In the past week, I have managed to flip off two Bangladeshi men who I was trying to tell “thank you” and “good job” to with a very American thumbs up. I don’t know why I’ve resorted to this mode of communication, as I wasn’t one to really whip out the opposable digit before, but to my detriment I’ve been very thumb happy here. Only recently did my brother kindly inform me that in Bangladesh, it’s the equivalent of giving someone the bird. While an unfortunate lesson to learn in this sweet country, it’ll be my little secret weapon when I get back to the states. Mine and all three readers of this blog (Hi, Mom! Let’s Skype this weekend).
As my Bangla is lacking (existence), I’ve had a lot of time to think about language here. And as someone who is planning to go to grad school to earn a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, it’s something that should be on my mind. It’s been an invaluable experience to be reminded of the tremendous effect that being understood can have on a person — the connection that occurs and transformative power that is found and felt in a moment when one truly feels heard. And in turn, the awkwardness, frustration and loneliness that sets in when one is not.
On Sunday, I visited a remote village in Mymensingh, where I was asked to gather stories of how Habitat homes have changed the lives of those who have partnered with the organization there. Even though I had a translator present to help with the interviews, his English was somewhat limited and difficult to understand at times, leaving me to rely on short, simple words and a lot of smiling. The assignment was taxing, but worth the reminder of the actions, desires and challenges that unite us all, in spite of language and socioeconomic barriers.
I’ve found that phrases I’ve unconsciously collected through the years — “Use your words,” “Say what you mean, and mean what you say,” “Shoot the puppy” — have resurfaced in my daily mindset and approach to conversations here. Relax, PETA supporters and friends with furry loved ones. In journalism, “shoot the puppy” refers to painfully letting go of a part of your story that you love, but know is not essential to the piece; its presence would distract the reader or weaken the overall impact of the story, so you edit it out. It’s been fascinating to discover what I’ve managed to learn, communicate and understand without my puppy, Sarcasm, in Bangladesh. In the U.S., where I’m conveniently able to share an abundance of words with those around me, often very little is actually said in some ironically verbose conversations.
The other day, a coworker of mine at Habitat pointed out that the street kids in Dhaka, who tug on your shirt and heartstrings and mill about the cars and rickshaws begging for money, never really learn how to use or understand future tense. What they’re able to scrape together in a day, they have to use for food or other essentials in the same breath. They can’t save, because they run the risk of getting mugged. Planning or talking about tomorrow is a foreign concept; there is only now. A sad reality for sure, but one that those of us who live comfortably manage to forget actually applies to us as well.
For all, there is no day but today to say what you mean and mean what you say, so shoot the puppy and use your words.
Great writing Maureen. I’m thankful that you are having a wonderful experience. We are now fairly warned about the “thumbs up.” Isn’t it amazing how we use all available resources when words don’t work. Have fun!
Wonderful insights on language and communication. I’m certainly not the only one enjoying your blogs and beautiful pictures. Keep up the good work. I love you! mom
Are you entirely certain that it’s not just your particular thumbs they’re reacting to?
I miss those thumbs.
You never cease to amaze me SIL!
Mo, you are still my hero. Thank you for giving me a glimpse into the wonderful work that is happening. And as far as I am concerned, you are the greatest writer I have ever known. Please keep up the GREAT work.
Fabulous reflections! It must feel good to get out the sarcasm somewhere and I, for one, am loving it. I’m also loving the connections you’re making…so many insights already. What an amazing trip you’re having! Jen
You so have more than 6 followers! So glad you are sharing your experience- it’s like having a piece of you here.
i love it! if you gave me your thumbs up, i wouldn’t be offended, i promise! i love your thumbs! can’t wait to see you when you get back!
I really reading your posts, Maureen! And I agree that you have chosen a wonderful place for your first international experience.
I can relate to what you are saying about communicating. The “use your words” mantra is a great one. The times I’ve personally had to repeat it to myself include moments of getting bikini waxes and gyn exams in Europe from non-native English speakers. It’s funny to realize how often we in the U.S. mince our words and avoid calling things by their “real” names — and how clammed up we can get when we have to call a … spade … well, a spade 😉
Oops – really LOVE reading your posts 🙂
And you said you didn’t know about your photo taking ability? They’re beautiful, and your words are so mindful. Extend your ticket!!!