Cultural Differences: It's an Emergency

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down and opened my e-mail to find the following in my inbox:  "Bus Emergency for Asia Vu, Son #2" sent by the transportation department at his school.

Now, I don't know about other parents, but when I get an email from my son's school with the word ' Emergency' in the title, I instantly become ready to spring into action.  Even as I opened it, I could feel the adrenaline surging through my body as the primal 'Mama Bear' instinct kicked in and provided me with the rush of power I would need to dismember any number of hikers who might be threatening my cubs or their school buses.   Wild thoughts tumbled through my head:  "Was the emergency ON the bus, or just WITH the bus?" and "Was my phone turned off?" and  "Did the emergency happen on the way to school, and, if so, why didn't they call me right away instead of casually sending me an e-mail at 1 in the afternoon?"  Then I calmed down and thought that maybe there had been an emergency that had already been taken care of, but they were taking the precaution of letting us know after the fact .  You know, so we wouldn't all inundate the school with frantic calls when our children arrived home that afternoon and casually mentioned the conflagration and subsequent evacuation on the way to school.  Keep in mind all of this took place in the millisecond it took me to read the title of the email and then open it.

Of course, logic would dictate that, even if something dire had happened to Son #2, he would have been given medical care and someone would have called me or Mr. Logical before settling down to type out a newsy summary of the event, so it was unlikely that anything too dreadful had happened.  However, there is an excellent reason that I call myself 'MsCaroline' instead of "Mrs. Logical."  That is because I felt it would be disingenuous to call myself  'Mrs. Logical' when the truth is, I am more along the lines of "Mrs. Worst-Case-Scenario" or "Mrs. Knee-jerk Reaction."  What this means is that, when I get an email with 'emergency' and my child's name in the title, my first response is to behave like any right-thinking mother and instantly panic.  Nonetheless, I was able to pull myself together enough to open and read the email, which went a long way towards calming me down.  After the usual greetings, it read in part:

 Whenever we have  Field trips, all students on F and S-bus have to take another busses. we informed each division schools. Teachers let Son #2 takes J-bus on this Thursday and Friday afternoon to go (Name of Asia Vu Family Apartment Complex).  It is our first bus emergency, and I am writing to you to reduce you feel confused. We have many bus emergencies, because each schools have to go to Field trips.

I feel so sorry but, we can’t contact with you whenever we have bus emergency. 

After several readings, I finally absorbed the gist of the email, which was:

1.  Son #2 is alive and well
2.  He has to ride a different bus home on Thursday and Friday
3.  This will happen occasionally when the buses are in use for field trips
4.  They will not be able to tell me every time this happens, but don't be surprised if Son #2 comes home on the J bus sometimes.
5.  This is probably the most polite and sincere correspondence I will ever get from a school's transportation department as long as I live.

And, once I'd started regular respiration again, I was very impressed that they'd even told me this was happening.   Both boys' bus numbers changed fairly often in the US due to a variety of unexplained reasons and no one ever bothered to even mention it to me.  A bus arrived, took them to school, and brought them home, and if the number changed, mine was not to question, but instead, remain humbly thankful that my children were being transported to school.  So it was rather refreshing - if a tiny bit alarming - to be notified - in advance, even! - of a change.   However, what really interested me was the use of the word, 'emergency' to describe what I would think of as an 'unusual event' or 'exception' or even just 'change.'   If you were trying to write this in another language, you could see how 'emergency' could  sort of fit in there, especially if you were using one of these definitions:

  • an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action. 
  • A serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.
  • a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence requiring immediate action.

Now, while I grant you that a change in bus numbers (or letters) is unusual or unexpected, it is not exactly 'unforseen' or 'dangerous' or even 'urgent' (although, as a parent, you can only be appreciative when other people take your child and his transportation so seriously), which led me to think about what this email would have been titled back home.  Granted - as I already mentioned - this situation would probably not have been considered worthy of a parent contact back home, but if it were, I imagine it would be something like, "bus change" or 'bus change alert'. I'm pretty sure the word 'emergency' would not have been used.  Which leads me to the next question:  is this event really viewed as an emergency by the transportation people, or is it just a question of translation? I'm leaning towards translation, only because I have noticed this type of subtle-difference thing before.  For example, I noticed that more than one Korean person I spoke with had referred to our apartment complex as being 'famous' when I think they meant 'popular.'  Which (as a language-y person) made me think about the subtle differences between the two things and how difficult it would be to convey that subtle difference in another language.   Essentially, 'famous' and 'popular' mean roughly the same thing, with a slight difference:

famous:  a lot of people know about (the thing)
popular:  a lot of people know about (the thing) and like it.

A perfect example would be Justin Bieber, who is very famous but (according to what I heard from my students last year) not in the least bit popular.   Well, except with tween girls.  And someone must be buying his concert tickets and albums, right? But the important thing is that you now understand the difficulty in distinguishing between 'famous' and 'popular' which have nothing whatsoever to do with Son #2's Bus Emergency.

I, for one, am deeply relieved that there was no actual emergency, and will be looking for the 'J' bus this afternoon at 4.


