2e Tuesday: Stranger in a Strange Land.

Being a 2e kid in the world is like living in a place where you don’t speak the language. I know, because I was a 2e kid and I’ve lived in a place where I didn’t speak the language!

Once upon a time, I lived in Hungary. Hubby and I were there with Naturalist and Golfer (4 and 1 at the time) so that Hubby could do a Student Exchange through his Graduate program at the then called “Karl Marx University of Economics”.

Neither of us spoke Hungarian, and considering it took me 3 weeks to be able to say Hungarian…”Magyarorszag”…it was doubtful I ever would. I was banking on the fact that everyone would speak English. A short 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I learned that English wasn’t a prerequisite for most of the Hungarians I met once we got over there. I could generalize that if the person was in their 20’s, they knew a decent amount of English–enough to chat. In their 30’s, the English knowlege went way down, and anything over that meant the person spoke Russian, Hungarian, and German, but no English.

This was also pre-EU admittance, and so the street and metro signs were never sub-labeled in English. Everything in the grocery stores was labeled in Hungarian, with a translation into Romanian, Russian, German, Italian, and Czech…no English. I managed to find an IKEA on the outskirts of Budapest, and was faced with this: I don’t know what any of this means!

My fallback plan of relying on my miniscule French knowlege to help decode Hungarian words also fell flat, because: “Hungarian is an Uralic language (more specifically a Ugric language) unrelated (or only very distantly related) to most other languages in Europe.” In France, Police is “Police”. German: “Polizei” Italian: “Polizia” Hungarian: “Rendorseg”. One of those things doesn’t belong!

The first week was really hard. I couldn’t communicate with anyone and they couldn’t communicate with me. I was always lost, I was afraid to go out in case a situation happened that I didn’t know how to handle, it seemed like I was always making people mad at me but I didn’t know why, and I generally felt very isolated, insignificant, and afraid.

Then, I learned how to order ice cream from the street vendors along the main pedestrian street in the heart of Budapest:

Vaci Utca (Vaci Street)

I then started learning how to order food in restaurants, do a decent job holding my own in a grocery store, and saying “Please” (Szeretnék) and “Thank You” (Köszönöm). If people were going to be angry at me, at least I knew it wasn’t because I wasn’t polite! I even learned ‘Excuse Me’ (Bocsánat!) to cover all my bases.

I learned to ask ‘How much is that one?’ (Mennyibe kerül? Ot von!) and could do quite a bit by just pointing and smiling. But my favorite things to say were, “Nem értem” and “Nem tudom” (I don’t understand, and I don’t know). I truly was a stranger in a strange land, and those phrases were my free passes out of situations that were over my head.

I often watch Naturalist and Golfer interact in the world and it is apparent to me that English is their second language. It’s hard to explain what I mean if you don’t have a kid like this. I’m sure there are proper ‘diagnosis’ for it…slower processing speed, shorter memory span…whatever. They are bright kids, but I can tell by their longer reaction time to different stimuli, that they are having to translate the world around them into their own ‘language’. This translation often leaves them confused, vulnerable, upset, and saying “I don’t KNOW!” or “I don’t GET IT!” over and over again. Frustrating as a parent, because we see their gifts and talents. We KNOW what their capabilities are and can’t figure out why they aren’t matching up with that.

I remember, as a kid, my Dad used to get so frustrated with me for saying, “What?” after everything. He’d ask me to do something while looking me right in the eye, I’d pause and say…”What?” He’d say, “What do you mean, What? You were looking right at me! You heard everything I said!” My mom decided it had become a nasty habit or sheer laziness, because I said “What?” to her a ton, too. I said it to just about everyone. Teachers, friends, family. They all knew I wasn’t stupid, but I sure acted like it….like I didn’t understand what they were saying to my face. I was confused in school, confused at home, generally kind of nonplussed everywhere I went. My knickname in 6th grade was ‘Cadet’, as in, “Space Cadet”:

Me, at 11.

As I look back, you know what I was doing? Translating. I’ve done such a good job, that now I’m totally fluent–enough that I’ve forgotten what my native ‘language’ was. It took me many years after most of my peers to learn how to tell time on a clock, or remember my birthday, or get the months in chronological order. The things that came naturally to most other people took me a little longer due to the extra layer of translating I had to do.

I think it’s because of this experience that the time in Hungary wasn’t so bad. I’d already lived through being an exchange student in a foreign land (as such) before, I knew how to deal with the feelings and challenges. I managed alright once before, I could do it again.

I try to go easy on my kids when they keep asking, ‘What?’ or saying ‘I don’t know!’ or not getting something that I think they should. I cut them some slack for ‘translation’ purposes. I know how hard everything was for me in Hungary, having to do the same thing. Their primary language is something….creativity, or color, or melody, or pictures, or something. To translate those things into words can be a tricky thing!

If you think maybe your kid’s primary language isn’t English, either, come join up at the “Out of the Box Thinkers” group!

Another great 2e Tuesday blog: Jen over at Never a Dull Moment!