“I’m thinking about buying an elephant.”
That’s what I said to Flight (our Chinese assistant) just because I knew it would be a fun conversation.
“Hmm. Why do you want to buy an elephant?”
sidenote – That response was a landmark moment in our relationship. Her typical response to me is the now famous, “Whaaaaat?” which is her knee jerk, “I’m not quite sure I understand how you foreigners think” reaction (read, “That Stink is Awesome” for more about “Whaaaat”). Honestly (just between you and me) that’s what I was going for. But the “Whaaaat’s” are harder to come by these days. She has reached the point of unshockability and complete immunity to goofy overstatement and bad Foreigner jokes. New level.
So that’s all I got.
No “Whaaat? Where will you put an elephant? How will you feed an elephant? Can you really afford an elephant?”
Just “Hmm. Why do you want to buy an elephant?”
I confessed that I didn’t want to buy a real elephant and I could see by her face that she was thinking the sarcastic Chinese equivalent of, “Really? Cause I thought you might be serious?”
I explained, “We have a saying in English, ‘Let’s talk about the elephant in the room'”
She was at least curious, “What’s this mean?”
I continued, “We use it when there is a problem that everyone knows about but no one wants to talk about.”
I told her I wanted to buy a giant, inflatable elephant for a prop when I’m speaking to companies about ignoring the cross-cultural problems that they have. She didn’t know the word inflatable so I had to pretend like I was blowing up an elephant but that’s pretty typical (acting out words, not pretending to blow up elephants . . . first time for that).
“Ohhh yeah. They sell those here.” She pointed back at the Supermarket that we had just walked out of.
Totally got me. I said, “Whaaat?”
“Yeah, they sell those here. Upstairs.”
I was so confused and so certain she wasn’t understanding me. “The blow up kind?! (again acting it out)”
“Yes, with the toys. . . only they are dolphins . . . will that work?”
Laughing, “No, you can’t say ‘I want to talk about the dolphin in the room.’ It has to be an elephant.”
sidenote: I flashed back to the last time I had her buy two rubber ducks so I could illustrate “paradox.” Get it? Pair of ducks . . . Pair-a-ducks . . . Par-a-dox . . . it’s better when you have rubber ducks in your hand. She found the ducks but she called me on the phone, extremely excited because she had also found rubber chickens for half the price of the ducks . . . “will that work?”
“Parachickens” . . . not the same.
“Why can’t you say you want to talk about the dolphin in the room?”
“Because, that’s the whole point of the saying. It’s like there is big elephant in the room. Everyone sees it but no one is talking about it. It’s impossible to not know it’s there but still we choose to ignore it.”
“If there’s a dolphin in the room you should talk about it.”
She had a fair point. “That’s true but the saying means there is a BIG problem . . . huge . . . enormous . . . like an elephant.”
Lights coming on. “Ohhh. So it could be a whale?”
“NO! It must be an elephant because that is the saying. Let’s talk about the ELEPHANT in the room. Not the whale. Not the dolphin. Not the chicken. The ELEPHANT!”
She was laughing hard enough for me to realize that not only had she (after two years of working for foreigners) become completely impervious to my attempts to set her up for confusingly hilarious conversations by using ridiculous, culturally unclear statements . . . she had disarmed me . . . and slapped me with my own weapon.
Touche Flight. You make me proud.
And you’re fired.