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I’ve been fortunate to visit several different countries and to live for short periods within different cultures. No master of my native tongue, I made no attempt to master the daily life phrases guide books phonetically describe, but relied instead upon what I labeled the point and click method, as if I were an enterprising two year old and the locals benevolent interpreters. We’d triangulate toward a rough understanding, language being only one of a wide variety of methods for comprehending. This technique turned out to be a humbling tactic, inhibiting most every pretense, and a gratefully humanizing one.

Had I stayed longer, I suppose verbal language might have emerged. Just visiting, I could at best observe and rather crudely adapt. Still, I managed to feed, transport, and house myself, albeit with a considerable measure of help from my new, temporary friends. I was, after all, a foreigner.

My daughter teaches Spanish at a university, and she insists that language emerges from culture, not from memorizing guide book phrases or decomposing grammars. I possess the iconic memory if a fruit fly, and I accepted my inability to remember any phonetic phrase for longer than it takes to close a phrase book. My ability to observe and infer, though, never depended upon language. Visiting foreign cultures, becoming a foreigner there, seems to require a subtle shift away from the confident certainty native culture induces and into a world ruled by inference, as if daily living was all about interpreting a series of three dimensional rebus picture puzzles, then acting as if. Let’s see, the horse followed by a donkey: maybe that means ‘horse’s ass.’

I became a mime, out of language, a refreshing experience for anyone like me, ordinarily so deeply invested in languaging as my primary means of interpreting my surroundings. Understanding emerges from anywhere but denotive comprehension, and I found myself engaging in a language beyond words.

Not everyone experiences delight when I show up with my over-sized roller bag. I suppose my very presence annoys more than I ever suspect. Some see disrespect in my glaring ignorances, an apparently grown man unable to ask for directions to the restroom, a native capability for every native, and a daunting challenge for any out of culture foreigner. I might not even recognize the facility should I somehow find it, and I might decline to use it if I can’t quite comprehend how.

I notice a touch of the foreigner in every visitor, and recognize some in myself even when visiting my neighbor’s place. Not fully comprehending even that culture, I’m struck rather dumb in the language of even that narrow realm. I might require some guidance to find the location of the kitchen that’s preconsciously obvious to everyone already living there.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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