Kindness, grace–and the humiliating love of language

It's a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face
It’s a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face

I found that I have a thick skin at work. Sometimes people make fun of me behind my back, sometimes to my face. I found that I have a rare–if not unique–ability to ignore them. When other people might speak against me, I can pretend I didn’t hear the negative talk. As a result, I can focus on the future and on the positive, to be sure that we can keep doing what must be done. The tough situations I went through learning languages gifted me with this ability.

Recently I was moved by a Spanish-learner‘s post on Google+. She described how she worked with native Spanish-speakers who would make fun of her when she spoke Spanish. She was discouraged. I tried my best to comfort her by noting that I had been made fun of in multiple languages over a span of almost 25 years, on more occasions than I can count. Once I wrote this, I realized I had a rare experience–even a privilege!–that had strengthened me as a human being.

Public humiliation in Ukraine

For example, when I lived in Ukraine, a classmate humiliated me in public. I was the only American in the class, and one of only two male students. Jealousy had arisen in the class among some of the girls. I had gone to a play with one of them, Alyona, and another, Natasha, a leader in the class, was frustrated with me. When Natasha and I were taking the tram together to class (she lived close to my neighborhood), she started making fun of me and humiliating me. Since I my Russian was still pretty basic at the time, I had a hard time understanding how Natasha was humiliating me and I was defenseless. The scene was so mean, that a middle-aged woman sitting next to us got involved, telling Natasha to cut it out; “How can you talk to him that way? He’s a foreigner!” she said. I was grateful to that woman, as I had no way to defend myself.

When we returned to school, I worked out in my head some sort of retort. I had to tell Natasha that my friends do not speak to me this way, so she could choose to be my friend or not. Not very subtle–it took great efforts to say even that clearly–but she got the message.

Mockery in Morocco

When I lived in Morocco, I had to deal with similar situations. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of girls he thought I might like. My friend kept teasing me, trying to put me on the spot, saying in Arabic right in front of these girls, “Do you like her? You can’t tell her you don’t like her! Do you like her friend better?” I tried to take the pressure off by saying, ‘jbatni “I like her fine.” Unfortunately, I transposed the first root letter to the end and said, jb’atni “I’ve had enough.” (I only realized this mistake a long time later.) They laughed so hard: “Really? You’ve had enough already?” I didn’t know why that was so funny, but tried to smile. I was hoping to dig myself out of the humiliating situation, but I managed to dig myself in deeper.

When I would have dinner with my host family, sometimes they would just make fun of me. Moroccans laugh at each other more than Americans do, so I had to learn to live with it. Simple banter, though, was over my head. I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t be a good sport because I didn’t know what to say back. I had to learn to look like a good sport, even if I was angry, frustrated, exhausted, or confused.

Love in the International House of Pain

These are only two examples. At other occasions, Russians openly mocked my American accent. Moroccan friends mimicked the way I emphasized certain words. French girls talked at me fast and furious, purposely trying to overwhelm me. I had to choose between smiling blankly and walking away. When I was living in another country, though, I often had nowhere to walk away to. On occasion I tried to smack someone, but that never helped the situation; I just looked crazy.

By brute force, I learned how to overlook people’s unkind actions. I could get over blows to my ego without having to strike back. I’m quick to retort in English, but I had to learn a different approach. I had to take my lumps–deserved or not–with both hands tied behind my back. Even though my patience did not come from virtue, but only from trying to keep from being humiliated less, I at least had to act as if I was virtuous. I saw what patience looked like; I had to be what patience looked like. Even if I was patient out of necessity, practice made it a skill that I could later use when needed.

This humiliating language-love taught me patience. I can endure people’s unkindness towards me. These people also taught me how to show kindness to people even when they’re cruel. When people speak this way towards me, I can choose to smile and not retaliate. Maybe even more importantly, I know what it feels like to be an outsider who has to endure humiliation. Language love taught me a new kindness.

Have you been humiliated learning a language?  What did you learn from it?

Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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15 thoughts on “Kindness, grace–and the humiliating love of language

  1. Aw, how excruciating. I’ve been lucky to have had very few such experiences. I do remember one incident, though, when I was working in a food factory, aged 19. One of the guys on the production line flung a ream of obscenities at me in an attempt to entertain his work mates. He wasn’t actually nasty by nature, it was just a bit of fun for him. Oh well, he’s probably still packing pies on that line to this day, while I make a nice living from writing in a language I could barely understand back then. Talk about having the last laugh… 😉

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    1. The best revenge is living well! I’m sorry to hear about the experience–general fun made at your expense.

      It is so common for human beings to gain power and prestige by making fun of the perceived weak one. It’s sad to see how common it occurs.

