I found a project called Journal 52, which offers weekly topics to journal about. They began in the New Year, so I’m several weeks behind, which I regretted when I saw that the first prompt was “Pathways” (because when I think of all the serendipidous pathways that have taken me to today I am almost flabbergasted), but then when I saw that the second prompt was “Just Be,” I felt much better. I don’t know what to do with such nebulous phrases that just stir up bubblegum-filtered images. Maybe that’s not the worst image in the world, but it’s also not one that elicits any thoughts that are particularly relevant or significant to my own life.
This week, however, the chosen topic “Conversation Starters” immediately garnered up all sorts of memories and sent me spiraling down curious thought-circuits. First off, I’ve been appreciating the kinds of conversations that draw out the human side of….humans, such as those highlighted by Humans of New York or the conversation starters initiated by this experiment, but then I thought of my experience with languages. The subject broaches a whole new arena for the person who stands outside the territory of a common language as I have done twice in my life, solo.
To be fair to travelers of the past, it is now difficult to find any place in the world where at least a significant portion of the population does not speak English. For me as an American, it is almost impossible to totally immerse myself amongst people who do not speak a word of English. Travel is easier in this regard. But still. I will not undermine the experience of going it alone for a long term stay (and without the immediate resources to take classes) to a country whose language you don’t speak. I have done this in both Mexico and Lebanon, and both experiences have been wonderful, aggravating and challenging in a good way. I’ve taken some notes along the way.
The difference between spending time with one person and spending time with a group of people becomes chasmic all of a sudden. When you talk with one person, chances are pretty high that the person will speak some English, and so…you can hold a conversation! If they don’t happen to speak English, you have a great opportunity to practice your Spanish or Arabic or Swahili or whatever you’re attempting to learn. However! If you are in a group setting and are an amateur speaker, you become a silent observer. The conversations swerve and twist and jolt forward too quickly for you to catch the content. By the time you’ve forced your brain to focus enough to piece together a collection of words and tones and hand gestures, the topic has changed. By the time you leave, your brain hurts, you wonder if you still have a personality, you feel even more shy and distant from people than before, and you have pretended to laugh at jokes you did not understand just to prevent people from thinking that your total lack of emotional response implies that you hate them. After awhile, you begin to become more comfortable in these settings, and you find yourself retreating to your own world. While everyone thinks you are still mentally present, you are, in fact, long gone in the recesses of your mind.
The new sounds and meanings of the language are delicious. I am a slow language-learner and can’t push myself to rush right into it. I need to hear it for awhile first, become comfortable with the sounds, begin to decipher the points where one word ends and another begins as people are talking, and then venture in myself. This whole process is wonderful. Each language is expressive in different ways, and it’s beautiful and educational and thought-provoking and hilarious to learn new expressions and see the connections that language makes. I loved learning that the verb for “hope” and “wait” is the same in Spanish. I love hearing the passion in both the many terms of endearment and the array of colorful curses in Arabic.
You are forced to be patient with yourself. Because if you’re not, you’ll internally combust. You have to get over the sense of guilt that comes from not being able to communicate with people. You have to accept that it will take some time. You have to get over yourself and let yourself sound ridiculous as your mouth tries to wrap itself around sounds it has never before emitted. You have to think your way around words you do not know. I found myself describing a dream one time as “a picture in my head when I’m sleeping.”
You will make many many mistakes and realize that it’s not the end of the world, but simply means that you’re progressing. Sometimes, you will begin a conversation and realize that you don’t have enough vocabulary to continue it, and so you will simply shrug your shoulders, stop short, and leave the other person hanging. You have to learn that sometimes, when you think someone is talking about a husband, they are actually talking about a walnut. When you’re wondering why someone is talking about the chickens and cheeks between Lebanon and Syria, the answer is, they’re not. They’re talking about the army on the border.
Apples, there are so many life lessons to be gleaned from the experience. One that we talked about that I have mentioned before, is that learning the context of a place or a culture or a person is always worthwhile. This is something you told me once that has stuck with me ever since. When you can withhold judgment long enough to let someplace or someone expose their true colors, the original feeling of frustration or anger usually melts away. If anything, I hope that this experience has forced me to be a better listener and a more open observer of the world.