Wednesday, November 30, 2011

why I haven't spoken spanish when surrounded by Spanish speakers

This is a hard post.
Mostly, it's because I'm an awkward white person. The speaking of the language where I live is filled with potential pitfalls ot my over-sensitive self, and so I avoid it.
I live in the middle of a hugely Spanish-speaking region, an hour from the busiest border crossing in the world. Spanish-speaking friends have visited and laughed at how they'd do fine without English here, and yet I've let me language skills languish.
I went to school in Texas, and was kind of taken aback by the culture divide between black and white there. I made a few very tentative attempts to cross it, and always felt wholly inadequate to the task at hand. I grew up in white neighborhoods, am sure that I harbor misconceptions and preconceptions about black culture, and certainly don't feel myself when surrounded by people who don't look like me. This is shameful, but true. I can't alk the walk that white americans ask people of color to walk every day: to exist in a culture as an "other" with grace and a sense of humor.
Or perhaps I could, but I've never been really forced to, and have not invited the opportunity.
We're trying. As a family. Because if we're to get better at Spanish, we've got to start taking advantage of the culture that surrounds us. And I feel again, terribly uncomfortable by the social, class and cultural divides that I know I have done little to break down.
We went ot the Spanish service at our church this week, and it was lovely, very small congregation, warm welcome. We'd like to go back, and I don't think it should be a big deal to go. And yet it is. To me, anyway.
I hate that sense of not belonging, and it's especially acute when you don't belong in your very own town, and because of attitudes, social class, and culture that you don't feel very proud of.
That's why I don't speak spanish enough. Here's hoping I can just get over myself.

Monday, November 28, 2011

choque/chock full

Choque es "shock" in spanish, also crash, collision or clash.
For culture, though, I think of it as more like a cymbal and less like a three car pile-up.

My husband Dyami and I are embarking on a long-term project: to live abroad enough in the next few years that all of us can become more bilingual and bicultural. I've lived abroad for a year, in college, so I'm the most fluent. Dyami learned Spanish in high school, and has retained an impressive amount, and my two daughters (five and two) know almsot nothing. We're planning on moving abroad in a year or so for about six months, with the hope that this will become the first of several sojourns in other countries.

But why do it? Why do we value language and culture this much?

In my last year of high school, I took an Spanish/Latin American literature class. I very nearly did not, because for four years, I hated Spanish. I liked my Spanish teacher of the year before--Sra. Waisman, a soft-spoken, grey-haired Argentine, but I hit my head against the wall every time I had to practice grammar. Which in a grammar class, was very nearly every day.

"But it takes five years to learn a language, Heather," she told me. "So you are almost there. Such a shame to quit now."

I don't know how Sra. Waisman came up with her statistic, but it was enough to convince me. I signed up for one more year.
It was probably one of the most important decisions in my life.

I still remember the day that I understood why one might want to study another language, and what you might lose by not doing so.
We had read "El ahogado mas hermoso del mundo" (The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World") for homework. It's a classic magical realism tale: body washes up on the beach of a small Columbian town; the townfolk bring the body in and through the course of a few days, nearly everyone falls in love with it, throwing it the most lavish funeral anyone has ever seen.

I know. I know. What the hell?

WHich is the very question I was asking. I'd read the story two years before in English class; we did a section on magical realism, where our English teacher explained her own incomprehension of the stories we covered, and all of us took turns scratching our heads and ridiculing the corpses come to life, the children who did not get old, the strange lack of communication that lead to shooting deaths, etc, etc.

In Spanish class, though, Sra Waisman asked what everyone thought of the story. Silence. She prodded and poked, and finally, someone told her that it just seemed gross. We all nodded.

Then she started explaining the story to us, with tears in her eyes. Because for her, the story was a story of real resurrection, that the people in the village had conquered death--even the death of a stranger--by their care of him. That their love had transformed the whole village and even resurrected their own community.

When she explained it, it sounded much more interesting.

It struck me that day, that there was a way of looking at stories (and by extension, culture) that might get lost in the translation. That a Latin American explaining the world might sound different than an American or European. That I had only seen one explanation my whole life, and that there were thousands of other cultures out there I'd never even seen.

I'm not patient enough to learn lots of languages (yet), and I am perhaps too much of a homebody to live all over the world. And yet as my girls get older, I long to give them that same shock, that same sense of awe at how different we all are in this world, and how easy it is not to recognize those differences.

I'm starting this blog to chronicle