NOMINEE, BEST NON-FICTION STORY
Story: MY NICEST BAZAAR MEMORY
Being an older, white male working in an immigrant women’s centre in the Gerrard India Bazaar was never part of my life plan. It just sort of happened when I was my 40s back in the 1990s.
It was the most enriching few years of my life, like a graduate course in race and gender issues. I was honoured to work among a staff of about 30 immigrant women and their clients and associates.
For the first year, I served as a liaison between the women’s centre and my employer. It was a one-year contract. After my contract ended, the women’s centre hired me to further their efforts in community economic development. My job was to help immigrant women “mainstream” their existing skills like cooking, teaching, sewing, childcare, storytelling, and other entrepreneurial activities.
One of my first challenges was the names of my co-workers. They tended to be comprised of many syllables of unfamiliar sounds. I didn’t have to be a social scientist to understand that remembering a co-worker’s name is important. I already had difficulty remembering English names so I was able to resort to something I’ve used before: mnemonics. It is a way of remembering names, or anything, based on associating a word with a related unforgettable image. Hence, “Atidya” became “I did ya”. “Ameena” was “A meana woman you couldn’t meet” even though she was sweet. “Nyma” became “Time is nigh Ma”. In short order, I had the names under control.
You might be surprised to know that some foreign speaking immigrants have a hard time remembering English names, for the opposite reason. I recall I was on my way to the photocopier when I stopped to chat with an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. One of her older students approached to talk to her. We were introduced and I carried on to the copier. As I was waiting for my copies I heard the two women laughing and glanced over to see them looking at me. Later in the day I saw they instructor and asked her if they were laughing at me. She explained “My student said she finds it impossible to remember English names because they are usually only one syllable long”.
One day, I asked a co-worker how to say hello in her language. She was so impressed that I asked and she taught me how to say “hello” in Gujarati.
From then on, whenever our paths crossed, I greeted her with “Chemcho”. I think she appreciated my token effort.
I asked another co-worker the same questions, “What language do you speak?” and “How do I say hello in your language?” Before long I was asking everyone, at work and in the neighbourhood, how to say hello.
I recorded the answers on a piece of paper in my pocket. If I knew I was meeting with someone who spoke a language other than English I would consult my list to ensure I greeted him or her accordingly.
You can’t imagine the positive impression you create when you make the effort to say something in another person’s language. On one occasion, a woman asked me to say hello to her, repeatedly, until I asked “Why”. She replied, “I’ve never heard an English Canadian man say one word in my language.” A woman from Spain shared the fact that her English husband of six years was never interested in learning any words in her language, not “Hello” or “I love you”.
The benefits learning how to say hello spread beyond my co-workers, into my neighbourhood. Saying “An Yung How So Yoo” to the Koreans at the convenience store broke the ice and we became good neighbours. Likewise, my local Mandarin dry cleaner, who I greet with a friendly “Nee How” couldn’t be nicer, since I started.
WARNING: If you are going to try this, here is a cautionary word of advice: Never assume you know the language a person speaks. Always confirm the language first. There is no offense in asking, “What language do you speak”? Your attempt to make a good impression will be ruined if you say hello in the wrong language. I once said hello in Japanese (“Kornichowa”) to a Chinese person. I also said hello in Arabic (“As-Salam-u-Alaikum”) to an Israeli. I’ve learned my lesson.
Inspired by the interest from co-workers and friends, I started collecting other short phrases like “How are you”, “What is your name?”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “See you Later”, “Goodbye”, etc.
After a while, I had amassed a list of several common courtesies in about a dozen languages. I printed the list on an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper, which I folded multiple times to fit in my pocket. Each fold had a separate language on it.
Over the next year or so, I collected even more courtesies in more languages and the paper in my pocket grew to a two-sided, 11” x 17” sheet of paper.
People started getting wind of my little hobby and before long co-workers and friends started asking me to photocopy and fold my list for them.
The popularity of my list led to an ambition to publish it. I chose 15 English courtesies and set out to translate them into as many languages as possible.
It was slow going at first as all my data was collected during personal interviews with friends and neighbours. I managed to translate the 15 courtesies in about 25 languages and thought I had hit my limit.
Then, I turned to the Internet.
Before long, I had translated my phrases in into enough languages for a novelty, pocketsize, reference book entitled “Be Nice In 60 Languages”. I sold it online and through independent bookstores. My little book became a Toronto best seller. It had great reviews. Michele Landsberg of the Toronto Star called it “The nicest book in Canada”. Sally Cole of the Charlottetown Guardian stated “perhaps someone will nominate it for a Nobel Peace Prize”. The National Post gave it the gold star of shopping by calling it “The perfect stocking stuffer”.
About 1,500 people bought my book in Toronto. That is considered a best seller. I like to think I made a small contribution to harmony in the most diverse, multicultural city on earth.
This is not a pitch to buy my book. You can’t. It has been out of print for years. It has been replaced by the internet. Today, you can google any courtesy in any language and even hear how it sounds in an audio file.
Regardless, ‘Be Nice in 60 Languages’ taught me a couple of important lessons. If you’re dealing with someone whose mother tongue is not English and you see them on a regular basis, whether they are co-workers, in-laws, neighbours or local merchants, try to remember their name. And, if you really want to make a good impression, try to learn at least one word in their language. Hello is a good place to start. It is the easiest way to show respect to new comers and make a good impression.
by Wm Perry
About Wm Perry
Bill Perry has lived in the same apartment on Woodfield Rd., near Little India, for 23 years. He lives across the street from a house he owned in the 80s. He has worked for numerous businesses on Gerrard St. including a mainstream housing cooperative, a South Asian immigrant women’s centre, a Hindu restaurant, a Muslim supermarket and an Anglican food bank. He also worked for a few years at a Korean law firm located downtown. He is semi-retired. He has two adult children. He also owns a dog named Harper.