Feeling lost in translation

Published 6:33 pm Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I could see the panic in my friend Chung’s eyes the moment he spotted me from across the Pike County Courthouse lobby. He practically ran over to grab my arm, stopping me mid-stride.

“I need your help,” he said.

Chung is from South Korea, one of the hundreds of international students studying at Troy University. I first met him at my church, where for a time I taught Sunday School for internationals.

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Chung had come to the courthouse to a get a license plate for a car, and quickly ran into trouble communicating with the clerks in the probate office.

Like many international students, Chung studied English for years in his own country, but adapting to English as spoken by Americans, much less Southern Americans, is a different matter.

Chung speaks slowly and you have to listen carefully at times to grasp his meaning. In turn, it helps to speak slowly and clearly to him (not louder) in order to be understood. He was getting none of that at the courthouse that day.

Chung had been unable to understand the clerk, and she had been unable to understand him. With the line of customers growing longer behind him, the situation quickly devolved into frustration for all parties involved. Chung was told he didn’t have the necessary paperwork and was ordered out of line.

Confused and embarrassed, he likely would have gone home until he spotted me passing through by chance.

I knew exactly how he felt. It’s amazing how a simple, everyday task can quickly become confusing, even a little frightening, when a language barrier is involved.

In 2004, I spent two months on a mission trip to Kazakhstan with a group of college students. It was my first time out of the country and I quickly learned that when you are in a place where you don’t speak the language, each day is an adventure.

Going to the grocery store, ordering food at a cafe, asking directions, finding the bathroom — nothing is easy when basic greetings, hand gestures and a well-worn language guidebook are your only means of communication.

And yet, overcoming the challenges of being in a foreign culture can also be vastly rewarding. As the days go buy, you get a little better with the language, a little more comfortable trying new things — but getting there often means embarrassing yourself in a myriad of ways.

Take public bathrooms — how can you tell the men’s room from the women’s when you can’t read the signs on the door? You guess. A couple of my male teammates on the trip learned they guessed wrong when they heard, while sitting in the toilet stalls, the click of high heels on the bathroom’s tiled floor.

Other times, trying to avoid embarrassment only makes you look sillier. While shopping for tea at a grocery store, I found I could not tell the difference between boxes of tea packets, which I wanted, and boxes of loose tea leaves, which I did not. I approached a clerk, but unsure how to ask for tea packets in Russian, I awkwardly mimed dipping a tea packet into a cup.

“Packet?” she said with a bemused smile.

Who knew the Russian word for packet was packet?

So when Chung grabbed my arm and asked for help that day at the courthouse, I knew all too well his sense of helplessness. Together we waited in line and stepped to the counter when the turn came. I helped him sort through his stack of paperwork to find what the clerk needed, and eventually, we got a license plate for his car.

“I don’t know what I would have done without you,” he said as we left the courthouse.

I think he would have figured it all out eventually. The international students who come to Troy have much more knowledge of English than I did of Russian. They are able to do more and travel about more independently than I ever was, but occasionally they still need help and patience from others.

One thing that made getting by day to day in Kazakhstan easier is that most of the people we met were friendly. They often thought our attempts at Russian were laughable, but they were willing to help and were excited to meet someone from another country.

Here in Troy, I sometimes worry how international students are being treated. It takes a lot of courage to leave everything familiar and immerse yourself in a culture you know little about. How people treat you will in many ways define the experience.

The next time you see an international student looking lost in Wal-Mart, or unsure how to proceed at the post office, ask if he or she needs help. You might make a friend, and you will help ensure that the students who visit us from across the globe leave with a favorable impression.

Overtime, these small gestures of commonalty and friendship could go along way toward building bridges of goodwill around the world.

Matt Clower is news editor of The Messenger. He can be reached 670-6323 or via email at matt.clower@troymessenger.com.