Lost In Translation

There’s something to be said about a “stay-cation”.

I mean, besides the obvious “I’m trying to save money.”

It’s an opportunity to discover new things in your hometown that you may not have had the time or inclination to, had you not had the luxury of unused vacation days at your disposal.

For me, it was a chance to catch up with some friends and family, get in touch with my silly side dressing up for a Halloween party, and watching people undress during a jazz/burlesque show.

But it was the final day of “stay-cay” that would bring the most discovery, and ultimately affect me more than any afro-wig sporting, or semi-nude debauchery could.

With my newly found block of time, I was able to re-awaken my dormant relationship with NY Cares and volunteer for a new program. Having already worked with children, the idea of working with women of Arab descent was a new challenge I was game for. As a volunteer, we were required to have “empowering conversations with the women in English”, which seemed more like a cake-walk upon first glance.

For the most part… it was.

As my fellow volunteers and I entered the room of women who were fresh off their English language teachings, we were initially taken aback by the large number of them that had gathered. With four of us to their twenty-plus number, it was daunting at first trying to figure out how to incorporate all the women into our conversations. One of the veterans of the program — clearly a pro — began by getting all the women to say their name and tell us where they’re from and if they had children and how many. It turned out to be a great ice breaker, as the women revealed their children’s genders and numbers, which segued into jokes about the boy/girl ratio in the room and how they perhaps chose their seats in the room based on the gender of the kids.

As class progressed, we discussed the Arab holiday that had recently passed, for which they brought in a feast of dishes to celebrate amongst each other following the class. They asked us about our religious holidays and what they mean to us, and a poignant moment occurred when the women learned that Christians attend mass on Christmas Eve. Apparently, they were stunned to find out that much the way they attend mosque prayers leading into their holidays, Americans partake in a similar ritual. One of the women, who spoke perfect English, declared “so we are all the same.”

If that had been how our session concluded, I would have been content in what could easily be called a “kumbaya” moment. But there was more time left. And eventually we had to break out into groups to have more in-depth chats.

So it was here where the real education happened.

In a room filled with women hailing from Yemen, Sudan and Sri Lanka, we were adeptly maneuvering through small talk about family, favorite foods and parks in New York when the women excitedly volunteered to read their assigned paragraphs to me and looked for guidance when they had difficulty with words. Honored by the gesture and happy to be instrumental in improving their grasp of the language, I listened and gently ushered them through their selected paragraphs — even after realizing every one of them were negative.

As I listened to stories of friendships being endangered by one’s lack of reliability and phone etiquette, of a girl who thought she told funny stories until her mother informed her she’s not always funny, and of a man who will never be fat because he’s a light eater who prefers fish sandwiches and vegetables — the part of me that wasn’t coaching them through pronunciation and complimenting them on completing their paragraphs was horrified!

The idea of being there to have “empowering” conversations with women who are being taught to speak with condescension was troubling, but the fact that most — if not all — of the women there to learn the native tongue of their new adopted home had no idea they were being taught this was even more troubling. I’d probably be standing on a soapbox if the people responsible for this were American by birth… but they’re not.

As I looked at these smiling women, who spoke with pride of their families, prodded me about my own (non)marital status, offered me food and laughed with shyness and perhaps a little spirit, it became clearer that a lot of what we perceive about each other is simply based on what we are taught or told by those we consider “experts”. It would give me the greatest pleasure if one of the women became so adept at understanding the language that she realizes and corrects the well-intended but slightly offensive “curriculum” being shared with her fellow classmates.

In spite of the lesson, it was an amazing experience to see so many women, young and old, unafraid of taking on a new challenge in their lives… lives which in their respective parts of the world could have been limited to simply being wives and mothers.

At the end of the day, I may have taught them how to pronounce a few words and phrases, but they taught me a lesson or two.

Sure, that kind of story doesn’t have the shock value of chicks with strategically placed tassels, but it’s less likely to give me panic attacks in the event I miss yoga class.

Who needs to get on a plane, when Brooklyn is just a train ride away and has just as many adventures? A metrocard can give you all the excitement of Vegas, and the international intrigue of a UN mission.

Needless to say, the Tuesday recap at the office was interesting…

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