On my way home from work a few weeks ago, I just happened to sit next to a Chilean Metro passenger who got off at the same stop I did. As we were walking down the platform toward the exit, he turned to me and inquired (in English), "Can I ask you something?"
It wasn't that difficult to realize how he'd known I was an English speaker: The entire time I'd been sitting next to him, I'd had the English translation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire open on my lap.
Instead of responding in English, though, I answered in Spanish. In the amount of time it took us to reach the exit and go our separate ways, it emerged -- also in Spanish -- that he had seen the movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- the first book in Larsson's Milennium trilogy -- while living in Norway last year and that yes, I was from the States.
While walking home from the Metro station, I replayed the conversation and pondered my choice of language. It hadn't been the first time I'd responded in Spanish to a question asked in English. Why is it, I wondered, that I tend to avoid my native language?
One could argue that an obvious reason is safety. Let's face it: While being foreign can be an advantage in some situations, it can make you more vulnerable in others. This was the reason I muttered "no" and walked away several months back when a guy approached me on the street late at night and asked if I spoke English.
It turned out that the guy was a lost Israeli tourist. I learned this when he followed me down the street (which provoked a brief moment of panic on my part) and asked me in broken Spanish if I knew where his hostel was. The hostel was just a few houses down from the apartment where I was living at the time, so I offered to walk with him. Unfortunately, this meant I faced a dilemma: His hostel and my apartment were five blocks away, which meant that there would undoubtedly by conversation involved. I had to decide whether to fess up or keep up the act.
I chose the latter because I was too embarrassed to tell him, "Hey, I actually do speak English. I lied to you back there because I thought you wanted to rob me." Looking back, this is exactly what I should have said, but it didn't seem that way at the time. What followed were five blocks of really slow Spanish and really exaggerated hand gestures. With each step we took, I felt even more absurd. Unfortunately, I was in too deep to quit.
But back to the guy on the Metro. Safety was -- as it always is -- a concern, although I was pretty sure he wasn't going to pull a knife on me on a subway platform with a bunch of witnesses looking on. Additionally, all my defenses tend to spring into place when strange men address me in English because it's something that smarmy guys have been known to do to hit on me. I've long since learned that muttering a curt answer in Spanish is usually a relatively effective way of letting a guy know that I'm not digging his "I could be your tour guide in Chile and in love" vibe.
To be honest, it also boils down to a matter of pride. I've worked damn hard to be able to speak good Spanish. While my high school classmates were watching Dawson's Creek, I was biting my nails to Mexican soap operas (even if I was taping Dawson's in the other room). I sought out bilingual summer jobs and read in Spanish for fun. I was a Spanish major in college, and while studying abroad in Chile, I intentionally took hard classes because I knew they would help me improve my language skills. After graduation, I moved to a Spanish-speaking country and have been living in one ever since. In other words, I've invested a heck of a lot of time in learning Spanish and, yes, am proud of the level I've achieved. This may be why I find it insulting when someone assumes I'm clueless just because the way I look or some other detail about me leads him or her to suspect that I may have been born elsewhere. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the people who make this assumption usually have kind intentions or that they may actually not be making an assumption at all; maybe, like me, they've busted their asses learning a foreign language and just want to practice it.
I would like to say that the list of factors behind my aversion to speaking English with strangers stops there, but as long as we're being honest, I have to admit that I don't think it does. Recently, another expat and I were discussing how living abroad has made us more comfortable with being the odd person out. We acknowledged that, no matter how long we live in Chile, we will always be foreign, different, odd. Furthermore, we arrived at the conclusion that this difference does not stay behind at customs but rather follows us home during trips to the U.S.; if Chileans cannot fully relate to us because they do not share our background, people in the States cannot fully relate to us because they do not share our present.
You would think that someone who’s recognized this and accepted it not only as isolating – which it can be – but as tremendously enriching as well would not care about fitting in with the crowd. However, the truth is that being the out-of-place element gets old after awhile. Most of the time, I love being a foreigner in Chile (or, if I’m in Minnesota, a local who has lived abroad), but there are times when the appeal of fitting in is hard to resist; alas, we never truly leave middle school. When a stranger speaks to me in English in Chile, it reminds me that I’ve chosen a misfit’s fate – and that it’s no longer optional.
Perhaps this would not bother me as much if I wore the signs of my otherness more visibly – as blonde hair or six feet of height, for example. If I had no hope of blending in, maybe I wouldn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of Chileans who have been able to guess just by looking at me that I’m foreign. Other times, however, the evidence lies solely on my tongue. Even though I do have an accent, though, I always feel like less of a curiosity when I’m speaking the local language.
Whenever this happens, I feel as though I’ve somehow betrayed my native language. I love English. Yes, it’s the language of Shakespeare, but it’s also the language of my family and childhood friends and the language through which I learned to interpret the world and express my feelings about it. It seems wrong to deny my affiliation with it.
So here are my questions for you, expats: Do you ever feel that you’ve betrayed your native language? Have you resigned yourself to always being a square peg in a round hole?