Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pet Peeves: Forced English Conversation

I wrote this post after a long work day and rudely having to basically tell this young guy I was tired and didn't want to talk anymore. Take it with a grain of salt, but maybe it can shed some insight into those little particular pet peeves and frustrations we develop as volunteers in relation to our local situations!

I have a confession to make.

I find it annoying when total strangers attempt to engage me in full conversations on the street. (Typically in English. I'm not talking about "hi", "bye", "how are you?". I don't mind that. I'm talking ... "I was in x state y years and did this and that and where are you from and when are you going back and where do you live and what did you do today and what's your favorite color? And could your parents write me a letter so I can get a visa?")

Call me totally cold but since when did any person have the right to approach a stranger on the street and try to get at their life history via 20 questions? Especially when you've had a twelve-hour-day and just want to go home and relax for an hour?

In most public street situations I can think of, it would be considered creepy if a total stranger just started telling another stranger about his life and asking them random questions about theirs, with no preamble or "I'd like to talk to you because..." or "I'd like to practice my English sometime". So why is it any different that I'm a gringa and the stranger is a returned immigrant?

-Do they expect me to be excited to speak English? I came here to learn Spanish, but for the record I taught English at least six hours per week for a year and a half and on top of working 40 hours a week. I'm happy to share English with people, greet strangers, translate things for friends/acquaintances when I can, but I've put in my time for the public interest.
-Am I supposed to be impressed by them? Woop-dee you learned another language after living in a different country for five years. Good for you, but not that surprising.
-Yes, I'm from New York (state). No, I'm not from anywhere near the city and sorry, we don't have anything in common that is remotely important.

Young returned immigrants have reached out frequently to me and it's understandable. Generally I think it's because they miss the US and the status they had being there. They know that speaking English is a talent, but I get the sense most don't have an idea of how to put it to practical use... meaning it's an intuitive action to reach out to people from the culture you've left behind to get recognition. Especially now that I'm leaving Guatemala, I can understand that urge.

But it's still creepy. In this case, it's also this weird reflection of a negative power dynamic between men and women, where men have the right to approach women for whatever they want. I know men get it too, but with women, they don't let off as easily, even when you demonstrate you speak Spanish.

And if you're with your tall bearded boyfriend, those young strangers don't say anything. That pisses me off. Am I just some commodity to be passed from one man's custody to the open public domain when he's not around?

This is a lesson to me, though, too. When I get home, I'm going to respect people's right to privacy. Meaning principally, I'm not going to accost every Hispanic-looking guy on the street and ask him in Spanish if he's Guatemalan then refuse to speak English with him, even if he's fluent.

I just feel like it's a respect thing. Do I give up that right simply because of the trauma these young men have faced during their journeys, and their myriad needs for rehabilitation that they're not receiving? I don't think so.

As vehemently as I support immigration reform based on what I've seen here, I just don't have the resources to help them individually, and encouraging their friendship is not ultimately helpful to them nor appealing to me in the context of my status here.

In summary, my philosophy: don't engage strangers in full conversation on the street just because you're eager to practice their language. If you're really that overeager, ask them politely- in the local language- if you could converse a little bit, or pay them for a lesson! And give them the chance to tell you they're freaking busy at the moment.

Am I being harsh?

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