In my early 20s, I developed a fascination for Spaniards and Spanish culture. Several of Spain’s finest and brightest were working in Jamaica, and I had the pleasure of enjoying their company. Thanks to our friendships, Southern Spain is very much on my bucket list―not just as a travel destination, but as somewhere I want to live in the distant future.
So, when my friend suggested I move to Mexico, the idea appealed to me, but not just because of Mexico itself. It was an experiment. How would it really feel to be immersed in a culture where English was not the language of the land? Would my head hurt from constant translations? Would I feel alienated?
There are so many American ex-pats living in the area my friend recommended that true immersion feels impossible. But, it gave me a safe start. English is also commonly spoken at the places that tend to attract Americans, such as restaurants and pharmacies. But, you need to know enough Spanish to get by when it comes to everyday activities, such as buying groceries or gas.
While living in Mexico, I worked on my Spanish every day. I was determined to master the language one baby step at a time. During that time, I learned that the greatest obstacle when learning to speak a language is getting over the risk of sounding silly.
Apparently, I don’t know how to say vinegar in Spanish.
Just as I was getting used to navigating the language in public, I ran out of vinegar. I looked up how to say vinegar in Spanish and headed to the store. When I arrived, I searched and searched but could not find this elusive vinegar.
Finally, I decided to ask a store clerk for help. Asking for help was easy, but as I proceeded to ask where the vinegar was, I found that I could see the word vinagre in my head, but I just couldn’t say it right. Still, I was determined. I’m sure I said it 20 different ways while she and her colleague died laughing.
I was laughing too.
Finally, I said, ok, let me spell it. Then, I remembered that Spanish letters were pronounced differently. “Ugh!” I had reached my limit. “I just want vinegar. Why can’t I say it??”
“Ah, vinagre!” one of the ladies exclaimed.
The lady next to her had reached her limit too. They’d have to scoop her off the floor if she laughed any harder. At this point, all four of us were holding back tears and were buckling at the knees.
I went home with my vinegar and a smile on my face. Unfortunately, I still cannot say the word vinagre.
So, what does this have to do with body soup?
Well, we’ve finally crossed that bridge! I’m currently back in Mexico. Today, I walked into a store looking for body wash. I searched and searched, but I couldn’t find bar soap or liquid body wash anywhere. It didn’t make sense. Who sells laundry detergent and tissue but not body soap?
I was about to leave when it occurred to me that it might be better to ask.
Hablas ingles? I asked the man at the encounter.
He shook his head. “Only a little,” he said.
Tienes sopa? I asked.
He looked bewildered. Did he have soup? What? He glanced over at the cups of Ramen.
No, sopa del cuerpo! I said.
Ah, crema? He tried again, wondering if I meant lotion.
I shook my head and explained in very clumsy Spanish that I planned to rub it on my body and wash it off so I could be clean!
The man started to laugh.
Sopa no es correcto? I realized aloud, now laughing too.
I thought about it for a second and said, “Ah, sopa is soup!”
“Yes!” he answered, handing me a bottle of jabón!
How you handle these situations can make a world of difference.
In America, people have very little patience with foreigners who don’t speak English. I’ve seen Americans tell Mexicans to “speak American” or go back to their countries, and the two ladies were only speaking to each other. That they then turned around and told them off in perfect English was the icing on the cake.
Situations like these create a linguistically hostile situation. Mexicans and other foreigners will often choose not to speak English at all because the risk is not just ridicule. It’s having a very angry American say things you know to be rude but that you probably don’t even understand. You also know, deep down, that these interactions often escalate to violent acts.
So, why bother?
Jamaica is far more forgiving linguistically, but even then, I have seen my friends from Spain struggle to communicate. Often, I ended up playing the translator. Looking back, one of the things I note is a shared burden. Jamaicans generally felt just as bad that they did not understand the Spanish as the Spaniards did that they didn’t know how to say what they meant in English.
In Mexico, there is no burden. Only laughter. My Spanish is hilarious, and may it forever be so. I do hope to be fluent, but may it never lose the charm of making people laugh―even at my expense.
I just have one tiny favour to ask.
I’m sure all of us in America have, at some point, encountered non-English-speaking immigrants struggling to communicate at the store. If you haven’t, get out from under the rock you’ve called home for far too long.
Help them if you can. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can whip out Google Translate on your phone and use it to find common ground.
Because unless you’ve tried body soup in Mexico―or another laughable equivalent―you have no idea what it’s like to walk a day in their shoes.