by Dominick Domingo
A Guide to Cultural Egocentrism
If I’d been smart, I would have studied Spanish instead of French. That way, I would have had an endless surplus of busboys and valets with whom to practice. Not to mention the majority of my tricks. Instead I am reduced to eavesdropping on strangers in public whenever I hear an “R” being pronounced with an inordinate amount of phlegm. If it turns out to be French phlegm, and not the misleading, deceptive Armenian phlegm, ( Armenians say “Merci,” as well as the French, adding to the potential confusion, ) I pounce. My desperate plea ‘Il n-y-a- personne avec qui pratiquer a Los Angeles,’ or ‘There is no one with whom to practice in Los Angeles,’ is most often met a compliment (however premature,) and then with courteous indulgence. “You speak well,” he or she normally says.
But the relationship is short-lived, and invariably ends when one of us reaches the front of the line we are standing in. We go our separate ways, and I am left to mull over the brief exchange and figure out what the hell it is I’ve just said. Without warm-up time, it is all too easy to mistakenly substitute ‘Very nice to have met you,’ with the less common pleasantry, ‘My socks are in the refrigerator.’ I usually realize my errors after it is too late to fix them, or to preserve the illusion of sanity. Once I realize I’ve told a complete stranger that ‘I’m wearing your mother for dinner,’ the nodding and smiling makes a lot more sense. The ‘You speak well,’ just seems cruel, though, and I remind myself to stop taking people at face value.
The other opportunity I carve out for myself involves cornering my nieces and nephews at family get-togethers and forcing them to recite what they’ve learned in High School French class. When it turns out the instructor has had them conjugating verbs for two semesters without ever formulating a sentence, I just get angry. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect, after two full semesters, to be able to hold a simple conversation about cheese, chocolate, or the weather. Thinking back, I’m fairly certain I had something to do with Jeannette’s decision to switch to German her senior year.
I was rather excited when I learned about Babelfish, a website site that translates single phrases or blocks of type into the language of your choice. But like Brad and Jennifer, it proved too good to be true. Babelfish translates word-for-word, with no comprehension of syntax, context, or idiomatic expressions. This is precisely what any adult foolish enough to attempt a second language is told not to do. ‘French is not just a code for English,’ Marie used to say. I found that using Babelfish, no matter what I typed in, what resulted made about as much sense as reading a Scrabble board from top to bottom, or hearing Charro discuss politics. ‘I feel a little funny right now’ literally becomes ‘I smell myself one bit drole to the instant.’
My friend Fran was good enough to provide me, on regular occasion, erotic French fiction printed from the Internet. Not only did it prove ideal for learning body parts, but I realized just how universal the Universal Language truly is. “You will be my bitch” translates in just about any language. There are slight cultural variations, however, with regard to the gay porn- replace latin boys with Arabs as a cultural fixation, swap the motorcycle boots for Gestapo boots, and you’ve bridged the cultural divide. I found myself oddly detached from the goings on in the French porn, however, and more concerned with learning everything from ear lobe to the ‘fingers of the feet.’ I must say I found it a bit discriminatory that toes were not given their own word. “Hair” in French is plural. In other words, one would say, “Your hairs are well coiffed this evening.” Each and every strand is accounted for and acknowledged. And yet the toe is relegated to being the bastard stepchild to the almighty finger. Why not the other way around? Why are fingers not referred to as the toes of the hand? The toe receives no glory- is destined to be crammed into dark, airless shoes forever nameless.
I’d found the best way to increase my vocabulary was to use a word, once memorized, as frequently as possible to forge new associations. So I would often find myself saying things like, “Your elbows look well today,” or relaying to others the morning’s adventures in fingernail clipping. “I washed myself the hairs today,” I would announce with pride. Knees were a bit tougher. All that came to mind for me was the context in which I learned the word. And it is exceedingly hard to slip “On your knees, Bitch,” into casual conversation.
All this to say, I was a bit ill-prepared for my first trip to Paris. And my crash course in true street French would be compounded with a crash course in cultural egocentrism. My second day in Paris, I realized that my travel-sized toothpaste had chosen to explode inside the pouch of my carry-on. Not wanting to leech any more than necessary off of the high-school friends with whom I was staying, I ventured to the corner pharmacy.
After about ten minutes of searching I still had not found the toothpaste. There was no help on the floor ( not unlike home ) and the cashiers were occupied with considerable lines. I approached a woman I knew was a customer and not an employee. As I prepared to use my French for the first time to practical purpose, with a real live native, my heart raced a bit.
“I excuse myself,” I began, “Where finds itself the- how does one say-the solution with which one brushes himself the teeth?”
The woman looked perplexed, so I mimed brushing my teeth.
“Aaaah- toothpaste,” she offered.
“Yes,” I smiled, relieved. “Toothpaste.”
“Why it is right here- in front of you.”
I squinted, scanning the shelves once more. There, on a low shelf, was a single row of generic looking toothpaste occupying at most twelve cubic centimeters.
“Ah,” I said with an involuntary laugh. And then by way of explanation, I offered, “In the United States, there would be at the least nine or ten types/genres of toothpaste.”
