Thursday, July 12, 2012

Moving Beyond Translation

I'm writing an article, at least in my head I am. It's about how and why to be a language and culture learning, even if you're not planning to stay someplace but only passing through. And one of the ideas I want to get across in a compelling but succinct way is how helpful it is to ask for use, not meaning.

Here's how it works. Say you're going to be in another culture and want to know what to do when you want to say goodbye. Instead of finding out the literal translation or simplest term for goodbye - something you might be able to get from the internet, or a book - you'd do well to ask a real person who lives there what you should say or do when you're with somebody and you need to leave. Then you learn to say what they say in a given situation, rather than saying a translation of what you would say, back home, in such circumstances.

I want to recommend people ask "what do you say when..." instead of "how do you say..."

A subtle difference, perhaps, but it helps.

Does the same thing apply to culture learning? You adjust better if you try to learn about the contours of life for local people rather than trying to figure out how to live your own life your old way, with just a surface translation like a change of clothes or bit different diet. You let it be more than a matter of translation, you let go of the partial truth that "underneath, we're all just the same." You receive the new activities or ways of doing things as an experiment or adventure rather than an inconvenience, mistake, or threat.

Letting go of your right to manage your own life and judge what "normal" means is painful, though, isn't it?

As I've mentioned here before and probably too many times, I still feeling the culture stress of both my move from Highlands Ranch to Eugene and my move from singleness to married-with-family. The hubs and kiddos get to feel it too as they hear me whine about the scarcity of coffee shops and libraries near here, etc.

At the household level, we've also discovered that I have different assumptions about technology. I don't like carrying a cell phone and won't answer it if I'm driving, or busy; I don't like phones and don't believe I need to be that reachable. I recoil from having the TV on "too much." I think ice cream can be scooped with a plain ol' spoon and that we don't need a rice maker to make rice; I prefer and default to doing things by hand instead of using a tool. Much of the time when C. and/or the kids introduce me to their "newfangled" tool or technique I balk a bit, even if I later come to appreciate it.

I'm trying to flex. I'm trying to stop whining, snapping, and getting defensive. I'm a little horrified at my failures. I'm trying to both give grace to this environment and its inhabitants, and to my freaked-out, culture-shock-y self.

What's the principle to hold onto? Maybe it all just goes back to "it's not wrong, it's just different."

When I made my first trip outside the U.S. at age 17, someone told me that the three most helpful character traits to cultivate were flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and sense of humor.

Yesterday brought a pleasant cultural adventure. I took a field trip, my second visit to The Fifth Street Beanery. That's a downtown coffee shop that's easy to get to, has its own parking, free wifi with plenty of seating and electricity, and keeps long hours. All the things I would put on my "why aren't there places like that in Eugene?!" list. Because, of course, I've been judging my new town on the basis of how well it measures up against my old one: I'm trying to translate my life, rather than discovering a new one with its own categories. Well there are some of the coffee shops in this city that are something like the ones I left behind and just as pleasing. Just not in the outlying neighborhoods.

As I sat at my laptop sipping my coffee and munching my whole-wheat marionberry coffee cake (what a Northwest thing!) I also savored the signs of authentic (not contrived) character. A great menu. People who seemed sincerely interested in their companions. I also like the windows into independent "green" hardware store next door, sharing the building which looks rather like a converted mill or workshop. Chances are good it wasn't just built or remodeled to "look like" that, but preserved as it was.

Ah, Lord, help me appreciate, honor, and protect my new town, family, and way of life, rather than fighting them, judging them, or trying to remake them into something more comfortable and familiar to myself!

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