How I Became Interested in Foreign Cultures
One of the themes of my blog (and life) has been my interest in foreign languages. In this entry I'm going to say how that really got started, the first turning point in my life that I can really remember. It changed my interest away from wanting to be a director, and this evening has somehow impacted almost everything in my life ever since.
I wrote this story earlier this year for a memoir writing class I was taking at the local community college. Enjoy!
(I have tried to double check spellings on names, I can only ask pardon if I misspell someone's name.)
Company was coming for dinner. My aunt Jane – my mom’s sister – would be staying for a few days. Jane’s visits were always special because she could only come by once a year or so, and then only in the summer, since she was teaching the rest of the year. This visit was extra special because Jane was bringing her families to visit my family. One family was her husband and children. The other family was the family she au paired for in France before she became a French teacher.
When they arrived from their home near Denver we helped set the guest table in the living room while my other aunt and uncle, who live in Ogallala, came by and helped prepare dinner.
Only flashes come up now in my memory as I think back on this occasion. I met the Rouleau family: the twins Mathilde and Adeline, who were fourteen or so – the same age as me, the older sister Charlotte, the mother Annique and her husband Phillipe. There was also a brother, and I think his name was Mathieu, but I can best recall the women.
I remember asked the girls a question and they said I was talking too fast for them. This made an impression on me because I wasn’t talking fast at all, at least as far as I could tell. Another memory is that at some point during dinner I tried to show the twins our dog, but earned only a scolding from my other aunt who lives here in town.
At some point Jane mentioned that Mathilde and Adeline were identical twins. This struck me as strange because until then it hadn’t occurred to me that they looked so alike. After she said it though I found it very difficult to tell them apart.
Jane told us about her life as an au pair, watching the girls grow up in the Rouleau’s hometown of Tours. Throughout the whole dinner she translated the conversations, even though the French family all had some grasp of English. In general I remember very little of the dinner, what we ate, or what precisely we talked about. I simply remember being curious about these people from another country, speaking another language, and the subtle feeling of something alien in the air. They looked like me, but didn’t exactly act like me. Later on I would come to see that, for instance, a room on a street in one culture is not just a room on a street in another one: in your native culture, you are familiar with the smells, sounds and feels around you. Often you don’t notice them anymore: how a phone ring sounds, what cars sound like, the smell of the trees outside. In another culture, you may not be familiar with the fine details of any of these, and this sensory overload can knock a person slightly off balance.
At the time I was unaware of any of this. I just sensed that these people acted like they were from a dimension that resembled mine by about 90%, and I just couldn’t exactly nail down the 10% that was off.
Dinner ended. People cleared off. Eventually only three people were sitting at the table: Jane, her host mom Annique, and myself. I don’t remember why I was sitting there: I just didn’t have any desire to wander off alone, but my introverted self needed a reprieve from the bustle activity in the rest of the house. So I sat and listened to Jane and Annique babble back and forth in French.
Unexpectedly and through no effort of my own a simple and previously utterly overlooked thought occurred to me. Jane was speaking at such a rate that she didn’t need to translate anything. She had explained she didn’t need to some years before, but I never exactly believed her. At that age I had simply thought everyone knew English and translated into other languages to speak. I never questioned why they would go through that much trouble, but in my mind English made such perfect sense, and so how could there ever be anything can came close? Now, years later, I understood better what she meant, but with no knowledge or great experience with foreign languages I couldn’t grasp her meaning of “not needing to translate.” Until now. It appeared to my Anglophonic ears that Jane handled French as well as her native English. The thought was simply: “They are communicating easily.”
Logic, of course, defied this, because they were speaking in a different language, one that I could not at that time make any sense of. In my memory, it doesn’t even sound French, it sounded like garbled noise. Yet somehow my aunt wasn’t drowning in this river, but handled it as naturally as dressing herself.
It was at that moment that the mystery of languages started, in one way, to really fall away, at least in terms of an unbreakable obstacle, a nebulous challenge to be figured out with logic. Instead it started to become something that I saw as a natural extension of people, those who look like me and act mostly like me – and of course, as I went just a bit deeper this extended to people who could look like anything at all.
Of course I didn’t walk away with a magical knowledge of French or any other language. Nor did I lose my fear of languages, as I fortunately never had any to begin with. But from that very subtle shift onwards, I started to understand that languages – and as my aunt proved, their cultures – were not abstract as long as they were seen through the eyes of those who spoke them, and that this mystery was open to anyone who had eyes to look and the heart to learn.