A few months ago, I insulted someone horribly. Darting about outside in a helpless panic, I had accosted a young man who was, by the looks of him, just trying to get home after a long day.
“Do you know how to call Information from a mobile?” I asked, in Russian.
He replied with a comment that, if appropriately translated, would sound something like – “No speak Russian.”
I did detect a familiar softening of the r’s, though.
“Well, do you speak English?” I continued, switching languages.
“Yes,” he replied, looking peeved at having suddenly been caught out.
“Do you know how to call Information from a mobile?”
“If you’re living here, and you can’t speak Russian – how do you survive?” I asked. It wasn’t really my place to do so, but I was frantic, and exhausted, and it was hot outside, and I think I just needed to get my mind off the minor catastrophe I had found myself in the middle of.
“I DO speak Russian!” The young man shot back, affronted. “Just not well enough to, you know, talk about how to call Information! From a mobile!” The way he said it clearly implied that calling Information from a mobile was probably a crap idea to begin with. I’ll give as much to him – he had a point.
We parted ways, and I wound up dealing with the minor catastrophe as I always deal with minor catastrophes – in a haphazard, but ultimately pretty much successful fashion.
I’ve been thinking about that evening, though, and not just because I feel guilty for having insulted a perfect stranger (I do feel guilty, but my list of sins is long enough to warrant that incident getting lost in the general shuffle). I’ve been thinking about it, because I know how hard it is to be an expat lacking the linguistic tools to manage random day-to-day encounters.
When I was living in Amman, Jordan, my general lack of Arabic made my already difficult existence practically unbearable. I couldn’t share a joke while standing in line at the grocery story. I couldn’t, on most occasions, yell back at dudes who were yelling at me (and it took me a lot of practice to be able to finally stand up to a sleazy construction worker – and all of the effort just meant that I wound up breaking down in tears). I certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell someone how to call Information from their freaking mobile phone.
People are often derided for moving to countries whose languages they don’t quite speak, but we forget that learning a foreign language – especially one such as Russian, or Arabic – is Hard Work. And other people don’t make it easier on you. They’ll make fun of your accent, or when you use a verb and put it in the wrong tense. Hell, Russian is my native language, and I still get flak for when I say something but get the emphasis wrong, or when I say something but say it employing very obvious Ukrainian-style slang.
I make my living via the Holy Written Word, so every time I mess something up, in any language, be it Russian, or Ukrainian, or English (my sorry attempts at German are best left completely alone), I suffer. I blush. I stammer. I cover my face with my hands and go “but I just can’t speak [insert language of choice here]!”
Having said all that, I hereby offer my apology to Random Dude I Harassed On the Sidewalk That Night.
I truly am sorry, Random Dude. If I could take it all back and totally offer to buy you a beer at one of those expat-y places in Moscow that I generally hate (but would make an exception for, just this once), I would.