This anecdote comes from Matthew's experience last week:
Our training group is divided into four 12-member groups. Each group meets in small school/church/community center (centro) for classes, guest speakers, et al. This last week was the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps' inception. To celebrate, each group had a small fiesta at their centro for the host families of trainees. Each party consisted of a short summary of the Peace Corps' efforts worldwide, some activities for children, and lots of food. In my group I was voted (some would say thrown under the bus) to be the Master of Ceremonies for our party. I worked with our language professors to prepare a bit of a program, but I got to ad lib most of it (all in Spanish). Approximately 30 people were in attendance (a sizable portion of the community). I introduced a couple of guest speakers, described the activities available for kids and then went about describing where they could find food. This is where things went awry.
The mother tongue of 90% of Paraguayans is Guarani. The trainees that have intermediate or advanced Spanish ability begin learning Guarani right away. Our trainers emphasize that speaking just a few words in Guarani can endure you to the people even more than your actions can. It is in this spirit of cultural integration that I chose to attempt to say “outside, there is food” in Guarani. Afuera, oĩ tembi'u. Easy enough. Except that my stage fright decided to kick in at this moment and I kind of stumbled through the phrase. The room erupted in laughter.
At this moment, I turned to another trainee and said (in English) “I don't know what I just said, but it must have been dirty.” You could just tell from people's reaction.
People filed outside and began eating and it is at this point that one of my language professors decided to clue me in. She said that when I tried to say tembi'u the people heard tembo'i. My blank expression must have told her that I did not know the meaning of that word. She translated my whole sentence for me: Afuera, oĩ tembo'i.
“Outside, there is a small penis.”
I spent the remainder of the party trying to find a corner to hide in. My fellow trainees have told me that their families still discuss this hilarious slip of the tongue around the dinner table. I have five more weeks of work left in this small community and shall forever be known as the-guy-who-offered-us-a-small-penis. This is the first time I have publically humiliated myself in Paraguay, but I have a feeling it will not be the last.