Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sandra Bullock and Avatar

I've been the States less than a week now and last night went to a Sandra Bullock movie marathon at my brother's friend's apartment in San Francisco.

I always enjoy bonding with my bro and his friends, but I felt out of sorts, without a layer of armor. In Chile, I could hide behind my Spanish, use it as an excuse to remain outside of conversations. Here I don't need to hide.

When you're in a foreign country, you forget how easy it is to speak in your first language (or at least I did). The last month there, I had only spoken English to Javiera, and I spoke a little slower because, although she is bilingual , she doesn't get all the words.

A room full of American-born and raised English speakers! What a hidden blessing--I bet no one else in that room thought twice about how awesome it was that we were all speaking the same language!

After dinner--and conversations that included the horrors of Avatar and the strangely redeeming qualities of Showgirls and Demolition Man--Eric commented, "imagine trying to have that conversation in Spanish."

I was already trying to imagine.

My ability to participate in the raucous conversation would have been very small indeed in Spanish. Something like "I saw Avatar. I think it was pretty." The part where one of guests explained that Avatar was disturbing especially in the rape of those flying creatures by the blue creatures, my contribution in Spanish would have been "What does violar mean?" I would also have laughed at appropriate places (with a 50% chance that I actually understood what I was laughing about).

I felt at times like I was listening too attentively. I was using too much effort to understand meaning and then realizing that I didn't have to try so hard after all.

I forgot how pleasant conversations can be. I have missed my ability to engage easily in conversation. How frustrated it makes me to know that my boyfriend, the one who I have chosen as my closest confidante, still hasn't seen this part of me. He insists that he understands that I am funny, and not shy, but it's hard to believe it when I myself know that I still act a little differently when I have to speak Spanish in a crowd.

I am reminded of Woman Warrior, a memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston. I read this several times for English class in college, and I really didn't get it then. I thought I understood, but it was only in Chile, speaking Spanish that I really began to understand:

A dumbness--a shame--still cracks my voice in two, even when I want to say "hello" casually, or ask an easy question in front of the check-out counter, or ask directions of a bus driver. I stand frozen, or I hold up the line with the complete, grammatical sentence that comes squeaking out at impossible length. "What did you say?" says the cab driver, or "Speak up," so I have to perform again, only weaker the second time. A telephone call makes my throat bleed and takes up that day's courage. It spoils my day with self-disgust when I hear my broken voice come skittering out into the open. It makes people wince to hear it. I'm getting better, though. Recently I asked the postman for special-issue stamps; I've waited since childhood for postmen to give me some of their own accord. I am making progress, a little every day.

That end line is true, too. Progress occurs but the evidence appears like water creates a canyon--really, really slowly.

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