Approaching fluency in a second language is magical. Not the Buzzfeed, Tumblr sense of the word, where learning to put an egg in ramen is ‘magical,’ but something extra-human, something out-of-the-ordinary, something that leaves you feeling powerful as you navigate what used to be an impenetrable country, people, culture. And it’s crushing to have that taken away from you.
I walked into a store the other day and rattled off the standard Buenos días, ¿cómo está usted? And was met with Merhaba and a string of nonsense syllables, and the shock was acute. I knew in some part of me that I was in Turkey, but after a year living in Mexico, the assumption that I could speak with foreigners was so integral to my day-to-day that losing it was like having an arm torn off.
As a traveler and as a Volunteer, I can go anywhere and do anything in Mexico. Today I went down to the river and asked homeowners to let me paint murals on their walls and strolled into the offices of the National Teachers’ Union and of the Municipal Presidency to do the same—I’m not fluent and a I’ll probably never be able to breeze through Marquez, but I speak with fluency and I can understand anybody in this country without a serious speech impediment. Being unable to intuit that I couldn’t afford both juice and gum and being unable to tell the clerk that I’d just take the juice, that was crippling.
For a while, that feeling almost dominated my time in Istanbul. My deficit left me painfully reliant on Alex Guyton. Ever action, every simmit purchase, drink order, direction, metro ticket, whatever, I had to have her do it, and I got to be scared, petrified of going out without her.
My plan for post-service is to travel India with Alex, willy-nilly. We want to criss-cross the subcontinent from Darjeeling to Goa and back, all the way up and out to Cambodia and beyond. We’ll be heading through dozens if not hundreds of languages, and I was already feeling very small with just Turkish on my plate and a guide near at hand. Meeting Alex’s friends didn’t much alleviate my worries. One of them had a fair grasp of Turkish, but he was one of those godawful people (hey Ernie) that picks up language as he goes and manages to get something out of study. The rest, Alex included, had gotten a kind of a base layer and more or less decided to sit pretty. Which I get. Turkish is hard.
But when one of them told me that she ‘traveled for the expats,’ I calmed down. For a year now, it’s been my job to know Spanish, my job to meet Mexicans, my job to project an image of myself not just as a savvy traveler but as a pseudo-Mexican, wise to the culture and the customs. Part of that is a readiness to attack the assumption that because I’m whiter and taller than average, I’m a Cinco de Mayo type of American. Which means hearing a kid yell ¡Oye, gringo! yelling back ¡Hey, Mexicano! and meeting his finger with the weird fist thing they do here before laughing with him about it. It means meeting a couple of words of broken English with as polished a Spanish as I can muster and some local flavor alongside. It means eating way more chiles than I want at every work get-together and grinning as I say no pica. It means drinking more foul pulque and turned mescal than I can handle and handling as hard as I can because while my kids’ group isn’t going well and nobody else seems to be interested in the radio show, I’m really good at Second Goal.
What’s more, Second Goal’s one of the things I like most about being a volunteer. I love getting to meet people who’ve only seen Americans on television in the news about Cancun between March and May and showing them something they’ve never dreamed of (though I’ve got to push from my mind that it’s much harder to be as good at Third goal, which is nearly 100% more important, given that any voting American has 100% more ability to negatively affect the Mexicans I meet than vice versa).
Knowing that I won’t be able to be anything like as good at Second Goal (or be a Volunteer) wherever I go next scares me. Really, to the core. The first time I seriously considered Spain or South America as a next step was in Istanbul, in the city that seemed like the place I’d most want to live.
But after I’d been able to think it through, to see where my fear was coming from, it began to fade away. There’s no way that I’ll be able to grasp anything more than the barest few working phrases of Hindi or whatever else on my and Alex’s next big adventure, but Istanbul? I’m psyched for that. Because whil in the past, the very recent past, I despaired of ever learning another language, now I’m excited about it. Every time I went into a shop without Alex and rattled off Merhaba, bir tanne simmit ve bir tanne ayran and walked away with a pretzel and a salty yogurt, I was ecstatic, and all I wanted to do was get down the next couple of words and phrases.
Janessa, the other volunteer in site with me, she came to Mexico with no Spanish, nothing more than you pick up from cartoons and pop culture. And she spent all of today tracking down Mexicans and officials and documents because she’s running a three-day conference on food security at the University at the end of the week. That’s fucking incredible.
I understand so much better now how frightening it must have been when she got here, how alienating, and how maddening to see me and a couple of the others complaining about how we wanted to skip Spanish class and get on to more important stuff. But I’m also so much more optimistic now about how quickly it could get better. I’m not as smart as her and not nearly as driven, and only in my dreams would I study as much, but I could get there, and having seen The City, it’s all I want to do.