Once upon a time I lived in the country of Chile for six months.

It was quite a long time ago, during my junior year of college. There was a short list of Spanish minor requirements that would be met through this study-abroad experience, and there was a whiff of adventure wafting around those requirements. With about that much critical attention to the subject, I decided to go.

When I think about those six months now, they almost seem like a fairy tale. In fact, how could that experience be real? I was by no means an excellent Spanish speaker. Neither was I travel-savvy. Yet, in that fairy tale season I lived in the enormous city of Santiago, flanked by the mostly smog-hidden, but strikingly beautiful Andes mountains.

I lived with a Chilean, Spanish-speaking family, attended all-Spanish classes, watched Telemundo regularly, and navigated the city by making use of public transit for the first time in my life. I also managed to travel, as often as I could, all over the western and southern parts of South America.

It feels like major bragging rights to say that I did all that before Google and cell phones. Just me, my paperback English-Spanish dictionary, and my plucky personality. Or something like that.

Then India

Nearly a decade later I found myself en route to India to visit the man who would become my husband. Before we decided marriage was the thing for us, my not-yet-husband determined it would be a good idea to introduce me to his homeland, to India. He wanted to see what I thought of India, and more importantly, what she thought of me. Another fairy tale began.

(If you enter India by international flight, your fairy tale begins in the middle of the night.)

Once upon a time I showed up in India at 3am and walked out of the airport into some shockingly thick and pungent humidity. At the same moment, a good handful of auto rickshaw drivers approached me, persistently and plaintively asking me if I wanted a ride, or could they carry my luggage for me? Whether it was my grogginess, my overwhelmed-ness, their accents, or perhaps the fact that they were speaking another language (I really can’t recall), I promptly began speaking to these men in Spanish.

It had been years and years since I had properly spoken Spanish so it shocked even me when it tumbled out. Among all the languages that may have been helpful to use at that time, including English, Spanish was decidedly not a useful choice. It just happened to be the only thing my tongue could accomplish in that wildly foreign moment.

It kept happening, too. When I finally found my welcoming party and we went to the train station, still in the middle of the night, to wait for the morning train back to Bangalore, the guard closely examined my curling iron, and I carefully explained what it was… in Spanish.

I did marry that charming Indian prince, and travel to India became standard practice for us. For many years, until my soul seemed to somehow recognize and resonate with India as home, I would attempt to speak first in Spanish during those wee-hours-of-the-morning arrivals.

It makes complete sense. My brain and my tongue had formed an agreement that when communication was necessary, and English wasn’t the medium, it obviously necessitated Spanish. Time and again I found myself in these jarring moments of utter miscommunication. It was always an awkward moment, struggling with my words like that. It was generally somewhat embarrassing, and sometimes almost painful, when I realized I wasn’t able to communicate even the most basic things.

A New Fairy Tale

I bring all of this up because I feel oddly in the midst of a similar fairy tale now, one in which I cannot communicate in my normal fashion.

As the school year began this year, I have felt oddly like I have walked out of the airport in the middle of the night and am surrounded by auto drivers hurling questions at me, but I just can’t seem to reply in the correct language.

For the last five years, when my kids started school, I was also kicking off a new school year with a new group of international students. I was their international student advisor and they were an extra set of kids, sort of, with fears and needs and much wonder to share, and so very much to learn and discover.

My life and my calendar overflowed with color and busy days that were filled with questions and concerns, laughter and tears, frustration and bright accomplishment. It was a frenetic, fantastic whirlwind; one that eventually became too, too much for our one paper calendar already marked up with a landslide of life. In saying goodbye to that season and stepping into this one, my language is lost, or at least a little bit garbled.

Leaving my job was a necessary decision with a collection of losses and a whole menagerie of blessings, and in this new place I’m looking for words. People like to ask me what I’m doing now, but I feel like I’ve abruptly walked out of the airport and the humidity has hit me hard. Or, people ask me how I like this place, as you would ask someone visiting a new country for the first time. But only a few days have passed and they can barely see past the jet lag to get a grasp on where they are.

Sometimes people ask me to take on new responsibilities or tasks, but my languages are crossed and I don’t know whether “yes” means “yes,” or “no” means “no.” I feel like I’m trying to speak a second language, but I’m in the wrong country. While I fumble around with my words, some make assumptions about me, my time, or my abilities. They make assumptions about what I am saying, or not saying. All over again, I feel a bit like I am trying to talk to a south-Indian train station employee about some new-fangled curling iron, in Spanish.

Requiring Too Much of Transitions

To be clear, I don’t feel angry about the questions. (The assumptions, perhaps, but not the questions.) We’re human after all, and designed to be together, to share in life and all its places and seasons. I’m just getting my bearings, and if anything bothers me about the questions, it is when I’m pushed to respond before I’m ready, and with a degree of certainty that I don’t yet have. You cannot require too much of a transition, and it is difficult to rush discernment. I’m really just standing in the humid night right now, listening to the questions and searching for the right words.

I’m finding it is like when you visit a new church, start a new school, or join a new gym or club. It feels clunky at first as you listen to a new lingo and test it out a few times in your own voice. Some of the catch-phrases and labels and ideas seem foreign at first. You might trip over a few words, or simply say the wrong thing.

Yes, transitions can be weird places. They don’t always call for quick answers, or even correct answers, but there is plenty of space for all kinds of questions. As I stand, blinking in the humidity, I do feel grateful for the questions even if I reply in the wrong language. The questions pull me out into the new place and challenge me to get my bearings.

In closing, I want to be clear that this is not a story of unemployment, though I am, for the time, unemployed. This is not a story about staying at home with my kids, though, for the time, I am.

This is a story about transition and learning to use my words. It is a story of discernment. And, it is a story of hope as I learn to communicate in a new place. I know that mine is not the only story of transition that is unraveling right now. I know that because I’m listening well to the questions and I’m slowly taking in the new lay of the land.

There are a few us of out here, blinking in the newness. Give us time to find words, and we just might have something valuable to say.

Katy Sundararajan

Katy Sundararajan lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband and two children, but she has left her heart in a whole host of places called home. She values thoughtful writing that allows us to ponder something small and recognize in it, something big

9 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Just marvelous. Full of great images and phrases and new thoughts. A second-language in the wrong country. Blinking in the humidity.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Wow! Thank you, Katy. You are an incredible and gifted writer. I want more from you!

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    I can relate to that linguistic experience, as the only Arabic phrases I could muster this past summer in Jordan came out as awful Spanish :?) I am always impressed, intrigued, and humbled working with international and immigrant students who are masters of several even many languages, while I am malcontent with just one, and they are coming to me to learn or strengthen their English.

  • Emily Style says:

    unnerving, poetic & pregnant, this threshold place of grace. thank you for this wonderful piece of writing truth.

  • Beautiful and real. Thank you for this.

  • Marge VanderWagen says:

    I appreciate your views of not quite having the appropriate language for the current situation.
    I, too, find it awkward to speak in certain gatherings, synod meetings, book clubs, because I am not sure of the language they speak.
    We all speak English, just on different academic levels.
    Thank you.

  • Rev. Nancy Claus says:

    Good Afternoon, Katy!
    I had coffee with JP this morning. He passed your article onto me. I LOVED it!
    You are such a gifted writer. I can’t wait to see what doors God has planned to
    open for you. In my time of waiting I claimed this lovely verse.
    “Be still and know that I am God.” – Jeremiah 46:10

  • Rosalyn De Koster says:

    Thank you, Katy. These words are refreshing for my soul.

  • […] a recent post here on The Twelve Katy Sundararajan pondered the subtleties of language too and how in times of […]

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