Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stupid in a strange land...

Everyone should experience it sometime, but maybe especially writers. The fish-out-of-water, gasping-for-breath anxiety that comes from being outside your comfort zone. It's good for the soul. Builds character. Most importantly, it breeds empathy. And empathy is essential if you're going to cultivate the ability to crawl into a character's head and spit authenticity onto paper.

For me it happened when I did my Junior year abroad in Stockholm. Now, the Swedish culture wasn't totally alien to me--my mother is Swedish, so I was familiar with a lot of the customs. But not the language--I was raised at a time when it wasn't the popular thing to do to "confuse" your children by bringing them up in a bilingual environment. And frankly, neither of my parents thought my brothers or I would have a lot of use for a language only 9 million people in the world spoke. But I felt differently, once I was old enough to give it serious thought. I wanted to connect with my roots.

The first thing I noticed after my arrival in Sweden was a sense of isolation. I was used to being totally aware of what was going on around me, of being connected to the buzz of communication at all times. Not so when you don't speak the language. I felt like I was in a bubble, cut off from world. Like a diver with a mask on, I was IN my environment, but no longer OF it. Charmed enough by my surroundings (still the diver, only in a beautiful coral reef), I didn't let it get to me. At first.

At the University of Stockholm I (along with non-Swedish speakers from seventeen different countries) spent four hours every morning learning the intricacies of the new-to-us language. Since there was no common language in the class, we had sink or swim using nothing but our phrasebooks as flotation devices. (I had it easy compared to some of my Asian classmates, who had to first translate from their language to English, and then from English to Swedish.)

The problem for me was that I looked Swedish. Also, my otherwise feeble attempts at the language didn't have a discernible American accent. Swedish has a few sounds most non-Swedes have difficulty mastering, but apparently there's something to that whole genetic memory thing, because they didn't give me any trouble. Oh, and I had Swedish relatives I went out with a lot, so I was often in the company regular Swedes doing non-touristy things. As a consequence, every stranger I met thought I was Swedish. Only, because my vocabulary sucked (hey, it takes a while to build a good vocabulary in a new language!) they thought I stupid. Okay, "stupid" is harsh. They mostly thought I was "slow."

Whoa. Totally new experience for the honor student from the U.S. I mean, I might have been too tall, too skinny, and too awkward, but dammit, I was smart. Not brilliant (I knew the difference, even then), but still, my whole conception of self was wrapped up in being Above Average, intellect-wise. (Truthfully? I would've gladly shaved off several IQ points in exchange for a few curves, but I'd learned to make do with what I had.) I was left, in my self-absorbed little mind, with nothing.

Know what? It was good for me. I was forced to examine who I was beneath my intellectual shield. Not being able to hide behind an extensive vocabulary and a quick wit (it is seriously difficult to formulate anything close to "wit" when your linguistic ability is barely beyond the Swedish equivalent of a knock-knock joke), I had to bring other aspects of my personality into play. I broke out of my diffidence and became friendlier.

(Just an aside: when you're tall, people often mistake shyness for aloofness, and think you're snooty. Huh. Who knew?)

I learned to laugh at myself and my frequent verbal blunders. Like the time I was trying to tell my Swedish teacher my aunt thought my Swedish was so funny she laughed at me, but instead said my Swedish was so bad an old woman peed on me. You can either laugh or dig a hole and crawl in, and I didn't have a shovel handy.

The Swedes--once they got past their wonderment that anyone would actually want to learn their language--were so helpful. They corrected me with appreciation and affection, and once I got beyond feeling self-conscious about every slip, my world opened up. Can't say as I missed the sense of isolation, but like so many negative things in life, I'm glad I had the chance to experience it.



OMG, love the part about accidentally saying an old woman peed on you. David Sedaris has some truly hilarious sections like this in ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY and I still laugh every time I read them.

So do you speak Swedish much now? Probably not a language you have the opportunity to use on a regular basis, eh?

I'm reasonably fluent in Spanish and spent time living in Venezuela after college. One thing I noticed is that I'm apparently not very funny in Spanish. No matter how hilarious I think I'm being, no one in Venezuela or Mexico or Spain ever laughs at my jokes. I guess some things just don't translate well. Either that, or I'm not as funny as I think I am!

Love the blog post. Thanks for making me ponder and laugh all at once!


Linda G. said...

Tawna -- not nearly as much as I'd like. You'd think I'd speak it with my mother, but since she raised me in English, that's our fall-back language. And I don't know a lot of Swedes around here, alas.

Re being funny in another language: humor is tough to translate. Not just the words, but the situations different cultures find amusing. Though I did find drinking enough akvavit with my Swedish friends tended to shrink the gulf between what they and I thought was funny. ;)

Susan Adrian said...

Great post!! Having spent a year abroad, I understand the fish-out-of-water feeling well...and I didn't have a language difference to deal with!

FWIW, when you're short and shy people think you're aloof and snooty too. I don't think it's because you're tall. :)

Unknown said...

I love this! The concept of being IN an environment but not OF it really resonated. Great post

Linda G. said...

Hi Suze!

Huh. I thought if I were short enough, people would think I was cutely coy. Oh, well. Guess I may as well stop slouching & just keep smiling at strangers.

Linda G. said...

Thanks, um, vzeo7dyn (may I call you "v" for short?)

Glad you liked the post. I have a feeling the sense of isolation is something most people can relate to in one way or another. Part of the human condition. :)