Writing this week’s post surprised me. My languages brought me into a mental space, I found out, where I recognized my need for “dangerous” language situations that potentially make me look stupid or annoying. Moreover, my strange, unique language love compels me into these fantastic experiences. I’m a language misfit, which leads me to connect with unexpected, unlikely people, resulting in great joy.
Living dangerously in Somali
When I travel in the US, I can feel that I’m from the capital of the US Somali diaspora. I traveled to San Diego this week, and near the Convention Center I approached some taxi drivers whom I overheard speaking Somali and greeted them in their language. It provoked a great reaction. Sometimes when I speak Amharic to folks in the airport, they ask me if I know the language because I was in Addis Ababa. I surprise them when I tell them I learned it in Minnesota. In San Diego, though, when they asked how I knew Somali, I told them it’s because I’m from Minnesota. That was all the explanation they required.
After basic greetings, I managed in Somali to explain my situation, thanks to a little extra nerve. Anigu Minnesota ka ahay “I’m from Minnesota,” I barely stammered out. “Minnesota” probably said everything I needed, but for my own sake I had to pronounce an honest-to-goodness Somali sentence. (I should have said, Waxaan ka timi Minnesota. Thank you, Imagined Art!)
During the Thanksgiving holiday in the US I luckily completed a decent amount of Somali homework during quiet times. I encountered a lot of English to Somali translation exercises. I dreaded them each time I came to them. Digging into the fill-in-the-blank exercises came easily, but I would promptly end my “session” upon encountering these challenging translations. They terrified me each time, but they ended up being the most useful. Isn’t this often the case?
After doing a few of these exercises, though, I got up the nerve to write an email to my Somali teacher completely in Somali. Granted, the email was a rough three sentences, but I did it. Thanks to these exercises I had the guts to create my own sentences.
Fortunately, I benefitted most when I grabbed the most challenging opportunities. I had to leave comfort to go where I know I can’t perform—and perform anyway. When I go without these “dangerous” situations for too long, I feel restless, so I’m grateful when they come.
A language misfit in Russian
Just to let everyone know that I’m still living the dream, I took a break from everything today, and indulged in watching a movie. I rarely watch movies, but I decided to watch a Russian movie, Неадекватные люди “Inadequate People” or “Misfits.” Fortunately, the film had English subtitles; the Moscow slang would have completely lost me otherwise.
It’s about broken people trying to figure out if they really can change their lives and live differently. The main character, Vitalik, follows his psychologist’s advice and moves to the city to get away from the horrible results of his faulty character, and his new, young neighbor, Kristina, becomes more responsible thanks to him. Ultimately, Vitalik can’t pull off a full transformation, and hurts those around him as he did before. The theme contrasts strongly from what one usually sees in US movies: the main character can’t fulfill his dreams just by getting a psychologist and believing in himself.
What a perfect film to happen upon! The movie got me thinking about fate and character, and the extent that one can really change oneself. Often I wonder if I’m living the life I’m “supposed” to be living. As much as I love languages, my life sometimes makes my love feel unrequited. Here I am, a linguaphile working in IT, a white American addressing Somali immigrants in their language. Am I following my fate, or am I bucking it? Do languages take me out of who I am, or take me closer to who I am? When the characters of “Inadequate People” embrace their inadequacies, they end up less neurotic, but not necessarily better. Am I a misfit because of my languages, or are they an escape from the misfit I actually am?
I believe that I am a language misfit. It’s my language love that keep me from fitting in exactly, that gets me on the odd track sometimes, connecting with unlikely people. They are ingrained in me, though. Just like an artist can’t help but create, I can’t help but learn languages. When I pass by people speaking other languages, I lament an opportunity missed to learn. When I take a moment to connect, I’m always happier—even more deeply, I feel joy and a little fulfillment. Of the connections I’ve made, I can’t remember one I’ve regretted. Sometimes I’ve felt terribly vulnerable and naked, but I’ve never wished it hadn’t happened. Language love makes me a misfit, but it has never led me away from my best possible life.
Are you a language misfit? What makes you a misfit? Where has it led you? How have you benefitted from danger and letting yourself accept big challenges? How do you feel without this danger?