Friday, November 17, 2006


Leaving school one afternoon, I was cornered by two six-grade girls. Apparently, outside the school fence I become a fair target, because after the standard “Hello-Emily-how-are-you?” “I’m-fine-thanks-and-you” they proceeded to berate me in rapid-fire Hungarian: Why are your lessons so hard? Why don’t we play more games? Is it this cold in Minnesota? Where did you buy your coat? Don’t you think so-and-so is ugly/stupid/silly? Why aren’t your clothes more colorful? Are you wearing socks or tights? Why? Why are your shoes so ugly? Why are you like Mr Bean?

To which I could only look puzzled. I’m like Mr Bean? How?
Because, Emily, you always walk around and look like la-la-la (waving hand in front of face, mindless expression on face.)

Hm. Very astute for a sixth grader. I suppose I could have tried to explain how in a foreign place, where one doesn’t speak the language, it’s just too easy to escape into your own head and ignore the outside world.

Instead I went home and found my trusty copy of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s “Guests of the Sheik” (which should be required reading for anyone living in a foreign culture). In one of my favorite passages, she talks about how it was only after many months of living in El Nahra that she began to have enough linguistic skills to participate in conversations:

Many months later Laila told a visiting Iraqi friend of mine that in the early stages of my residence in El Nahra the women had wondered whether I was deaf and dumb, or just not quite bright, because I smiled but often did not seem to hear what was said to me. Afterward, reported Laila, I had come to life and my company had improved immensely.

Sometimes when I’m walking with a Hungarian friend, I look at them and wonder enviously what it’s like to understand the world around you, and when I’ll be able to. I always took it for granted before.

1 comment:

Howard said...

I have spent four years surrounded by English, so Hugmabarian is generally a sweet mystery still. But the word of the week, every week is tassek.