Many years ago, in China, I stumbled across a Japanese woman who’d evacuated her home country due to the nuclear meltdown that was going on there at that time. She was sitting in a park with her daughter when we crossed paths and she and I sat while her daughter taught my daughter how to use a Chinese yo-yo. This woman and I shared very few common words but I had a pad of paper and somehow, I don’t remember all the details, I was able to get her story and she got mine. We sat in this park for over an hour, perfect strangers, and “talked” without words. I realized after this experience that there were some people I could communicate with even without knowing their language. On the other hand, there were other people, English-speaking people who simply could not hear what I was saying or understand it and who could not convey their thoughts back to me no matter how many words we had in common. Communication is not just about words. It’s a connection and until we moved to Mexico, I believed that it was a rare find.
Sometimes I love the intercambios—language exchanges where Spanish-speaking and English-speaking people gather to practice speaking. I’ve never experienced anything quite like the Guanajuato language intercambios in any other country. I believe that it’s possible that fewer than 10 people in my life besides John and Lydian had ever really listened to what I had to say before I went to one. Never in my life have I ever had people lean in to hear what I had to say the way that they lean in at intercambios here in Guanajuato. And I’ve never leaned in with the same level of interest as I do at the language exchanges that take place all across the city on various nights of the week either.
While all of the language schools in town offer intercambios, one fellow named “Richard” has worked particularly hard on his weekly intercambio that currently takes place at Tragaluz, a restaurant in Plaza Los Angeles near the centro. Richard offers the language exchange as a personal endeavor. He worked as a therapist for many years and he has experience with groups. For the most part, I think he just likes organizing and orchestrating the intercambios and he takes a lot of pride in the final outcome. He divides us up in to tables of native English and Spanish speakers and while the intercambios vary in terms of their size, it’s always kind of like going to a party where there are some people I know and some that I don’t. The ones I don’t know, I often get to know.
Lately, “Gerson” from Guatemala has been at my table. He’s talked about everything from the amazing beans his mom makes to hueseros, local shamans in his community that set broken bones without x-rays or casts. He’s a cool kid who’s studying rural impoverishment at the University of Guanajuato.
A young female engineer from Tuxtla Gutierrez regularly shows up and she and I have been at the same table several weeks in a row. She loves her home town and misses it. “It’s so beautiful there,” she told us and now, having seen the city myself, I can understand her sentiments. The mountains in that part of Mexico have created a majestic, Colorado-style setting with conifers and evergreens. At higher altitude in San Cristobal de las Casas, the afternoons are nippy even in August and the wind whips around through the trees when the sun goes down. The air smells of happy trees and fresh pine needles.
Jonathon, a man visiting Guanajuato from the Melbourne-area of Australia, has a dialect that keeps things challenging for the Spanish-speakers at the intercambio. He’s traveled all over the world and he’s older, so he has a lifetime of stories to share; little bits of interest that are unexpected because he’s experienced decades of life in another hemisphere.
A smattering of young and old take their seats in these random gatherings of people who speak a second language fluently or barely at all. Usually the people at my table are not from Guanajuato, but it depends. I spent several weeks at one intercambio orchestrated by Escuela Falcon speaking to a man who works for the department of agriculture here in Mexico. He and I exchanged appalling stories about chickens, how they’re raised and how they can transmit serious infections to people. He urged me not to eat plantains, but we didn’t share enough of either language for me to understand precisely why (I avoid them religiously). His wife is a dentist and I wrote down her phone number because she seems nice, her prices are cheap, she cares about patient pain, and she can remove mercury amalgam fillings.
At an Adelita language exchange, I recently met a couple from Montreal who are traveling for six months through Latin America. They spoke mostly French, some English, and a bit of Spanish. We conversed primarily in English, but the conversation was interesting because they’d traveled a lot and been to places we’ve never visited before.
