Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Getting Personal: “When Language Isn’t the Only Barrier”

Guest columnists and contributors are generously sharing their talents and insights while I’m taking some time to care for my new baby. Today’s post comes from Catie Joy who is a writer living and studying in New York.

In Ecuador, Santiago and I spend hours alone in his childhood bedroom. He is the only person I can speak to without translation. My six years of Spanish classes taught me, as Santiago has put it, “to understand fluently,” but not to speak with any confidence or ease. I’ve mastered the nod-and-smile, and when I’m so moved, when something excites me enough that my fear of misspeaking subsides, I am able to recall a surprisingly large vocabulary, if not the proper tenses and conjugations.

Although Santiago, my boyfriend of three years, and I live together in Brooklyn, I sometimes describe our relationship as “international.” Santiago is a citizen of the United States, but his parents, along with most of his siblings, live in Latin America. Each summer we are summoned to Guayaquil, Ecuador, Santiago’s hometown and the city where his father lives.

In Santiago’s room, in the 65º air conditioning, planted on his queen-size bed, I air my anxieties. No one knows me, and because they don’t seem to expect me to stick around, they aren’t trying very hard to figure me out. I feel guilty for my inability to communicate. I don’t know which barrier to tackle first—language, cultural, or socio-economic — and I’m not always sure whether they’re conquerable. I’m afraid to joke, for fear of being misunderstood or causing offense, and when I’m offended I’m afraid to speak up for myself (not at all my typical modus operandi). Here, I’m not “Catie,” I’m “The Girl.” “What does the girl want for dinner?” “Santi, ask the girl how she is today.”

Everyone knows I understand Spanish, but a distance remains — there is a degree of separation, a gap none of us is sure how to bridge. I’m afraid everyone thinks I’m stuck-up, and I’m even more afraid that my quiet complacency (to being called “the girl,” to the sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, to the common habit of pointing out flaws in other people’s bodies and lifestyles) is a betrayal of my feminist sensibilities, of my personality, and of my determination to be a thoroughly decent person.

Because of this, my personality is often lost in translation. While Santiago fits into my family with ease — his polite, liberal, intellectual chatterbox personality is right up my parents’ alley — I struggle to converse with his father for more than five minutes. The language barrier is the least of my worries — I fear he won’t respect my opinions or put much stock in what I have to say. I fear he just isn’t interested in getting to know me. I’m not sure Santiago’s dad will ever know me or understand why his son loves me.

The biggest conflict I’ve experienced with Santiago’s family is one I suspect I would have encountered even without the international element — Santiago comes from money, and I don’t. The things that seem most foreign to me aren’t those rooted in Ecuadorian culture — I’m most uncomfortable with differences rooted in class. Santiago’s dad is a workaholic business owner. His mom has an impressive collection of designer handbags. His father’s house has a full-time staff. My mom is an art teacher. My dad has an impressive collection of freecycled doors and windows. My parents have never had a once-a-month housekeeper, let alone a semi-live-in maid who does the cleaning, shopping, and cooking.

The last disparity is the most difficult for me to get adjust to. It’s lovely to come downstairs to find breakfast on the table, but I’ll never get used to standing up to pour myself a glass of water, only to have a woman pry the glass from my hand, smiling as if to say, “Oh, honey, you really don’t understand how it works here!” and pour the glass for me as I stand uselessly to the side.

I feel guilty for having so much privilege but feeling that I don’t have quite enough in a home with such a disparity of wealth. I feel guilty that I don’t have enough money to pay for my own trip, so Santiago’s dad pays for my flights. I feel guilty that I can never offer to cover a nice dinner out, knowing that the family’s tastes are much pricier than my own. I feel guilty for not being able to properly appreciate Santiago’s mom’s Hermês purses, Mont Blanc pens, and colossal diamond earrings. And I feel guilty that I can’t communicate with the woman who helped to raise my boyfriend, fearing that she might think I fancy myself her superior.

I’m sure, however, that my fears are largely unfounded — the maid, María, who has been with the family since before Santiago was born, thinks of Santiago as her adoptive son. Although we’ve never had an unmediated conversation, she often slings her arm around my shoulders and refers to me as her “nuera,” her daughter-in-law. María tells me embarrassing stories about Santiago as a little boy, and she teaches me how to cook delicious sauces.

María isn’t my only surprising ally — when Santiago’s dad comes back from work and fails to greet me before launching into a soliloquy about his workers, his girlfriend turns the conversation to something she thinks I might be interested in. She understands as much English as I do Spanish, and she laughs at every one of my timid jokes. Her personality meshed with mine almost as soon as we met, and while we can’t talk about much because of the language barrier and disparate cultural reference points, I adore her for her willingness to say whatever’s in her mind, brazenly defying the gender paradigms in place in Santiago’s family.

