One purpose for coming to teach in El Salvador was to experience being a person who does not speak the local language well. By this, I don’t mean for just for a two week vacation at a hotel or resort where the staff speak English or you don’t have to worry about things like food shopping or doing laundry. Also, I wanted a place that has a different standard of living and/or customs than in the US. What’s it like? I’ve wondered how it is for people arriving in America from places like Iraq or Nepal or Bhutan.
Luckily, like many immigrants, I have a strong connection here to help orient me. Joaquin from Travel to Teach showed me around, oriented me to things and spent about a half day with me the first few days to help make sure I settle in okay. But then I’m on my own for half a day.
To try to learn Spanish and make this meaningful, I look for opportunities to interact. I buy small things from different people. Unfortunately, I’m just like that guy ahead of you in line at the store who does not speak your native language. Things get mixed up from time to time and it costs the people in line behind me some time. I have no idea that the woman at the lunch counter is asking if my order is for here or to go. Eventually, we figure it out. Of the hundreds of scenarios I covered with my teachers, we missed this one. Remember me the next time you’re behind a person like me at the store, please.
I’m making friends with some of the merchants selling things in the plaza, but have to say “lo siento, no entendi” (sorry, I did not understand) so many times it’s embarrassing. But sometimes, I get the drift; I understand and that feels great. It may have been Tim Ferriss who said that your ability to learn a language is proportional to the extent to which you’re willing to make an ass of yourself trying to speak it. Claro!
Then there is shopping. I bought four items for the house the other day. The detergent was the right brand (which is what I based my purchase on) but the wrong style; it was for a washing machine not hand washing. And this morning after my shower, I used the nice Nivea body lotion I bought. As it began to make suds, I read more closely to discover I bought crema de ducha (shower cream), not lotion. You know, this is fine for me. The lotion was cheap. But what about for an immigrant in the US with few resources and with higher prices? That can’t be fun. (I am hoping my cereal and milk choices were good.)
Despite the challenges, I’m in good spirits. This is what I signed on for. The only thing for me and others in the same situation to do is to just keep moving forward and trying despite the number of errors we make. They say success is getting up more times than you are knocked down.
Note: Liz Cakes is my favorite panaderia (bakery). It is close to the school and is the spot to grab something quick to eat…and they are very tolerant of my trouble answering their questions.