My original little town was College Point, a working class neighborhood in New York City. There was one Chinese family in town then, not like the hundreds that live there now, and they owned a laundry. I took in and picked up my fathers white shirts. They were very nice.
The local joke was that the lady behind the counter spoke English quite well until something went wrong. Oh yeah, the local wisdom went, she speaks English fine until they break a button or burn a shirt, then it’s, sorry, no speakie English. I now understand the dynamic much better.
English is a very difficult language. So is Thai, I found out to my considerable chagrin. Chinese? Perhaps even more so. After five years in Thailand, I can get along pretty well in simple, everyday situations. I can shop for anything, and bargain for the price if it is appropriate to do so; I can explain to taxi drivers where I need to go, and talk to them about the usual subject matter that is of interest to taxi drivers; I can respond to simple questions about my schedule, my experience in Thailand, and my classes and my students; I can read a menu and order food; I am even good at telling funny little stories about my time in Thailand. But if the subject goes beyond the ordinary, if the questions go beyond my limited vocabulary, I quickly sink to a simple “no speakie Thai.”
I’m sure that it was the same with the nice lady in the Chinese laundry. She wasn’t faking, she could do fine if the conversation stayed within the normal parameters of when the shirts would be ready, how much the various services cost, and maybe something about the weather or to tell you that you had a nice family. If something went wrong, her vocabulary and ability, like mine, failed her almost immediately.
It was very natural, a very common experience in the life of a transplant to a country with a difficult, new language. If she knew of the local joke about her English deserting her conveniently when something went wrong, I hope that she did not think too ill of us.
ADVICE FOR WANDERERS: if you find yourself in a country where your language ability is less than sterling, and you are somehow taken on by police, never, ever, say even one word in the local language. Speak only English, like your life depended on it. If you say even a little bit in their language, and then beg off, they will assume that you are faking, and it will go badly for you.