I’m about to add a bunch of entries consecutively because I’ve been writing on my computer and keeping track of things in my journal but haven’t actually gotten to the internet much lately. They will appear in no particular order. Here goes.
As an exchange student (a label that still feels a big false on me, actually very false on me) communication breakdowns sort of come with the territory. There are the spoken ones, which are funny, and we knew were coming– like how one girl who’s allergic to preservatives (preservatantes) had been telling her host family and everyone else that she’s allergic to preservativos (condoms). Or how another girl advised me to pedir a un mino where the bathroom was instead of preguntar a un mino (you should ask for a cute guy instead of you should ask a cute guy). Or how I just asked my host mom if she had ever tried bee’s milk cheese (abeja) instead of sheep’s milk cheese (oveja), oops. These things we expected to occur. We know that we are far from fluent, that we mess up, that our families will laugh at us a little.
We also might have guessed that we’d have trouble with body language, or politeness, or even connotation. I think I often answer yes when people tell me to have a good day, or make some other equally incorrect attempt at politeness. We don’t know what to do when a car lets us cross the street. Is the hand lift universal? No se. Is it okay to smile at people on the bus? Does scootching your chair backwards mean “it’s time for me to go” in Chilean? These misunderstandings we were also, somewhat prepared for.
It’s the subtler, interpretation based ones that caught us off guard—the kind that lead my host parents to the conclusion that I absolutely love Chinese food. It started innocently enough. The fated conversation that started it all happened back in my first week as their “daughter”, back when I was even more innocent and ignorant to the ways of Chileans than I am today. We were on our way back from a delicious sushi dinner. From the perspective of Erin “English is my first language and I’m very much not Chilean” Taylor, the conversation went as follows:
Host parents (HP): Do you eat a lot of sushi?
Erin (E): Not really. At school I eat more Chinese food because sushi is much more expensive. At home we don’t eat much Asian food at all because my mom is allergic to soy, but I like sushi.
HP: Que lastima, que lata, que fome. Aka wow that sure does suck. Chinese food is pretty good too, but we very much enjoy our sushi. We eat tons of sushi. Sushi rocks our world.
E: I like sushi, I just eat Chinese food more often.
I’m not sure what got lost in translation, but it seems that somehow this is what they took away from the conversation:
HP: Do you eat a lot of sushi?
E: Not really, but I do absolutely love Chinese food more than life itself. And oh by the way, my mom is allergic to soy.
HP: Wow, well that’s too bad for her because that means she doesn’t eat much sushi, and we fucking love sushi.
How can I tell that this misunderstanding took place? I will list for you some evidence.
1) On our walk back from the sushi restaurant my adoring and caring host parents proceeded to point out every Chinese restaurant (and there were many) that we passed. They really are very sweet, they wanted to show me where I could find my favorite food. It was a great host gesture.
2) Coincidentally, I did go eat some Chinese food the following weekend with some friends. When my host parents asked me what I’d eaten I almost didn’t tell them. But I did, and they found it endlessly amusing. They were so happy for me! “You love Chinese food!” they chuckled, “how excellent that you got to eat some.” “Si,” I said, and smiled back.
3) I gave my host parents a book of photographs of Philadelphia the weekend after the Chinese food outing. My host mom was looking through them while Juan and I watched the ill-fated Seleccion Chile vs Brasil soccer match (have I mentioned I can see the stadium from my window because I can). She came across some pictures of Chinatown and asked me about it. Yes, I said, we have a pretty big Chinatown in Philly. Most big cities in the states have one. “Oh!” she exclaimed while bursting into laughter and thoroughly enjoying herself “that’s why you love Chinese food so much!” I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that I have a friend who’s parents own a Chinese restaurant. Oops.
It’s possible my host parents are messing with me. Maybe what’s really being lost in translation is their mocking tone, their sarcasm. Maybe it’s an inside joke between us that I’m missing, and they don’t actually have a false impression of the quantity of love I have for lo mein. It doesn’t really matter though, because now the rest of my classmates also point out every Chinese restaurant we pass for my benefit. Similar things have happened with other students as well. If you are asked “do you like brussel sprouts?” and you respond “yes, I like them” suddenly you love brussel sprouts and they appear in every one of your meals in different forms.
However, there are some forms of subtle communication that really do transcend language boundaries for the better. One day Liz left her gross synthetic strawberry tasting cereal bar on the table in the afternoon instead of trying to pawn it off on someone at lunch. The next day, and for every day thereafter, she got cookies.