Being on the outside of language is instructive. Being a recent immigrant to a country where I do not speak the language means that I am often outside of discourse. An infantile attempter. A curious observer of language.
And when I say language I refer not only to words spoken. I refer to words not spoken. Meanings meant by words yelled. Even hand gestures.
And some days, I’m grateful I don’t speak the local lingo. Some days it benefits me to be on the outside.
A few days ago, I had one of those days…
The story actually begins the week before, when I had gone to a shop around the corner where they sell ground beef. And, where I had heard them speaking Russian. So, I thought, lucky me—I can use my Russian to make sure I get exactly what I need! I walked up to the counter and to be polite began with, do you speak Russian? And he, well, I don’t quite know how to convey in words the piercing hating glaring mean mean look I received. The response was da, but wow, horrible! He made my purchase about as unpleasant as getting a tooth pulled and I rushed out of there as quickly as I could.
Of course it’s not the only store where they sell ground beef, but it’s close, cheaper than other places and I was not about to let angry butcher man dictate where I buy my beef. So, a few days ago, again in search of ground beef, I marched right into the above mentioned store. Thankfully, a different man was working behind the meat counter. And I thought, let’s try English this time. I asked if he spoke English. Yes, of course, he said. Smiling. Then, the mean angry Russian-speaking butcher comes up, looks at me, then at the nice butcher and says in Hebrew, She is Russian. The nice man responds, no she is American. I said nothing; got my beef and went to the cashier.
Where he was yelling at the woman in front of me for who knows what in Hebrew. I did hear the word maniac, which must mean something different in Hebrew than Russian, where maniac means serial killer or rapist. I didn’t think the cashier would call this elderly woman who I think walked out with a bouquet of flowers without paying—a rapist. But when it was my turn to pay, he was still yelling, then started yelling at me; I don’t know why. Maybe I wasn’t putting the food on the counter right. Or maybe I was moving too slowly. Or maybe he was yelling about the maniac and just looking at me.
I had no idea. And I thought, I am tuning you out.
I smiled, handed over my shekels, and walked out. Grateful to be on the outside of this discourse.
And I realized how outside of language I often feel. Not just Hebrew or Russian, or how to buy beef or whether to say sorry when you bump into someone or whether you should say thank you before leaving a store, as one does in France but not in America, but also the language of my children or husband or friends.
I realized that I put a lot of effort into trying to understand and I often don’t. Let’s be honest–I don’t understand why the cashier was angry. I don’t understand why the angry butcher-man doesn’t like me. I often don’t understand what my children want or need. Or what friends or family or my husband feels or is trying to communicate.
But, maybe it’s not for me to understand everything and everyone. Maybe I can chill the worrying mind, the striving to understand mind. Maybe I can remember that we each have our own language. And often perfunctory reasons for why we do what we do. Or say what we say. Maybe we’re all simultaneously insiders and outsiders–trying to find our own language and understand the language of others. And if there is anything to do maybe it’s give some breathing room, some space and patience, with a big dose of kindness (and self-compassion when we inevitably get it wrong) on the side.