You know that look that fish have, with their mouths kind of gawping and their gills (or “ears” for illustrative purposes) flapping, as if to help them hear? Well, picture me looking like that whenever I’m in Zimbabwe, being spoken to by a Zimbabwean.
One of the great shames of my life is that though I love language, I’ve got no ear for it. I studied French for four years, but I never really got past C’est ne pas une pipe, and I learned that in art class. I’ve avoided problems with language by primarily traveling to English-speaking countries and Italy, where everyone seems to speak English anyhow, and even if they don’t, who cares: Italian is lovely and you can pretend it means all sorts of delicious things even if they’re just asking you to move away from the gelato counter because they’d like to place an order.
Zimbabwe should be no problem for me. Sure, there are three official languages here—English, Shona, and Ndebele—but mostly people speak English. Even so, I’m a disaster at a cash register at the grocery store. The clerk will tell me how much the bill is and then ask if I want Telecel phone credit for change (Zimbabwe is using the US dollar but for some reason didn’t import any coins, so you get change in store credit, air time credit, or sweets that they keep in the jar by the register). This is exactly when I have to look at Z or Z-ma with my gawping fish face and hope that they’ll translate for me. I am being spoken to in my very own native language, but I just can’t decipher the individual words.
Z teaches intercultural communication and when I’m here, he is regularly gently instructing me, with reminders to stand closer to people in line because it isn’t America and personal distance is much closer here, or with suggestions that I tell the gardener that the new grass fence he put up for our arrival looks nice. I am a born observer, not an interactor. If given the choice between talking to someone I don’t know and hiding behind a drapery to watch them, I’ll pretty much always go with the latter if I think I can get away with it.
Eunice is Z-ma’s domestic worker. She’s lovely, friendly, and has to despair when she sees me coming because I can’t even keep my closet shelf orderly while I’m here. Frankly, life back in Seattle would be a whole lot more tidy if we could clone Eunice. Every morning, Z whispers to me, “Greet Eunice” or “Tell Eunice ‘good morning’” and I do it because I know it is the right thing to do, but I am horrible at a) thinking up conversation beyond hello and b) understanding what her reply is. This is no failure of hers. Her English is good, but I just can’t decipher the accent. And when Z tried to teach me a few words in Shona to say to her last time we visited, I pretty much stopped with “mangwanani” (good morning) because all the other words blurred together in my mind and on my tongue.
Yesterday, I had an empty Coke bottle and I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for those. Do they return the bottles for deposits? Recycle them? Throw them out? I was alone in the kitchen with Eunice, so I asked her. She said something to me, and I blinked at her, cocked my head and said, “Pardon?” She repeated herself, and then took the bottle, did a little bow, and disappeared with it as if I’d given her a gift.
I still have no idea where the Coke bottles go, and my ears are still only as good as gills.