Qué Bien Que Hablás

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Estoy buscando medias de color gris.” I’m looking for grey tights. That was the first thing I said to the saleswoman at the lingerie shop. 

“Oooh, muy bien el español.  Muy bien.”  Oooh, your Spanish is very good.  Very good.  That was the first thing she said to me.

We spoke for a few minutes about the different textures and shades of grey available.  She then led me to a rack of tights where she proceeded to draw her face right next to mine. “Entendés algo de lo que digo o no entendés nada?” Do you understand anything I’m saying? That is what she asked after having discussed with me at length the finer points of tights.

I snapped.  “Hace tres años que vivo acá.  Así que, sí, algo entiendo.”  I’ve been living here for three years. So, yea, I understand. You condescending bitch. That last part was muttered under my breath, in English.

“Buenísimo!  Tres años!” Great!  Three years! She practically clapped her hands with embarrassed enthusiasm.  “Entendés perfecto entonces.” Then you understand perfectly.

Obviously, the entire experience, including both the saleswoman and my reaction to her, was exaggerated.  But the moral of the story is that I cannot stand it when someone comments on my Spanish.  Which is a problem, because it happens all the time.

I know that I should find it flattering when people tell me how well I speak Spanish (qué bien que hablás), but I don’t.  Instead, I find it to be both presumptuous (for all they know, my parents are Argentine and I grew up speaking Spanish, albeit with an American accent, or I’m a visiting professor of Spanish literature), and insulting (I have absurd standards and can be hard on myself for not speaking impeccable Castellano after three whole years of living in Argentina). Mostly, it bothers me that people are not focusing on what I’m saying, but on how I’m saying it.  They’re focusing on the fact that I’m a foreigner.

I hate being identified as a foreigner. Recently, I took a seminar through the Art of Living Foundation.  The course teaches you, among other things, to accept people exactly how they are and we did multiple exercises to help break down social barriers.  During one such activity, I introduced myself to my partner who then responded, “Ah, sos la que no es de acá, no?” You’re the girl who’s not from here, right? My reputation had proceeded me.  I was officially that girl.  So much for “being free to be you and me.”

Maybe, like everyone else, I just want to fit in and don’t want the fact that I’m different constantly brought to my attention.  Which is ironic, because I love to think of myself as unique.  Or maybe I just don’t want to be forced to share intimate details about my life every time I ask for directions or ride in an elevator.  I now understand how celebrities feel when forced to give the same interview repeatedly.  What are you doing here?  Are you studying?  Do you have friends? Do you like Buenos Aires? Do you like Dulce de Leche?  Empanadas? Argentine men?  

Whatever the reason for my annoyance, I know I’m being ridiculous.  First of all, it’s a waste of time and energy to get upset every time someone notices that I’m not Argentine, which occurs at least once a day.  Second, it’s unjustified.  When I was living in the States, I fawned over everyone with an accent – “Oooh, you’re from South Africa? England? France? Italy?  You talk so pretty.”  And I always did so with the best intentions and genuine interest. (Though I can’t remember ever prying into someone’s sex life or telling a non-native speaker how well they spoke, unless asked first.)

Not to mention that being a foreigner is not without its advantages.  It is an amazing ice breaker.  When people hear you speak, you immediately become more interesting.  People want to talk to you, to help you, to get to know you.  In the States, I’m just una más – another short, brown haired, blue eyed Midwesterner.   Here, I’m practically exotic.  Still, sometimes I feel like screaming, “There’s more to me than where I came from!”

While doing laundry the other day, a woman asked me if I was studying here.  “No,” I replied, shortly but with a smile.

“No?”

 “No.” Insert awkward silence.   “Was that rude?”  I wondered.  “Yea, that was rude,” I decided.  A big step for me. So, I struck up a conversation about coins and washing machines. Later, when I returned to remove my clothes from the dryer, the same woman began to ask me the typical litany of questions. But by then, it didn’t annoy me anymore.  We were already old friends.  Now if only I could learn to stop freaking out on complete strangers. 

 

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