Late last night, I was yanked away from the season finale of "The Desperate Lives of Atlanta Housewives" by an urgent knock on the door.
It was Ping. Ping recently emigrated from Thailand and is boning up for his citizenship examination by taking English lessons. Taking pity on anyone having to learn English as an adult, I graciously volunteered to help tutor him with the nuances they never teach you in language school.
"If you really want to fit into the fabric of American society," I told Ping, "you'll have to learn American slang and the thousands of grunts, hand signs, gestures and sounds we Americans use to take the place of the 500,000 proper English terms we've dropped since learning to speak our first words. Like the 'Check Please' gesture."
The "Check Please" gesture originated in the U.S. but has rapidly spread to every corner of the globe. Effective in the smallest bodega to the ritziest eatery, the gesture is used when you're ready to leave and want the waiter to bring you your check, now.
Start by thrusting your arm into the air and snapping your fingers repeatedly until you get their attention. Follow this by pretending to hold a writing implement and make a squiggly motion with your hand.
Simple, but useful, the "Check Please" gesture has managed to erode centuries of respect and decorum when people used to have enough class to wait patiently for their waiter to come by and inquire about the service, and ask if they would care for anything else?
Ping mentioned that a cute girl in his class had caught his attention, but he was too shy to speak to her. No problem.
I told him that American men never speak to women when flirting anyway. Instead, it's customary to communicate your feelings by throwing her an "Air Kiss."
Since its origination, the "Air Kiss" has acquired several alternative interpretations. If Higginbottom from the marketing department throws you one during the sales presentation you just bungled, it's called the "Kiss of Death" and probably means you'll be looking for a new job before the day is out. On the other hand, if a 300-pound guy in prison sends you an "Air Kiss" from the other side of the mess hall, it means that he (not you) is going to get lucky tonight, especially if he adds the "Beckoning Sign" - the palm held upward while repeatedly curling his index finger at you.
Hand gestures also come in handy when you'd like to publicly humiliate someone behind their back. To convey to your boss that your office mate is a raging alcoholic and hits the sauce during work hours, simply make a fist with your little finger sticking out straight and pretend to drink from your thumb. It's a great way to generate baseless rumors and get someone fired.
Related to the "Alcoholic" gesture is the "Stoner" gesture. Put your index finger together with the tip of your thumb, press them against your lips while you pucker up, sucking in air. Then point at the poor sap's back.
He'll be gone by lunch.
A number of gestures are so complicated that they require using two hands, such as the "Bras d'honneur" gesture. Originated in France (where else?), the "Bras d'honneur" gesture (also known as the "Up Yours") is used to communicate extreme displeasure. Flex your arm while grabbing the inside of your elbow with the other hand in one smooth action.
It's easy and works as effectively on police officers as it does on your in-laws, landlord or judges handing down your fifth DUI sentence.
"Air Quotes" come in handy when the message absolutely, positively has to get there on time. You can use them in school, at the office and at home.
Simply raise two fingers from each hand and hold them even with your eyes. While emphasizing specific words or phrases, crook your fingers twice. You might use it when you say to your girlfriend, "I thought we both agreed that we were going to have a 'flexible relationship.'"
If one or even two hands aren't enough to get the message across, it's comforting to know that you still have other options, such as creating gestures with other parts of your body.
One of the most popular is the "Bronx Cheer" (also called "blowing a raspberry"). Meant to express derision, you can send someone a "Bronx Cheer" by sticking your tongue out of your mouth and blowing until you produce a loud "Plttttttttt." It's simple, effective and easy to hide in large groups.
When you want your roommate to be the first one to ski off of a 200-foot cliff in unchartered mountainous terrain, goad him into action with the "Chicken" gesture by placing your hands under your armpits and flapping your elbows up and down, while uttering "bwuck-bwuck-bwuck."
The "Chicken" gesture is surprisingly effective at getting people to do things that they normally wouldn't do in a million years, especially if their girlfriend is watching.
Other important gestures to learn are the "Choking Sign," "Rolling your Eyeballs," "Blah-blah-blah," "Pulling the Trigger," "Shrugging," "Making the Sign of the Cross," "Slashing Your Throat" and "Mooning."
All are easy to learn and surprisingly effective when words just won't do.
After two hours of practice, I could see that Ping was beginning to fade, so we wrapped up our session for the evening. But even the late hour couldn't extinguish Ping's enthusiasm for his newly acquired language skills.
"I can't wait until the swearing-in ceremony next month," Ping said. "I'm going to "Moon" the Magistrate, send her a "Bronx Cheer" and walk around the room like a chicken!"
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of "Watching Grandma Circle the Drain" and "Ski Instructors Confidential." You can reach him at www.snowwriter.com.