Live Inspired: the language barrier

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It wasn’t until I’d finished my first beer and had ordered the second that we first spoke.

I had arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico half an hour earlier, wandered onto the main street and sat down at a table with another diner, not an unusual move in Mexico when the tables are full.

The conversation, in Spanish, started simply. I felt good.

Aldo was there with his pet Collie who boasted a name I attempted to pronounce for two hours, but never quite mastered. Occasionally someone walked by and called the Collie “Lassie,” to the great annoyance of Aldo and I’m sure the Collie as he was *clearly* a manly, manly dog.

“Que embarazoso,” Aldo said, rolling his eyes and petting his wounded manly dog whose name was difficult to pronounce but definitely not Lassie.

Aldo was from Mexico City but lived in town. He worked for several charity organizations, and he taught young actors at a local theater. I jokingly called him “el mayor” because everyone who walked past our table spoke to him or waved at him or shouted to him from across the street.

“Sabes todo el mundo!” I kept teasing him. 

Each time, he replied, with a smirk, “Casi” — almost. 

First, he spoke slowly, simply, patiently tolerating my sluggish comprehension and the gaps necessary to think of what I needed to reply with. 

Soon, though, he grew more confident in my Spanish skills than he should have — and thread by thread, I got more and more lost. The most interesting our conversation got, the further away I drifted. The language was no longer basic, or slow. I was picking up every eight words or so; enough only to have a basic understanding of the topic and utter something incredibly boring and cliche in response. 

If I were to try to recap the conversation now, it would read like a children’s book written by someone who got the story from the end of a 12-person telephone chain (you know, the game). 

After a couple of hours, I got Aldo’s number, and he volunteered to show me around the town the next day when he was done with work.

But I never messaged him.

I was exhausted. 

After two hours of in-depth Spanish conversation the previous night, experiencing the hopelessness of getting lost and the frustration of not being able to express myself the way I would in my own language, the idea of a tour around town this way was too overwhelming.

I knew hanging with Aldo had the potential to be very rewarding — and more importantly, good for my stories — and I rejected the idea anyway.

This is my greatest, deepest struggle.

For all of the conflicts I am working through — finding routine, finding functionality, finding a way to let go of the things I can’t control — this is the battle that tugs at me the hardest. 

My Spanish isn’t good enough. It greatly affects who I’m able to meet and what I’m able to write. And that bothers me more than I can express.

I didn’t change everything and come here to be another privileged white blogger, writing musings from within a bubble. 

I came not just to see these places, but to feel them — to get under their skin and feel their hearts’ beat. I want to write about people and the problems and the joys in their lives. I want to write about things that matter, or at least strike at the soul of people reading them.

Compared to those goals, what I’m doing now feels hollow, and it’s because my key to this new world is rusty. It grinds at the edges. Sometimes it opens the door, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, when I push it open a crack, it slams back on me — because in addition to my unreliable key, I’m also not strong enough to hold the door open for very long, either. 

I can talk with someone about their dog. I can talk about the weather and the town. I can tell them about where I came from and where I’m going and, in the flattest way possible, what I like and what I do for work. And I can hear them tell me about those things, too. 

Here’s what I can’t talk about: 

The culture of poverty. The disturbing trend of child workers. The treatment of women. The press and strain of gentrification. 

Recently, in Guatemala, a new girl friend of mine sort of called me out on this. She did so perhaps unintentionally, but her assertion about needing to talk with more people here hit loud and clear. It was probably good for me, igniting my urgency anew.

I’ve been mostly working on my Spanish daily, but in the last week, I’ve increased the time I spend on my language skills by three times. Slowly, it’s getting marginally easier. But at the same time as I am finally feeling a breakthrough, the frustration is mounting. 

Why aren’t I there yet? How long will it take? How much time will I waste? And if I can’t accomplish what I want, then why have I come here? Why have I uprooted? Why have I said goodbye to everything?

A couple weeks after first meeting Aldo, I saw him again on the main street of San Cristóbal. He was sitting on a patio, holding a small child, probably one of the nieces or nephews he’d told me about, and laughing.

I turned my head and kept walking. 

I hope in a few months, I won’t feel that urge. I hope by then, I’ll hold the key — to stop, say hello to his family, and take the damn tour. 

2 thoughts on “Live Inspired: the language barrier

  1. Amelia, thank you for writing this. It dug in pretty deep with me because I have spent most of my business life in marketing and advertising. Sure, I have done my share of probono work for non-profits, but on a day-to-day basis, everything seemed so superficial, so without real consequences. My barrier has been the driving force to make money, in your case it is the language. Learn the language, which I am sure you will, and you will have consequential conversations, because your driving force is in your heart.

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