SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Joshua Lehman

A Simple Misunderstanding

    Eight years ago when I was in junior high a foreign exchange student came to live with us.  Her name was Jana and she was from Brazil.  She came over to the United States through my dad’s rotary club.  She had already graduated from high school in Brazil but wanted to travel before she tried to get into college; it was much more difficult in Brazil to get into college than in the United States.  So she came over and repeated her senior year at Barry Goldwater High School.  Jana was a big woman at six feet tall and she had black hair and looked Latina.  When she came to our house in December of that year she had the worst broken English with a heavy Latin accent; at first it was nearly impossible to understand her.

    There are many incidents that I can remember clashing with Jana because of the different parts of the world we are from.  For instance, it was not uncommon for Jana to take three or sometimes four showers a day, everyday. I’m not talking about quick showers, these were thirty to sixty minute showers.  She used more water than the rest of the family combined!  At this time the internet was a relatively new concept so all of the online activities that exist today, chat rooms, personal web pages, online gaming, etc., were relatively new.  Yet she would find a way to spend hours talking to friends (in Brazil and the United States), going on random chat rooms, and playing games while no one else in the household would. 

    There is one particular aspect of the difference between our two nations that will forever stand out to me: sarcasm.  What I find funny, what my friends find funny, and what North Americans find funny is completely different to a person not from this country.    I cannot remember exactly what I said (it was eight years ago, after all) but what I do remember is that it was obvious sarcasm to me; however, to Jana it was horribly offensive.  In fact she was mad at me for at least a week following the comment I had made.  It took a sit-down conversation explaining that it was a joke and that it was not to be taken as a rude comment or an insult before she realized that what I said was not serious but comical. 

I was sitting down on that old swiveling green computer chair looking at the dusty computer screen as I was talking to some friends on the internet when Josh came into the room.  We were just talking to one another, politely (or friendly) I thought, when he suddenly just came out and said, “Oh, get out of here!”  I had no idea what I had done to deserve that rude of a command.  We were just talking to one another and I was telling him a story about back home in Brazil how it rains almost everyday when he told me to get out of here.  I did not know what to do; should I get up and go or should I stand up for myself and tell him he should leave?  I told him what he had said offended me and that I do not think I deserved that.

    That is when he started laughing and said that it was a joke or saying that it was not meant to be rude or disrespectful.  It took him a while to explain to me what it meant to say, “Get out of here.”  I remember feeling really stupid after that because I took offense to something that was meant to be sarcasm.

I remember all those years ago when Josh and I had a little, let us say a “miscommunication problem.”  I know now that it was meant as a joke and not as an insult but at the time it really hurt my feelings.  I do not hold any offense towards him anymore and, due to this situation. I now take into consideration not only what a person is saying to me but where the person talking to me is coming from.  A person’s country plays a large role in what they say and the meaning of the words.

    After that confrontation as a preteen, I realized that I have to be aware of other people’s nationality (and therefore different cultures) when it comes to sarcasm.  It doesn’t mean that I have to change the way I am in order to converse with them, but I have to be aware that what I say, while innocent to me, can be taken as insult to others.  The reason I know that this stayed with me is because four years later another foreign exchange student came to my school, Chris, and we had student government together.  I can remember stopping myself, on more than one occasion, to clarify the meaning of a joke to him because I did not want to unknowingly hurtful.

   Why did this incident with Jana stand out to me over other incidents?  I think that this incident stood out for two reasons.  One is that it was the first time an incident like this had ever happened to me or because of me.  I am not sure but I do not think I had ever really offended anyone with a joke because they did not understand the meaning of it (at least not at that point in my life).  I had never offended a person so much-completely unintentionally- so my conscience kept it with me.  The second reason I remember it so, is because I learned from this incident.  Four years after this incident I almost did the exact same thing.  It was with another foreign exchange student, except Chris was from Germany, and I almost made a wise crack that any person living in the United States would have seen for what it was.  But I did not say it.  Due to the confrontation with Jana years earlier I knew that it would stir up unintentional anger, distrust, and maybe even animosity towards me.  I think if the confrontation with Jana had not occurred or had not been so severe, I would have made those wise cracks this next time and probably would have offended many people.  Someone once said, “You are the master of the words, until you say them then they are the master of you.”  I think that Jana made me see the validity of that statement in my own life.  Her reaction made me think of whom I am talking to, not so much of what I am saying; she made me look at the context of what I say and not just its content.

   This personal incident had many social applications at the time of the incident and even today.  This ‘transnational borderland’ in my own home between Jana and me exists everywhere across the United States.  Eight years ago the “English Only” activism was extremely strong. Not only is that activism talking about actual language it is talking about culture and heritage as expressed in public establishments.  Furthermore, at that time a push for anti-immigration legislature was in full force.  Not only was I ignoring Jana’s nationality, at this point American society was ignoring who Jana was and the linguistic and cultural identity of other more permanent immigrants as well.  Looking at this incident and the change that I and Jana had to make to get along with one another respectfully should be a lesson.  Immigration is real. Thousands of people come to America legally every year, and thousands become citizens of America every year.  American society has to adapt slightly to accommodate these new immigrants’ nationality just as immigrants are adapting to American culture.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage