Expat Experience: Unexpected Challenges… My Language Fox Pah

This week, something new… “The Expat Experience” writing challenge with The Move To America, #ExpatLinkUp

“The theme this week | The Unexpected Challenge’ – share something that you had not expected that was a challenge to overcome (it can be a positive or negative challenge). You can share how you dealt with it, or are still trying to – anything that you want to write about. End with three tips on how best to face an unexpected challenge whilst living abroad.”

Scones, a measure of customs and traditions for Expats: Over or Under? The Great Jam and Cream Debate!

Is It Torture To Make Scones?

So this story is of one of the Unexpected Challenges I encountered when arriving in Baku…

For an expat, getting abroad is maybe the least challenging part of a new assignment. (Getting back may be a totally different story… read Re-Entering Earth’s Atmosphere for that story!)

Once the assignment is in hand, getting there and getting a place to live are the first two most important tasks, but still maybe not the most challenging or the most unexpected.

No, to me, beginning what would be 10 years in the former Soviet Union, in Baku, capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the most unexpected challenge was the language. Everyone I met had a different dialect complete with their own idiomatic phrases and none of them seemed to match the books.  Language courses and studying CD lessons couldn’t have prepared me for that.

The family I was staying with kept telling me, “Don’t worry” that I would “understand all in 6 months” – they just didn’t say which 6 months, or starting when!

This became frighteningly clear one night when the dad and sons (who each spoke some English) were gone when I arrived home from my office.

Only the mom was at home, and she spoke no English- none. My Russian at that early stage was basic- I could get by in town and get what I needed in shops, but I was never going to have a philosophical discussion about Tolstoy with anyone, that was certain.

I tried to make myself busy but it’s awkward to be in your host’s home and not speak. So to make conversation, she asked me a question.

“Do you have “muka” in America?” I didn’t know what that was but in the spirit of trying to do my part, I whipped out my 5 pound dictionary of all things Russian and found muka- torture it said.

I looked up at Tarana horrified, with my brows furrowed and said, “No, why would you ask that?

Now it was her turn to be confused. She clearly saw that my reaction was not in line with her expectations, so she tried again in Russian.

“How do you make bread? Do you use (this time with hand gestures, as if wring someone’s neck, or perhaps something else) muka like we do?

Birthday cake photo, boy with cake: Language mistake makes flour sound like torture

Baking Was Hard Work, But Certainly Not Torture!

I took this to mean do we torture (muka) people by wringing their necks.

I knew about Russian propaganda but this was beyond the realm of anything I had ever heard.

So I tried a long explanation of how the United States loves people and our “constitutsiya” protects them from flour (muka).

A quizzical look passed over her face then she began laughing when she realized what was happening.

She motioned for me to give her the big dictionary I had been using.

Tarana showed me that there are two words- muka and muka,  spelled exactly alike (but spoken with stress on opposite syllables).

She had been using the second word- one which meant flour, as in bread making, but in the dictionary, muka (torture) comes first because of the stressed syllable- I never even saw the other one!

We laughed and laughed, then had to do the whole charades thing to explain this when the guys came home so they could understand why two strangers were now laughing like old friends about… torture.

My 3 tips for dealing with language issues?

1.   Ask questions when you don’t understand. I could have pointed to my dictionary and asked, “Is this what you mean?” It wouldn’t have been nearly as funny, but it would have been a better conversation perhaps!

2.   If you don’t have a dictionary, or phrase book, do what kids do- use pictures. That would have made it ever so clear that scones are not torture! An easy mistake to make…

3.   If questions and pictures don’t clear up the misunderstanding, ask to change to another subject. Or just start talking about the weather. I’ve found that locals who don’t understand you will follow along and forget the original question altogether.

I did this with a taxi driver of mine when he asked me what time to pick me up the next day. Instead of saying “not sure,” I answered “never.”  But I changed the subject and he followed as if nothing had happened… and, thankfully, he picked me up the next day at 5:00pm, as usual.

That was certainly not the end of my language fox pahs.

I made plenty of mistakes with words, hand gestures and more. But I managed to live through them and survive til I got back to the states after 10 years away.

I did not expect language challenges here, but I knew I was in trouble again when I had no clue what a thumb drive was or what an mp3 player might do. Oy vey!

3 thoughts on “Expat Experience: Unexpected Challenges… My Language Fox Pah

  1. Thank you so much for joining in with the link-up! I love the tips you gave, especially as they are practical and can really help those attempting a life in a new langauge!


  2. Oh, what a funny conversation! When we first arrived in France, my neighbor noticed that we didn’t bring furniture and asked if we had any chairs. I told her, no, we were just sitting on the ceiling. Then one time instead of asking a man if he felt bad, I asked if he smelled bad. But I never realize what I have said wrong during the conversation. I just notice the strange look on the other person’s face and wonder why – then later I figure out what I have said.


  3. This is such a great example of when we move into the phase called “conscious incompetence” – we are trying so hard to fake it till we make it (and make it easier on those that are patient enough to listen to us). At the same time, it can really be draining on the energy (and ego of course)! That is why humor is such a good remedy, as you mention here.


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