Hails said…
Ahhh! Famous means popular! Sorry, just another little piece of the puzzle clicking into its slot. My Korean friends use it a lot in contexts where it *almost* makes sense, but where something I can never quite put my finger on just doesn't sit right. That's it! I had a similar experience with "so-so", where I kept trying to tell people that they couldn't say "very so-so" or "extremely so-so" until I realised that they meant something closer to "boring"!

I'm glad your emergency was just a linguistic one!
MsCaroline said…
So glad I could help! I kept hearing that our apartment complex was 'famous' from people and finally deduced that they meant it was 'popular' when Mr Logical came home and told me that he'd had some of the Red Bean ice (cream? flakes?) and was told it was very 'famous.' I will have to listen for 'so-so' - I haven't heard it used yet, but now that you mentioned it I'm sure I will.
Of course, I am going to have to find a Korean friend to explain to me what word would have been used to describe the bus situation so I can figure it out, because it's going to drive me crazy until I know...
broken biro said…
Are you sure any of this has reduced your feel confused?

Which reminds me: my Israeli friend used to describe scrambled eggs as 'confused eggs' ... and who could argue with that?
MsCaroline said…
@Broken: Indeed, my confuse is feel significantly reduced. The egg thing reminds me of one of my students who was trying to translate the word 'Ladybug' into German and (using literal translations for 'lady' and 'bug') came up with the German equivalent of "Womaninsect", which, of course, wasn't anywhere near what she wanted. Ah, lanugage.
broken biro said…
Maybe that's where those strange foreign horror movies come from - there has to be one called: 'Attack of the Giant Woman-Insect'!
Karen said…
Thanks, Carolyne...I could use a good laugh as I watch the "popular" (oh, I mean "famous") Irene work her way up the East Coast. Here's hoping that we don't have a real "emergency" here and my kiddos can get on their buses Monday morning and go to school.
Actually, Irene would go more under the heading of "infamous"...that would be fun to try and explain.
MsCaroline said…
Karen - 'infamous' just boggles the mind - impossible to even think about explaining that one! Have been hearing so much about Irene on FB from my family and friends on the E. Coast - checking obsessively to see what's developing. Hope you stay safe and dry and that the whole mess just blows out to sea, although that seems to be increasingly unlikely.. : (
Karen said…
Yeah, not looking too likely. Looks like we will spend Saturday battening down the hatches and Sunday hunkered down. Used the expression "battening down the hatches" with the kids (part of the "Saturday is a big work day" speech at dinner tonight) and the kids decided a pirate theme for the hurricane would be a good idea. Am bringing a bottle of rum!
MsCaroline said…
Karen, I think a pirate theme sounds excellent, especially the rum part. Will Neil be sporting a puffy shirt a gold tooth a la Johnny Depp? I'm not sure what this says about me, but you are the third of my friends in the last half hour who specifically referred to 'rum' as a necessary component of their hurricane preparations. I guess what that means is that I am consistent in picking my friends; )
seriously, though, good luck with Saturday's battening of the hatches and keep us posted!
Karen said…
ROFLMAO...sorry no puffy shirt or gold tooth, but yes, rum is essential to the experience of being locked in a hot basement with no electricity, 3 teenagers, a dog, 2 rabbits and a hamster for many hours while a monster storm rages overhead. Will keep you posted!
Wilma said…
Glad to hear that there was no emergency, Carolyne.

Karen, I hope all goes well with Irene and that there is no need to hunker down over the weekend.

Carolyne, you are consistent. I don't live in Hurricane-Ville and I no longer drink but back in my drinking days I could empty out a bottle of rum without thinking twice about it. I've spent a good deal of time over the years walking like Captain Jack Sparrow. LOL :(
MsCaroline said…
Karen: I forgot about the teenagers: no point in bothering with the Johnny Depp scenario if they're around

Wilma: I don't suppose you have any video of you in your rum-drinking, pirate-walking days? ; )
Wilma said…
Nope, sure don't. I can tell you that we were in El Parador for one of our early anniversaries though and I was so drunk (on margaritas though, not rum) that I bumped into a giant potted plant on the way to the bathroom. Knocked it over, said "Excuse me, ma'am" and tried to help it up. Not one of my finer moments.
Circles in the Sand said…
I do some work on translations and it was interesting to discover that when words are translated, they then need to be rewritten again so they sound right - your post highlights some great examples of this! Tho I can imagine the adrenaline-surge when you saw the word emergency! A couple of other examples: my friend in Azerbaijan had 'home person' written on her visa, and someone here in Dubai, had a misspelling on her visa - it said she was a house waif!
MsCaroline said…
@Wilma: well, at least you retain your manners when drinking, which is not always the case for many people!

@ Circles: 'house waif' Love it! We run into signs in 'Engrish' all the time here in Korea - there are actually numerous blogs dedicated to the strange stuff you see everywhere on signs, t-shirts, and badly translated pamphlets. Most recently, our building posted notices in the elevator alerting us to a change in management. They wished us a pleasant remainder of the summer, noting that they knew it had been a very 'grizzly' one...I would have loved to have figured out what they really meant!

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