by Ruby Bayan
It was my first time in America. Oh, I spoke English. In the Philippines, we're taught to speak and write proper English every single day in school. So, as I walked out of the hotel, I said to myself, "This can't be worse than my first time in Germany. There, I had to rely on body language to ask for directions to the toilet!" So, armed with a good English vocabulary in my head, I braved my first day in America by purchasing a few items from the nearby grocery and grabbing a bite to eat.
The moment I swung open the door to the store, I was simultaneously greeted by the cashier, the stock clerk, and all the other personnel in the place, with "Hey! Hahyaduin'?!"
Gosh, did they expect me to answer? I was taken by surprise. In Asia, store personnel don't even look at you when you enter their store! Not knowing exactly how to react, I smiled back, hoping they'd leave me alone. But the store keeper came closer and persisted, "Hah kin ah help ya? Ya luhkin' fuh an'thin' in partic'lah?"
I took a deep breath, tried to summon all the English words I had learned over my years in private school, puckered my lips hoping to mouth something he'd understand, and answered boldly, "Nah, just luhkin' ereound!
Instead of turning away, he faced me squarely and, still sporting the plastered friendly smile, uttered, "Wuhll, owkey, then. Ah'm Ed. And you just cawll me whien ya need sumthn, owraht? Ah'll be raht ove'heer!"
Whew! I finally got to "luhk ereound", to pick out a box of tissue paper from a shelf displaying a couple of dozen brand names, ten different sizes, all the colors of the rainbow, different types of paper for every conceivable use, with an assortment of scents, including menthol (with aloe) for colds. I carried the items (which took me hours to select), to the cashier.
As she swiped my box of tissues across the scanner, she asked me again, "Hey, hahyaduin'?!"
I knew I had to answer, and eventually engage in casual conversation about the weather or the tissue paper or whatever. But before I could respond, she suddenly asked, "Paper or plastic?"
I paused to reflect on the question, "Paper or plastic what?" Sensing my disorientation, she spoke slowly and clarified, "You want me to put your stuff in a paper bag or a plastic bag?"
And I thought, "Wow, paper bag! Just like in the movies!" So I replied, "Paper!", and excitedly walked out the store embracing a big thick brown paper bag - something seldom seen in developing countries.
That was easy. Now, for some lunch. I found a decent-looking restaurant nearby. I carefully pulled open the heavy door, half-expecting to be met by that "duin" greeting again. In Asia, I would simply go straight to an empty table and wait to be served. But here I was stopped by two beautiful ladies in black aprons, smiling their scripted welcome, "Hey! Hahyaduin'?! Table for how many? Smokin' or non-? This way, please."
At my table, another young lady approached excitedly, rattling off as if on cue, "Hey! Hahyaduin'?! I'm Kim. I'll be attending to you today. Something to drink? Would you like a lemon with that? Soup or salad? (I almost said "Yes" because for a second I thought she was asking if I wanted a Super Salad!) What would you like on your salad? (Oh, I chose, "wrench" (ranch), hoping it tasted better than it sounded.) Would you like that with baked potato, French fries, or rolls?" Decisions, decisions!
Ten minutes later, she came back with my combo meal - a mound of pasta, chicken wings, and shrimps arranged on a 14-inch hotplate - enough to feed half my hometown. I was almost certain I'd discovered why the third world was starving.
With a white take-out box in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other, I walked back into the hotel to call it a day. In the elevator, I was faced by yet another stranger who smiled, and asked, "Hey! Hahyaduin?"
The man didn't seem to have anything else to say, so I was finally (finally!) able to respond, "Duin guhd! And you?"
[First published in iAgora.com, 1999]