Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Last night at the pet store

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.

4 comments:

jimm- said...

hi,language lover. this is a very nice blog... It's so nice to find someone who has the same passion as I do. I am 25,Indonesian, speak english as 2nd language. Since I took french and mandarin in 2006, I become obsessed with languages. Now I study economics in germany and currently spending my sparetime -beside improving my existing languages- learning germans, russian and spanish. Furthermore, being a muslim, I also know how to read and write arabics, Arabic is in my list. I also wish to continue my mandarin if I return to my country...

I really appreciate your writings . I read your posts whenever I feel I need support in my language studies. So please keep writing...! I wish you good luck with your pursuit in mastering languages....

Language Lover said...

Hi jimm-

Thank you for your comment! I am flattered to have readers from around the world. We seem to have studied many of the same languages. I intend to start learning Arabic next summer, so I would love to have a reader who speaks it natively and can help me!

toloosenthemind.com said...

Hey there! How come I've never seen your blog before?? Glad you put it up on ARP. Let me know if I can blogroll it at To Loosen, okay? I'd love to link to this post, too. I, too, NEVER get asked to help with Spanish translation in a store - too wacky of an idea to think the Asian woman could do it! While my skills are nowhere where they need to be, every summer it magically comes back to me when I translate at a summer camp for kids we cancer we attend. But, people are shocked when I'm the one busting out the Spanish (and when my Latino husband struggles with putting some of the words together!)

Glad to have finally discovered your work here!

Language Lover said...

Hey Liza, thanks for stopping by. :) It sounds a little silly now, but I initially wanted to keep my anti-racist and language lover identities separate on the Internet; not everyone who finds this blog shares my views on racism, and at the time I saw it as a way to maintain safe places. I'll probably start linking my blog now that I've had a reason to reveal it. I'd be honored to be added to your blogroll.