On Day One of my first trip to Taiwan, we (“we” is in most cases me and the drunken, abusive panty-chaser I worked for, who traveled with me on a few trips) went to visit our representatives; walk around with the other suits and nod every once in a while, have a meeting with the teams we worked with every day, and drink a lot of tea in some very ornate offices.
It was a ceremonial thing, really, but it was an important lesson in doing business overseas. At the time, the early 1980s, communications consisted of telexes and faxes. Faxes were the cutting edge, but international phone rates were costly and transmission time was slow.
We also had Telex terminals, something I was very familiar with, but those weren’t cheap either – you paid by the keystroke, as I found out after my first month with the company. So, we had a language informally called “Telexese,” but it was really the grandfather of texting. It was like Twitter, just r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w. 75-baud slow, and not limited to 140 characters.
And it was easier than English for my colleagues in Taiwan, because by learning to read English phonetically, they were also learning to speak it in proper post-Reagan English, as opposed to post-WWII English, which is what their English textbooks were like. And as you’ll see, sometimes with pretty strange results.
So, after our walk-and-nod, the grand tour of the offices, and the tea ceremony, because their offices were at container yards that were set outside the city, there wasn’t much choice when it came to lunch.
Luckily, there was a cafeteria on premises. Oh joy. I’m on the ground for something like 15 hours, my stomach is gurgling because I’m still nauseous from the stench of the Taipei Hilton International rat mausoleum I was staying in, and we’re going to eat in a cafeteria in a cargo terminal. No fucking way.
By the time we got ourselves seated on a long metal bench reminiscent of a prison cafeteria, the last shift was clearing out, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves, except for the staff, who ate after all the other workers were done. I poured some tea for myself, and washed down two Pepto Bismol tablets just for reinforcement. Quite honestly, I was afraid I’d get the shits just from the smell of whatever the catch of the day turned out to be.
We all walked the cafeteria line — lunch was steamed or roasted chicken parts, hard-boiled eggs, some kind of vegetables mixed in with noodles or fried rice, white rice, and some cloudy, creamy-looking yellowish soup of some kind.
I chose not to eat anything; I politely told our hosts my stomach was unsettled from the travel, and I just stuck to tea. My boss took a little of everything they offered him on the serving line, and he slurped away at his soup even after the others were done. I tapped the pads of my fingers silently.
After a minute or so, he realized we were all waiting for him to finish, and he looks up at one of our hosts (David was his English name) and says, “Boy, this stuff is great! What is it?” And David, in his thick Chinese-accented English, says, “Cum shupe.” At which point, I exploded into an uncontrollable laughing fit. My boss had put a spoonful of it in his mouth as the guy answered, which he promptly spewed across the room in a similar fit of laughter.
Of course, David said “corn soup” as well as he could pronounce it, but the final “-rn” sound is completely foreign to the Chinese language, so instead of saying “corn” or “born” or something like that, it comes out sounding like “cum” or “bum” — the easiest phonetic equivalent. Most of the time, it doesn’t end in a fit of laughter.
David sat there and looked at us like we were out of our minds. Finally, we composed ourselves and we all left the cafeteria and we split up and went to whatever we were all going to do that afternoon. David was going to meet me for dinner at my hotel’s bar that evening.
Skip to the hotel bar that evening: The boss is paying, and he’s off fucking his Taipei girlfriend, so I’ve got a Black Russian in my hand when David walks in, comes over and says hi, and shakes my hand, and in the same breath says, “What the fuck did I say?” He had that down perfectly. It came out, “HiWhatTheFuckDidISay?”
Not wanting to be overheard discussing this subject, I sat down with David at a table, and explained how what he said was misunderstood, and when he got it, he got a pretty good laugh himself, and with a couple more drinks in us, we laughed on through the night.
Next… I love you, no shit.