Saturday, 24 April 2010

Lost in translation, or just lost?

Have you ever had someone talk to you in a foreign language and not give you the opportunity to explain that you really have no clue what they're saying? All you can do is smile and nod and hope that you aren't getting yourself into too much trouble?

Have you ever been in a group where everyone speaks two languages but you? You know you could speak English, but the conversation is flowing and carrying on quite well without you and you're not exactly sure when is a good time to interrupt?

These are two situations I have found myself in a lot in the past few months. As a result I have become an expert listener and observer. As my Portuguese has been improving I am able to understand a lot more but I seem to know just enough to get myself into trouble!

I have noticed one thing that differs significantly from my experience living in Asia. There is no question in India or Bangladesh of whether I am a foreigner. It is quite obvious. Also, due to the heavy influence of British colonialism there is a lot of English around and about. There was an immediate expectation that I didn't speak the local language and so many people would approach me and try to speak English. On several occasions in Dhaka I was asked if I would mind if a complete stranger practiced his English on me!

In São Paulo I have experienced something quite the opposite. Being in a large cosmopolitan city along with the already diverse racial mix of Brazilians it is not so obvious that I am a foreigner. At least if I am not a native Brazilian it is expected that I speak the language. And so I land myself in situation #1 on many occasions. On one hand this cosmopolitan nature is something I love about Brazilian culture. On the other hand, it means I have to really put myself out there to make myself understood and not being able to speak fluently seems to be perceived as a real drawback. In Asia I felt that people were more impressed by the fact that I spoke English rather than offended by my inability to speak their local language. Not quite sure what to make of that.

And so I press on, slowly working on my Portuguese knowing that the cost of not learning in the end will be far greater than the cost of time, effort, embarassment and work that must go into learning this language now. At times like this I wish I was more like my dad. He has such a gift for languages and grew up speaking two and understanding at least one other language. He also loves to talk to anyone and everyone and has no qualms about making a fool of himself trying to make himself understood. He already wants to start learning Portuguese.

I guess I have to remember the saying, "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Everyone knows we learn best through our mistakes and once you've spoken something in error, you're not likely to make the same mistake twice. If I don't say anything I won't make any mistakes but I won't learn too much either! So I pray for confidence, humility and the ability to laugh at my myself and try to step out in my dad's shoes.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Caution: High Voltage

Warning signs are there for a reason; something dangerous, something to be cautious of and a reminder to be prepared. You don't just go waltzing into a high voltage zone, or stick your hand into the circuit box. When presented with an outlet you don't recognize, you're very likely to go check the voltage to make sure you won't blow your appliance or the wiring in the house. Its also useful if the plug matches the outlet. :) Wouldn't it be nice if we could have some kind of warning when entering a new culture or situation? A reminder that we're in a new context and need to be prepared.

Living in Bangladesh for a number of years we became accustomed to living with a different voltage. Everything there is wired to 220 volts, so either you check your 110v coffee maker at the door or get a transformer. You get used to reading the small print on your plugs.

The point I'm trying to make is this; at home, you don't have to think. You take the standardized electrical system and corresponding appliances for granted. You plug things in and expect them to work. You don't have to worry about sparks flying or that terrible smell of burning plastic. You don't even think about the small print on the bottom of your tea kettle.

Likewise, our own culture is something we take for granted until we are confronted with something unfamiliar, something which conflicts with a tradition, belief or attitude we hold.  Something that hints at a different electrical system. When faced with a conflict we must approach with caution. There's a reason culture clashes can be so potent. As the "outsider" the impetus is on us to make adjustments; find the right tools to interact so neither side gets burnt out.

So what's hard about adapting? Not much; you just have to be determined, open-minded, willing to change, humble, persistent and patient. And if you're being immersed into a foreign culture, you have to be aware of this all the time. No wonder people experience culture shock! It takes time to figure out how things are wired and to discover the adapters and transformers that allow you to "work" in this new culture.

For me the hard thing has been this constant sense of questioning, double checking, reading the fine print to make sure I'm going to fit. I feel like I'm losing my confidence. I have to rely on other people to get the simplest of tasks done, (something which can be painful for an very independent person!) How long will I be second-guessing my every move? How does my unique cultural identity fit?

Only one question remains; what is my unique cultural identity?
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