Dong Ma?

I think most people are familiar with the ancient Latin aphorism in vino veritas, literally in wine there is truth, usually interpreted to mean that a person drinking (wine) is often prompted to speak a truth.

But for me, what happened not too many days ago at a bar at 2:00 in the morning was less about wine prompting the truth to come out of me as it was about the truth coming to me.

It was a beautiful balmy night here in Chisinau, one of those special evenings that make summer in this part of the world so magical. I was sitting next to a 70-year old Filipina woman, sharing jokes and stories about our lives, when the truth came to pay me a visit.

The waitress had come to take our orders. My Filipina companion spoke excellent Spanish and English, but not Romanian, so I ascertained what she wanted, a bowl of soup, and then relayed it to the waitress in Romanian. Another woman at our table was a friend from Moscow, and she expressed her order in Russian. The waitress then turned to me and asked me, “Хлеб?” and I turned to my companion and asked, “¿Con pan?” and that’s when the truth delivered a sharp kick to the back of my head.

All Hail the Great Alliance

More than 10 years ago, the American television network FOX aired a handful of episodes of a zany science-fiction show. The episodes were broadcast out of order, interrupted multiple times by baseball games, and were advertised with misleading trailers. As a result, the show got very low ratings and was canceled before it even finished being broadcast.

Nonetheless, more than a decade later, there remains a loyal and devoted following to what many people, including the actors who starred in the show, still consider to be the greatest sci-fi TV serial ever made. The name of that show was Firefly, and while it may be long gone, it certainly hasn’t been forgotten.

I’ve been living here in the Republic of Moldova for nigh on two years, and one thing I’ve always struggled to understand was the bilingualism here. I’m more familiar with countries like Canada and Belgium where the bilingualism is quite official, used in all official communications and printed on the money, but most people living in those countries are living in a monolingual island. Sure, they might speak a little of the other language, but in their daily lives, they’re rarely ever called upon to deal with the other language.

And, of course, I live in Unicorn City for many long years, a city in Transylvania with a big Hungarian-speaking population. But in almost all cases, it’s the Hungarians who learn Romanian and are the truly bilingual ones; the Romanians mostly stay monolingual. There is some state support for bilingualism but Hungarian is not an official language, and it definitely doesn’t appear on the money. This is approximately the same situation that you can find in other countries, like bilingual Finns in Sweden, and Russian speakers in Ukraine.

But neither of these models ever seemed to “fit” in Moldova. For one thing, the only official language here is Romanian, but Russian seems to be everywhere in an “unofficially official” capacity. Sometimes you’ll see government signs and documents in Russian, and sometimes not. Sometimes you have to do government/legal things in Romanian and sometimes in a “state language”, the secret code for Russian. During my own court trial here in Moldova, one witness spoke Russian even though the proceedings were entirely in Romanian, and it took a hell of a lot of protesting by me (in my capacity as my own lawyer) to get it translated to what is not even my first language.

So what, exactly, is the situation here? Do the majority of people here speak Romanian, assuming we don’t count Transnistria? Or is what the British ambassador said right, that most people speak Russian? Or perhaps, as a Swiss man I met recently said, are there overlapping pockets of “micro isolation” in this country, a honeycomb of cells where people in those tiny “pockets” are isolated yet in close proximity to speakers of the other language?

I didn’t know, not until 2:00 in the morning the other night when sweet Moldovan wine was flowing in full force. I haven’t traveled enough to know whether it is truly unique, but in my experience, Moldova is the only country that I’m aware of where Firefly has come to life.

In the show, most of the characters that we see are clearly American, or speaking American English, with a handful of British and Irish characters thrown in the mix. There’s a Czech man who speaks English, but there isn’t a single Asian character. And yet, every single person on the show speaks Chinese.

The creator of the show (Joss Whedon) has a whole back story to explain it, a political union between America/Britain and China before humanity started building spaceships and exploring the galaxy. As such, everyone speaks both languages equally fluently. It’s not just something that people learn in school, or the domain of the highly intelligent, but something so ubiquitous that even a ruffian in a bar can do.

One of the reasons why Firefly was such a brilliant show was how they interspersed Chinese in the show without batting an eye, never using subtitles to explain what 99.99% of their English-speaking audience clearly did not understand. But after a while, you did understand what was meant, without ever really knowing how or why. And after watching each episode 10 times, suddenly you find yourself quoting it phonetically.

Indeed, sometimes when I get drunk, I like to shout “The hero of Canton won’t be drinking that shiong mao niao!” despite all the weird looks I get.


In the Firefly universe, people who speak English as their first language prefer to speak English, but they throw in Chinese phrases whenever it feels right, and can converse equally well in either language, and it’s no big deal. It’s just whatever you prefer, and you can mix and match it however you want.

Here on Earth in Chisinau, my favorite radio station does this, beginning every weather broadcast by saying Погода на Ретро ФМ: Vremea pentru azi in capitala va fi… starting in Russian and continuing straight to Romanian without blinking. Why? Why mix the two every time? It makes no sense.

Until it does, Firefly style. Somehow, some way, Russian and Romanian culture bumped into one another here and were squeezed tightly enough that they became interlocked. They both exist separately and yet they’re also joined, not due to some political pressure (after all, the Soviet Union is long gone) or huge numbers of intermarriages, but simply because these two cultures and languages found a way to live together.

It isn’t always peaceful, of course, as nothing else. There’s the occasional closing of Romanian schools in Transnistria or crazed super patriots in Chisinau causing trouble, but for the most part they’re outliers.

Real people, on a real evening here in the real Republic of Moldova are just like our waitress: effortlessly switching and mixing the two languages without anyone even realizing just how strange and unique and beautiful it truly is.

One thought on “Dong Ma?

  1. You’ll probably be more amazed if you visit Lebanon where the expression “Hi Kifak Ca va” is a staple highlighting how people here mix three languages (and more ) in a single sentence


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