Wednesday, September 18, 2013

You Tarzan, Me Jane

“You want agua? Ok yes! I will be right back!” I spoke slowly, brightly, and clearly as though to a child or someone hard of hearing. The man to whom I was speaking, however, was neither of these things. As soon as I finished speaking I was embarrassed. The only reason I spoke this way was because, like much of the kitchen staff at the restaurant I worked at, Dante’s first language was Spanish, not English. Granted, he was not exactly proficient in English and therefore rarely spoke, but he was a fully-grown man who could understand a simple English response to his request for a glass of cold water from behind the bar.
I have seen this kind of response to people who speak a different language many times. Most of these times, however, were on TV or in movies, mocking the closed-minded, privileged people who speak to people from other countries like they are idiotic. I have laughed along with the audience because I never thought that I would ever treat another person like that, like they were something less than me because we speak different languages. I especially thought this because it has happened to me. While visiting Paris, a city not particularly known for its kindness towards Americans or tourists generally, I was routinely spoken to like I was a dunce. For one meal I was determined to order in French because I know next to nothing about the language. Some friends taught me the words I needed to know, I practiced, and I was more than ready to show off by the time the waiter returned. Once I had ordered my tuna sandwich, he responded in English that I had done a nice job. The strangest part was that he spoke slowly and with a condescending tone, despite the fact that we were speaking in my native tongue. Needless to say I was distinctly annoyed and the “crudités et thon” was not even that good.
Although I do not care to admit it on either of these accounts, there were also circumstantial reasons that these condescending tones were used. At the restaurant I was a waitress working to make some extra money a few days a week because my internship was unpaid. Dante worked to clean dishes, mop, and wash windows. He spoke to me only to say “hola” in the morning and to request water by pointing at his jug and saying “agua, please.” In retrospect, I allowed my position to influence my perception of his intelligence and therefore the way I treated him. I now realize that this was unfair to him, and I am ashamed to an extent. The French waiter saw in me a dumb American girl who was proud of herself for learning one sentence in his language while he was fluent in her own. Neither Dante nor myself deserved to be spoken to like children merely because of the languages we do or do not speak. This same bias is clearly present in the chapter “Tower of Babel” in Tales of the Tikongs.

In order to make Tiko financially productive, Alvin (Sharky) Lowe is placed in charge of recruiting fishermen to man the fishing boats. There is, however, a significant language barrier, so Sharky naturally “switched to the language he used when talking to simple natives” (Hau’ofa 21). What I found interesting was that the language he used was barely decipherable to a native English speaker, let alone a man who knew but “a leetol bit” (Hau’ofa 21). My understanding here is that Sharky is speaking as the English that the other Tikongs speak sounds to him. If this is true, did the Tikongs start speaking this way, or did the developers from Australia? Do none of these people speak English because they are spoken to in ever-changing half-formed words? The irony here is that although Sharky believes he is talking to a “simple native” of lesser intelligence, he is the one that ends up sounding markedly less intelligent than Ika. I am here forced to realize that I must have sounded somewhat similar while talking to Dante. 

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