He Said/She Said: Local Phrases

He Said/She Said: Local Phrases

While English isn’t the native tongue of most countries it is the lingua franca of travel.  Entrepreneurs seeking to sell to tourists learn the words necessary to sell their wares, but sometimes a country adopts a phrase that just isn’t right, creating both funny and annoying situations.  Here are our favorites.


I take my hat off to people that work in the tourist industry in developing countries.  Admittedly I do get annoyed with thieves, touts and over-zealous salespeople, but the reality is that they are working hard to make money, generally in a language they taught themselves.  Most of these people have little formal education, but learned that to make money from tourists they needed to be able to communicate at a base level.  Being self-taught though their language limitations can get annoying.

“Not possible”  This is too often the answer during breakfast, an hour at which I’m no diplomat.  I ask, “can I have my eggs fried?”  They look at the menu and see that the breakfast I’m ordering comes with scrambled eggs and respond, “not possible”.  Or, I see them serving NesCafe by mixing the powder, water, sugar and milk and ask “can I have my coffee with no milk, no sugar?” to which they respond “not possible.” Befuddled I offer them a solution, “how about you mix the NesCafe with the water, then give me that?”  Of course they respond, “not possible” while handing me a sugary, milky thing they call coffee.  The worst part of this phrase is that I am usually asking them to do less work, not more.

“What is your country?” is a typical conversation starter.  This shouldn’t be a problem, but it leads to unexpected twists for me.  Usually they ask both of us and we say “USA”, then they look at me and ask, “what is your country?”  I respond, “USA”.  They proceed to get closer for a better look and say, “no, Japan?”  I say, “USA”.  Next they will offer up the name of every Asian country they have ever heard of and argue with me that I am not an American.  Using their Sherlock Holmes abilities they insist that I cannot be American. The only way out of this is saying that actually I am from Japan, saying “konichiwa” and allowing them to feel vindicated in that they actually figured something out…although completely wrongly.

Overall I am really impressed that people are learning as much English as they do.  I actually believe that a common tongue will benefit future generations and that English is the only language that can work across the world.


When we land in a new place we often try to have a few words in the local language down.  We like to be able to say thank you, please and/or a basic phrase such as where’s the toilet.  However, we found in many touristed areas there are a few key phrases, often in English that it’s just as important to know as they are used frequently.  Most of these phrases make me laugh the first few times I hear them, but as they become the answer for any enquiry, whether it answers my question or not, becomes frustrating.

Throughout South East Asia you’ll undoubtedly hear the phrase “same, same, but different” from anyone.  It’s become so ubiquitous, you can now buy shirts with the phrase emblazoned across the front.  Often times it’s use makes me smile, but sometimes I’m actually trying to get information and the response is same, same, but different.  For example, I ask the guesthouse we’re staying at what is the best way to get to the airport via taxi or public transport and they respond “same, same, but different.” If I felt that they really took the same amount of time, cost the same or that the person had put any thought into the answer it might have been a helpful response, but instead it gave no information at all.

Another favorite is “sometimes, maybe”, which we encountered in Africa.  This was used as a response to any and every inquiry.  Again, it made me laugh when I first heard it and then it became increasingly irritating.  For example when we were hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro we would get into camp and ask “what time is dinner?”  They would respond “sometimes, maybe” leaving me to wonder if we would be eating at all.  Or even more concerning we might ask the guide has anyone ever died attempting the summit to Kili on one of your expeditions? And the response would be “sometimes, maybe.”  Leaving me to wonder at 15,000 feet if my life was in capable hands.


Have you ever been to a place where a particular phrase struck you as funny or annoying, please share in the comments…

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» Dad A :
Oct 19, 2012

I could not help but think of the movie 5 easy pieces with Jack Nicholson ordering toast in a restaurant, which did not serve toast, he finally ordered a BLT, if I remember correctly and had them hold the lettuce, tomatoe, bacon and got his plain toast….seems to relate to Matt’s frustrations…..fun stories…bka

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, we continue to find interesting “work-arounds” in order to get what we want as we travel. Too many stories like the one you mention to even recall.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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