Saturday, July 5, 2008

Spanish smackdown

The other day, I got a craving for tomatoes. So, after I finished up at work, I headed to a nearby street lined with fruit and vegetable stands. After surveying my options, I settled on a stand whose crates were brimming with colorful produce of every kind and whose vendor was humming pleasantly to herself while shivering in the evening cold.

I greeted her and grabbed a plastic bag, ready to pluck up some plump red orbs of dinner. This is usually what you do at Chilean open-air markets: choose your own food while the vendor supervises.

Not at this stand, apparently. Just as I was reaching for a particularly enticing tomato, the vendor snapped, "No, I choose them for you."

Taken aback by both her incensed tone and how ridiculous the idea of not being able to choose my own tomatoes seemed, I asked why.

"Because those are the rules of the game," she snarled. "If you want to choose your own tomatoes, go across the street to the supermarket."

I put the plastic bag down and told her I preferred to choose my food myself. I was just about to skulk onward to the next stand when I decided that my surrender at least needed to be a defiant one. "You didn't have to treat me like that," I told her. "I wanted to do business with you."

As I stood fuming and tomatoless in the Metro a few minutes later, it occurred to me that my response to the situation would probably have been quite different if I'd encountered similar rudeness in the United States. I probably just would have raised a disaffected eyebrow and moved on.

The experience confirmed something I'd been suspecting for quite some time: I'm more confrontational in Spanish. While living in Chile and Ecuador, I've stood up for myself after numerous affronts that I probably would have let slide in an English-speaking environment.

Some might argue that this has nothing to do with language. They would say that the reason I verbally come to my own defense so often while abroad is due to the fact that I encounter many more situations in which I have to. Let's face it: Some people try to take advantage of foreigners. In Ecuador, I had extended arguments--some of which crossed into the realm of the philosophical--with multiple taxi drivers who had tried to charge me more than the legal fare. Even if no mischief is afoot, it's impossible to navigate unfamiliar territory, practices and cultural codes without being assertive.

Still, I don't think that's the entire story. I think what really makes me bold in these situations is the fact that I'm speaking a language that's not my native one and therefore am more psychologically detached from my words and their implications. When I'm speaking in English, I'm fully aware of the meaning my words have for me and relatively aware of the ways in which listeners could interpret them. Being conscious of the multiple ways in which someone could misinterpret me oftentimes makes me hesitate, especially in tense situations involving people I don't know.

Additionally, the English language is so inextricably tangled into my ideas and the way I express them that I choose my words carefully, knowing that listeners will consider them the most accurate representation possible of my thoughts. In this sense, speaking my native language can be risky business.

This is not always the case with Spanish. Even though I'm fluent in Spanish and sometimes dream or blurt involuntary exclamations in it, it will never be as organically a part of me as my first language is. This means that everything I say in Spanish feels a few steps removed from the thought or emotion I wish to express; no matter how much vocabulary I've memorized or how many grammatical structures I've agonized over, Spanish will always feel like an approximation. It also means that I feel less invested in and accountable for what I'm saying. Since my status as a non-native speaker frequently renders me unable to weigh all the subtle shades of meaning my words could carry for a listener, I simply don't weigh them. This is extremely liberating when it comes time to speak my mind.

I think that in general, the effects of this have been positive. Have I overreacted and subjected a hapless victim to a verbal battering a bit more intense than he or she deserved? Unfortunately, yes. More frequently, however, I've prevented myself from being trampled by making my voice heard. Almost every time I argued with a cab driver in Ecuador, I won.

Maybe I should work on being more assertive in my native language, too.


Kathleen said...

Whoa. I just read about something similar. Crazy!

Juan K Peña said...


It was very good. I feel the same way when I speak or write in English than you do in Spanish!

I really wish we could be able to speak with the same confidence that we do in our native Languages.

Keep on winning every single affront with taxi drivers!!! ;)

Tamsin said...

That reminds me of a huge argument I had with some sales women in a Spanish shop in Granada (Spain). I had no problem with telling them exactly how I felt (they were rude and unhelpful) something I would never do in the UK...

Leigh said...

@ kathleen: if i read the correct article, it really makes me want to learn basque!

@ juan k: one of the few things i do NOT miss about quito is haggling with taxi drivers. here, they just use their meters.

@tamsin: i'm glad you stood up for yourself! was the whole experience made less maddening by the fact that you were in granada, one of the hands-down most awesome places on earth (at least that i've been to)?

Maeskizzle said...

Yeah. I totally felt this too for many years, a certain distachment from what I was saying when I spoke Spanish. I noticed when I started my master's in Chile, Spanish became more real for me because I had to play by their rules, absolutely. The more time I spend in Chile and the more people I meet the more the language seems to have significance for me, like it weighs on me, but it also is a source of enjoyment. But, like you say, my native tongue has more relevance for me.

Do you guys feel that with time Spanish does acquire more relevance for you, like more psychological ties, perhaps? And aren't there some expressions in Spanish that just express how you feel or what you want to say more than in English? Like "me da lata" I love this one because it's soooo ambiguous. And it's like saying "I don't feel like it", but it's uses that grammatical structure that basically doesn't make you responsable for "not feeling like it." You know the "se me olvidó", "se me quedó" structure..where you didn't forget just happened to you.

But also I think another thing that is important, like you said, is that here, you really do have to defend yourself more than in the States. I feel like in the States people watch out for each other more especially among strangers, or acquaintances (compared to here in Chile). And here in Chile people watch out for their family and friends, but not so much for randoms or people they don't know well. I have a certain idea that Chilean culture forces the individual to be stronger (in a way) and also to look after oneself more, and be very aware of oneself. Obviously this is true because I'm a foreigner. But it goes further than that...

And I must say that Chilean culture has totally rendered my "Minnesota niceness" useless many a time, which is really liberating.

Girl.Meets.Chile said...

Hehe, yeah absolutely. Granada was definitely an unforgettable adventure. So...despite the grumpy Granadinos (I say go to Malaga or Cadiz, people much friendlier), we had LOTS of fun :)

p.s: love your blog !