I had a couple come into the office this morning asking me to tell them about my last six years overseas. It is hard to sum up in a few hours all the joy and struggles that I have faced since I left home in 2004. One thing their question did force me to do was reflect on some stories from my first few years (even before I started keeping this blog). Those were the days when everything seemed like a challenge. I was equal to less than a two year old in my understanding of language and culture, trying to find my way around town and make myself understood. I am still not a fully functioning member of society, but I feel much more competent in daily life and the variety of interactions it throws at me. It is so humbling to look back on those early days.
The following is a story from my first two weeks in town.
I was invited to attend an ex-pat ladies tea, and we were all asked to bring a flower with us. My roommate was sick and couldn’t make it, so I was left on my own to find the florist and go shopping. My roommate had given me pretty good instructions about where to go to find a flower shop. I was pretty sure I was on the right street, likely even the correct block, but since I couldn’t read any of the signs I had no idea where to go.
I got the attention of a couple of people walking by and started my attempt to ask directions. I knew the word for flower (well I sort of knew the word). The trade language is tonal so I tried saying it with every possible combination. Since I was sure my pronunciation was likely very off I decided to add a little mime to my question. I acted like one of my hands was a bud blossoming to life, while I took a deep breath of its fragrant smell. I kept repeating myself in multiple ways I could think to say the word flower. When I could tell my growing audience had finally guessed what I was trying to communicate I moved on to the next part of the question.
I pretended to look high and low, shrugging my shoulder to indicate that I was uncertain of the location. And tried to ask as clearly as I could “WHERE?” The question’ where’ and the answer ‘over there’ can also sound very similar, so I wanted it to be clear that I had no idea which direction to head. As I kept up my elaborate display, I could hear those who were watching giggling to themselves at the dumb foreigner.
Finally one gracious man took pity on me and my over the top acting skills and pointed across the street. I couldn’t clearly tell which building he was pointing at so I tried another question.
Thankfully I knew how to say the colours.
I asked, “RED?” , by which, if I had been a fluent speaker of the language I would have said, “Are you pointing at the building across the street with the large red sign?”
Thankfully he could tell he was dealing with an idiot, and answered very simply, “No, blue”. I looked across the street and noticed that beside the building with the big red sign, there was a blue painted building, and sure enough I could see flowers in the window. I had found the florist and another day of communicating in a new and strange country was behind me.
Looking back I am so glad those days are over!