During a two-week trip to the Northeast last February, I remember being particularly sensitive to the fact that I felt like a foreigner in my own country. As odd as it sounds, after many months in Bulgaria and Romania the most bizarre part was being able to understand what everyone was saying, all the time. The unnecessarily personal conversations unfolding right next to me on the subway, and the quick ‘whattya want?’ from a walk-in pizza place – it all threw me off, terrifically. My discomfort with the ease of communication forced me to consider that perhaps I had really enjoyed the difficulty of communication in countries where I hardly spoke the language. On public transportation, the language barrier meant that I could be completely alone, even when I was surrounded by people. At a pizza shop, there was no risk of small talk because I used up my vocabulary ordering the slice. It sounds very melancholy as I read those lines back, but really it didn’t feel that way. It felt like freedom from the constant requisite of response that shared language requires.
This became most clear to me when I returned to Romania and took a class on Wing Chun, a martial arts class that emphasizes standing in an awkward, forward facing, pinched toes, stance and spinning your arms in front of you a lot. About twenty minutes in, looking myself in the gym mirror, I suddenly noticed that I hadn’t felt self-conscious at all. Not when I first walked in to a tight-knit group of twenty people. Not when I changed into odd, baggy shorts. Not when I started rotating my hands like some kind of pigeon-footed T-rex! And it was because of language. The fact that I couldn’t communicate with the people around me made me infinitely more comfortable.
In a recent email to me, my father exclaimed, “Shanghai has to be the most alien place your travels have taken you to thus far.” In many ways, though I expected the exoticness of the Orient to exceed the Americas or Europe, it has not, so far. Shanghai is an international metropolis with a huge community of expats. It abides by the same basic framework as major cities everywhere else (though perhaps with less garbage and more air pollution). Language does not appear to be an enormous exception: survival phrases will get you by, most signs are translated, and the younger generation almost invariably can speak English.
Separately, the increased frequency of group travel in my life stemming from dorm culture has significantly changed the language dynamic. First, I notice that we often make sure to bring a friend that is good at Mandarin when we want to do something challenging. This results in many stressed conversations in which that person needs to negotiate for all of us, while we speak in terse, harsh voices behind them. Second, I notice that we are more likely to be culturally insensitive as a group: we become caught up in gaudy conversation and even loud banter that includes words foreigners are certain to recognize. This is not always terrifically comfortable, and yet making everyone aware of this too frequently limits my capacity to curb the worst situations. It has forced me to develop a tolerance for it, even though alone I would not.
To close, I will quickly note that Google Translate has basically saved my life in many places, including Shanghai. Last October, Google released the latest version of the Google Pixel and their corresponding Pixel Buds using a translation demonstration, and the result was remarkable. It is still just an instant too slow in real life to achieve what the demo did, but it makes me wonder what the future of language interaction holds. Give it a watch, and let me know what you think!