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How to Buy Fruit Without Going to Jail

One of the things I miss most about Los Angeles is mobile food. 

A hot burrito served out of the side of a truck in a 2-hour limited parking space.  The divine scent of grilling hot dogs wrapped in bacon as you walk by the park. 

And my favorite… the fruit cart. 

A rainbow-colored umbrella and ripe, delicious watermelon, mango, coconut, and pineapple.  Who could ask for more?  What I wouldn’t give for one of these street vendors in South Atlanta on a hot day. 

In my neighborhood in LA, the cart nearest our apartment was staffed by Spanish-speakers.  So one day as Billy and I were heading their way with focused purpose, I announced that I was going to order in Spanish. 

I had tried this once before while alone.  Things began to get convoluted when my order was complete and the vendor wanted to squeeze lime juice and sprinkle salt on my bag of fruit.  When I kept saying, “No, thank you,” he became more animated in his gestures and descriptions of these additions.  Finally, I had to express something to the affect of, “I understand you, but no thank you.”  Yeah, that’s pretty much how I speak in Spanish… awkward and blunt… well, sometimes in English, too.

So with renewed enthusiasm to flex my bilingual muscles, I walked up to the cart and ordered sandia, piña, coca…  It was the coconut request that caused the fruit seller’s eyes to widen and my husband to start shouting, “No, no, no,” which I can translate into English, so I knew there was a problem.

Turns out coconut is coco and coca is coke which, similar to English, is slang for cocaine.  When you ask someone on the street… in South Central LA… for coke… it could lead you to unexpected places. 

It was probably a good six months before I tried to speak Spanish again.  I mean, it’s one thing to be blunt and awkward… it’s another thing to get arrested. 

My experience, as with my past second language encounter that got me in trouble, turns my heart towards my immigrant friends.  I have my own personal translator who can shout “no” before things get out of hand.  But this has happened to me at least twice (and I’m sure as I keep writing about the past and living the present, more will emerge), and I can’t help but wonder how often this happens to Spanish speakers who try to speak English and say something they don’t mean? 

What about you?  Have you made potentially disastrous, or at least amusing, mistakes when speaking your second language?     

2 comments

  1. Um, yes! But I think we do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when we know that they're not speaking their first language. Usually? :)

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  2. Hi, Krista! I think I've seen it both ways. People who give the benefit of the doubt do so freely, but it seems there are others who are not so generous and tend not to be so most of the time. But I think I am more wondering about situations where neither person in the conversation realizes that the second language speaker is making a mistake and how decisions and judgments may be made out of communication errors. By the way, I'd love to hear some of your stories if you're up for sharing!

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