Last night after work, I decided to pop into PetCo to pick up some much-needed flea shampoo for my cats. It was supposed to be a five-minute stop, but then I saw a clerk wandering around the store asking people, "Do you speak Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?" No one ever asks me, an Asian woman, whether I speak Spanish, so I called out, "I speak Spanish, do you need an interpreter?" He accepted my services with relief and I spent the next fifteen minutes helping him help a young Hispanic woman buy some fish for her little boy. Apparently the fish she was eyeing were rather difficult to take care of, requiring that she put other fish in the tank for six weeks first to "balance it" (excrete some bacteria or something), but there was no way he was going to be able to explain that with hand gestures. Eventually she settled on some red cap goldfish, which are much easier to raise, and all parties were happy.
I never get to be the one who saves the day. I can't stand up when a flight attendant asks, "Is there a doctor on board?", and I'm never the one who happens to have a Swiss Army knife in her purse with just the right tool. Even when I was on my former company's emergency response team, the only thing I ever had to do was give someone an ice pack. And so okay, while helping someone buy fish isn't exactly a lifesaving gesture, I was happy to be able to help when no one else around could.
The clerk told me that he was so glad I'd been there, because the woman had been in several times before but no one could ever speak to her, and he wanted to make sure she got the right fish for her little boy. I was touched. In my daily life I see so many instances where people who don't speak English---usually Hispanics, in my part of the country---are simply dismissed, or even yelled at, and here was a young white guy doing everything he could to help her. He could have just sold her the original fish, which would have died without proper care, or decided she wasn't worth it as a customer and just tried to get rid of her, but he didn't. He recognized her humanity despite their lack of a common language. Once again, I say that it is not language that creates barriers; it is people and their attitudes, and this little incident restored my faith in the innate goodness of many.
I learned the Spanish word for fresh water, agua dulce (literally "sweet water"). And the clerk gave me a ten percent discount on my flea shampoo for helping them out. We were winners all around.