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.

If you enjoyed this entry, explore similar entries within this category
You must be logged in to add bookmarks Click here to login