Sometime in 1982, shortly after I arrived to America and found my first job (a nice office job that didn’t pay much money but didn’t require that much from me either), I decided to take a stroll on my lunch break on Fifth Street in downtown San Francisco, south of Market Street. It wasn’t very far from where I worked and I had another 15 minutes to kill and wanted to see what treasures might be hidden in that direction.
It dawned on me within a few minutes that it wasn’t a very good idea to take a stroll down Fifth Street in that direction, especially dressed as I was in tie and jacket office uniform.
I don’t know what Fifth Street south of Market Street looks like now. Based on what I read about the housing situation in San Francisco, it may very well be a favorite location for high-tech Internet company headquarters, but back in 1982 it was a dirty street giving off bad vibes, full of liquor shops and small convenience stores selling beer, liquor and sandwiches with big bars on their windows, where sidewalks were stinking of urine among other pungent smells.
Suddenly, a big black man who was walking down the street accosting people and asking them questions noticed me and started walking towards the strange white dude, (me) who must have wandered into this neighborhood by mistake. I didn’t like it one bit. Is he going to mug me? I was thinking to myself, but there was nothing I could do. But instead of asking for money, the man asked me something that I couldn’t figure out, although I understood perfectly well every word he was saying.
He said to me: “Look, man, I’ve got 10 pounds of cheese here. Can you use that?” Given how scared I was, he had to repeat it three times before I finally shook my head and told him that, no, I didn’t want 10 pounds of cheese. “Why didn’t you say so right away, man?” said the angry cheese seller and walked off to look for another potential buyer.
At that time I thought the man was for some reason offering me some kind of a historic drug deal and that cheese must have been a code word for some kind of drug. It was only later that I realized that man really did want to sell me 10 pounds of cheese when I read in the newspaper that Ronald Reagan decided to end the poverty problem in America by distributing 560 millions of pounds of surplus cheese to poor people. It didn’t do much to alleviate poverty, but it certainly went down well with the Farm Lobby, and it is certainly also true that cheese is healthier and much more nutritious than cake.
A reader of my blog, originally from United States who has been living in Prague for 12 years now (thanks for the term, Melissa), calls what happens to foreigners who think they’re perfectly fluent in the language of their adopted country and then run into a problem that no local would encounter “the finky hoofa problem”. No matter how long you’ve lived in another country, how fluent you are (or think you are) in the language of that country, and how well you understand local culture and local habits, or think you understand it all, you are bound to keep having problems with words and concepts that locals absolutely believe that everybody should naturally understand unless they are terminally stupid.
She was explaining how there was this one Czech word that she couldn’t understand in Czech conversation, she called the word “finky hoofa” (you can insert any unintelligible word for finky hoofa here). “So, excuse me, but where is this finky hoofa?” she asked some locals, not wanting to admit that she had no idea what it meant. “What do you mean, where are the finky hoofas?” came the incredulous and scornful answer. “Finky hoofas are where they’ve always been, right over there!” But the problem is, even when they point to you where finky hoofas supposedly are and finky hoofas are indeed staring you in the face, you will not be able to see them unless you know what they are.
It’s not only words, but cultural and historical concepts and well known traditions of local lore that are extremely self-evident to locals who just can’t believe that anybody could be so clueless as to not even know what these things mean.
When I lived in Petaluma, 40 minutes north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge in light traffic, I used to stop in the morning for a bear claw at a local coffee house supplied by a local bakery, to go with my coffee and New York Times before I started working in my cozy office two blocks down in the McNear Building in downtown Petaluma. If you saw the film “American Graffiti”, although the story supposedly takes place in Modesto, it was filmed in Petaluma and the north entrance of McNear Building is at the foot of the main downtown drag where majorly bored teenagers drive up and down each and every Saturday night in that movie. I used to enter the building from the southern entrance, close to the coffee shop.
There would usually be at least half a dozen older men sitting there discussing sports, and they would suddenly become very quiet, watching me suspiciously as I placed my bear claw order. I felt the heavy weight of foreignness upon my shoulders every time in that finky hoofa moment as I had no idea whether they were talking about baseball or football, or whatever other game they were discussing that everybody else except me watched the day before. I don’t care about sports, so I never dared to say anything except to announce my order. Although I became a US citizen a long time ago in January 1989, nine months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I will always be a foreigner here since I don’t even know whether the guys are discussing baseball or football, not to be mistaken for “soccer”, the only sport that I used to enjoy playing as a kid and watching on TV, which nobody gives a damn about in this country.
British-born actress Emily Blunt had her own finky hoofa moment after she became a US citizen. “I became an American citizen recently, and that night, we watched the Republican debate, and I thought, ‘This was a terrible mistake. What have I done?'” she said, tongue in cheek, to a reporter. As many Americans failed to understand that she was joking, in what could perhaps be called a reverse finky hoofa moment on their part, seen from the viewpoint of Americans who didn’t see the comment for what it was – namely a joke, and a pretty good one in my book.
The reaction on Twitter and other social media to her comment was swift and overwhelmingly negative. So much so that she later had to apologize for her joke about her US citizenship. “It was so not the intention to hurt anybody or cause any offense, so I really apologize to those that I caused offense,” said Blunt on NBC’s Today. “It was just an offhand joke. I think I’ll probably leave the political jokes to late-night or something.”