Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cultural Reflections

I don't speak much Spanish. I pick up more and more every time we go, but let's face it...I mangle the language when I speak and I understand very little when I listen. So we rely on body language. It's kind of a fun challenge and the people have always been so gracious to us. It's this experience that leads my thoughts down two roads today.

First, as a traveler in a foreign land, I am so thankful for the kindness of those who graciously tried to communicate with us. They would rephrase questions, point to things, t a l k...m o r e...s l o w l y. All the while, they were friendly and gracious.

There's a lot of emails flying around the Internet these days about the English and Spanish languages here in America. As a matter of public policy, I support English being the official language of the United States. I believe we should encourage immigrants to learn English, not so I won't be inconvenienced, but so they will have a better hope of success.

But, on a personal level, I believe in friendly and gracious behavior. If someone who doesn't speak my language asks me a question, I hope I will take the time to speak slowly, point, and rephrase questions. I hope I will look them in the eye and make them feel welcome. It's the least I can do, since I've been shown this courtesy so often.

My second thought trail comes from observing the body language of others. I believe I learned a lot from focusing in on a few key people and casually observing others.

The first fellow was Renando, our driver. As we were leaving Panajachel, we made several stops to pick up extra passengers. At one point, Renando gets out of the van at the same time a young girl is running up the street, her long black hair flowing from side to side. It's clearly his 8-10 year old daughter. He picks her up and gives her a big "daddy hug". Then he gets down on one knee, looks her directly in the eyes, leans in and gives her directions for the day. He gives her some money, you can tell that he is earnestly telling her to take it directly to Mom, and that he will be back tonight. All the time, he's tenderly stroking her hair, smiling, and his eyes are glistening. He gives her another hug and a kiss good-bye, and off she runs down the street. What a beautiful scene! Something about his tenderness just made my heart melt. What an example of the kind of parent I ought to be.

The other fellow is the restaurant owner in Panajachel. He's the one who gave hungry A___ a plate and fork and sat him down at a table. He treated A___ with such dignity. Well, as we sat down to eat that night, the street vendors swarmed our table. The owner was trying to take our order and at the same time, the ladies and children were trying to sell us everything from table runners to bracelets. So Daddy S turns to him and says, "I can't even think here. Can you make them go away?" He turns to the vendors and very quietly, very gently, pleads with them to allow us to order and eat in peace. This is his restaurant. They're disturbing his business. He had every right to bark at them to get out and stay out. But he didn't. He chose to treat them with respect and compassion. I have so much to learn. Oh, if I could treat people who are a pain in my neck with that much love.


The last observation is more general. I noticed that when adults talk to children in Spanish, their voices get high and sing-songy. The volume goes down and they move in close. It's so tender. It's so personal. I want to be more like this.

I never knew I could understand so much from body language.


1 comment:

DF said...

Oh, Julie, that was such a beautiful post about the things you observed while in Guatemala. It made me teary-eyed to think of such tenderness from the father, the respect of the restaurant owner... As a person who was born in a Spanish-speaking country and whose parents never learned the English language (except basic phrases), though they really wanted to, it's wonderful to see how you appreciate others and their cultural values. Sometimes I think my parents feel embarrassed in front of Americans b/c they cannot communicate with them in English. But there's no need for shame; we are all people and, if we try, we can communicate in other ways. My Irish-American husband has learned a lot of Spanish and we hope to teach our Guatemalan son to be bilingual & bi-cultural. What a blessing we will give him.