All That English On Eating

Several years ago, a reader in Kuching wrote to “Mind your English” in Section 2 expressing his shock about my usage of “Don’t forget to eat your breakfast” in one of my stories.

It should be “Don’t forget to have your breakfast,” he insisted. Then, two other readers wrote to back me up. One said, “It is perfectly good English, regardless of what the breakfast consists of – pills or otherwise.”

I had just come back from Thailand then, having been fed sumptuous food day and night. All that talk about the word “eat” in English reminded me of several incidences where its various usage within the context of other words (directly translated from native languages or pronounced wrongly in English), had caused humorous misunderstandings.

The most memorable incidence occurred the first time I visited Thailand.

I was staying in a back-packer’s hotel where the rooms were actually small grass huts by the beach. The proprietor was also the cook in his ‘restaurant’– his big grass hut with several tables on the porch, serving as dining tables for guests. 
He asked me when I ordered my first dinner, “U eat ‘fit’?  Have very big fit here, small fit also good eat.’

I thought he meant ‘feet’ as in chicken feet or pork legs.  “Do you have chicken feet or pig feet?”  I asked.

“No have chicken fit, pork fit like Malaisie.” The proprietor laughed, “Here, only eat Thai fit.”

Baffled, I asked, “What kind of Thai feet do you have?”

“Big fit, small fit, red fit, white fit, black fit, long fit, short fit, chilli fit, fly fit, chop fit.” He gave me the thumbs up. “My fit, very good! If you no like eat, no pay.”

Shocked, I looked down. His plump feet were standing comfortably in his plastic slippers. He wriggled his toes and smashed some tiny sand crabs. The dirty toe-nails seemed to wink, “Come, eat me!”

A livid image of him soaking his feet in some foods in a big wooden tub to spice it up came to my mind. “Do the Thais use their feet to make some foods just like what people did in the old days to make grape wine?” I thought to myself.

By then, I had heard that some Thai delicacies were made from various parts of jungle animals and insects. No wanting to take my chances, I ordered chicken instead.

Then I ordered my last meal at the hotel, the proprietor insisted that  I ‘eat fit’ before I left Thailand. 

“Here Thai fit very very good.  All ‘farangs’ (foreigners) like eat Thai ‘fit’. I cook chilli ‘fit’ you eat, half plice.” 

He looked really sincere. I relented, but not without a cautious note, “Only a little bit to try. But I don’t want anything you cook with your feet,” I pointed at his sandy feet.  “Give me an animal’s feet, OK?”
The dish came out an hour later. It turned out that the ‘feet’ dish was a ‘fish’ dish. The proprietor mispronounced the word (which I discovered in subsequent visits, that it was a common problem among some Thais). But he told me how he got the live fish from his tank – by sitting on a chair and grapping the fish with his feet instead of his hands. And it had taken him half an hour to do it as the “fit go here go there’.
“We Thai serve ‘farangs’ good. Come again! Eat many fit!” He smiled as he looked proudly at the fish.
From then on, I smiled whenever I am asked to ‘eat fit’ in Thailand.
I was working in a Vietnamese refugee camps years ago. The refugees received daily rations of food items – chicken/fish, rice and a vegetable.

I thought their meal would be very simple as there was not much one could do to cook creatively with limited resources. 

But they were surprisingly resourceful. 

They grew spices and vegetables in broken plastic containers or in tiny areas around their living quarters. There was even a bread shop in the camp where fantastic French bread including my favorite croissants were sold. 

Several other shops sold homemade Vietnamese cakes and buns, stuffed with green bean paste. They made the foods in small ovens that they built from scrap metals. 
All the proprietors got their capital by saving every cent they made from doing odd jobs for the camp authorities. Their viable home-based businesses were impressive.     
I used to visit the shops in my off-office hours as I was fascinated with their resourcefulness and determination to do better. Of course, the best part of my visit was when they said, “ ‘Kao-wei’ (officer), come eat my house.”
These ‘house-eating’ visits consisted of anything they could find or gather from the camps – insects, shoots, leaves, and barks.  Most of all, I remember their sincere joyful expressions when I agreed to ‘eat their houses’!
Another interesting incidence occurred when I was in an Asian airline. It was lunch time, a young airhostess was pushing the food cart, smiling beautifully as she asked us if we wanted to “eat cow, eat chicken or eat fish?”
The Western man right across me on the aisle said, “Eat anything!”
“No can. What you eat?”  She smiled sweetly.  The Westerner joked, “I’ll eat cow.  But, I prefer to eat bull if you have some in your cart.”

“No ‘boo’ please, Sir.  We serve the best food. Please say nice things, otherwise no lunch for you.” Offended, she replied firmly.
The man threw his hands in the air, “I give up and I’ll shut up. Just give me the cow to eat! Don’t give me her milk!”

By Chong Sheau Ching


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