Once upon a time my friend and I went to London. We travelled around and saw the sights. I remember climbing out of the Tube, blinded. It took my eyes awhile to adjust. At first, all I could see was light and then slowly buildings began to materialize in the distance. Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey became recognizable monoliths. London wasn’t intimidating; familiar sites, familiar sounds. I imagined it would be easy to assimilate, but quickly found sharing language doesn’t guarantee the understanding of culture.
Facing a food cart I noticed many Americanized items: popcorn, hamburgers and hot dogs. I wanted something local-ish. I asked, “What’s your bacon roll?” The woman stared blankly at me and blinked. I looked at her intently. I was really excited about eating a meal from a local street food vendor. “Um. It’s two bits of bacon on a roll.” My friend and I still break into fits of laughter remembering that story and how complex simple things seem when they are out of context.
Next we went to Paris. A bit jaded, I stared at the Louvre and ordered a Coke. I refused to ride the Metro because I was sure I would get hopelessly lost and die. We were happy to walk and see the city, but language was a barrier. Many times, overly excited, I would attempt to order food in French. The waiters were impatient, even with the effort, and would translate in English to expedite the process. When we looked European enough, someone stopped to ask us directions. We stammered and stuttered out a disjointed response leaving both parties equally confused and lost in the exchange. It takes time to understand the language in foreign places.
Last month I took a job in an elementary school. Everyday I joyfully walk down the halls and marvel at the sights: the library, the lunchroom, my classroom. There is so much to take in. I imagine myself on the streets of Paris as others walk by talking their talk. I pick up bits and pieces, but mostly I’m blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of culture, I am focused on the tasks at hand. The language I understand is in a different context. There are new rules and processes and expectations. When directions are being given, I have to process language, meaning and culture.
I was giggling with one of my coworkers about how I’m learning in a foreign land. I have so much empathy for the new kid. It reminded me that when we want to connect with others in important ways, like at our jobs, we have to listen to learn. Even when we know what others are saying, we might not understand their meaning. We have to make the effort to translate. Asking questions, many questions, is a great way to learn. Getting exposure to different situations and sights helps give new perspective to old perceptions. We can add experts to our circle of knowledge who will help contextualize meaning. If we want to become more aware and successful in foreign places we have to show up, ready to learn new words and explore the culture.