“Brands?” She offered.
“Yes, brands.” I corrected myself. The French are quite helpful, I thought.
“Do you need nine or ten brands?” She then asked.
“What, then, would one want with nine or ten brands?”
I thought about it. “ I imagine this is to the cause that we likes to have of the choices.”
The woman looked confused. “Do they not all perform the same function?”
“Well, yes. But one, as example, makes maybe the teeth more white, to the cause of a special, extra ingredients.”
Her face now looked pained. “Is this not the purpose of all toothpaste?”
“Hmmmmmm.” She had stumped me. “You have reason.”
The woman smiled, a bit smug in her conquest. Suddenly I felt the need to defend all that was wrong with my country.
“It is well, even so, to have of the choices, for to make life the more convenient…”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Je t’ecoute…” ( ‘I’m listening…’)
“As example- “ my mind raced to find the proper translation for “flip-top cap” and “spill-proof reservoir.”
I would assert American superiority in one foul swoop. “We has the cap which are connected, in place of that which one must twist. This is nice choice. We has also the lid for the laundry detergent which traps the liquid extra so as one does not waste.”
“Can one not simply pay attention so as not to spill?”
I paused, not so much to translate my response as to come up with one.
“And can one not simply twist the cap back on the tube of toothpaste himself? Why must it be connected?”
I panicked. “We Americans are a busy people. We be hurried,” I explained. “And then, there are the men who has this job, to create the new convenience for the package.” I knew this would not go over well.
“Perhaps American fingers have lost their ability to twist. And these men you speak of who design the latest packaging- perhaps it is also their job to convince the people that they need it.”
“No, no,” I objected. “We doesn’t need it. We just wants it.” Not only had I dug my own grave, but I had jumped in, filled it with dirt, and laid flowers around it. The moment I heard myself say “We just wants it,” and could not take it back, the floodgates were open. My own epiphany muted anything she could possibly have said in response, the deluge of images now flooding my consciousness-that of gummy strings of week-old toothpaste stretching between the mouth of a Crest tube and its flip-top cap, of dollops of laundry detergent landing on my shoe after escaping the supposedly more economical spill-proof reservoir. I too had been brainwashed by a culture obsessed with convenience- to believe I needed these things- that I needed to jack my children up on Ridalin and numb my own senses with Prozac while trying to resuscitate my penis with Viagra. Every other piece of junk mail I delete from my mail program is geared toward making me feel insecure about my manhood. Woman not satisfied? Can’t go all night? Don’t measure up? And these are just the insurance ads. We Americans are convinced we are missing out on something if we don’t have a Blackberry in one hand, a finger on a keyboard or mouse, and a cell phone surgically attached to at least one ear. All this knowing full well that the technology will be obsolete in a week or two. And our gullibility knows no bounds. So well trained are we that we’ll buy whatever is being paraded beneath our noses- from wars to wire-tapping to “fuzzy” elections.
I wanted to apologize then and there to the woman for my national heritage, to thank her for nudging me from the dark abyss of ignorance into blinding white enlightenment.
But she just looked so smug.
“This brand will do,” I said, stooping to reach the low shelf. “Merci.”
I threw the generic cardboard package into my burlap shopping sac, but not before examining it. No flashy graphics, no mention of whitening agent or even fluoride, no flip-top cap. I would enjoy a good brushing that evening. I would feel the grit of baking soda massaging my pearly whites and know they had not been duped.
As I was exiting the pharmacy, the woman smiled at me from where she stood in the checkout line. This smile was neither smug nor superior, but a peace offering. And when I returned it, I knew we shared the smile of two souls who had transcended culture, time and circumstance to reach new understanding.
And then I saw it. The upper right canine tooth, second quadrant, was a snaggletooth. Not only that, but it was yellow, and nerve-dead. It was a dead snaggletooth. And yet it had been allowed to remain, to hang there with the others, most likely emitting a foul stench at close range.
Compared to the British or the French, we Americans may be gullible. But at least we know how to floss.
In 1991, Dominick Domingo graduated with distinction from Art Center College of Design. As an Illustrator, he spent the 90’s visually developing and painting production backgrounds for Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Little Match Girl, and One by One. During this time he also illustrated books for Young Readers for Penguin, Random House, Lowell House, Disney Publishing, Hyperion Books, and Harcourt.
In the new millennium, Dominick redefined himself as a live-action filmmaker. His films have been well-received, garnering such accolades as ‘Best Short Film- Palm Springs International Hispanic Film Festival,’ and ‘Best Director- Long Beach Q Film Festival.’ Having sold two screenplays, Dominick decided to capitalize on a growing writing resume. At forty, (call it an acute awareness of his own mortality) he went on to pen a collection of Narrative Nonfiction essays titled “Jesus Shoes,” which he has been performing in Spoken Word events around Los Angeles. Two selections from the collection have recently been included in anthologies.
The Nameless Prince represents Dominick’s foray into Young Adult urban fantasy. He would be very happy to retire from illustration as a full-time author. He currently lives in Silver Lake, California, surrounded by hipsters.