Wednesday, March 4, 2009

SF: American Spoken Here

It's like shopping in an elevator. The Richmond Market is so tight, so crowded, there's no option but to squeeze through single file. Yellow and red peppers are heaped in crates on the sidewalk. Edge inside the garage-like door for apples and oranges, mangoes and grapes. You’ll be swept with the tide past pita bread and couscous. Make a u-turn at the back of the store to reach for sweet onions, potatoes, and broccoli. Once on your way, there's no turning back.

This is our neighborhood shopping hub. Walking distance from home and cheaper than the chain stores, the Richmond Market on Geary offers fresh but second-class vegetables: deformed bell peppers; apples that have a scuff or two. It's a happy market, full of B-Team produce and no marketing gimmicks whatsoever. Need a Japanese eggplant? Over there.

Shoppers reflect the diversity of our neighborhood. The swish-swish sound of Mandarin is muted by the more tonal Cantonese. A crying Chinese toddler may be comforted by a stranger who is speaking a Hindi dialect. The stock boys are all Hispanic and not available for any questions. Yet they are unflappable, going on with their squash arranging while being jostled by basket-carrying shoppers.

Russian is the language of choice at the check-out counter. As shoppers place turnips on the scale, the checkers chat with each other in the language of their childhood, same as in every store in America. Sometimes terms don't translate well, such as "traffic school" and this interjection gives the non-Russian shopper a window into just what was so interesting.

Most everybody speaks a second language, enthusiastically and badly, and understanding your own language spoken with a heavy accent is an art form all its own. I’ve had some rewarding “A-ha!” moments along the line, like when I heard a woman saying she was making sense of something by putting together the “poozle-pisses.” That one took me a minute.

I am learning to make my Southern-accented English intelligible, although it must be humorous to hear me speak even more slowly and (perhaps with more twang) than usual. I like it—the multilingual banana banter and cilantro chatter of the Richmond Market. American is spoken here.

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