Experts say that the best way to learn a language is through cultural immersion, by fully submerging yourself into another landscape, one that forces you to sink or swim. After a significant chunk of time spent living and wandering around Southeast Asia, one might assume I was Katie Ladeckying all over the Indian Ocean. This was most certainly not the case. Instead, at least as far as immersion goes, my metaphoric aquatic achievements more accurately resembled the tiring calisthenics of treading water. Should I place my foot down in an attempt to catch my breath in the churning current, I’d be greeted with a shocking sting from an angry sea urchin… only that painful scenario really happened.
When I finally made the move to Cambodia, it felt as though I had been carelessly thrust into the foreign waters of a vastly different culture. The first few months were a mixture of excitement and panic, followed by relaxing periods of contentment spent floating in the swell under the sun. In these moments, it was truly an expat’s paradise. But the minute I’d let myself get too comfortable with my exotic surroundings, a crashing wave was generating momentum somewhere nearby, waiting to interrupt my peacefulness. My goal became just to keep my head above water, an exercise that encompassed my experience abroad.
While acclimating to the tropical climate and my posh new living quarters was a breeze, adjusting to the language barrier was proving to be quite problematic. Because I couldn’t speak the language and wasn’t always in the company of other anglophones, entire days could pass by leaving me alone with only the erratic thoughts in my head. Occasionally when I was in the mood for actual communication, I’d resort to having conversations with myself, which was great because neither side of my brain was ever in disagreement. When words completely failed, transactions were carried out through miming. It’s incredible what can be inferred from simple hand gestures, eye contact and body language.
After enduring several botched conversations over appliances, apartment leases and directions, I realized I actually liked the quiet and speaking only when absolutely necessary. You’d be surprised how infrequently that actually occurs. During those labored encounters where verbal communication was essential, I’d end up walking away a little bit humored and a lot frustrated. Soon I started to relish the silence and even seek it out. Of all my worldly travels, my favorite place to be was in my condo with the door bolted shut.
Living abroad led me to discover the satisfaction in individual activity. I dined alone, drank alone, adventured alone, shopped alone, exercised alone, was hospitalized alone and even went to the movie theater alone with my Pocky snack sticks as my plus one. There was hardly anywhere I wouldn’t go solo, except India. Instead of listening and/or contributing to mindless chatter, I sat back and watched other people misbehave. There was a certain comfort in existing anonymously, never having to entertain or perform, instead simply being. Alone.
When I was involved, I often wish I wasn’t because it was more or less unnecessary drama. I’d eventually parlay my fly-on-the-wall existence into an opportunity to absorb all the utter nonsense taking place around me. I planned to use this pent-up wealth of observation for later written deposits, a practice I continue to implement daily. Absorbing others in their natural habitat makes for eccentric storytelling.
When I first returned to the States slightly more than a year ago, I was alarmed by the abrupt volume of it all. There was suddenly noise pollution around every corner: TVs blasting, annoying music playing, people talking in transit, barking on the phone, gabbing in groups, in lines, everywhere. I’m continuously invited to conversations I’d rather not be a part of now that I fluently understand the language again. I’m not sure if Americans are truly louder than others as the stereotype implores or if my sensitive ears aren’t able to adapt to the constant inclusivity. All I can do is sit silently and observe, wanting to turn life’s audio down a couple of notches.
Yesterday afternoon, while sitting in a hipster haven of overpriced caffeinated beverages (which could fairly describe every internet cafe in central Philadelphia) I was forced into overhearing a few interactions while trying to get some writing done. Once being robbed of nearly $3 for a hot water soaked tea bag, I sat down with the intention of working on the ole blog/book/social media stalking. A mere sentence in on yet another feminist piece few will likely read when I noticed a shirtless hairy-chested man wearing black jorts and an excessively large sunhat waltz in for your standard gluten-free vegan cold-pressed cup of Joe. I guess he needed to organically cool down from the Northeast’s mid-October searing heat.
He was accompanied by what seemed to be a muted bag lady who appeared to be wearing her entire wardrobe on her person, kind of like Joey in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Could she BE wearing anymore second-hand vintage thrift store items cheaply made overseas and sold, bought, worn and resold in America at an exorbitant fee all to make some unclear statement? Orders a $7 smoothie made of wheat grass, can’t afford a comb. The struggle isn’t real people; it’s invented. I then remember that I’m in no position to dole out fashion advice as I’ve been wearing the same dumpy clothes for years and trim my own hair in the bathroom. Fortunately for me and my poverty, my clothes are right on trend this season. I dejectedly return to my broken keyboard.
Ten minutes must’ve passed while I was pulling at my eyebrows and thinking intensely about selling organs to pay for computer repairs before I got distracted again from my first distraction. This time it was an elderly gentlemen who caught my attention sitting directly across the room from me. He was ill-fitted with dentures that caused him to chomp and chew, suck and inhale his buttered bagel, tea-dipped baguette and mushy browned banana, all before licking the excess butter from the knife. My self-diagnosed Misophonia seethed as I covered my ears until the horror was over. Only when I saw his jaw relax and could confirm every last morsel of food was consumed did I release the pressure on my tragus.
Luckily I was just in time for a light history lesson between the barista and two women standing at the counter who were mulling over their order. The women began discussing the mystery behind French-pastries being sold in the Vietnamese-owned shops that are located in South Philly. The barista/European history professor interrupted the women to solve this perplexing puzzle and set the record straight once and for all.
Barista: “The Vietnamese make the best French cuisine in the world.” This little tidbit might come as a revelation to French people everywhere.
Brilliant Ladies: “Yes! Why is that?”
B: “Well because of the Vietnamese occupation in France so now they have French cafes that specialize in bahn mis.”
BL: “Oh! Well that makes sense!” SO much sense.
I’d just finished silently shaking my head in disbelief, trying to process this theory, before I took note of a peculiar pair, an unkempt older man helping a fit young woman with her resume. He complimented her colorful geometric-printed workout pants, inquiring if they were LuLaRoe. They were not. They were actually Sweaty Betty, which according to the pants owner was like, much better. I looked down at my plain grey yoga pants and realized in moving home, I unknowingly traded in my former paradise for a hip new world with faux history and avant garde fashion leggings. Though I’m able to understand the words, the modern language is all Greek AF to me.