For work today I organized an African culture program– there was food, live music, African vendors and artisans and information tables set up by students who have studied abroad. I do it each year during Black History Month and call it the “African Caribbean Marketplace.”
So there was a funny story from the Marketplace today. I was talking to one of the Cameroonian vendors– their “market stall” was manned by a husband/wife team. The wife was American and had lived in Cameroon for 16 years, and she met her husband there. He used to work in the Cameroonian tourist industry, but came back to the US with his wife two years ago, and now helps some of this artisan friends sell handmade African products in the US.
When he found out that I understood French he started switching over to the language he felt most comfortable in, but when his wife would overhear she would say, “No no French… try practicing your English. You are always cheating” The husband’s English was pretty good, having not spoken a word of English before he arrived in the US, he had come a long way. Occasionally he threw in a French word here or there but he was definitely understandable.
However he kept apologizing for his “poor English” and said, “My wife, she is American, but still my English is not so good.”
I said to him, “Don’t worry– my partner, he is from another country too. Do you know the tallest mountain in the world? Mt. Everest? He is from that country.”– the guy looked at me blankly, he had no idea where I was talking about.
“Anyway, I live with him and see him everyday, but I can barely speak any of his language. Don’t worry, your English is so much better than what I can speak of his language.”
Then he asked, “What language does your husband speak?”
I answered, “Nepali.”
“Ohhh, Nepal. I have a friend from Nepal. We work together at the Whole Foods in Boston.” He said.
“Do you want to surprise him?” I asked. There are a lot of Nepalis in Boston, so I wasn’t surprised he knew someone. “Next time you see him, ask him ke cha. It basically means ‘how are you?’ in Nepali.”
His eyes widened. “What? How do you say?”
He repeated it a few times and when I told him he had it right he smiled. “You know, this word… it also has meaning in my mother tongue.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, “What does it mean?”
“Well,” he said, “When a women has, hmmm, how you say? A big, a nice… butt. A nice back-end. This, this is what ke cha means. Not just ‘big’ but ‘big and nice’ like nice shape. Like ‘that woman has a ke cha.“
Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. So we both had a hardy laugh.
“I guess it goes the other way too… you know the capital of Senegal?” (another French speaking West African country).
“Yes, Dakar.” He answered.
“Well in my partner’s language, ‘dakar’ means ‘burp.’”
He looked at me funny and said, “What this means?” He turned to his wife and she said in French, “After you eat a lot of food you make a sound with your mouth, like ‘errp’ this is what it is called in English.”
“People do this much here?” He asked.
“Well, not really, it is not considered polite.” she said.
“Back home its very good to ‘burp‘ after eating. Everyone does this. It means the food was good.”
And we laughed a little more on the quirkiness of language and culture.
So anyway– now when ever I say “ke cha” I’m going to think about a woman’s– how you say, “big, nice butt”– this expression has changed now for me forever ;)