It started in Houston, Texas. After all the driving, I sat down in the lounge room of Gio and his family, about to watch ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ – my third time – with a tray of shot glasses, tequila, and lime in front of me. Gio’s father had asked if I wanted some and I’d said yes, half-jokingly, not expecting to be the only one in the room drinking. There I sat, cross-legged on the carpet, between the K-Pop-loving teenagers (Gio’s sisters and a boyfriend whose eyes were endearingly and perpetually in the headlights on his first foray into the girl’s house) and Gio’s Mexican parents, feeling welcome, and, for the first time in a long time, deeply happy. And yet, when it came to speaking Spanish, even my tray of Dutch courage by my legs couldn’t help.
This wasn’t a good sign. I was about to go to Mexico, where I was hoping to use as much Spanish as possible, and here I was with stage fright. It would be my first time in a Spanish-speaking country in five years. The last time was Mexico, also. Why was I scared? I’ve lived in Spain, for crying out loud! There, I got to the stage of watching television to relax. But five years of passive self-teaching through music and reading and the odd conversation with students (I teach English), I felt, hadn’t prepared me for speaking at length in my second language. It was more than that, though. With Gio’s family my shyness was more to do with a crisis of identity. I knew Gio through writing for a website about Latin American music and I was ostensibly not Latino: with a few grammatical errors I felt I would expose how much of a fraud I was. ¡Entiendo más que yo puedo hablar! (I understand more than I can speak!).
Adding to my frustration was the fact that I’ve spent about seven years telling my students that they should just speak and not worry about failure. Push yourself out of the comfort zone of your native tongue and lose yourself in the new one. Go on, you can do it, I believe in you. Stop translating. Think harder – you know these words!
And now I would like to eat them.
I closed my eyes, took a slow breath in, and walked towards the Cancun airport bus ticket office. The sales clerk took in my inarguable güero (fair) features and said, “Hello-how-can-I-help-you”, to which I mustered confidence and nonchalance in equal measure and ordered my ticket in Spanish – casual, forceful. I replied to his response in Spanish. I controlled the transaction in Spanish – and it felt damn good.
Each step of the way to my destination, Playa Del Carmen, I practised my composure. I looked at Mexicans around me speaking Spanish in a way that conveyed that I wasn’t a fish out of water, that I knew what was going on. This paid off, I could tell, when staff asked me ¿hablas español? first, to which I replied with a robust and, to my mind, withering, sí, claro. It was pleasurable and simultaneously alienating to then have the other person look at you, trying to figure you out. ¿Por qué hablas español?
I spent five days in an AirBnB in Playa Del Carmen writing and going to the beach for walks and going to the supermarkets for a good time: but it was so hot, so humid, so draining to be outside, that I didn’t do much more than that. I would have loved to visit the cenotes – cavernous pools of deep blue water – but I felt self-conscious alone and too darn hot. Next time, I consoled. Instead, I dipped my toe in a pool of Spanish interaction, making quips at the supermarket checkout and small talk with puesto (food cart) cooks with as much aplomb as I could manage.
The next stop was Oaxaca city, where I stayed in another AirBnB owned by a couple of artists. It was a rustic cottage with a courtyard and artist studio, with open windows that let in a constant stream of mosquitoes. Even with a shower that was like standing in a light drizzle, I made the most of it, and appreciated the help my hosts gave freely – and in Spanish. Things were going well. I felt confident and capable enough to ask for clarification of vocabulary I didn’t understand.
There, I met up with two friends from Sydney, Liz and Vanessa, who didn’t speak the language at all, except for the pleasantries. This meant that I was the key to their first experience in Mexico, and I loved it. So far, so transactional. Known vocabulary was at my disposal, but more importantly, there was anticipation and a narrative that was universal to all interactions in market places and restaurants. People spoke in short sentences. I could guess where the conversation would go. I chatted to the tlayuda (‘pizza’ taco) man in the Mercado Benito Juarez; I ordered us chocolate malteadas from Chocolate Mayordomo; I helped my friends buy pharmacy items. At a fruit stand I fell into a conversation with the lady selling the uber-tropical-smelling yellow guayabas, who told me how gringos were smart but lazy and Mexicans were hard-working but dumb. I was indignant and made a big show of how gringos were the dumb ones – but not like australianos – and the boys in the mobile phone shop who’d stopped to watch our interaction laughed and buoyed my confidence further.
