Living in another culture brings different kinds of challenges.  In the moment, they can be embarrassing or even horrifying, but later they can actually bring a smile.  When learning a new language in a new culture, you have to give yourself a little grace, and even learn to laugh at yourself.  Sometimes you just have to laugh along with the people around you.

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Being able to roll with day to day happenings is a great characteristic to have when living in a foreign country.   A friend of mine, Debbie, says it beautifully in a blog post here about The Sweet Stuff”.

some of those funny foreigner faux pas
  • One new language learner in Indonesia asked her gardener if he could please cut her rambut (hair) instead of her rumput (grass). 

  • On her first visit to the local market one woman proudly asked the seller if he could grate her kapala (head).  After getting a very strange look, she realized the word she was looking for was kelapa (coconut)! 


  • In Korean language school one day, my dad was trying to say he met the man (ke bun-ul manasseyo). Instead he said “Ke bun-ul Mogussoyo  (I ate the man).” The teacher sat looking at him for a moment with a deadpan expression, and then in Korean asked matter-of-factly, “Was he delicious?”

  • My husband was having a great conversation with a language group about hunting.  When one of the men were talking about hunting pigs, Luke was excited to be able to join the conversation.  He excitedly exclaimed, “At Thanksgiving where I am from we always go hunt bayi (babies)!”  The men around him went silent with shocked looks on their faces.  With a red face, he changed the word to babi (pigs). 


  • The tribal men in our area don’t wear clothes.  They wear long gourds just to cover the most important spot with a string around their waist to hold it in place.  I was a little nervous about the first time our daughter would see one, because often times they would be walking around town.  The day came when we were walking down the street.  Up ahead was a “gourd man” squatting beside the road.  I decided to not say anything and just see how it went.  My daughter didn’t say anything until we were well past the man, then she spoke up, “Why was that man naked?”  I quickly responded, “He wasn’t naked.  He was wearing a gourd.”  She replied, “oh, ok,” and that was the end of it!
  • Taking a taxi is a very common form of transportation in many places around the world.  One morning a family took a taxi and the husband handed the driver a bill and they all got out.  Later a friend told them how taxi drivers will usually quit working once they reach their quota for the day.  They realized that the bill they had given the driver had more than covered the days quota.  They had unknowingly paid for the driver to take a day off!

  • Being able to order french fries is a great treat where we were living.  The first time we ordered in a restaurant we were so excited and all dug in.  Within seconds we were all reaching for our water glasses.  The red paste that came with the french fries was NOT ketchup!  It was a spicy red pepper sauce!  We learned from then on to ask for tomato sauce only.  Several years later my daughter still makes a point to ask if it is real ketchup!
  • Another friend of mine asked for a hose for a mesin cucu (grandchild machine) instead of a mesin cuci (washing machine).
  • The last time a friend of mine was in Germany for her husband’s Opa’s funeral they were having a big family dinner at his grandparents’ home afterwards.  She noticed everyone staring.  She was mashing up her boiled potatoes and butter with her fork and an English speaking cousin leaned over and told her that was something they do for small children…adults aren’t supposed to eat them like that. In her late 20’s, she apparently looked pretty dumb. She tried to explain mashed potatoes, but it didn’t really go over. Oops.
Do you have your own funny foreigner faux pas to share?
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