When One Language Isn’t Enough


At a post office on Clement Street in the Richmond District I overheard a Ghanaian child translate the shipping prices for his parents (from English to Twi, and back). This was all happening while the Chinese cashier lady repeatedly yelled out that they needed to pay for extra tape. Yes, that’s right, extra tape. This wasn’t heavy-duty scotch tape either. This was cheap, 99-cent store tape.

The little kid struggled to string together phrases in English as both the parents and employees seemed relieved when the whole ordeal was seemingly over, somehow still vaguely proud of the child’s budding communication skills.

In that moment I saw so much of my childhood in this exchange with the Ghanaian family. Doing the language limbo hit close to home for me, having grown up first generation Latino in South East LA. Translating menu options for my parents and answering the phone when they didn’t recognize the number on our caller ID was standard protocol.

I can still remember my parents ignoring countless phone calls to listen to the heart wrenching tales of liberal minded, quick-tongued Mexican newscasters on their favorite TV station, Univision.

I quickly snapped out of my nostalgia and dove right into another stew of memories when I realized the wait in this hot-ass-mess-of-a-line was going to take longer (the cashier just asked the family if they wanted shipping insurance, oh dear lord please help me).

The mustard-crusted counter top I was using to lean on while waiting in line, drowsily balancing my package with my left hand, is what inevitably transported me back to a time in my life when my language skills were put to the ultimate test. The brash, putrid-yellow stains underneath my right arm brought back memories of when I sat in a frigid, post-soviet classroom with ten other Americans, staring at barf blond walls (a far cry from the sunlit classrooms I had grown accustomed to in California).

This was the menacing classroom I sat in for three months, trying to learn Kazakh. I ended up in this predicament because, like all hippy dippy recent college grads, I wanted to join the Peace Corps. Surprisingly, the State Department let me in, and I was placed in Kazakhstan. Which is weird, but whatever.

I thought I had an advantage with language learning because at the time I was bilingual. Little did I know, so was everyone else in the room. I mean, it made sense, I just thought I was special for some reason.

Multilingualism seems to be how we are surviving off the daily bread of Americana; it’s just strange that it took me leaving the U.S. to realize this. After all, America is globalizing rapidly, so why wouldn’t everyone else in my classroom know how to speak other languages?

Hell, at this point even Scientology centers carry L. Ron Hubbard books in FIVE HUNDRED different languages, you know, just in case you’re into that kind of thing. I gave up on the “uniqueness” of my language skills and told myself that as the world spins faster and faster into a mass of jumbled languages and races, I would have to learn to adapt to everyone else’s uniqueness too.

I broke out of this introspective zigzag when I saw patent leathered feet shuffling in my periphery. Someone just left the line (in desperation) and now I was closer to the register. This excited me so much I nearly gave birth to kittens right then and there.

But, I continued to wait my turn; anxiously smacking my lips as I chewed a Juicy Fruit, now looking out the window. I wanted to stifle the internal rage that I had built up during my service over countless hours spent waiting in Kazakh post offices, trying to pretend this dull Bay Area post office wasn’t pissing me off just the same.

I wanted to pretend that–while I was still looking out the window–I was not having flashbacks to the young men shooting up krokodil behind the trash heaps, just like the crack-addicts were doing near the dumpster across the street.

Surprisingly, what I got instead was an overload of adorable; the little boy was nonstop tucking at the end of my coat, waiting to tell me something important with big round eyes. He said, “Sir, it’s your turn now, good luck” in a squeaky voice reminiscent of tweety birds.

And I don’t know why, but I saluted him. It seemed fitting at the time, and it still does, even though I don’t know why. He walked away holding his parents’ hands switching

I came to realize that when you’ve served in the Peace Corps, the memories stay with you forever linked to past cognitive connections; constantly popping up in the moments you least expect them to. The disjointedness is pervasive, and any volunteer will tell you the same. Formative memories remain ingrained, especially in moments like these when you just want to send a freaking package.

And, with disarming candor, I also realized weaving in and out of English and maneuvering through a dizzying dialectical maze is something I will continue to encounter throughout my life; and I know I am not alone.

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