Liz took us to meet a friend, Ben, who had just started living in Oaxaca to learn Spanish. He showed us around the city he’d been getting to know and joined our sightseeing endeavours, one of which was a $20 tour of the surrounding countryside by minibus. Our guide, Carlos, was an Italian-Mexican anthropologist, who presented the tour in Spanish and English, interchanging between the two with enviable fluidity. We toured the world’s widest tree in Tule, and a textiles factory (where watching natural dyes being made blew this poor ignoramus’ mind), and I noted how in Spanish Carlos explained what we saw succinctly without much hyperbole, while in English he used a lot of fillers, like “you know” and added, in case we weren’t already impressed, “it’s completely amazing”. At the Zapotec ruin of Mitla, I joined the Spanish-speaking tour of the site, understanding almost everything, but feeling intimidated by the audience of native speakers I’d have if I decided to speak. There’s a difference between getting the gist of spoken language, understanding it, and comprehending everything critically. I help prepare my students for the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam, a part of which includes a listening test. The test is designed so that the first section is a transactional conversation (say, between a receptionist and customer) and progresses in rising difficulty to a lecture given without any ‘grading’ – that is, vocabulary isn’t moderated for lower levels of English, like the tour. For native speakers who have a reasonable lexicon, this final lecture and the questions pertaining to it (which rely on the exam-taker to know synonyms of what they hear) are surprisingly not that taxing. Fluency has a lot to do with the ability to paraphrase – comprehension, analysis, reconfiguration. In real life we usually ask for clarification on exact details: numbers, spelling, times, dates. Regurgitation of overall ideas is easy enough with other words at your disposal. There’s no other word for ‘365’… Wait, bad example. I digress. Basically, my listening skills are still moderate: I either understand what you’re saying or I don’t, and need to ask for specifics. One unknown word can throw me if I have to respond with discernment.
After visiting the “completely amazing” Hierve El Agua in the Sierra Madre (a calcified waterfall and mineral pools), my confidence to speak with Carlos in Spanish was helped by a visit to a mescal factory. It also helped that he had been performing an amazing feat of bilingualism throughout the full eight hour day, and led by example: he made mistakes without the overall effect weakening his communication skills.
I sat in the back seat of my friend Renee’s car. We drove back to Mexico City from Valle de Bravo, a town 156km away on the banks of Lake Avándaro – a destination like a Mexican riviera, where you can take your boat out or go paragliding. I’d been taken to a six-year-old’s birthday party, complete with piñata, feeling very hungover and tired from the night before. It had been a struggle to be polite and make small talk at the party: so often my brain misheard questions asked of me, words didn’t come readily to mind or mouth. In the back seat I half-listened to Renee and Jimena chat away in the DF accent. It’s not as clear as the ones I’d hear in Oaxaca and Guadalajara, and in their best friend parlance, huge gaps opened up with colloquial expressions I couldn’t fill in by guess work. The scene reminded me of the first months living in Spain. I’d sit in the back seat of a car of coworkers from the school I worked at listening, trying to understand, getting confused, getting petulant. If I couldn’t follow the conversation, I’d opt out of it. If they wouldn’t help me by dumbing down their language, then I wouldn’t speak. I was young and immature then, but this sequence of thoughts returned to me now.
I had a word to myself. What would I have told my students? Take control of the conversation. Ask questions.
But it’s hard when you want to present your real self to people you know, or to people you want to know, to speak at half your normal capacity. You feel like your personality is diminished. You feel like your time with them is wasted on stumbling for words, and stalling for perfect grammar.
I was hungover because I’d met a new friend the night before with whom I had a lot to talk about. Over the next ten days in Mexico City, we’d fall into a rhythm of varying Spanish and English conducted by what my brain could process at any given time. I didn’t want the flow to be muddied with my pride – being too embarrassed to interject in conversations with new people, or confusing my friends with attempts at jokes. It was ideal, and yet it wasn’t. I demanded a comfort zone. I didn’t want to work too hard.
After Mexico City, I took a cheap flight to Guadalajara, and alone again, I found myself controlling a very chatty conversation with my cab driver from the airport. What’s the nickname of a Guadalajara native? –Tapatio. What’s the deal with the grub in Tequila? –For the tourists. What food should I try here? -Torta, Pozole. I’d communicated with my next AirBnB host completely in Spanish before I got there, and even though I had the onset of a heavy cold, I commandeered our meeting and administration in his mother tongue. It seemed that because it was my last stop in the country, I had a lot to prove: and not just to Mexico, but to my childish self. Be braver, I thought. You’re just a hobbyist. Around a billion people around the world use English as a second or third language every day. Most of them never decided language was an enthralling pastime. Check your privilege. Suck it up.
I nearly missed my flight out of the country. I got dates mixed up and through stupid luck I discovered my mistake two hours before the plane was due to take off. My host ordered an Uber within twenty minutes of the realisation, and again, I sat in the passenger seat chatting with the driver. He lamented how taxis were often a cause for tourists’ bad experiences in the country, that they overcharged, and feigned ignorance. He told me all he knew about Australia – he had in-laws there – and peppered the conversation with the odd word he knew in English. We agreed that Australians and Mexicans were cousins: fond of drinking, laughing and had a similar love/hate relationship with the United States. The drive to the airport was a half hour and we talked the whole way. I got out of the car and shook hands with the driver and thanked him for sharing my last conversation in Spanish. And then, with a mixture of regret and relief, I stepped back into the comfort of the international (read: English) zone of an airport.