“There’s this boy who recently moved to the United States from Latin America and he’s facing some challenges. I would like for you to meet his parents and offer some help”, a good friend and preschool teacher told me the other day.
“Tell me more…give me an example”, I replied.
“Well, we were speaking about bedtime and when I asked about his, he didn’t respond”, she told me concerned. I tried to explain to her why this boy might not know the significance of “bedtime”.
“You see, in many Latin American countries, there is no such thing as a “bedtime” or “story time” or even “time out”. The boy might not really know what you are asking him, because he might just go to bed when he is tired, or whenever his parents believe the time is right”. I looked at her with a big smile, as I reflected on all the cultural differences I had to face when my family and I moved to the U.S. 15 years ago and learn a new language. Still, after 15 long years, cultural shocks are part of my daily routine.
Some of the things I had to adapt to were in many cases unexpected, and with them came new words which brought new meanings and overall, a new me. Here are just a few:
• Being invited to supper at 5:00 p.m. Dinner is supposed to be at 9:00 p.m. or later…anything earlier is a “merienda” (snack time); or the word supper itself. I hadn’t heard the meaning to that word until moving to the U.S.
• Story time, time out, or bedtime… what do these things even mean? we didn’t have them in our family over there.
• Being told the time a party starts and the time a party ends. In the world I come from, that’s considered rude. Parties last until people feel like leaving…No set beginnings and no set endings. Just go with the flow
• Waving or nodding politely instead of kissing someone on the cheek when you greet them. In that world it is extremely rude, but in the U.S., it’s courteous!
• Walking into a room and not being able to just interrupt any conversation with a hug, but waiting until I’m being noticed…
• Requesting from people not to bring birthday gifts and instead make a donation. I love giving and receiving birthday gifts, why can’t I bring something?
• Teachers are not encouraged to hug their young students with passion or sometimes even sit them on their laps, while in my world that was a way of showing affection and expected from a teacher.
• Not opening gifts as soon as you get them on your birthday or opening all the gifts in front of everyone – I was taught not to do any of those! you open the gift as soon as you get it in front of the person who gave it to you.
• Sending thank you notes – never! Instead, giving a hug and thanking someone on the spot.
• Youth soccer leagues make everyone a winner no matter what the final score is. How are kids supposed to learn how to compete, if everyone always wins?
• Not having your doctor available whenever you need them. Where I come from, the doctor can regularly come to your home!
• Brunch on Sundays.
• … And the list can go on forever. My personal list grows as I learn of new things everyday.
So far, I’ve lived in seven different countries and I made each one my home. My world is always expanding as I discover new words, those words are new customs and traditions. I’m still trying to invite my American friends to “pasear” with me which is common for me, but I can’t find the exact word in English, as people here don’t “pasear” (walk around for the pure sake of walking, visiting places just to visit.) While this is true in Spanish, English has no such thing. Instead, I must use a long sentence to express my desire to go on a walk and visit places just to visit. Likewise, I can’t find a Spanish translation for the words “accountability” or “fund-raising” unless, once again, I use a lengthy descriptive sentence.
Words and languages create cultures, and as you learn a new language, you unleash a new “way of being.” Often I see people who are multilingual showing different personalities depending the language they are speaking at the moment, as if each language carries a different personality with it.
While at the beginning I had no clue what a bedtime was, I have learned to incorporate it into my own life and even used it with my children sometimes. I’ve also learned how to eat dinner earlier and attend and even host Sunday brunches from time to time. There are things, however, that my American friends have learned not to expect from me, among them waiting to open my gifts or sending them a thank you note. On these occasions, my Israeli and Latin spontaneity are emphasized more than ever.
Bottom line:it’s crucial to understand where the other person is coming from in order to make sure we are really communicating. The words we speak reflect the realities we are parts of and each reality provides different meanings. “What time do you go to bed in general?” is a universal question, everyone sleeps. “What time is your bed-time” is cultural, not everyone goes to sleep at a pre-determined time. It’s something worth thinking about in order to cross boundaries when we talk to someone who comes from a different country or background.
Learn a new language and your world is guaranteed to become boundless, as mine has become over the years. New words with new meanings become new habits, and that’s how you adapt and make every place home. It is like going to a new restaurant and trying a new dish. It’s a new flavour that you have discovered and has now become a new option you never knew before.