SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Kyle Carr

A Taste of the Language Barrier

     The first time that I remember feeling that I was different than someone else was in the fourth grade.  I met a boy at school and became friends with him.  My friend was half Latin and half Caucasian.  His mother was from Peru and his father was from the United States.  His mother spoke English and so I did not particularly note a difference between she and I, even though she spoke with an accent.  Of course I realized that she wasnít exactly the same, she had darker skin and she had the accent in English, but the differences in this family didnít impact me until later on.

    I only remember bits and pieces from this experience that I had because it took place when I was 10 years old.  I remember that this took place in the early fall because I had met my friend when we were in the same class at school.  This incident took place outside of his apartment complex, near Seattle, Washington.  We were playing near the small stream that ran through the complex, when Charlieís Grandma called for him in Spanish.

    I didnít understand what she was saying. To my amazement, my friend understood everything and even responded to her.  I think this impacted me because I saw my friend as the same as me and did not even imagine that he was different in this aspect.   He looked a lot like me and spoke English like me but this new discovery made me see him as different than me.  I saw his Grandmother as totally foreign to me because she did not speak any English whatsoever.  The language barrier between her and myself made me see her in a different light than the way I see any person that speaks English.
     Charlie was very reluctant to answer his Grandma when she called for him because she had to call a few times.  He finally yelled back to her but still did not want to go inside.  He finally went inside to see what she wanted.  I went in with him.  He acted as if he were bothered and a bit embarrassed that she would yell for him.  From the way he was acting I got the impression that he felt uncomfortable speaking Spanish in front of me.

     When my Grandma called me when I was playing with Kyle outside I felt embarrassed that she couldnít speak English.  I didnít want to talk to her in a language that my friend couldnít understand.  I donít want to be seen as different than him.  I donít understand why she keeps embarrassing me like this. I understand that its hard for older people to learn another language, I donít mind speaking to her in Spanish but not in front of one of my friends.  I wish she would respect my wishes and keep this part of me hidden from my friends.  I hope that my Grandma doesnít do this to me again.

     To this day I can still remember some of the objects that they had in their house that represented Peru where his mother and grandmother were from.  They had a rug with a llama on it and a picture of the large statues that were on Easter Island, an island that was controlled by the country, on the wall.  I remember looking at these items as my friend was speaking to his grandmother because I did not understand what they were saying.  This experience was an eye opener to a Caucasian boy who had always been around people who spoke his language and had not been exposed to other cultures.  This experience marked the first time that I can remember feeling a distinct difference between others and myself.

          Now that I am older I look back at that experience and the way that I interpreted it back then and now I can think of an alternative way.  Perhaps my friend was bothered at the time when his Grandmother called him, but maybe it was because he wanted to keep playing not because he was embarrassed about speaking Spanish in front of me.  Since I was the one that was unable to understand the situation and felt out of control, perhaps I misinterpreted how things really were.  My friend might have felt totally secure about speaking Spanish, but I thought he shouldnít have because I was the ignorant one.  I was very isolated from people of different cultures as a youth and this could have contributed to my interpretation.

    I am fluent in Spanish now and so I could have understood what my friend was saying if it happened now.   Through the process of becoming bilingual I have become more accepting of different languages and cultures.  It doesnít bother me as much when someone speaks a language around me that I donít understand.  Many people believe that in America only English should be spoken.  Usually the people that feel that way only speak English and feel threatened by the loss of control of a language being spoken that they donít understand.  Perhaps I felt the same way at this time and assessed the situation the way I did because I had this mind set.
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