Culturally clueless, linguistically lost?


With all the talk about immigration reform, it is about time I weigh in. I was way ahead of the curve on this one.

Anticipating waves of globalization and mass migration, I decided at a young age to be more culturally clueless and linguistically lost than anybody else. I knew that eventually 7 billion people would feel that way, so I set out to beat the crowd by living in several countries and learning a few languages. If I could figure out how to survive in places and cultures foreign to me, I could monetize that by creating the First International Online Academy for the Culturally Clueless and the Linguistically Lost, better known for its simple acronym FIOAFTCCATLL, which rhymes with Quetzalcoatl, which, as everybody knows, is a midfielder in the Mexican national soccer team.

To build the curriculum for FIOAFTCCATLL I started travelling and moving places. To prepare myself for my first move from Argentina to Israel, I went to Hebrew School for 11 years, at the end of which I could say, but not necessarily spell, three things: Shalom, Bar Mitzvah, and Yom Kippur. As if I didn’t feel incompetent enough in Hebrew, my wife’s parents were both Hebrew teachers, who subjected me to etymological colonoscopies for hours on end. They loved me so much that they wanted me to speak perfect Hebrew.

First lesson for my curriculum: Practice selective deafness with in-laws.

Then we moved to Canada and I finally had to study English properly. All I could say after 15 years of English study in Argentina and Israel was CNN. After 15 years in Canada I was also able to say NHL, Wayne Gretzky, and Eh?

In my eagerness to show that I was not a complete idiot, I tried to Anglicize many Spanish words, hoping they would make me sound smart. Little did I know that these “false friends” would lead me into a whole lot of trouble!

Instead of “success” I often used the word “exit,” asking people to head for the door when I thought I was congratulating them ( éxito in Spanish means success).

But I got into real trouble when I confidently asked a young lady at a store “if I may molest you?” In Spanish molestar means to disturb. La podria molestar means “may I disturb you?” I thought I was being polite by approaching the store clerk with my respectful “may I molest you.” She thought otherwise.

Lesson No. 2: Avoid false friends.

As if my linguistic challenges were not enough, I faced my share of cultural cluelessness. Nothing prepared me for what folks in North America call football, which is a strange form of wrestling played with a giant suppository. For me, there was only one kind of football, and that was soccer.

In Australia I had to learn a bunch of new sayings, such as chuck a sickie (stay home from work pretending you are sick), chuck a wobbly (throw a temper tantrum), and crack a fat (for which they recommend Crackiagra or Crackialis).

Lesson No. 3: Put in your favorites.

After Australia we moved to Nashville. The least we could do to fit into American culture was to get a DVR. After pressing buttons at random for 17 hours I thought I figured out how to record Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. It took me several months to learn how to play back what I recorded. When I finally figured it out I realized I had recorded 239 episodes of Best Monsoons in History from the Weather Channel. The Daily Show was nowhere to be found.

Lesson No. 4: Marry a techie.

Then we moved to Miami, the land of quitar and freakiar. I learned these from my hairdresser, who told me in Spanish about a friend who quiteo her job and started to freakiar because she had no money.

Lesson No. 5: If you don’t know Spanglish, just add “ar” to any English verb and you will get by in Miami just fine.

With all the talk about immigration reform, it is about time President Obama called me to lend my expertise to the country. My first move would be to teach all 117 million Mexicans proper English. The second move would be to create a wall separating the United States and China. Next, I would send all members of Congress to the Sahara desert for a six-month, team-building exercise. They would not be allowed back in the country until they came together on immigration reform. If they don’t, they will have to go through cultural sensitivity training at FIOAFTCCATLL.

Isaac Prilleltensky is dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami. Look for his humor blog at

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