This week was a great triumph of learning and meeting people, as I went for Somali tea three times in addition to my standard daily flash cards (Anki & Memrise). I hope that I can get extra credit for that! I think I’ll start putting together a phrase book or writing out some dialogues to post on the blog, in case others might benefit from these conversations.
As I engaged with the people in my community, I learned to see myself more honestly, thanks to their stories. The Somali language inspired me to sit at table with people in my community with whom I have passing conversations at most. Seeing myself as a privileged American challenged me to serve others with more vigor.
The first day challenged me the most. Once I got my breakfast and sat down, the owner came out and sat at the next booth. We were watching ESPN together (I seem to watch the most sports when I’m drinking Somali tea) and chatting. He doesn’t speak a lot of English, so most of the conversation proceeded in Somali.
My lack of comprehension frustrated me. He would say something. I would say, “Huh?” and he’d repeat. I’d catch a word or two. I’d repeat the word. He’d say something else—maybe a new thought or the same in different words. I’d finally get something and answer. He’d catch the jist of what I was saying.
I think this is a totally normal language-learning experience, so I refuse to beat myself up. I felt bad that the conversation was hard for both of us, but I feel good that I’m getting that much closer to understanding. It’s always darkest before the dawn.
When I went up to pay afterwards, one of the young men in line was smiling. He saw me struggling to understand the price but insisted on helping. He held up his thumb: “Kow (one).” “Kow,” I repeated. “Laba (two).” “Laba.” “Saddex (three).” “Saddex.” And we continued all the way up to “toban (ten).”
“If you keep working, you’ll soon be talking like a Somali. Hey! This guy’s Somali!” His encouragement and good-natured joking made my day.
The second day was short, but special because I brought my kids. We had dropped off their friend, and I offered to get them sambusas and tea. I made my oldest daughter (15 years old) order her tea in Somali—and she did it!
The owner saw us. “You said you have two daughters.” “Yes,” I responded, and pointed to my two daughters, and further specified, “This is a student from Spain.” His son, working at the cash register, greeted her in Spanish.
This characteristic of immigrants delights me. They do not have the insecurities about speaking another language—even if it’s just two words. I had to learn to be brave, and I’m trying to teach my daughters the same lesson, and this young man was a great example.
Yesterday, I ordered my tea, and a man in line was delighted. He said, “Hey! I can help you with your Somali and you can help me with my English.” I had resisted saying this every time I came for Somali tea, so I was so happy he brought it up.
We sat together for a while, speaking for 15-20 minutes in each language.
Muxamad was not someone in my “community” in an abstract sense, but a man my kids likely interacted with every day. I found out that he might have been my kids’ middle school bus driver. His role in my community was even more constant than the dentist or coach. We talked about the kids who died in their school last year, and the funeral for the Somali boy, which Muxamad and I both attended.
We agreed that we would meet again on another day to work more on our languages.
Afterwards I spoke to my kids about this conversation. When I told them that I had tea with their bus driver their eyes got big, which made me realize: how often do professionals in our society sit at table with their kids’ school bus driver? The uniqueness of this encounter struck me. This man allowed me to break down the barriers in our community.
Not only did he challenge my language, but Muxamad made me take a hard look at my life. As I listened to him, he talked to me about driving the bus, going to school to become a bus mechanic, and sending his kids to school. How lazy I felt! He worked all day, and studied, and had a wife and three small children.
“How does it look to you,” I asked rhetorically, “to see us Americans with everything we ever need, and using it to build a bigger house for a bigger TV to watch Netflix in?” I really take my life for granted.
So what do I do next? How do I server more? I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the first step is to help Muxamad with his English. The next step will hinge on what I hear as I listen more to these difficult, wonderful stories.