Sorry I Don't Speak Your Language

6 September 2023

Traveling is fun but it slowly chips away at my psyche. I like experiencing new cultures but when I don’t speak the local language, it gives every little thing a little bit of friction. Like going to 711 in Japan and getting asked “袋はいりますか?” and just being like “huh o.o” to such a simple question.

It makes me wonder how my immigrant parents felt when they first came to the States. It’s like when I travel and I can’t understand shit but instead of holiday it’s the rest of their life. Us internet age babies are so lucky to have Google Translate: for translating restaurant menus, the instructions on the washing machine, the labels on the various body cleaning solutions in the bathroom, just simple everyday things.

Traveling in Europe is definitely easier than traveling in Asia. More people speak English, and they speak it well. I’m lucky I’m a native English speaker, and even luckier that the rest of the world happens to (mostly) speak English. I’m also lucky that English is cobbled together from German and French, which makes reading signs distantly familiar. But imagine immigrating to Germany and having to learn German… and then also having to learn English just to speak to tourists. What a pain in the ass.

Language and culture are also deeply intertwined. Not knowing language takes away from my cultural experience. I can only observe, never able to engage. The bums asking for change on the subway seem nice to me, because I can’t understand what they say. Maybe someone swore at me as I passed them on the street, I would never know. Of course, I can observe all the people walking around with beers at 2pm in Berlin and look up what a Wegbeir is but the experience would be richer if I just asked the dude instead.

I’ve been speaking more Chinese lately because I’ve been meeting 華人 while abroad. These conversations are hard, my brain is simply too slow to process conversation at the going rate. By the time I think of something to say, we might already be passed that topic.

It’s hard to be polite, it’s hard to be friendly, it’s hard to be myself when I don’t speak your language.