were visiting the castle grounds, a youngish Japanese man took offense at seeing two white monsters in his country, so he began yelling at them, showing them that the tip of one finger had been removed and saying they better be careful around him, probably thinking they didn’t know what he was saying.
My brother was actually quite fluent in the local dialect, so he told him to be respectful of guests to his country, while my brother’s friend rolled up his sleeves to show off his tats and then waved his two-fingered hand in front of the man's face. Apparently, the man turned quite pale, bowed down as low as he could while still standing, and backed away. He continued to walk backwards while bowed over until he was out of sight."
"I'm somewhat fluent in Spanish.
I was on vacation with three friends and we were staying in a hotel with a pool. We decided to go swimming. Apparently, someone got offended that they didn't get the pool to themselves, so they recorded us on Snapchat with a caption in Spanish that translated to 'Whites (derogatory) have infected the pool.' I don't know what made them angry, we only took up a little corner of the pool, and there was plenty of space. They made the mistake of posting that on the public snap map, and I happened to come across it later that night while I was bored and messing around on Snapchat.
The following morning, I saw the same person in the lobby, so I introduced myself to him in Spanish. After a little small talk, I asked him, 'Can I show you something funny?' And showed him the post on Snapchat. He got pretty uncomfortable, apologized and left."
"I speak fluent Swiss German, which doesn’t seem massively useful. However, it seems like everywhere in the world you go, you’ll find Swiss people.
Generally they’re very well-behaved, but when I was in Kyoto, Japan with my family a couple of years ago there were three Swiss guys walking around the same temple and they were seriously rude. Loud, pushy and worst of all (especially in Japan) they dropped litter.
I had sort of tuned them out, despite them saying some pretty offensive things (in Swiss German at least) about Japanese people and their religious buildings. However, when I saw them toss an empty bottle into a hedge I snapped.
I walked over to the guy, tapped him on the shoulder and politely but firmly suggested he pick up his trash, put it in a bin and behave more respectfully. I think I mentioned something about being a poor ambassador for Switzerland but honestly I can’t remember.
I’ll never forget his face. All of the blood seemed to drain out of it and he just muttered an apology and did as I suggested.
A sweet little Japanese lady came up to me afterwards and said arigatou, which obviously made me blush like a tomato and instantly stopped me from reveling in what I’d just done."
"I speak Farsi but look like any white guy
Was in the club one night and met this young woman, we got to talking and dancing and having a good time. Fast forward, we go off to the side to sit and actually talk for a while and it's all going great. Her friends come over, and they start speaking in Farsi, which I understand. They're talking about general stuff, how's it going, how late do you want to stay, etc. But then they mention me, it was loud and been a while, but they were saying generally flattering things like 'oh good job,' 'he's cute' things like that.
To which I cut in with thank you, 'what's y'all's names?' in Farsi.
Her friends bust out laughing and the look on the girl's face was pricelessly adorable. That's one that is pleasantly burned into my memory forever and even though we haven't really spoken in a while I occasionally think about her and hope she's doing well."