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Art by Dokino, Mongolia

Embracing the Shift

By Sara Almeida

Surviving the perils of language barriers and a foreign land

 

‘It is the ryality?’ RYE-AL-ITY, I heard myself say. Immediately I felt my face flush a red akin to my strawberry cider. The embarrassment. I meant to say ‘reality’ and my mistake let me mortified. How could a trivial conversation about a past week’s event turn into something so fumbled and confused?

October of last year, I took a quick two hour flight from the Portuguese capital to London, the city where I would build my new life. I was leaving behind family, friends, teachers and colleagues for a foreign country where a 330 ml beer was now a pint, the tea was served with milk and people drove on the right side of the road.

 

When I first arrived, I was slowly and constantly learning, a process that is both exhausting and electrifying. The constant over-stimulation was unbearable some days. At first it was purely strenuous work. I struggled to keep up with the new words, foreign accents and unfamiliar faces. Some mornings I felt equipped to face the confusing-mess that was London as a foreigner. Other mornings the thought of traversing this unfamiliar land made me want book a flight home for that afternoon. On many grey and rainy mornings I would yearn for the warmth and familiarity of the places I knew so well. Everything was new and I was living in a cultural jigsaw puzzle – a game in which the player has no option but to advance – les they face defeat.

 

After a few months of ‘intensive cultural training,’ replete with rush hours spent on the tube and beans for breakfast, I began to feel as though I belonged. First I caught myself speaking in a different way, I then began walking in a different way and before long I was thinking in a different way. Suddenly, I started to truly love London – slipping into side-street pubs on rainy days or enjoying a cup of coffee with a new friend. The city was beginning to feel like home.

 

The truth is, my time in London always returns to that one line: ‘It is the ryality’ – I can recall the awkwardness of the moment.

It was a Friday evening and everyone in the office was jubilant, celebrating the weekend to come. I was speaking and I felt confident. The conversation was jumping between commentaries on shocking current affairs and the usual office banter, when suddenly it happened. The language barrier slapped me in the face. RYE-AL-ITY, I heard myself say. No one seemed to care but me. They politely corrected me and carried on with their conversation, but I decided that from this point forward I would calculate my words before I let loose. I finished my cider and walked home. The embarrassment.

 

‘Everyone was there, everyone heard it,’ I remember thinking the next morning. I felt the same pang of humiliation, the slap in the face, that I had experienced the night before. The language barrier is cruel, painful and awkward. It will never give you a break, it never lets up.

 

At the office, a task as simple as picking up the phone becomes a difficult and fumbly chore. My heart begins to rush, my hands become sticky and I start to stutter. In the beginning of the conversation I communicate well enough, the person on the other line is able to understand me, but I know it won’t last long. Soon, they will say something that I can’t quite make-out and the fumbly-awkwardness will return, the conversation will end with my confidence slashed.

 

It’s an endless cycle.

 

I battle between wanting so much to connect with people and surrendering to the daunting task that is becoming fluent in a language and a culture that simply isn’t mine. At times, the intense pangs of defeat hit me hard and I rush to the toilet, tears of frustration stinging my face.The embarrassment, the shame, is back again. It always returns. I know it will never cease. Yet, each time I wash the tears away, look in mirror, take a deep breath and force a smile. I’m ready for the second round.

 

I’m feeling optimistic this time.

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