Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to be in one place at one time

I was recently asked, "Annie, is it possible for these foreign students, who do not speak a word of the local language to live in this community and manage to communicate with people?" I honestly believe that half of communication is just being mentally and physically present. Anyone can do this, but few put conscious effort into it. Am I really here? Do the people around me really feel like I am 100% here? In an age of multi-tasking, we are used to stretching ourselves across different times, places or responsibilities. Sometimes the hardest part is to just be. You share a lot in common with someone when you are physically present, sitting with them, eye to eye, without saying anything. Maybe the words around you make no sense, but you are there, and this is half the battle.

I was at a birthday party. I love celebrations, but at this point in my life I dreaded the large gatherings because I had a hard time following a fast conversation. I kept turning my head right and left, trying to look at the ladies who were speaking, trying my best to piece together words in the hopes of understanding what they thought was so funny. While they were laughing, my eyebrows moved towards each other as if a scowl could help me comprehend this new language. One of the ladies noticed that I was the only one not laughing, patted my leg and said slowly and definitely, "Annie, you will soon understand. You are here. Listen and you will laugh with us soon." So, I continued to attend the birthday, wedding and baby parties, looking forward to the day when I would laugh at the jokes and chime in with my own. About six months later I was attending another birthday party and I had my "ah-ha" breakthrough moment. The ladies were laughing again and this time I understood.

"The other day I saw the funniest thing," the story began, "two cows were running down the street with their ropes broken. I knew the cows belonged to our neighbor..."

And then I understood where the story was going. The week before I was in the banya doing my laundry when my host-family's cows broke free from their ropes and ran out into the street. I immediately threw on my dress and ran out into the street without shoes or a headscarf over my hair. I was yelling at the cows in English, cursing under my breath as I realized that all the neighbors had come out to watch me try to herd the cattle.

"And instead of Rahat, guess who runs out onto the street? Annie! Annie was running around without shoes, up and down the street, yelling Masha, Dasha at the cows. Cows don't know their names!"

As the women around me started to giggle, I could feel my face turn hot and red. I understood the story, and now I was aware that everyone was laughing at me. What progress!

"But," the storyteller interjected. "She caught the two cows as they were eating Baygul's flowers and led them home. See, she understands our language, and she can catch our cows!"

The lady sitting next to me turned to me and said, "You are now Turkmen and you can never go home to America because you don't have cows there!" With that everyone, including me, laughed. They laughed at this new Turkmen Annie, and I laughed at the absurdity of thinking we don't have cows in Idaho!

If you take it a step at a time, focusing on where you are right now, at home or far, far away, your energy and presence speaks for itself. This aspect of communication is cross cultural and transcendent. Don't be too hard on yourself if you struggle in the present, because with time communication becomes easier and the bridges of cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences can be crossed, even if they think cows don't exist in America.

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