I know that look.
The awkward, flat smile. The glazed over eyes that quickly give way to desperation. The deep breath before any words are spoken. The pursed lips and shrugged shoulders.
I know that look. It’s the look of not understanding a damn thing going on in the world around you.
It’s a look that’s all the more painful when it’s worn by a thirteen-year-old, transplanted to a new country and a new language not of his own doing, and who just wants to order something to eat in the school cafeteria. Except everyone here speaks Spanish, and him? He still thinks tortilla chips are called nachos.
My heart broke a little when I stumbled upon poor H. trying to order lunch.
“Nachos, por favor.”
“Uh….” Eyes go dead. “Si?”
“Uh…” Lips involuntarily move into that smile that says, ‘I have no idea what you’re saying to me but I can’t bring myself to admit it out loud.’ Eyes dart around for some context clue, some suggestion of what Marie Chuy is asking. “Uh…”
“¿Quieres chilaquiles con todos, con queso y salsa y frijoles?”
“Uh…” He shifts his weight around a little, looks at the food lined up in chaffing dishes trying to infer what she could possibly be asking him. But he’s lost. So he points at the freshly fried totopos. “Uh, nachos? ¿Por favor?”
He has no idea what is about to happen to those ‘nacho’ chips, perhaps the only food he remotely knows the name for. He is unaware that when he said ‘si,’ he was agreeing to a heaping mound of frijoles topped with a queso similar to those jars of parmesan ‘cheese’ our parents fed us in the 1980s, all drizzled with a salsa that tastes like tomato flavored salt. But it’s pretty clear all H. wanted were some plain chips, thankyouverymuch.
So I intervene.
“You want only chips? Or do you want full-on chilaquiles, with beans and cheese and salsa?” I ask.
His face relaxes and lights up all at once. “Just the chips, please.”
“Solamente totopos, por favor. Nada más.” I switch back to H. when Marie Chuy presses on with an ¿Algo más? “Do you want anything else with your chips? A drink? A dessert?”
“No, just the chips.”
I give a little finger waggle to Marie Chuy, who nods and passes the totopos to H. We move to the register where H. is told his meal is diez pesos. The face goes blank again while H. squeaks out, in English, “I have a card,” with a dramatic finger point at the stack of cafeteria punch cards. He starts to back away, slowly, like a cornered animal, when the cafeteria clerk starts firing away with questions about whether he wants to pay with his sister’s card and reminders that he’s out of money on his own card and that it’s okay today, but he has to remember to bring money in before the end of the year, and so does his sister, and…
It’s almost too much for him. That rapid-fire Spanish without context. The polite and helpful cafeteria staff who just can’t help him enough. The possibility of being free from another incomprehensible conversation is so close but being delayed by yet another round of what amounts to nothing more than gibberish to him. The eyes are getting so big and so glazed that I think my sweet seventh grader might start crying in the middle of the elementary school cafeteria.
I know that look, and I know that feeling. And so I swoop in again, offer a quick translation, and send him on his way. He nearly runs back toward the middle school playground, but not before turning back to me with a pause and a heartfelt, “Thank you, Miss!”
Someone told me the other day that their experience of learning a foreign language through immersion as an adult is a bit like having a mental illness. Or like you’ve entered into one of those weird Wayne’s World doo-do-loo, doo-do-loo space/time warps (picture Garth and Wayne waving and wiggling their fingers and arms). It made me think of how many times this year I have wished myself invisible, wished my children invisible, just so I wouldn’t have to pretend that I understood the small talk the lovely abuela was trying to make at the grocery store about my adorable children. It made me think of how many tasks I have avoided because the thought of trying to navigate them in Spanish was just too much to bear. It made me think of my embarrassment at having to seek out translators for simple daily tasks, like making phone calls and paying my gas bill. It made me think of how I needed to visit the dentist and get a haircut and sort out finances and book a massage but how a year had passed because all of this just seemed too difficult. It made me think of how many days have involved tears at some point because something was just too impossible for me to do, on my own, in Spanish. And it made me think of another colleague who, one month into our stay here in Guadalajara, sat at the back of a staff meeting with her head in her hands and professed, “This is why I hate my life. Everything is in Spanish. And I don’t speak Spanish.”
