I’ve just begun reading Anchee Min’s memoir The Cooked Seed (published by Bloomsbury in 2013). I’m only on page 58, but I’ve already reached the description about her arrival in Chicago, aged 27, in August 1984. Escaping from an impoverished upbringing in Shanghai and all the tribulations of the earlier Cultural Revolution that had so dramatically affected her life, she had applied (on false pretenses) to study in the US for a bachelor’s degree in art. She had one huge drawback: although indicating on her application and during her visa interview that she was fluent in English, she hardly spoke or understood a word of English. Her sense of utter helplessness leaps off the pages. A new language, new alphabet, as well as the challenge of a new consumer-driven culture and society, something way beyond her experiences until then.
And that got me thinking about how we adapt to new situations, cultures and language. I can empathize with Anchee Min, although of course my life experiences in childhood and my teens prior to moving abroad do not hold comparison with hers.
Before I moved, aged 24, to Peru in January 1973, I had traveled outside the UK on only two occasions, the first time in 1969 to Czechoslovakia, and then in April 1972 to attend a EUCARPIA genebank conference in Izmir Turkey. I’d flown only three times, never intercontinental, and Turkey was my furthest destination. So it was with a certain degree of trepidation I set out for Peru.
While I had made some (rather pathetic) attempts to begin to learn Spanish before I moved to Peru – I’d known for about a year that I would be working there before I actually left the UK – I didn’t make much progress. I was a graduate student at the University of Birmingham, and decided to take advantage of the language laboratory to begin Spanish lessons. I didn’t find it inspiring whatsoever – sitting alone in a booth, listening to a tape on headphones, and attempting to follow along with a text. Until then, my foreign language skills were minimal. I’d studied French at high school, passed the necessary exam (‘O Level’) in 1965, and not bothered subsequently. Well, at the language lab I thought I was making some progress until, that is, someone walked off with the only copy of the course text. On reflection I should have stuck with the audio tapes but being (at that time of life) a bit of a procrastinator, I gave up. With the consequence that when I landed in Peru I had hardly a word of Spanish.
In fact, when I came down to breakfast on my first morning in Lima – it was a Friday – I couldn’t even order my own breakfast! I must admit that I felt rather confused for several weeks, maybe months, until I began to understand a little more how things worked, and I’d picked up a basic vocabulary. I certainly used a lot of single words and waving of arms to get by.
In some ways there was less language pressure because many colleagues at the International Potato Center (CIP) at La Molina (then on the outskirts of Lima), where I worked as an Associate Taxonomist, were bilingual. Many of the support staff were not, and being able to communicate with them was a priority. I began intensive Spanish lessons with Maestro Jorge Palacios, who had taught ‘generations’ of ex-pats on the Peru-North Carolina State University Potato Program mission, and CIP staff. By mid-1973 I was much more confident and had begun to string sentences together – not particularly competently – but i was getting by. In May 1973 my colleague Zosima Huaman and I made a three-week germplasm collecting trip to the provinces of Ancash and La Libertad. I could never have made that trip alone. In one village we were greeted by everyone in the community. It was clear I would have to respond, having been identified as a ‘representante de la Reina Isabel‘. I quickly jotted down some phrases on the palm of my hand that Zosimo gave me. Afterwards, everyone (about 200 people) came and shook my hand!
By the time Steph joined me in July 1973 (and we were married in Lima in October that year) I was becoming a little more competent, and within a year I could make germplasm collecting trips in the boondocks (originally a Filipino word) on my own with just a support driver. It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica and Central America in April 1976 (where I stayed for almost five years) however, that I became more or less fluent in Spanish, although my written Spanish has never really been competent. At CATIE in Turrialba where we lived English was used very little. In my potato work with farmers in various countries and researchers from national research institutes, I always spoke Spanish. It’s such a lovely language to learn and speak. And that’s one of the legacies of my time abroad. I got to learn a second language, and although I haven’t spoken Spanish for 30 years or more, it’s still locked away in the further recesses of my brain. So it’s quite fun when something in Spanish is broadcast on the TV (as the other night, in a program about Easter Island) trying to follow along without reading the sub-titlkes.
Faced with the difficulties of a new language and adjusting to a different society and culture – as I did in 1973 – I think made me better prepared to help graduate students who came to study genetic resources at the University of Birmingham when i taught there in the 1980s. Most were overseas students with English as a second language; and quite a numbered really struggled. As part of our teaching commitments we worked with the staff of the English as a Second Language Unit in English Department to provide weekly remedial classes. Each week one of the course staff would record a lecture that then formed the basis of a tutorial with the students. In this way they not only learned about the technical use of English, but also how the lecturers would sometimes (often?) unknowingly use colloquialisms, or maybe repeat the same idea but in a different way, using other descriptive terms.
I’m afraid that when I moved to the Philippines in 1991 I never did make an effort (shame on me!) to learn Tagalog, although I picked up a smattering of words, and was able after some years to understand the gist of a conversation in Tagalog. But I’ve rarely been in a situation, as Anchee Min found herself, completely at sea and unable to communicate. As English has become (much to the chagrin of the French) the world’s lingua franca, it’s no longer unusual to find public signs and notices, even announcement on public transport, in English in Japan, China, Thailand and elsewhere that use a different alphabet.