The Price of Semen
“Do you think foreigners would be interested in the price of semen?”
Young floppy-haired Mr D is standing before me with a serious look on his face, far too serious for me to giggle.
“It’s gone up 30% in the last few months,” he continues, still very serious.
We are all new to this professional environment, unsure of each others’ roles and responsibilities. And then there’s the cultural and language issues. I freeze my mouth muscles, which are trying to smirk.
“Err, what is the price at the moment,” I ask, trying to buy some time.
He definitely said semen, I think to myself. Mr D, with his deep booming voice, is one of the best English-speakers on staff. There is no related word I can think of that he could have mispronounced.
“If you don’t think foreigners are interested, just tell me,” he says.
He has a folded copy of the Vietnamese-language newspaper under his arm, from which he’s been trying to select articles to translate for our new English-language newspaper.
Beside me, the other foreign editor on duty has eyes like saucers and a mouth that can’t decide what to do. It’s opening and closing like it belongs to a lip-synching goldfish. I ignore him. It takes a lot of effort, because I am so close to laughing hysterically as I try to work out how best to deal with this short and curly question.
It’s possible there’s a roaring trade in semen in Vietnam. It’s a strange place, with many backward-to-me practices, like eating dog and drinking ground-up tiger bone.
I know IVF exists in Vietnam because we’d published a story on one successful program. I know that single mothers are still shunned in Vietnam, that the abortion rate is high and that young people live with their parents, even after they’re married.
But who would buy semen? I just can’t get things to add up.
“What is the price?” I ask. Mr D consults his newspaper and quotes a figure that doesn’t prove enlightening at all. As if I know the going rate for semen.
“It seems like an interesting story,” I begin, and suddenly my shocked brain restarts.
“What is semen used for in Vietnam anyway?” I try to keep my voice light and innocent. I try not to think about what the production facilities would look like.
“The usual things,” Mr D said. “You know, like building roads and bridges.”
A pause as gears shift and the picture changes dramatically.
“You mean CEMENT?” I say loudly. Mr D’s expression doesn’t change. “Yes, semen. That’s what I said.”
In Vietnamese, the end of the words are not important and when Vietnamese people begin learning English they simply cannot hear the last part of individual words. They cannot differentiate between wine and wife. Both words sound like “why” to them, so that’s what they say for wine, wife and why.
I rip Mr D’s newspaper out of his hands and start beating him around the head with it.
“Mr D, you have to pronounce the ends of your words,” I tell him. He looks a bit frightened as he tries to protect his head from the papery blows. He knows I was an English teacher for a while. And teachers are respected in Vietnam.
The editor beside me has collapsed into a fit of giggles. He can’t speak.
I grab a pen and write CEMENT on the margin of Mr D’s newspaper. “Mr D, this is CEMENT,” I say. “You have been saying…” and I write SEMEN in the margin.
Mr D is still for half a second as he runs through his huge stock of English words. I wonder if we need to consult the English-Vietnamese dictionary. I hope not. Then a high-pitched giggly shriek escapes him. He grabs his newspaper and flees, back to the safe side of the office, away from the foreigners.
In rapid Vietnamese he explains his faux pas to his colleagues, who laugh long and loud. The newsroom is in chaos. The story is repeated, spreading out in raucous ripples from Mr D’s desk in the centre of the room. Even the older, sterner Communist Party types are laughing.
The other foreign editor and I wipe tears from our eyes. “Ah, what a good story that would have been,” the other editor says, setting us both off again.
I gather my professional wits. I walk to the other side of the office, where the red-faced Mr D is retelling the story one more time.
“Hey, Mr D,” I say. “I think it’s still an interesting story. Perhaps for the business pages. High cement-with-a-t prices could be inflationary. Just make sure you spell the word properly, ok?”
It only occurs to me now that it could have been an agricultural story.
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8 years ago