      But it is good to learn from it and be ready to move on. I’m happy to see you kept your eye on your love of language, which allowed you to win in the end.

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  2. Though you deserve plenty of credit for developing this virtue, I wonder if some of what is at play has to do with the relative ‘power’ in the situation. Yes, you are powerless to the foreigners making fun of you, but still you are the American. At work, I’m figuring it is not your bosses making fun of you. It just seems like power is a interesting and relevant part of humiliation. Also, tell me the names of those rats at work and I’ll give them a talking to!

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    1. I think you’re right about power. People always like to take pot-shots at the one who has power in the room. In my traveling, I learned that as a white, male, North American, I tend to hold most of the cards. Being able to make fun of me maybe relieves some of that tension for some people. I’m willing to take it.

      Actually, since I hold that kind of power, simply because of the “lottery of birth”, being made fun of probably did me some good. When you hold power, but don’t know what it’s like to hold no power, you can easily become a tyrant.

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  3. I have one co-worker who to this day thinks it’s hilarious if I mispronounce a word and thinks it’s even more hilarious to bring it up again every other day for at least a couple of weeks. It happens rarely these days and I generally just ignore her. In fact I usually have a chuckle to myself because her writing is horrendous. I may mispronounce a word here and there, but hey, at least I can distinguish there, their and they’re.
    All the South Americans I interacted with in Spanish and Portuguese so far, have been nothing but helpful and encouraging.

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    1. Ugh! That’s painful! I’ve had to deal with people like that, who find one slip of the tongue funny for days and days–long after it should be funny. You either have to laugh at something yourself, or just move along.

      I’m also happy you have supportive South American friends. To be honest, living for those people–rather than fearing the mean folks–makes for a much better life. You can enjoy your language-love much more.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have never experienced living in another country so I wouldn’t have understood your feelings until I read your blog. It is not you have thick skin but you are very brave because you follow your interest and are not afraid of losing face. People who humiliated or laughed at your pronunciation mistakes might be the ones who don’t understood how hard the language learning’s process is. Most of the people I usually interact with are also learning languages so they rarely laugh at me but sometimes help me to correct.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I am not afraid of losing face when I want to learn something. This is a skill I learned from languages that I also use at my job. I know that losing a little face now, when I can become smarter later, allows me to win in the end. Maybe I’m more competitive than I think!

      I’m so happy that you have supportive language-loving friends. That’s a great group to be in. I hope you continue to learn a lot.

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  5. My only bad experiences have been when speaking French with my in-laws, who invariably criticize my accent. (Other French speakers have been quite complimentary.) The result: I never get to practice my French with them, as much as I’d like to, but instead stick to English.

    My main “foreign” language is Spanish and I’ve never heard an unkind word from anyone I spoke to, regardless of my current level of proficiency.

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    1. I can only imagine combining the sensitive issues of foreign language and in-laws. I hope all are ok with English.

      I’m happy that the Spanish speakers are nice. I get some ribbing from Mexican friends because I learned in Spain. They tease me with some lisping. But at least I have community support for that oddity.

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  6. Wow, kudos to you for your patience and persistence. I probably would have given the languages up if I had had those experiences. The vast majority of my language experiences with others have been positive. Then again, the vast majority of my language experiences have been with Latinos. Perhaps if I spent more time with Russian speakers and Arabs I would have the same experiences.

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    1. Patience? Not exactly. I wanted to scream, but I know my rant would have been as effective as Ricky Ricardo 🙂

      Persistent? That’s probably it. I’m really stubborn when it comes to languages. The positive experiences always kept me afloat.

      But I always remember my LDS friends when I feel sorry for myself. I can imagine the pressure of learning a language on a mission would have its own negative stories. But the positive ones are always more powerful.

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  7. I’ve had my share of humiliating moments in Mexico, very similar to what you described in Morocco. I eventually learned that Mexicans often tease and laugh at each other and I actually got pretty good at it. I learned to enjoy giving it and getting it. Each time someone dished at me it was an invitation to dish back. Later, when I moved back to the States I found that I missed that kind of banter! But at first it was humiliating and I felt like a victim, not really getting the joke but knowing that everyone was laughing at me. It was a very painful learning experience indeed.

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    1. I’m happy you came to love it! I don’ know if I ever really loved it, but I learned to appreciate that I was one of them. You don’t tease people you don’t know, those you keep at arm’s length. That part was nice.

      At the same time, it is lonely in the US to feel at arm’s length at all times. I especially feel it in the North of the US. That’s why I like to hang out with immigrants sometimes. They connect with people in a different way.

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  8. Pingback: Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth – Loving Language

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