After coming back from the trip, I have a lot of things running through my mind but one that sticks out is language. The language barriers that we encountered were tough, and I’m kind of mad at myself for not knowing more Spanish. Even though we only talked to four people that spoke Spanish I felt like I let myself down. I started taking Spanish classes in seventh grade and I ended them my sophomore year of college. After eight years of learning Spanish I struggled to carry a simple conversation. Not being able to communicate with someone was so frustrating, sad, and disappointing.
I fall victim to thinking that everyone understands and can speak English because it’s a “dominant” or “popular” language and that’s selfish and stupid. When we had to struggle through talking to people and looking up words that we didn’t know I got a taste of what it was like to be in a foreign country and not be able to say what I needed or felt.
If I were to go to a foreign country it would be for a vacation and I would make sure there was a way for me communicate with the people. In the case of refugees, they aren’t on a cool planned vacation full of fun activities and relaxing; they had to relocate because of civil wars, government issues, or genocide. Coming to the United States was not a choice. Their new neighbors don’t speak their native language, wear the same clothes, or have a similar culture. It sucks.
Now that I think about it I know the people we visited agreed to talk to us about their stories, but did they really understand why we were coming? Sure, we want to help spread their stories to raise awareness but was it fair for us to expect them to speak English and share their stories with people they just met five minutes ago? They knew our first names, our ages, and maybe what state we were from. I completely understand why people didn’t want to share with us and for that matter practice English! It’s not like we were practicing our fifth language with them.
I admired all the refugees I met. Especially when communication was rough and they had twelve people starring at them in silence trying to think of something to say. I was touched when some tried to call people they knew that spoke English to translate. I hope the refugees we met appreciated us trying to learn words of their languages as much as I appreciated them for being complete champs and speaking with us.
I’ll never forget when we went to an apartment where a man from Cuba lived. He couldn’t speak any English, maybe a word here and there and from what I could tell, he understood English better than he could speak it, kind of where I am with Spanish. Anyways he called a friend to come translate and in the mean time he played music for us and put on a show! It was great! We were there to try to break down barriers and he completely turned the table! He had everyone laughing and having a good time. He even got me salsa dancing. I’ve salsa danced a few times and I am not by any means a good salsa dancer but dancing with him made me feel like we didn’t have a huge barrier between us.
I don’t know where the saying comes from or if it’s even a saying, or just a known fact, but a smile is the same in every language, and breaks down barriers, especially if that smile is from a sloppy salsa dance.