I love to listen and talk to people about almost anything, but the opportunity to just sit and talk is so rare in the United States. People have abandoned their living rooms, card games, and face-to-face gatherings in favor of Facebook or Instagram and believe me, these technologies don’t do justice to in-person get-togetheres. Years ago, in Morocco, we met a young couple (Kanga and Courtney) and a couple of Sri Lankan women (Moneeka and Sadeeth) and we all had dinner together and then sat for a long time chatting at our dar about things I can’t even remember now. But I do remember laughing with them. We laughed and laughed and talked and talked into the wee hours of night as though we’d known each other forever. They were like old friends to us somehow though all of us were strangers from different parts of the globe (except Courtney who was from Ohio). On that same trip, when we passed through Tangiers, we talked late into the night with Abdellah, a young man studying law who had been charged with showing us to our vacation rental. In a gesture beyond his prescribed duties, he took us all over the city and he and John walked ahead of Lydian and I chatting enthusiastically across a language barrier. Abdellah was passionate and trying to understand the politics of his country and the United States and make decisions about his future profession. We stayed in touch with him for many years afterward.
For three years, Lydian and I have continued taking Arabic lessons with Mona from Egypt in large part because we enjoy her as a person. She’s interesting, educated, generous, and kind. Her limited English and our limited Arabic has been enough to keep Lydian and I fascinated over her presentation of the Egypt’s culture and how life-as-a-woman works in Arabic countries. There were times in the United States when she was the only person that Lydian and I would converse with for weeks at a time via our Skype sessions every Thursday morning.
Living in the United States, I’d begun to believe that conversation was rare or impossible. That it was a dying art and there was nothing I could do about it. This led me to think that Facebook was perhaps the only substitute for real human interaction. But I’ve found that in Spanish, here in Guanajuato at least, conversation is hard to avoid. Our lives are so full of conversation that it’s hard to find time to write about it. Even with our limited Spanish and three-word sentences, we spend large portions of every day living in Spanish.
A young man who works at the local vegetable vendor who is studying architecture at the University approached John and started up a conversation across a splay of onions and bok choy one day two weeks ago. Turns out, the kid is passionate about music. John offered to teach him music theory.
I decided to get our alternative cancer treatment book translated into Spanish because Lydi and I talk to a lot more people in Spanish about cancer cures that don’t involve conventional medicine than we do in English. In the states, people mostly aren’t interested in no-chemo, no-radiation cancer treatments until they’ve done all the treatments extolled on the TV, in movies, and through the internet and their doctors tell them there’s no hope for them and they have 2 weeks to live. I can’t count how many Americans have contacted me because their doctors sent them home to die. But healthy Mexicans lean in for this information because they distrust the big institutions and trust the human sitting in front of them. It’s a cultural difference I appreciate on many levels and for many reasons.
Lydian actually dates here. Boys ask her out and then she and the boy meet face-to-face and go do stuff to see if they like each other. In the states, boys would text her and this text-based-relationship was somehow considered “dating”, I think. The boys in the states wanted to play their video games and send texts back and forth to a girl, but never go to do the work or risk the rejection of actual dating. Video games have become an addiction for young men in the United States. It’s a serious problem, but one that young people don’t earmark because they don’t know anything different. Girls, in contrast, are addicted to Facebook, thinking that what they see through this warped lens is real. They judge themselves negatively while they participate by misrepresenting their lives, their bodies, and their relationships (and then feeling like charlatans). Lydian got off Facebook several months ago in favor of going out and doing things here in Guanajuato. Her life isn’t perfect, but she gets to see herself through the people she interacts with every day and her activities are varied and diverse. Sometimes she surprises herself. Sometimes she’s surprised by the people around her.
Patricia, our language instructor, has a keen interest in alternative medicine. She keeps us in-the-know about alternative medicine events in the area and we regularly digress onto topics related to medicine during our two hour classes each week. She warned us that Buenos días is the “how are you?” of English. In English, “how are you?” is not really a question, but rather just a nicety that has to do more with sizing up the answer-er than actually asking a person about their state-of-being. In Spanish, at least here in Guanajuato, if you ask someone, “how are you?” they’ll tell you at length and ask about your state-of-being too expecting a full response. I love this about here. Most people aren’t just waiting for their turn to talk. And they smile and look each other in the eyes when they’re talking. It’s a pleasure even just to watch other people talking to each other in the streets. When we first got to Guanajuato last year, I would stand in the rain and watch people with fascination; how they smiled and laughed, their hair wet from the recent downpour, stopping to talk at chance meetings while they’re on their way to other places.
