“It’s probably the change in the weather.”
That was my driver’s opinion, as he drove me home early from work, on the most likely reason I’ve been sick this week. It has been rainy and gray all day. Though it is a nice change from the hot and humid weather to which I am still not growing accustomed. I have been told the rainy season will start soon…in April…or May…or June…. I keep hearing a variety of reports. The one fact that remains constant is that it will get here at some point, and it will probably last about two months. At which point, the road by my apartment will supposedly turn into a river–or some other small, semi-impassible body of water.
It would have been a very smart idea to have bought an umbrella the last time I was in the States.
In the mean time, I’m trying to not lose my voice for the second time since I’ve started working at the Consulate. A rather large part of my job involves explaining the fingerprint process to visa applicants–and they already can barely understand me. Losing my voice makes the task nearly impossible; I’m not exactly a loud person as it is (I know, shocking, right?).
This–and the excessive amount of time I’ve had sitting at home doing nothing for the last two days–has led me to spend some time considering what exactly it means to be heard. Most people don’t have a hard time with that one. If you want to be heard, just talk a little louder, make a little more commotion. However, there is a rather vast difference between being heard and being understood. Probably an obvious conclusion to come to, but still a thought that has been on my mind. For one thing, how exactly do you make yourself understood when you’re already talking as loudly as you possibly can?
I sometimes think that before the visa applicants even arrive in front of my window at work they are already confused. Okay, I don’t just think it, I know it happens. I call out the ticket number for the next applicant to come to my window and can point out from across the room the look of bewilderment etched on the face of the person in question as he or she searches for the mysterious window number 7–seemingly all but impossible to find.
Thus, the misunderstanding begins. Upon arrival at my window, I say something along the lines of, “Good morning. Mr Johnson?” To which I receive a vigorous, “Yes, sir!”
Clearly, I am not a “sir.” But no matter, I don’t take it offensively.
I continue with a simple “hello,” and the automatic response seems to be “I’m fine.” Again, not exactly the response I was anticipating. But never mind.
I then begin the painstakingly slow process of describing what I mean when I say “the four fingers of your left hand.” No manner of gestures, miming, or rephrasing can quite get the point across. All I want to convey is that I want the ends of four digits of the left-most hand to be placed against the glowing white screen directly in front the person at my window. I don’t want ticket stubs, or job resumes, or old passports, or letters of recommendations. I don’t want the palm of the hand, or the wrist, or the back of the hand, or each finger separately in rapid fire motion. Just the left hand. LEFT. HAND.
Each time I rephrase my request I say it a little louder, gesturing a little more emphatically in an attempt to demonstrate the process. This doesn’t help my cause in the least–I fear that all that comes across is that there’s a crazy American shouting something about hands and waving her arms around dramatically.
You see, the main problem is not that I’m unheard, it’s that I am not understood. We are both–in theory–speaking English. It’s not the language that is separating us, it’s a difference in culture and background. There is so much about the people I see everyday that I don’t understand, and in the two minutes I spend talking to them repeating the words “left hand, your left hand!” I don’t have time to get to know them or their way of thinking any more. In the same way, they don’t understand my way of speaking, or even my accent. Although at times people are just deaf…or stubborn. But that’s a completely different matter for another post someday. (Ironically, only the little kids ever seem to notice the pictures and signs fully explaining the process).
So, I try my best to take this all as a lesson in cross-cultural communication–and patience.
(My commute home)