Sometimes I’m the only one who doesn’t get the joke. Some days I smile, reassuring everyone that I’m not on the outside. Some days I even laugh a little. At other times I just keep my face blank … After all, is there any shame in not getting it? I can’t decide.
I speak fluently, even rapidly. My brother, upon hearing my conversation with my mother-in-law, rolls his eyes and tells me to slow down. I don’t. But when I’m here, I can never speak fast enough. Every error stays in my mind, reminding me that what I thought about myself was wrong. Is wrong. Most do not correct me, but some take it upon themselves—without my permission—to remind me of my errors. When I speak, the words tumble out, seemingly unstoppable in their urgency. I say things I know are wrong in the heat of the moment, just to keep the words flowing, just so my listener doesn’t have to wait five seconds. I can’t bear to make them impatient. I find it insufferable when they correct me, tell me agua is feminine.
“I know,” I mutter to myself. “Why don’t you correct me on something that I actually don’t understand?” But on the outside I am silent.
During the fall semester of my senior year at Indiana University, I met some students from Hong Kong, who were spending a semester in Bloomington, Indiana, of all places. We had so many memories together: dinners in their high-rise apartment building filled with foreign students, watching The Nut Cracker at the IU Auditorium, Thanksgiving in my hometown. When I remember their halting English, I wince to think I should have ever been patronizing to them. It is quite astonishing to recall their level of fluency and willingness to travel to the frigid Midwest, a region not known for diversity or even good weather. Yet there they went, and thus we all made lifelong friends from across the world. I can only hope to have been gracious and welcoming to them, to have never made them feel like they were on the outside looking in. Perhaps that was impossible. I must have tried, though. Can one ever truly feel like a native when the language is foreign? I can’t say. It hasn’t been my experience.
In high school, a schoolmate made a joke about someone’s mother’s broken English. I didn’t laugh, certainly not, but neither did I say anything, and I certainly could not understand what my classmate felt at hearing her mother held up as an object of ridicule. Even now, after five years as the foreigner in the crowd, I only have the smallest grasp on what that feels like—to be somewhere, to be the perpetual outsider. A small language barrier is still a barrier.
Most of my peers will never feel like outsiders. They will always live in a place where their first language is the language, and if they do travel, English is and probably will be the lingua franca, at least for the foreseeable future. To speak English is to have the world in your hands, to know that wherever you go, all you have to do is walk up to the counter and say, “English, please?”