When we decided to move to Mexico, learning Spanish was one of our primary motivators. And as I started visualizing the years before us, I kept thinking about when I moved to Paris at 18, with nothing more than a work visa and a few hundred dollars in my pocket. Sure, I’d been studying French since I was ten, but the experience of being immersed in a new country and a new language couldn’t be that different, could it? In Paris, living and working in French, it was like my brain had been turbo-charged. I was so proud and so excited and so eating up every linguistic experience I could. Coffees with my colleagues before work. Debates about democracy in bars. Conversations with my roommate’s friends. Movies, TV, magazines in French. I lapped it all up. And the payoff was that, when I needed to verify my visa status, I could argue with the French bureaucrat like the best of them. When I needed to navigate international bank transfers, I had no problem. When I wanted to meet cute boys, I knew precisely what to say. And at some point during that autumn, I even started dreaming in French.
Moving to Mexico has not been like that. This time, my brain is not on turbo-charge and I am not delighting in every little linguistic immersion. In fact, there are days that I want to hole up in my English-speaking home and not utter a single Spanish word.
Except I can’t.
I live here now, and this place that I live, it speaks Spanish. Even my own daughter speaks Spanish.
But you know what’s crazy?
So do I.
It is not correct Spanish. (I joke that I speak Spanish like an immigrant parent. Oh wait—I am an immigrant parent.) It is not eloquent Spanish. It is not nuanced Spanish. It is basic, present-tense-only, con mucho errores Spanish. (I keep hoping that the upside to only speaking in the present tense is that I will be forced to live only in the present tense). It is awkward, it is clumsy, it is sputtering. But it is Spanish nonetheless.
I was reminded of this yesterday when I conquered a whole list of postponed tasks, in Spanish, without an angel from our HR department helping me at every step of the way. I navigated the bureaucracy of the Palacio Federal to get Rory his Mexican passport. I gave cab drivers directions to and from our house. I bought tickets to the ballet folklorico. I took my Littlest One to get vaccines at the national health clinic. I went to the dentist for a cleaning and explained my past dental history. I mailed tax paperwork back to the States. I even made small talk, and jokes—and in the process, was complimented on my Spanish. Twice.
And for the first time in these eleven months, my day ended not with linguistic frustration but with a sense of accomplishment. I can do this. I am doing this. (And not one tear was shed in that task-insane day!)
While a day of tasks-in-Spanish can too often send me into a tailspin about all that I can’t do because I don’t speak Spanish, I realize now how much I have already done because, despite my frustration, I have continued to throw myself head-first into this whole living bilingually thing. I have had parent conferences in Spanish—both as the teacher and as the parent. I have attended baby showers (my own!) in Spanish. I have run the day-to-day business of my household and the nuances of childcare with our beloved nanny in Spanish. I have had two hospital stays almost completely in Spanish. I have made and answered phone calls in Spanish (truly, the hardest thing of all). I have communicated household rules to Anna’s neighbor friends in Spanish. I have talked childrearing and discipline and toddlers with the other mothers in our coto in Spanish. And best of all, I have joked and read and played with my mostly Spanish-speaking daughter.
There are, of course, so many conversations still that are mostly impressionistic, where I leave only with a rough understanding of what was said. And I cannot passively participate in the Spanish-speaking world around me; my brain has to be on, full throttle, to communicate at all.
But I can communicate.
I can speak Spanish. Eleven months after our arrival, and my Spanglish is finally morphing into the real deal. Ahorra, yo hablo español.
I knew that look in H.’s eyes in the cafeteria, that dead expression and the mounting frustration of not understanding a damn thing. But these days, it’s more of a memory than a regular occurrence. My day-to-day life is no longer marked by feelings of linguistic and mental ineptitude—and when those feelings creep in, when that flat smile of understanding nothing whatsoever starts to climb up my cheeks, I stop myself and the conversation, inserting instead a very simple solution: “Por favor, ¿un otra vez? No entiendo.” And the best part of all? I usually get it the second time around.
So I know that look, little H. And I know the feeling of those tears stinging your eyes at every wayward interaction. But I also know that we are not mentally ill, we are not intellectually deficient, and we don’t really want to spend our lives in Mexico holed up inside Anglophone enclaves. Learning a new language--living a new language—is hard, hard work. But you’ve got to start somewhere. So next time you want some food, H., you don’t need me to translate. All you need is some ganas, some suerte, and some daily plática. It’ll start with totopos, and it’ll build from there, until your shoulders finally relax, your eyes twinkle again, your smiles once again become genuine, and you can finally say with confidence, “Si, yo hablo español.”
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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