A Narrative: Old World, New Words
When I first came here to Hawaii from my home in China, I was so lonely, homesick and frightened by the sights and sounds of so many strangers. When I heard people speak, of course I did not understand, and an odd thing would happen to me. Hearing this language, I imagined that they were speaking Chinese, only with a different accent or dialect to mine, and if I tried hard enough, I would soon understand. My ears were stretching from the sides of my head with the effort of this impossible task.
Then, out on the streets, among people of every shape, size and color, I felt myself to be growing smaller and paler, a tiny little shadow of a person that nobody could see. It was as if I was not there anymore. Silly, I know, but I would walk along and glance into shop windows, seeking my reflection as I passed, just to make sure I was real.
The smells were something else too, not unpleasant but unusual to me. I loved the many perfumes which drifted past my nose in sweet clouds from the girls, women, and men too, around me. Food and flowers, sea and sun-oil were further odd and new scents to deal with. All added to the strangeness for me.
For those first few weeks, I moved around in a sort of sensory trance, coming to terms with the newness, the ‘otherness’ of life here, and was often uncertain of my place within it. I feared I would never belong. I was fortunate to have some good friends from home who showed me around, ensured my comfort and helped to get me enrolled on my English course. I was already good at reading English, could speak a little too, and if only I could hear it enough, then I would soon be speaking much better. That was my belief.
So I made myself go to the park and sit near chattering mothers and playing children, listening and taking note all the while. I ate in little diners by myself, always sitting where I could hear those clever, fluent English speakers. Nobody paid me much attention, I would read my book or write on my notepad. My father had insisted that my two sisters and I should be educated, we should know the works of the great writers of the world, and we did. He taught us to write, recite and delight in books and language.
My trouble was that few of those I listened to seemed to speak the English of Shakespeare! But I was not going to give up. Still I listened and learned and it was a joy, a triumph for me when I overheard a word or two which made sense. With a smile, I would jot down ‘coffee,’ ‘cup’, ‘fries’ and so forth, delighted to be able to attach the word to the object. And so it went on, as my notebook filled rapidly with more treasures of the spoken word.
Came the day when I must put a few choice examples together and give them the power of my voice. I was shy, not certain of my own presence, but now I felt strong in the knowledge that I could understand and be understood. Armed with this belief, I decided my first try would be to buy a chocolate ice-cream from somewhere new to me. I rehearsed in front of my mirror, wearing my best smile.
May I have a chocolate ice-cream please? I would ask.
Thank you, no, just as it comes
I would add, prepared to refuse sauce, nuts, sprinkles and so on. I wanted plain, simple ice-cream and to use the plain, simple, correct phrase. I admit to feeling a little bit nervous, but I needed to prove to myself that I could do this.
The woman at the ice-cream counter was round, brown and very cheerful. She beamed a big smile at me when it was my turn and I carefully gave my order.
OK, si, un helado de chocolate por las senora!
She leaned over, passing me the wafer cone full of delicious, melting, frozen ice-cream. I gave her
my money and wondered if I was melting or frozen myself, this was not English, but she had understood me – and without any problem.
I said, in my strongest voice, and she smilingly responded,
Was my spoken English so good that it could be understood in other languages? For a small second, this thought ran through my mind. No, the key word ‘chocolate’ must be international, or maybe it was the smiling we were doing to each other. The fact that I was standing in line at an ice-cream counter also told her what I wanted. I had been so concerned with saying the right words, in the correct way, that I forgot what was going on around me. It was not magic, nor was it words, it was just that communication happened.
That was one good learning experience for me. I realized that to understand and be understood can take less, or more than only words. The need for perfection was something I had imposed on myself and it was not necessary. I had feared to lose face, to be maybe ridiculed and this had held me back.
I learned to look at other people more, rather than inwards and backwards and began to understand that people are more likely to be kind and helpful than cruel and dismissive. From that moment on, I used my spoken English at every opportunity, and this has brought me fun, laughter and more friends than I dreamed of. So what if it comes out wrong sometimes, that is how we all learn, by making a few mistakes here and there. Communication is reaching out and being reached, and talking with the ‘right’ words and in the ‘right’ way is only one small part of it.