Being bilingual, or poly-lingual if you’re lucky enough, is a marvelous quality to own in a mezcla of a world such as ours, while also being an admirable and functional skill in any job market. It transcends a membrane in the social layers of the human race, particularly in America where people flock from all parts of the world. Unlike during the Ellis Island days, today the concept of multiple languages is thankfully becoming more accepted. I can’t speak for Europe or for the rest of the world, although I’m sure the experience is much more obvious albeit ubiquitous there, but here in the United States this somewhat neo-ability has an increasingly profound effect on everyday interaction. It is the thread that is slowly being sewn into the fabric of the American quilt of cultures. This may seem like an explicit note, but it’s one worth repeating for the point that I’m going to eventually contradict.
Language is something we take for granted. The strings of syllables, sounds and pauses, which all mesh together to form thoughts that can be transferred directly from one person’s cerebral cloud to another, is nothing short of a phenomenon. When face-to-face, we can’t mind-read, but we can mind-speak. But what happens when this ability is lost? Is there something more to us humans than our vocabulary to express our trails of brain dust?
This question was not something I necessarily asked myself at 24 years old, but more or less experienced unwillingly. The answer arrived in the same accidental manner. This pervasive experience I speak of sprouted from a language barrier that isolated me as I began living my first day, of what would be the next six months, in a house with three Ukrainians, one Czech and one Armenian. I must also include my boyfriend (or whatever you want to call him) at the time who was Russian. I, myself, am Colombian. Each of us were born in our respective native countries, but I’m the only one who was adopted into the States as an infant. Only my boyfriend, Mike (“Mishka”), and Artur the Armenian were bilingual. Mishka moved to Brooklyn, NY when he was ten years old, so he caught onto English pretty well, but maintained an accent and the inability to pronounce the “th” sound (there is no sound like that in Russian). As for the others in the house, they were all middle-aged and lived in the U.S. for an average of only five years or so.
Ivan, Sergei and Svetlana were Ukrainian and Dimitri (“Dima”) was Czech; their English was a narrow set of basic words, but for generality’s sake they could not speak English. Although Artur could speak a fair amount of broken-English, he was rarely home. Life in that house was rough to begin with, but to get by with only one and a half bathrooms, practically no heat in the dead of winter, and sharing a kitchen with six other people as Ukrainian was being spoken constantly, was incredibly challenging. I best describe it to people as a daily routine of playing charades.
Mishka was my translator for all the stories that Sergei and Ivan would tell of “the old country”, but I could tell a lot of things were getting lost in translation. Mishka said that Russian and Ukrainian were similar languages, but sometimes a Russian word for one thing meant an entirely different thing in Ukrainian. Besides that, the stories would move pretty quickly with all the emotion attached to it. Mishka, undoubtedly overwhelmed at times, could only give me snippets, so he could keep up with the story himself. The result was a patchy, fragmented story of rudimentary facts, that I desperately paired with the inflections and volume of the Ukrainian version, to form a rocky notion of what the hell they were talking about. Sometimes he would intend to translate, but would accidentally repeat the sentence in Russian to my puzzled face. He then had to apologize through my laughter, frustratingly cursed at himself in Russian, and finally spat out the English interpretation for me. The duality had to exhaust him from time to time. (He also would talk in Russian in his sleep which was adorable). Add this confusion to a night of drinking, and try to imagine the amount of times Sergei or Ivan would put their hand over their eyes, muttering “Oh muh Gud!”, as they leaned back in their chair, the other hand feeling for their cold piva (“beer”).
Despite the constant finger-pointing to objects and exaggerated display of verbs, we all got along quite well. At night, Ivan would always beckon me to the table, push a tiny shot-glass of cheap vodka or E&J brandy in my direction, and cheers me with the rest of the men. I felt included, loved and enchanted. We lived in a broken down, three-story house in Trenton, New Jersey, where there were mice and occasional roaches, and the front door was always open for cigarette-smoking. I attended college for engineering, had three jobs, no money, and a nostalgic depression that I seethed with their caring shots of alcohol. After hearing their sad stories about Ukraine, I felt like a spoiled American brat and took a gulp of some damn brandy. We were going to work hard, get drunk and wake up the next morning to do it all over again.
