Ever been in a conversation where everyone is speaking a language you don’t quite understand or completely clueless about? That’s me from the very beginning of life. Well, I suppose that’s everyone. But for as long as I remembered, I’ve found myself time and again in such situations. Frankly, I love it.
It began with the family from my father’s side who speak Hakka, a traditional Chinese dialect. Hakka is less prevelant on the island of Taiwan than the more popular Taiwanese or the official language of Mandarin Chinese. I was fortunate to have grown up in a family where many languages were thrown arond at all times. Besides the holidays, I am seldom around the Hakka-speaking family, thus never quite learned the language. Now living in Cameroon, when villagers speak their local languages, I am reminded of holidays spent in the Hakka speaking village in Taiwan.
Besides the Hakka family, I have a blond-hair, blue-eyed American uncle who paid yearly visits to Taiwan. While always amazed at my parents’ ability to communicate with my uncle in English, I had absolutely no idea what was being said. Yet somehow always conveyed perfectly that I would like my uncle to take me in his suitcase back to the USA and go see Winne-the-Pooh.
Fast forward to 1998 when I suddenly find myself in a classic suburb of USA during first day of sixth grade, knowing only maybe 60% of what is being said to me. Nothing to help a kid learn language when you throw them in a setting where he/she is the only person not speaking the language. No one wants to be the “weirdo” in 6th grade, so one learns at lightening speed.
During time in university, I traveled to cities were German/French/Italian were spoken and understood very little of it. However, knowing English helped me saved a group of Chinese tourists who were utterly lost while waiting for a night bus in Venice. They approached me with somewhat atrocious English, so I helped them out by throwing them the Chinese rope. So they could breathe comfortably and not drown.
Fast forward again to 2008 when I somehow ended up in Cameroon, West Africa with the Peace Corps, sitting in the living room of my temporary host family, understand maybe 10% of what is being said. They gave me strange food to eat, but it was easier to just eat it than use French to figure out what the heck it was. Just as I am grasping Cameroonian French, I get sent to a small village that happened to have French students from France doing their internships. I have lunch with them, and their French is something like a different language than Cameroonian French. Whoa! Once again, smile and nod. And of course it’s always a pleasure when village mamas approach me speaking in Batié trying to tell me something, and I seek frantically at any kid around who can translate it in French for me!
And this is where I am today. I continue to embrace all the situations where I understand nothing of what is being said. Being a polyglot makes me a curious wanderlust, always seeking for the next time I can understand absolutely nothing and be wildly amazed. Searching for the next stop around the world, one language at a time.