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