We moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan in October, 1996, and at a friend’s suggestion, we hired a driver for two days a week for a few months. While the most of the week, we walked and used public means of transportation, two days, weekly, we rode in style in a red Russian Lada.
Our driver was very quiet and spoke no English, though I was trying to learn Russian. Soon, I learned to speak words like “home,” “school,” and “store,” with great proficiency. Our driver’s name was Yevgeny, and he was called by the shortened version of Zhenya (the Russian equivalent of “Eugene” and “Gene”). I had trouble with the “zh” and the “ya” sounds which are one letter, each, in Russian, but I had no idea how badly I was mispronouncing his name.
Many times while we were out, we would meet someone I knew, and I would try to introduce my driver. Without fail, he would pick up on my actions, and before I could state his name, he would stick out his hand and say, “Zhenya, Zhenya!”
One day, the friend who had arranged for our driver asked how we were getting along together. I told her that all was well and that I was learning the city through him. Then I tried to tell her a story about my driver, when she suddenly stopped me and asked,
“Peyton, what is your driver’s name?”
I answered “Jina.”
My friend burst with laughter, and then explained that I was mispronouncing his name and calling him “wife.”
Zhenya, though very quiet, never seemed to want me to introduce him to anyone. 🙂