The national language of the United States of America is English, but in many parts of the country, a foreigner who didn’t know better might understandably think it was Spanish. When I encountered these Spanish speakers the States, I often found myself feeling frustrated and wanting to say to them, “If you’re going to be in OUR COUNTRY learn OUR LANGUAGE! I don’t care if you’re here, but good grief! If you want to come to America, learn English FIRST and THEN come, and until you know our language, STAY HOME!” And while I never actually said it to a non-English speaker, I often expressed those feelings to friends and family members.
Yesterday, an elderly gentleman shopper in the grocery store stopped to ask me a question (probably wanting to know if I could help him find something since all grocery stores in Germany are organized so poorly that it looks like things were randomly placed on the shelves by a tornado). He looked at me with friendly eyes and spoke to me, and when he finished, I rather shamefully replied, “I’m so sorry. I only speak English.” His smile slowly faded as he tried to take in what I said, and I felt myself swallow those disgusting, slimy words I’d so often said about non-English speakers in America.
Later, as I approached the register, I felt a familiar nervousness and hoped I’d chosen the line of a non-chatty cashier so I could fake my German language skills. I hadn’t. When it was my turn I confidently greeted her with a smile and a “Hallo!”, and she responded with a “hallo” and a bunch of German I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until after I said, “I’m sorry, I only speak English” that I realized I actually lowered my voice when I said it and then looked behind me to see if the other shoppers heard. She continued being friendly, but my shame and guilt for not knowing her language in her country caused me to convince myself that I saw frustration in her eyes.
I wanted to explain. I wanted to say, “I’m really sorry I can’t talk to you. I met a German online and we decided to get married pretty quickly after meeting. I only had a few months to sell everything, work full time, plan my wedding, and spend as much free time as possible with my friends and family before leaving them to come here. I only had time to download a German language app and do a few lessons on those rare occasions that I actually had time to breathe. But I’ll start my language classes soon and foreign languages have always come fairly easy to me so I promise that soon I’ll come back here and be able to at least understand enough words to get the gist of what you’re saying, and maybe I can even reply a little. Just give me a little time! I’ll get this! I want to learn. I promise!”
But I couldn’t explain. Instead, I had to stand there awkwardly as she attempted to help me use my new debit card for the first time without using actual words. As I walked away she said to me, “Thank you! Bye bye!” And to prove that I knew at least the tiniest bit of German, I replied with “Tschüss!”
On the walk to the car I tried to shake off the heaviness of the guilt and shame I felt on my shoulders. I wished I’d had just a moment to apologize to every non-English-speaker in America that I’d ever spoken badly about or been a little cold to out of frustration for their lack of English skills. I wished I’d been more understanding of their situation and responded to them in love. I now know how hard it is for them. For whatever reason, they find themselves in America; a foreign country with different food, culture, language, and driving laws. Everything is different and it’s not always easy. And maybe they’re having a hard day because they miss their family back in Mexico or wherever they call home, and all they need is for someone to smile and not act frustrated when they attempt to feebly communicate with the few English words they know.
This is me. As an American in Germany, I’m just like the Mexican in America. And while I haven’t for one second regretted my decision to come here, I will forever be grateful to the people who respond to me in kindness and gentleness even if I can’t adequately express my gratitude. Americans, think of me the next time you feel angry at a Spanish speaker in your country. Take a deep breath and send a smile their way. You never know how overwhelmed they might be feeling that day.
***This post is dedicated to one of my dearest friends, Jimena, who met an American, got married, and moved from Mexico to the U.S. to be with her new husband. She worked hard to learn English, and now more than ever, I understand what she went through during those tough transitional years. Jimena now works in a school with other English speakers and is well-known and loved all throughout the community. I admire her beyond belief for doing what she did. She didn’t hide behind her husband and use him as a language crutch. She learned the language and made a name for herself (and friends, too!), and I hope I can be half as successful in Germany as she has been in America.