My failure to communicate with most of Santiago’s family has both strained and strengthened our relationship. Because I’m tense and frustrated during a good portion of each visit to Ecuador, I’m more likely than usual to get upset at him if he says or does something annoying. However, Santiago often feels he needs to, in a sense, perform for his family. They have expectations for him — about his political and religious beliefs, about his personality, about his willingness to laugh at offensive jokes — that he isn’t interested in living up to. Because we’re both uncomfortable in the roles we feel are expected of us, we take solace in our comfort together. Finding ways to weather the challenges (to our personalities, our deeply-held ethical and political beliefs) we face in Ecuador has forced us to grow together. Defending your relationship, yourself, or the person you’re becoming, is ultimately a wonderful way of assessing what is most important, what you’re least willing to compromise for anyone. The time Santiago and I spend alone together, worrying about how people think of us and what we can do to prove to his family that our relationship is here to stay, has made us even more certain of our longevity.

I’m still working on winning Santiago’s dad over. I suspect it will be a years-long challenge. But once he decides he’d care to get to know me, I’m going to be sure he knows who I really am—Catie, not “The Girl.”

* Catie Joy is a writer living and studying in New York. She is primarily a personal essayist, but she also writes fiction and feminist cultural criticism. You can find more of her writing on her website at catiejoy.com.

12 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Annette October 26, 2011, 12:30 pm

    This was a nice read. Thank you for sharing. I’m rooitng for you to be able to get closer with your Santiago’s family soon!! Hang in there!! 🙂

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    Addie Pray October 26, 2011, 12:31 pm

    That was nice, Catie. I enjoy these personal essays.

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    ForeverYoung October 26, 2011, 12:54 pm

    Thank you for sharing!! I love reading these.

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    Rosie October 26, 2011, 1:20 pm

    I love these personal essays too! Thanks for letting us peek in a bit on your life, Catie. 🙂

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    Kerrycontrary October 26, 2011, 1:50 pm

    I think this was a great essay and it shows a lot that you and your boyfriend can weather this storm together. I studied abroad and like you, I had studied the language for years upon years so I could follow conversations but I was timid about participating at first. The first thing that helped me was alcohol (no, really). You will relax and get better at the language during the first 2 drinks. Your fluency will go down after that. Secondly, you LIVE with someone who speaks the language. Use that!!! Try only speaking Spanish 1 day a week. It will be exhausting but you will be more comfortable. Anyways, I loved the essay.

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      6napkinburger October 26, 2011, 2:09 pm

      For reals. The best french I spoke during my 5 months there was on the way home from the bar, to the cab driver. And it wasn’t even just in my head; I really did suddenly hear words coming out of my mouth that I knew were correct, though I wouldn’t have been able to think if them if I had tried.

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      Catie October 26, 2011, 4:55 pm

      Thank you! At a party this summer, Santiago’s dad’s girlfriend got drunk and we discovered that she speaks English quite well! I think next time I’m there I’ll have to imbibe (a little) and figure out if it works the same for me.

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    LennyBee October 26, 2011, 2:06 pm

    Thanks for sharing! You’re a great writer. I’m heading for a similar situation this Christmas (two weeks in my boyfriend’s country with his family, not all of whom speak or understand English). I’m planning to switch to speaking only Italian with the bf at least 2 weeks before we leave to get me a little more comfortable speaking.

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      Catie October 26, 2011, 4:56 pm

      Thank you! Good luck!

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  • katie

    katie October 26, 2011, 9:36 pm

    Great story. I will share what you the little that my mom shared of her childhood- it sounds like she and your boyfriend had about the same childhood, with the live in maids and such. the fact that the maid calls your boyfriend her son, and you the daughter in law, is a really really good sign… because chances are, she was the person who actually raised him. in my mom’s case at least, her mother and father were never actually a mother and father- they were people who lived in the house. the maid raised my mom, and so she never clicked with her parents… I wonder if this may be true for your boyfriend as well. if this is the case, you’ve already won over the “mother”, who was the family maid. i wouldnt worry terribly much about the father…. but still, good luck!

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    daisy October 27, 2011, 3:30 am

    Good luck, Catie! I am in a somewhat similar situation, although I don’t think I could have described it so eloquently! I live overseas and my boyfriend’s parents do not speak or understand English. I understand their language almost fully, but I am hesitant to speak and often worry that they think I sound like I’m 5 years old! My parents are actually coming to visit next week and will be meeting my boyfriend and his family for the first time. Our parents have no common language, and I am exhausted just thinking about all the translating we’ll have to do! I think a little wine for everyone will definitely be necessary!

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    Caris October 30, 2011, 9:32 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this 🙂

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