It all started on the flight, when I was going to my seat and noticed everything was in French and everyone spoke French. My friend Maleah and I looked at each other and realized that this trip was going to be a difficult one because we would not understand anything. When we arrived at the Paris airport, we had no idea where to go, who to speak to because no one understood us, where to take the bus to the metro... nothing. We had written down that we had to go through Sortie L, but of course we did not know what that even meant, only to later realize it was a specific exit. At last, we made it out of the airport! Only to be waiting outside as we waited for our Uber since the bus was way too expensive. Getting the Uber was an experience. We struggled to understand the driver who called my friend to see where we were at. It was cold and late and we were hungry. Then we finally found the driver -- we walked past him and he asked "Maleah?" to which three of us yelled, "YES! MALEAH!". Thankfully our AirBnB host and his fiancee spoke English. They greeted us with delicious baguettes, jam, fruit, and a sign that said "Bonjour/Welcome Karen!" (I am still upset that I forgot to save the picture of it).
We figured we would not have that much of a hard time anymore considering that English is spoken in many touristy areas, but boy we were wrong. We went to a local bakery for breakfast and we did not understand anything they said, but we were hungry so we had to figure something out and point to what we wanted. Then we headed for the subway to go into Paris, where we realized that we were saying the name of the area we were at completely wrong the whole time. When we went to the Louvre and asked about a student discount, the lady looked at us annoyingly and said something that we, once again, did not understand. Then we went to lunch and spent more than 10 minutes trying to figure out what the menu said. Instances like these occurred throughout the couple of days that we were there and while I did not realize it at the point, later, it reminded me (in a friendly way, I mean, I was traveling after all) of the language barrier I once faced and the one that my parents continue to face every day in the United States.
As mentioned in previous posts, my family and I migrated to the United Stated when I was one year old. I did not speak English until fourth grade, and my English skills were no where near good for quite some time. I had to work hard to reach the level where I am today. However, I was not the only one in my family to face this barrier. My parents continue to face it every day since they migrated to the United States. While they are able to understand and speak basic English, it was not always this way and many times, they need to know more than only the basic words and phrases. I am my parents' personal translator. When they receive an important document, for example, they send me a picture of it so I can translate it for them. When I am home and they need to go somewhere, many times I go with them if we know that they will need to speak to someone who only speaks English. It is not easy for them, but they have had to live 20 years facing the same barrier. Maybe with time it has gotten easier, or they have gotten used to it. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it has been for them to be unable to communicate with someone else at any point that they need to do so. Although living in Houston means that many places have Spanish-speaking people that could help, it is not always the case. And even though they have both tried to learn the language, it is not as easy as some think it is.
For some of us, a language barrier is present or evident every day, whether it exists for us personally or someone we know. Despite what others say, it is not easy to demolish that barrier. My trip to Paris was a wake-up call. A privileged one, that is, since mine was vacation and for my parents, its not the same. It was a moment that made me realize that my parents face something more difficult every day and that they are not the only ones in this country who go through the same. This is why I thank my parents for coming to a country with a different language. This is why I apologize to them for any time that I felt slightly embarrassed to speak to a stranger on behalf of them. I am proud of my parents for not giving up and speaking their English with pride and an accent whenever they need to.
-- Karen Banda
Originally published on Banda's Adventures