Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Every language--and culture--has its quirks.

In Barranquilla, for instance, in Spanish, of course, we have this particular word: ajá. It means yes, no, you know, what?, you're welcomeplease, don't, thanksand so on, whatever, screw you, I love you, yes I'm hungry and would love to eat... or anything that you need for it to mean. We may be telling a story, and use it like this: "And then Harry Potter comes and, ajá, it's over." That "ajá" means that he encounters Voldemort and proceeds to duel and ends up killing him and winning. Sometimes, when my mom would catch me eating a cookie during my diet, she would look at me and say, "Ajáaaaaaaa", which in that case meant, "I caught you cheating!". It's so awesome, because you can explain so much with so little. But, alas, people who are not from The Capital of the Republic of Atlántico don't always understand what we mean.

There are some phrases, I think, that are quite international. Hello and How are you?, for example. However, after living in Thailand, I have to restructure my use of "international" to "only in the western hemisphere". In Thailand, for instance, asking How are you? is extremely personal. Only those who are very close ask how the other is doing, and only those who are really close get an answer. For us, western-hemispherers, How are you? is a way of starting conversation, a way of politely expressing, Yes, I acknowledge your existence and I demonstrate slight interest in you by asking a question to which I know the answer, because the answer is always the same: Very well, thanks! With possible variations, of course: good, excellent, fanstastic, OK... But it's always the same prepared dialogue: Hi, how are you? Fine thanks, you? Oh, I'm doing just fine, thanks. Ok, see you later, bye! Bye! And though we might not expect, or want, to see each other "later", we say it, because it's polite. In Thailand, as I said, how are you is not the most common thing to say... it is, Pai nai? which means, where are you going? You see, to me where are you going is very personal. It's something my mom would ask, or Honey. But not a stranger, or an acquaintance...

Every day I left my building in Lampang, the doorman would smile and say, Ajarn Natalya-ka, pai nai? And I would stop dead in my tracks, wonder, WTF, and would turn and smile back, and in my best attempt of his language would proceed to tell him that I was going to Atsawin Market to buy some food, then I was going to walk around and window shop, and that I might even go as far as to the train station to find some dessert. He would look at me while I spoke, with the same WTF look that I had, and when I was done he would simply look away... for months and months I wondered what that was about. At first, I thought he was trying to help me improve my Thai. But his weird expression at the end was puzzling--if he had asked, why was he so distraught at my giving an answer?!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, and all you wishing to live in Thailand, when a Thai asks Pai nai? he is not expecting a detailed answer; he is expecting you to say, to have fun! That is the correct response, equivalent to our fine thanks, and you? It took me months to figure that out, and sadly (due to lack of use) I have forgotten the correct response in Thai...

Germany, being in the western hemisphere, has similar expressions to the ones I am used to. Wie geht's? is answered with Mir geht es gut, danke. Und dir? Easy as pie. (But I can't bake, so to me, "easy as pie" is something very complicated; or, like, when someone says, "It's like riding a bike, you never forget!" ohhhh, yes, yes you forget...) HOWEVER, the Germans have a monosyllable that drives me insane. It has taken me 4 months, 11 hours, 40 minutes and 36 seconds to figure it out (my iPhone has a perfect account of when exactly I arrived in Germany). The Germans don't always reply, mir geht es gut, danke, which is what we foreigners learn in class. (Just like English-speakers don't always reply fine, thanks, and you?, and just like Spanish-speakers don't always reply, Bien, gracias, y tu? Sometimes we just say ajá...) The Germans sometimes reply Na. Na. Just that: Na.

So, this is what my exchange with a whooooole lot of Germans this weekend was like: (N will signify me, Natalya, and G# will signify a German, # will change accordingly.)

N: Hallo!
G1: Hallo, Natalya!
N: Wie geht es dir?
G1: Naa.
N: (Waiting for the rest of the answer, looking deeply into my interlocuter's eyes)
G1: (Looking awkwardly at me, waiting for me to say something...)
N: (have no idea what the heck is going on...)
G1: (moves on to say hello to the next person, thanks God!)
N: Oh, hallo!
G2: Hallo, Natalya!
N: Wie geht es Euch?
G2: Naa.
N: (WTF? Na- what? Natalya? Can they not pronounce my name?)
G2: (Probably also thinking WTF is Natalya staring at...)
N: (Really, I need social behavior lessons...)
G3: Oh, Natalya, willkommen!
N: Dankeschön! Wie geht's?
G3: Naa.
N: (OMG I'm going to murder someone!)
G3: (Smiles, nods head... looks away...)
N: Darf ich ein Gebäck essen?

I cannot begin to explain the level of uncomfortness I felt that afternoon. Na- what? Are they trying to say Natalya? Nationality? Navegation? Natural? Nativity? Na what?!?! Why can't they say "Danke, gut", like all the Germans in my German book say?

Well, non-German readers... it just so happens that "Naa" means precisely that. It is a short way of saying, All is good with me and my family, you are so kind for asking. And how are you? How was your day? How is your mom? Are you enjoying the weather? It's just like my ajá... so you'd think I'd have had no problem with it...

There you go, Angie. Another entry in the Deutschland für Idiots book...


  1. well, just to add a bit more to the Naa, it can also mean hello! sometimes a German (only from the north of course) will see you, simle and say: "Naa", and if the other is also a German will reply "Naa, gut". So apparently it is also a replacement for "Hallo, wie gehts?"
    Other fun words for me are "Naja" and "Nja" they also work for different occasions.
    I guess there is a lot of the colloquial language that is still to be learned :D

  2. Your conversational exchange made me LOL inappropriately at work! I love awkwardness. It's so much fun!