Musings on dwelling in a language you don't call homePosted: February 10, 2011
So I spent last evening chatting with a friend of mine, a local, about American music and culture. We speak only in Spanish, although he is proficient in English so I may occasionally ask him to help me translate a particular word or concept.
Brief aside: I often, when I’m speaking in Spanish, can’t remember the most basic facts about American pop culture. For example, the names of actors or bands escape me. This carries over even to conversations in English with ex-pats. Suddenly, I can see Brad Pitt’s face, I just can’t remember what the hell his name is or any of the titles of the films he’s been in. There’s a lot of “oh that movie, you know, where the guy starts that club with other men where they fight each other?” It’s a thing. The mother tongue, as it turns out, really is a kind of home.
Back on topic: What I find most frustrating about these kinds of exchanges, and indeed this is not particular to my own experience, is that I am not really me when I’m speaking in Spanish. I’m sure something of who I am comes across but I find myself trying to explain, at length and with a stunted vocabulary, what it is I feel about a given subject. But it’s like explaining a joke in a YouTube video to someone who has yet to see it. Something is just completely lost. You can’t narrate who you are. You just are.
There are benefits, of course, to being a foreigner with a capacity (albeit meager) to speak in the language of the locals. You learn a lot of slang and common expressions in the process of trying to communicate. They let you pontificate on the evils of American consumerism (and tend to be, at least here, both surprised and pleased that a real, live American would make such critiques), and they always lie and say you speak such great Spanish. But the exchanges go something like this:
Alli: Capitalism bad! The U.S. has problems.
Porteño: Really? I’ve not heard many Americans laub that critique.
Alli: We exist! We are just not the usuals.
Porteño: It’s difficult to articulate our position because so much of our cinema and music is influenced by American culture, despite our resistance to American cultural hegemony.
Alli: Capitalism bad!*
Speaking this way is a sort of exaggerated version of a bad first date. You have these conversations and then later want to return to explain this or that aspect of your perspective once you’ve thought it over and can actually find (by which I mean look up) the words. Luckily, when you’re dating a country, there’s always tomorrow. I’m pretty sure Argentina, despite my tiresome struggle with its language, will call me in the morning.
*Caveat: I can’t deny that some of my conversations in English, with other English speakers in the U.S., have progressed, more or less, in exactly the same manner.