Language gaps as an opportunity to connect

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself standing in line at a store in Oaxaca, Mexico that sells boxes and packing tape. I was at the tail end of a one-week trip and I had three bottles of mezcal and two packages of mole that weren’t going to make it back unless I packed and shipped them so this was a critical mission. I took two years of Spanish in high school and two more years in college and had gotten to the point where I could read novels in Spanish, but my skills had gotten rusty. This was a time to push myself with some real-world interaction. The shop I visited wasn’t a tourist place and the people in line all seemed to be locals going about their daily business — the only common factor among us was needing boxes and packing materials.

I planned my conversation in my head and was able to say that I needed a box to pack some bottles along with tape and bubble wrap. I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself until the clerk asked “¿Cuantos metros?” (how many meters?) referring to the bubble wrap. My scheme broke down when I couldn’t think of how to ask “how wide is the bubble wrap?” I froze and pulled out my phone and was able to power through using Google Translate’s Conversation feature (which is amazing). I finished my purchase and ended the conversation by saying “Gracias por su paciencia con mi español” (thank you for your patience with my Spanish.) The clerk smiled and I left with a little better Spanish though at the cost of the overall efficiency of the establishment. (btw, if you ever need boxes and packing materials in Oaxaca, Pepe Cartón is the place).

Fast-forward to several days later and I found myself standing with my 11-year-old son at Newark Airport waiting for a pre-arranged airport pickup after a visit to relatives in North Carolina. It was late and I had that tired please-get-me-home feeling that all parents have at the end of such trips. I was messaging with the driver in the ride share app and I noticed that each response to whatever I said was, “OK, got it!” with “translated via Google Translate” under it. I looked at his profile and it was all in Chinese.

A lot of time passed and I wondered why he hadn’t picked us up yet. I noticed that the app had told him to pick us up in Terminal B so he was circling there — but we were in Terminal A. I’ll save you the play-by-play of how we finally connected but by the time the driver found us, he was pretty stressed and so was I. But it was then that I had a moment of recognition: the driver was me standing in line at the packing store in Oaxaca, doing his best to communicate but not quite getting there. I remembered how the clerk in Oaxaca smiled at me as I stumbled and I decided to extend the driver the same human courtesy. I could tell when he picked us up that he expected us to be angry but I just smiled and said, “Thank you.” I assume he understood because he seemed to calm a bit.

There was definitely a distinct part of me that wanted to rail against the situation and be angry — I am paying for this ride and it should “just work” and why is this happening? I could feel the energy within me of the guy we’ve all heard in airports railing to someone on the other end of a call about the indignity of all of the travel pain he has endured, which is usually not that much in the grand scheme but always told in dramatic terms that rival the epic sweep of the Aeneid. But life is full of miscues and mistakes and here was a guy who had the bravery to come to a country where he didn’t know the language and get out on the road to try to make a living. When I thought about this, my mood quickly switched from irritation to admiration.

Finally in the car, I pulled out my phone, put Google Translate into Conversation mode, and said, “Thank you for driving us home.” I translated it to Chinese and played that translation for the driver. He smiled and thirty minutes later we were home.