I have lived abroad before, in France actually. I should, therefore, know what to expect about cultural differences, right? What I am finding instead is more often than not I am caught off guard by something someone says, or I say something that is completely inappropriate for the circumstances. But why?
English is my native language. French is not. Simple enough, I realize, but it makes all the difference and not in the way you might think. It is easier to be caught off guard in an English-speaking country than a French-speaking one.
While in France, I have to think about the correct word or phrase in every situation. The only way to continue to grow my French language skills is to be constantly “on,” constantly learning, and the only people from whom I learned were those with whom I would come into contact. I remember a particular day in France when I was talking to a friend, and I said, “ça peur.” It has no direct translation, but idiomatically it means, “that’s scary.” I was proud of myself. My friend laughed. To her, I was supposed to talk like a book, not a French person. Together we realized that I was integrating. It was a big step.
I do not have that problem in English. I do not have to be “on.” I just talk, right? I reckon, though, it is just a matter of time before I am keen to hang out and go for a wee drink, eh? Oh wait . . .
I feel as though I am living in the twilight zone. I am not sure what my patterns are and what I consider normal anymore until I am confronted by something that seems strange. For example, many flights in New Zealand are on 60-seat planes. After flying a lot, the first time I had to get on a 737 (you know, what Southwest flies), I was struck by how big it is. I was just on one again yesterday, after not flying for awhile, and it felt “normal.” I guess time away from the extraordinary makes old friends ordinary.
But this week has struck me on two fronts, woken me up to the fact that I really am in a foreign country that speaks a different language, sometimes a non-verbal one. (I have to share that, in college, I lived with 3-4 linguists, and these sorts of conversations dominate(d) our conversations.)
One of my friends here is from Australia, and she received two basketball tickets. She did what any normal, non-basketball going person would do – she called an American. Yes, my friends, I went to a basketball game in a small town in New Zealand. I would say it might be able to contend with Division B in college. Might is the operative word in that sentence.
Basketball, to me, is America. I played growing up, and as an almost 30-year-old woman, that is unusual in the rest of the world. Girls here play netball (I have no idea what it is, either), and in France, when I asked what girls do in school, my host sister said, “dance.” So, I am proud of the fact that basketball is a major sport in the United States, for boys and girls, and it is the only truly American sport, created in the 1880s at a YMCA. The point is that basketball makes me think about home.
The announcer was about the most honest announcer I have ever heard. He told us how the team had been on and off all season, and this being the last game of the season, they had to really pull it together. If the other team scored an undefended point, we were sure to hear that a defender should have been there. It sounded like the commentary from Harry Potter Quidditch, not a basketball game.
But the proof that I was not in America were the references to the wee layups and the wee free throws. Basketball Kiwified! And that was not all. In America, we root for our favorite teams, right? Well, rooting has quite a different connotation, and it is not something you discuss in public at family friendly events. Here, you support a team. I was careful . . . until I was not. Luckily, my friend understood, and no one else could hear me. It is hard to be on when at a place that feels so comfortable.
So, the wee plays and careful word choice on my part made the evening interesting. I also had to explain the game to my friend; she had never before attended a basketball game. Luckily, it being New Zealand, the announcer also added in a bit of rule explanation. Apparently, this is not a popular sport here. Overall, I had a great time living in language/culture purgatory. An American movie helped me realize that I cannot escape it.
I am back up in Wellington for a few days; we have a Fulbright event to attend. I planned to stay with a friend Monday night, but thanks to the ash cloud, she is stuck away from Aotearoa, the land of the Long White Cloud (the Maori name for NZ), and instead of bugging someone last minute, I decided to stay in a hostel. Facebook was alive with great references to Bridesmaids, so I went to see what all the fuss was about. For the record, we must look insane to the rest of the world.
First American movie in months, what is my first thought? They were driving on the wrong side of the road. Oy! I guess all my “look right” reminding worked. While watching movies in France, I knew they were seeing a translation, which is really an adaptation (another thesis of mine in my old life). The funniest experience I ever had was seeing Matrix 2 in France during the scene where the “bad guy” repeats about every French swear word there is in a matter of about 10 seconds. The place erupted in laughter. But here in NZ, they do not translate the films. There are no subtitles running in Kiwi. They get to see the American version even if it makes no sense. And I get to see where I fit into the mix.
Before the movie, the woman sitting next to me was explaining living in Christchurch to a friend. I guess she moved up here or is visiting from the earthquake-weary city. I heard her explain the 22 February earthquake. I suppressed the urge to tell her I had also been there, to find a bond, but I sat there realizing I was in the Twilight Zone of my mind – somewhere between the United States and Aotearoa.
I may not struggle to find my words on a daily basis here, and I may technically understand everything that goes on around me, but each day, I am struck by the fact that I am not in the United States anymore. It is fun to see where I have transformed and what my new “normal” is. If nothing else, it keeps me on my toes, eh?
© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved