I am sure all of you have played the game “telephone” at some point in your life. Do you remember what happened to the message by the time it went around the room and returned to you? Living in a different culture with a different language can be like that sometimes.
Of course I am still learning the language and many times I will ask for something and someone will reply, “como?”, which is like saying, “what?”. Then I will repeat my question and the will ask me again, “como?”. Then I will rephrase it in a way that I can say it, but it is not exactly what I want to say, and they will get it; but sometimes I end up eating something different than what I really wanted. Or they will get it and say the word I wanted to say, which sounded exactly like what I thought I was saying.
With Meri it is different because Spanish is her first language, but she has a Colombian accent. So she can go through a whole explanation of something, assuming everyone in the room is following, and afterward she gets a bunch of blank looks…or a bunch of people saying or thinking, “como?”. Or someone will something like, “that guy has a bunch of dough” (for English speakers from the US that means a guy with a lot of money) but of course they use some obscure Peruvian slang. Meri will then ask, “what is dough?” And they look at her and see she is a latina and say, “it is dough”, and at that point she is in the same boat as me.
My last example is Placido, the priest we were living with until our apartment was ready. He is from Korea, he doesn’t speak English, and admittedly struggles with Spanish. So as you can imagine coordinating a meeting with him can be a bit tricky and more often than not something gets lost/crossed in translation between us and/or the people in the community. The other night we were in a meeting and I could see the people getting frustrated with him because of the lack of Spanish but he has such a nice presence that it turned out OK in the end. The meeting was not as “productive” as it could have been had he spoken Spanish but people understood and sympathized with him. But one thing that can transcend spoken communication is when someone has the gift of music, and that Placido has. So after a mass one night the kids got him to sign a song in Korean and I happened to have our camera with us so I caught it (if you would like to watch it you can click here) I think it is worth it. The people love to hear him sing in Korean and it is a great way for him to connect and show people a piece of himself without struggling for words.
Part of immersing yourself in another language/culture means giving up some control. You are suddenly put into a place where you feel like a child when you are used to so much more. But because of this weakness we are able to connect with people often in a way much deeper than we could if we were able to speak perfectly. Often the people we work with are shy and have low self esteems but when they see us struggle it gives them an opportunity to maybe teach us a new word or something about their culture…and I think that is empowering to them.