A long time ago, in another life, I worked in the construction industry. I was pretty good at pretending, so it took a number of years before anyone figured out that I had no idea what I was doing, and I was forced to become a humor writer instead.
At some point along the way, I worked with a guy named Ivan. As you can imagine from the name, he was Chinese... wait, no, Russian. He was Russian. He and his cousin had moved to the United States from Russia (or maybe one of the ‘ias, or the ‘stans – I don’t remember exactly) when they were in their early twenties. He was (and I am hoping, still is) a fun and enthusiastic guy, a hard worker, and an interesting fellow to talk to.
I had a lot of great conversations with him about his move to America and settling in. When he arrived he was most amazed about the amount of choices for everything at the grocery stores. He said in Russia you could usually find what you needed, but there would only be one brand of each thing. No wonder he moved. That’s just no way to live.
Fortunately, we have a lot of Russian immigrants, so he had an American-style selection of Russian ladies to choose from when it came to dating, and he was married with kids when I met him.
One day at the job site he was on the phone discussing his wife’s birthday present - with his black market hedgehog dealer, obviously. Because it had simply never occurred to me to own a hedgehog, I had no idea they were illegal to keep as pets in California. Apparently, the way he told it, every person from Russia loves hedgehogs, so it was going to be the ultimate gift for his wife.
I’m not one hundred percent sure what would happen if I gave my wife an illegal hedgehog for her birthday, but I’m certain she would have a less-than-Russian reaction. She might even report me to Fish and Game, or whomever is in charge of trying to thwart illegal hedgehog smuggling. No telling.
He had some good stories, but none better than the one about his first trip to Walmart.
He and his cousin had just arrived in the U.S., and wanted to gear up to go fishing. They were looking to purchase waders. (For those of you from New York and LA, waders are rubber overalls with attached boots, sort of like a prophylactic for your whole body. Instead of standing on the bank of the river not catching any fish, you can wade out into the water up to your chest and still not catch any fish, but you’ll be dry, like you were on the bank.)
Ivan and his cousin spoke almost no English at this point, and they were at the sporting goods section of a Walmart, which did not carry waders. This was before the internet (yes, kids, there was a time before the internet when we all had to talk to each other – dark times indeed), so with severely limited English, the two Russian twenty-something males were attempting to ask the female Walmart clerk where to go to buy waders.
That’s all well and good, and might have turned out fine, but the problem was that between the two of them, the only English fishing-related word they knew was ‘hook.’
They did not know the word ‘waders,’ nor did they know ‘boots,’ or anything else that might have described the uniquely-purposed item they were trying to source. All they knew was the word ‘clothes.’
So here are our heroes, both pantomiming the writhing, thrashing, yanking, and pulling required to actually get a pair of fishing waders on and pulled up to your chest, occasionally throwing in a whipping motion to simulate casting a fly rod, all the while repeating the same phrase they have expertly assembled in English to get their point across to the female clerk.
“We need hooker clothes.”
She called the police.
When the police department’s Russian interpreter peeled himself off the floor after his fit of hysterical laughter, he explained the misunderstanding to both parties, and everyone had a good chuckle. No charges were filed.
Learn the language, kids. (Or always have the internet handy.)
See you soon,
Copyright © 2017 Marc Schmatjen
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