They knew we couldn’t afford food, so they would offer plates of Russian rye bread and salo (raw pig fat, it’s delicious I swear), and smoked herring. I say offer, but I really mean served. Eat, or insult them. Drink the shot, or insult them. We knew better than to decline, so we ate and drank, and played foreign songs on YouTube about Russians in prison, moaning for forgiveness for their sins of thievery to feed their family. The tone was bleak, but the mood was always light. I had to laugh at the stereotype-come-to-life. It was a fun stereotype though, I’ll admit. With one exception where Sergei banged on our bedroom door at 8:30 A.M., drunk as a skunk, shouting in Ukrainian for us to wake up and come downstairs to drink, exclaiming, “Is my birt’day! IS MY BIRT’DAY!”
Despite that petty moment, the most unparalleled insight subtly peeped its head into my consciousness, and paradoxically appeared when my clinging to the struggle of a language barrier disappeared. That’s where I saw the bridge of the human connection really reveal itself before me. Sergei could tell if I was sad, not because I told him so, but because he could see it in my eyes. He could see my cheeks drooped a little more that day than the last. A smile means the same thing in every culture – a basic fact you learn in Psychology 101. During those months, I really learned how true that fact was. A smile from Sergei, despite his twelve hour day of back-breaking construction work to send money back to Ukraine while he lived like a pauper here in Trenton – that is what perforated my depression. The lightness of his smile, the sound of his voice singing with sounds I couldn’t piece together into intellectually comprehendible sentences; these were the things that lifted my soul above the harsh reality of poverty.
It was the best thing for me because I didn’t want patronizing words of advice, or judgment. I just wanted to listen to sounds I couldn’t recognize as meaning anything at all. I didn’t need words with meaning. Or words at all, for once. I could hear the nostalgia in Sergei and Ivan’s voices that comforted me in the same way that Rachmaninoff or Beethoven’s music always managed to soothe me. Those music notes, dynamics and key changes, all came from centuries ago, but the sound of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18: Moderato surpasses all notions of time and you feel his pain and ideas flow into you as if he was beside you, gushing for 11 minutes about the uneasy precursory days of the Russian Revolution (I recommend playing this song from minutes 6:20-7:00 after you read this to feel the pain of Russian music).
We lived together, harmoniously, through our good and bad days. We cooked, we cleaned, we hung laundry on a sunny day. The act of living, the commonality of being alive, is what brought us together. Language was not necessary for us to experience empathy for one another. Language was not necessary for Mishka and I to realize Svetlana and Sergei weren’t getting along, or vice versa. Anger, passion, love and pure stupidity is the same across the board, regardless of the insults, exclamations, compliments or mistakes provided in one’s native language to express it.
So for those of you planning to travel abroad, studying or involved in international business, or being scrutinized for dating someone who doesn’t even understand the same language as you — heed this: feel people rather than listen to them. Watch people rather than speculate based off of what you heard. Habits, motions, expressions and vibes are really what clue us humans onto what the other(s) are thinking or feeling. To feel the true essence of a person means more than just words; this may seem so childishly obvious, yet it is always the simplest laws that rule our universe, but are overlooked for too long (ask Newton or Einstein).
Language is a beautiful thing, and incredibly useful of a skill as I mentioned earlier, but it is not a prerequisite for the act of one soul to touch another, to save one from melancholy or to bring joy to another’s day. This is what I learned from living with foreigners, aside from earning a great wealth of knowledge about a culture from the other side of the world!
Those days were rough, but I miss them and I miss the people I lived with, even though I never understood 100% of what they were trying to say. The effort we all made to connect is what made it so worthwhile. So to those that I lived with and learned from, спасибо (“thank you”), and I will never forget you as long as I live.