Talk To Me

Today was my first experience having to use an interpreter for work.  I was very excited to be able to better communicate with an 85 year old Asian woman.  I wanted to make sure she understood the purpose of me showing up at her house.  I know she could not understand me.  Though she has been here for decades, due to hearing impairment, cultural differences, and language barriers, I did not feel I was giving her the information she needed.

So I arranged for an interpreter.  The first thing I noticed was the interpreter himself.  He was beautiful to look at.  And I don’t mean in a Hollywood perfect image kind of way.  I mean he showed up in a white button up shirt, with a t-shirt underneath, and black slacks.  He was very handsome but his manner and demeanor were endearing.    He was extremely apologetic for having been late.  But I had been called so it was fine.  I had talked the lady I wanted to help in to coming outside to wait with me because there was too much commotion inside.   We had many difficulties breaking the communication barriers.  I do believe it  stemmed from her hearing loss.  She did not seem to understand the language we spoke, or the language of her native land.  He was respectful, polite and very gentle with her.  After failing at communicating outside we went inside and joined a small group in the house.   Still no luck.  She appeared to have some mental decline.  I was feeling this terrible heaviness in my chest and over my eyes.  Interpreter would ask her questions, she would just hum as he spoke.  He would tell us the simple questions he was asking, and we could see she was not responding.

I watched her and felt this horrid feeling.  As I watched him speak and her not respond, or start talking about something totally irrelevant to what we were saying, I became very sad.  Sad.  I could not understand.  She could not understand.  All I wanted was for her to understand.  I said to the others there, this must be horribly frustrating, and scary to her.  We had infiltrated her home, her safe place, and filled it with confusion.  It was almost like a claustrophobic feeling.   I so badly wanted her to know we were there to help her and her husband.

Finally I asked the interpreter to write in their native language.  He simply wrote and asked her if she could read this language.  Her response was “yes, yes I can read all kinds of that”.

For the next hour and a half this gentle man wrote questions and comments to her, once she started reading with him, she also started speaking with him.  I feel her hearing impairment is so bad that she could not understand the language he spoke because she had only lip read English.   I didn’t learn all that I needed to for work.  But I learned a little something about another culture.  I learned how to say her name respectfully, instead of the American way.  I learned that me going to her home put her in a position of having to please me.  She did not understand why we Americans were there to be her friends.  She had nothing in common with us so she was very perplexed.   She did not feel a need to get a hearing aide because she didn’t have anyone she needed to talk to.  And I understood that my presence along with the others, made her feel like we felt she wasn’t doing her duty in her home.

I did not want her to feel this.  It is not what any of us intended her to feel.  I asked the interpreter to tell her we were very pleased by her, and admire all that she had done for her husband and home.  He wrote it.  When she read it she laughed and smiled and said thank you very much, then hugged him.  He apologized to me for him getting the credit for that.  I was a little sad about that I will admit.  I so badly wanted to communicate with her.  Because I couldn’t. Things didn’t go exactly how I wanted.  We didn’t reach any miracles.  But I did ask him to ask her if she was glad he came today.  He did and she laughed and said he was pretty and could come back.  She told us how pretty he was, in English.  I gave her a high five and the last of the conversation was nothing but smiles and laughter.  She walked out side with us.  She asked us to come to a picnic to speak her language.  She teased the interpreter for having a wife.

There was such an incredible difference in her face.  When we could not bridge that difference in our languages she had a very sad and long and aged face.   When we were conversing and information was actually being exchanged her face was smiling, beautiful.  Relaxed.  When I left her home I couldn’t help but reflect on the isolation and frustration she must have felt.  Yes, she came to America.  Yes, she has been here long enough to learn the language.  Her husband actually did not give her credit for what she could do.  He told us she could not read English, we proved that she could.  He said she could not understand us.  Well, she couldn’t.  But it was more age related issues  and physical impairment than anything else.

I left her five hours ago.  But I can’t stop thinking of the world she chose to live in, and kind of got trapped in.  I hope today we made her day a little better.  Broke through the wall of isolation around her and gave her a little comfort.

I would not want to be in a room full of people talking around me.  Not knowing what they were saying.  Not knowing what was being planned, or joked about, or argued about.  I would think feeling alone in a room full of people would be worse than being alone.