The summer before 9-11, I was in New York City, riding in a taxi. I admired the music that was playing and asked where it was from. The driver said, “It is from Afghanistan; I am from Afghanistan.”
I replied that I had heard that his country was beautiful. He said, “Yes, it is, but I have told thousands of people where I’m from, and no one has ever said that. Where did you hear that; have you been there?”
I was caught in a lie. I was pretty much making it up, trying to make friendly conversation. We all like to think we’re from somewhere beautiful, don’t we?
We ended up having a nice visit about his home city and my home city, how they’re both bowls of desert ringed by breathtaking, snowy mountain peaks. My desert bowl with snowy peaks is Salt Lake City and I think it’s wacky and embarrassing sometimes, but I sure think it’s beautiful, too.
For years now, I’ve been working on a funny hobby. My goal is to learn to say a few polite words in as many languages as possible. So far, I can struggle through mispronunciations of a tiny smattering of words in Arabic, Italian, Tagalog, Chinese, Serbo-Croatian, French, Nepali, Amharic, Russian, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Hebrew, Quechua, Thai, German, Vietnamese and Farsi.
Most of the time, I can even remember which is which. Outside of Spanish and Italian, I don’t have enough vocabulary to have even the simplest conversation in any of the languages, but a word or two is enough to show that I’m willing to make a fool of myself in order to make friends.
I’ve seen my town grow and change dramatically. Today some elementary schools in Salt Lake are educating students who bring more than 80 different native languages with them to school. On the other hand, I have a vivid classroom memory of my third-grade teacher asking for a show of hands of anyone who was not LDS.
Back then, diversity was measured in gradations of hair color among the all-English speaking, all-white, nearly all-Mormon student body. The occasional brunette Methodist could cause quite a stir. You didn’t have to bring anything for show-and-tell, just stand there and let people get a good look at you.
So I guess I grew up thinking that being different equated to being interesting and I’ve appreciated, or tried to appreciate, the ways we’re all different ever since.
Once, when I was at a downtown steak house with my mom, we were waited on by a young man whose nametag said, “Dereje.” He spoke English well but with the strong accent of the newly arrived. In response to my question, he said he was from Ethiopia. I asked if he spoke Amharic and he smiled broadly, his eyes lighting up. “Yes,’’ he replied, amazed.
When our food came I thanked him in Amharic and he about jumped out of his shoes, laughing long and loud. We had a nice visit and he talked about what his growing up was like and how much he missed his family. I only know two words in his language, but I only needed one of them to form a bond.
Downtown hotels are full of employees from other countries. Go to a luncheon or a dinner at the Marriott or the Hilton and if your server is from Bosnia, thank her in Serbo-Croatian. I promise you will be treated like a hero.
In Nevada one time after a peaceful protest at the nuclear test site (on the way to jail, actually), some of the women on our bus were singing peace movement songs. We were a group who didn’t know one another, but we all had the songs in common. Anyway, I thought we did. Finally, someone noticed that the contingent of Shoshone women on the bus weren’t singing along.
We asked the women to sing something of theirs and they taught us a song about a rabbit that runs through the desert. Riding on that bus, singing in a language that’s been in America longer than English with dozens of women I didn’t know, is a prized memory that has stayed with me.
There are only two times, to my knowledge, when I’ve been derided for trying to speak another language. The first time, I was in a local Thai restaurant and when the Asian server in her lovely silk dress came to our table, I said hello in Thai. With a chilly tone she replied, “I’m Korean.”
The other time I was on the island of Capri and the fellow I tried to speak to totally made fun of me. It’s possible I had enjoyed too much of the local specialty, limoncello, rumored to be about 35 percent alcohol, to give Italian a fair try right then. But still, he didn’t have to be rude.
Anyway, so what? I’m happy to bumble along, trying to use pleases and thank-yous from a few of the world’s languages whenever I can. It has brought me a lot more joy than embarrassment.
I can’t imagine learning Amharic and moving to Ethiopia to start life on my own, leaving my friends and family behind, never to speak in English again. I think people who come here are very brave and deserve respect. Things that come naturally to most of us require unending discipline and sacrifice on the part of immigrants, but still they come, and we’re lucky enough to have them living among us, making our piece of the world more interesting.
To all of them, I say (or try to say) thank you.
Barb Guy is a frequent contributor to these pages. She lives in Salt Lake City.