At one time or another, we all step into a place and right there, we find ourselves in the minority. It is like going to a foreign embassy on the U.S. soil. Within those immediate four walls; we are foreign subjects without ever leaving our country.
A coupon to try neighborhood Beauty Salon encouraged me to treat a routine grooming activity as a cultural exchange. It also took me back to a place and time I had tried to bury deep down in my memory.
In my neck of the woods; owners of nail salons have either Korean or Hispanic backgrounds. My usual place is of the former and the recent one I visited is of the latter. The new place was considerably smaller with only a couple of manicure and pedicure stations and the same number of manicurists. There were four other women working there as hair stylists and receptionist. As I entered; they were happily and loudly chit chatting in Spanish. I was greeted promptly and was introduced to Sandra, a petite lady with happy eyes and small hands. I spent the following couple of hours at the company of this joyful group of women from Ecuador. There was never a silent moment and Spanish was the formal language. Fifteen minutes walk from home had landed me three thousand miles away. My eyes and mind started to wonder about as Spanish filled my ears. I was suddenly 6 years old, awkwardly standing in the playground of the Armenian primary school I was attending. I was clutching my lunch bag while eyeing the school kids from the corner of my eyes. It was the lunch break and kids were busy eating, playing, talking and laughing. I was standing alone at a far corner and was feeling lonely and absolutely miserable. I was the only non-Armenian girl in the entire school. I didn’t speak Armenian and no– I was not in Armenia. I was in my home country; but yet- I was in the minority for the entire first grade. I was letting the language be a barrier and I did a fine job of it. I knew the other girls spoke my language. After all, the classes were taught in my language. I guess I expected other kids to step forward and talk to me. It never occurred to me that perhaps they expected the same of me- that they felt I didn’t want to be part of them.
Back in the nail salon, a gradual calm had come over me. It was such a blessing not to understand the language. I had no idea what the conversation was about and frankly, I could care less. My brain was not required to process much and was indeed enjoying the off-duty time. I was not awkwardly sitting in my chair. I was not miserable. I was in control of the situation without being in control of the conversation. I was letting the experience to be positive, rather than negative. I used pretty much all the Spanish words I knew; which paired with a bit of body language formed broken, yet understandable sentences. Although their English was far superior to my Spanish; I took the opportunity to make myself understood in their language.
As English speakers, we expect the world to speak our language; yet we rarely speak anyone else’s. Sort of a one way street, eh?
To most, one of the intimidating and perhaps, annoying, aspect of international traveling is not understanding the local language. Not knowing how to ask for a drink of water or get directions or read the signs bring cold sweats and even nightmares to novice travelers. When I’m asked how I overcome the “language barrier” in my travels; my reply is simple and truthful–“I don’t look at language as a barrier”. I have grown up considerably since the first grade and have learned to expect myself to be the One taking the first step forward. Employing (creative) body language and the determination to understand someone else’s; works every time. Of course, not being embarrassed to look a little silly helps too. Even finding the right metro stop in China or Russia can be as simple as matching the shapes/alphabets to the address at hand.
Knowing foreign tongue/s is fantastic; but not a requirement to see and experience the world and its multitude of cultures.
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