Part of what makes Spanish so difficult to learn is the fact that people still use the language. It isn’t going through a rapid process of being abbreviated and shortened the way English is. There are many words for one thing: love is a concept expressed through multiple words that designate different types of relationships, for example. I can say “bathroom” at least five different ways in Spanish. Of course, English has redundancies too, but about a decade ago, I learned that, as a writer, big words were too alienating for most readers. The goal was to simplify the wording of all concepts and as such, learning more words, expanding my vocabulary in English was a waste of time. This was disappointing. In Spanish a big vocabulary still wows readers. I mean, as a writer, it’s important for the material to be accessible to the target audience. That’s a still a goal in Spanish, but it’s been my sense of it that even among people who don’t read or maybe who don’t know how to read, that the vocabulary of Mexican Spanish-speaking people is bigger than the vocabulary of educated English-speaking people.
Of course there’s no way for me to prove this or to know for sure that this is a fact. What I do know though, is that, as a rule, Spanish-speakers are better at conversation than English-speakers. While the English-speakers at our intercambio table are straightening their backs and leaning away, the Spanish-speakers lean in when I talk to them. They give me eye contact while the English-speakers are looking down at their iPhones to see if anyone hit “like” on their latest Facebook posts. While the English-speakers are taking selfies in the hopes that everyone on their “friends list” will see and believe in a super-hero-portrayal of a fairly average life, Spanish speakers are asking each other, “how are you?” on the street and then exchanging details about their average, day-to-day in a way that’s actually relatable and somewhat honest. It makes me glad that Lydian is learning Spanish, dating in Spanish, and learning the ropes of this culture rather than trying to make herself feel happy in a language that’s been relegated to nothing more than an Instagram-existence. When we moved here initially, I worried that she might feel alienated or that she’d struggle to feel accepted. I worried that John and I would be lonely. What I didn’t expect was to discover that loneliness was the baseline of our existence in the states. That despite all our “community involvement” isolation and a sense of disconnection was basic to our existence there. And that all those times that we traveled and met people and talked and felt like we belonged was not just because we were en route and connecting with other giddy travelers. It was because people still talk to each other and care about each other in other places in the world outside of the United States.
While Americans are paying people huge sums of money to sit across the room from them and listen (therapists/psychologists), people in other places just chat on the street or take a class or go to an intercambio to have conversations and solve day-to-day problems. While Americans are investing in Prozac and watching their Facebook pages closely for “likes” that pretend to provide a measure of their value, Mexicans are going to the vegetable and fruit vendor to have a pleasant and very human interaction that involves a smile, eye-contact, and a short verbal exchange that seems inconsequential but that lifts the spirits of both parties and makes life feel worthwhile. Mexicans are walking (not driving) from their houses to local business owners in communities that haven’t been completely hijacked and reconfigured by the presence of a Walmart. On their way, they pass neighbors or friends and they say hello and smile. They go daily to get their groceries because the groceries are provided by a vendor who lives only a few blocks away. The farmer brings fresh fruits and vegetables on a donkey or in an old truck from a field located in the hills nearby.
Life isn’t perfect anywhere in the world, but it’s important that we, as humans, don’t underestimate the value of other people and the importance of connecting with people face-to-face; of hearing people’s voices and conversing directly with others. A “like” is not equivalent to a genuine smile or the light touch of a person’s hand on your shoulder. A “like” is not equivalent to slight nod in a room full of naysayers. Believe me, the nod is much more powerful and important. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are toxic in this respect because they pretends to be something much more complex and meaningful when in fact they’re nothing but an insidious form of manipulation and an opportunity for self-delusion.
Look up from your phone. Notice the people around you. Are they looking at their phones? Notice the clouds, the way the shadows fall, and what it is that makes you want to look down at your phone rather than simply staring off into space, or taking a moment for self-contemplation.
Shut down your search engine. Read a book instead. What happens? Who do you become if you listen to the voices of people who have thoughts that last longer than 15 seconds? Advertising is like an infection that takes over your thoughts. Avoid it. It’s a form of brainwashing like an infection. You won’t know who you are or what you think unless you can get away from it for a substantial period of time.
These words and thoughts make the average American feels a sense of repulsion. Why? Why do Americans straighten their backs at the idea of being brainwashed by big corporations and ubiquitous advertising while Mexicans agree with these ideas without flinching?
Avoid strong opinions.
Don’t rock the boat.
Talk about the weather.
…unless the sky is falling.
Then you can talk about what you ate for dinner last night.