Sometimes it is just so hard to make myself understood and travelling cross-culture, in new languages, only compounds the confusion.
I hoard memories of bafflement as a prophylaxis against taking myself too seriously. There was the time I managed to ask for a bird rather than a bathroom….. the conversation about women being culturally unable to ‘walk’ that turned out to be about ‘work’, and the blush-inducing confusion over a friend’s use of the term ‘oral sex’.
I try to learn fast, to avoid the same ‘argh!’ twice. Early on I learned that garbled words sometimes make for clearer messages and I will merrily pigeon with the best and the worst of them.
As we all know, one thing leads to another. Any English speaker who lives or travels abroad for long will sooner or later stumble on a moment of epiphany; the sudden realization that your English has metamorphosed, that it might no longer be English at all.
Now, I should be pretty good at my mother-father tongue. I have a degree in it, taught it for a while and all in all, the language is one of my longest-lasting loves. Simply put, we have taken each other places neither of us could have gone alone. It has been the grand passion that warmed me through many long cold nights.
Overseas people assume I am Shakespeare with a rucksack.They expect my utterances to tumble like lovely blooms. They listen to me, hang on my words. They copy me. My passport does that for me. Yet at times I have had to laugh out loud at the poor bastard children that birth from my mouth, bred from bits of this and that for utility. Beauty is the first victim, the quick kill.
Then every once in a while, I come across a phrase that is a joy, blunt expression of convenience that is rough, rugged, but says it perfectly. These phrases seem to pop up worlds apart, from many mouths, like universal gifts destined to bring solace to stumbling tongues and frazzled nerves. My all time favourite is ‘same same but different’. It says so much and yet nothing.
My evening yesterday was the best of global fusion for an hour or two. I hung out with the wife of a Sudanese colleague, chatting half Arabic, half English about guys, love, work, finding a balance. We compared Mehindi (which we both defiantly call henna) and ate Bangla sweets off Chinese plates. We were often out of words, paused, hunting for the missing formulation, frowning then giving up. But still much was spoken, much was said.
She grew up in breathless Khartoum, wears her hijab elegantly, faithfully. She takes tiny steps on black bottomed feet. Her home is her palace, her family a little realm. Outside scares her a little.
I grew up in colder climes. I treat my long scarf like a badly behaved tail I can’t quite train as it tangles through my long strides and wing-whips up in the air. I always wander, I ask lots, talk fast, wave my hands more than is strictly necessary.
Our lives are thousands of miles apart. We understand our worlds in distinct and divergent ways, and yet when it comes down to feeling, connecting, being, it is really same same with only a little different.
People are people. The rest is wrapping paper.