Monday, June 26, 2006

Take this cheesteak and shove it

When I was in Montana over the holidays, I heard the local morning radio goofballs bantering about a trip they had taken to southern California. They were ruminating on the reasons that most public signage there was printed in both English and Spanish. This isn't a topic I had spent much time considering, and in the past I could see both sides of the argument - on one hand, English is the language I've always heard spoken around me in the USA and I could see why the appearance of Spanish might be unexpected and deemed excessive. On the other hand, it was no skin off my nose if Spanish signage made it easier for someone else to get around. The DJs played the roles of down-home hicks from the sticks, glad to be back in the land where everybody spoke their language (though I could have shared a few stories about trying to explain a rodeo to some of my college classmates freshman year, all in our supposedly shared mother tongue).

I had just spent three months attempting to navigate life in a country where I could not read a menu, ask for directions, or find health care on my own. Each time I happened upon a directional sign or a set of instructions printed in English, it raised my spirits during a time when I experienced some tough days. When I realized I could switch my mobile phone language to English, it meant I could actually communicate with my family, and they could leave messages that I could actually retrieve. To me, the issue had less to do with immigration or race, and more to do with making human beings comfortable. And if we're just too busy to make each other more comfortable, we should consider the time and resources saved when we don't have to follow a car whose driver can't figure out where he is going, or the food saved at a restaurant when a customer doesn't accidentally order a dish she is allergic to.

I was reminded of these thoughts a couple of weeks ago when I read about this insensitive restrauteur in Philadelphia. I can still understand his basic sentiment, but after the past nine months, it is hard for me to imagine that it's OK for his policy to stand. I know there is plenty of debate about immigration and language in the USA right now, and though I don't feel well enough informed to make an intelligent comment on the larger picture, I can tell my story. I am still trying to learn German, but it's slow going, and though I can read a menu now, I am not adept enough to decipher the instructions to my German washing machine. I've definitely received the cold shoulder from a (very) few service providers here, and I've fielded pointed questions regarding why I haven't learned German yet, so I know what it feels like to be reminded that I'm an outsider. Language acquisiton isn't instantaneous, but that shouldn't prevent us from traveling, from considering the adventure of living abroad, and from welcoming those who are courageous enough to try it.

Don't be looking for me around Joey Vento's cheesteak joint anytime soon. Instead, I'll be at my local Turkish kebab house, where they are more than happy to walk me through the menu.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you really made an effort you would learn German real quick, I can tell you. It really depends on your attitude. Do you really want to be here or just in a place like the US that only happens to be more "exotic"?
Life is about leaving one's comfort zone, so nobody said it would be a piece of pie.