Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Just Words

Joe - Djibouti (I’m in Bahrain now but thinking back) – We got off the plane in Djibouti and had to get visas attached to our passports to enter the country. We were sent to an office to meet with the customs officer who interviews foreigners for entry visas.

Johnny showed the officer our tour book which describes the details of our visit to each country - where we stay, embassy contacts, concerts, master classes etc. The conversation, in English, got bogged down. The officer acted a bit confused and annoyed. The situation was getting a little tense. There seemed to be confusion over our purpose in Djibouti. Were we in Djibouti to play at the American embassy or on behalf of the American embassy? French is one of the official languages of Djibouti so I decided to jump into the conversation to see if my fairly decent French accent, bad grammar and horrible vocabulary would help. Et voila! The customs official’s attitude completely changed. In a minute or so he was laughing. I told him how I learned French (I leave that story for another place and time – it’s complicated).

I thought about this experience over the next few days. What happened? I believe that this was an experience that can be easily misinterpreted. Before having spoken French to him it was easy for me to think, “Okay, this guy’s giving us a hard time because we’re Americans. Foreigners hate Americans”. I hear that a lot in the States these days. But, what I really believe now is that he was as uncomfortable speaking English as I am speaking French. When I spoke French, even bad French, the world shrunk. His English was probably better than my French but I could tell that he appreciated the effort on my part. I think he was actually happy to meet a bunch of smiling American musicians making silly jokes in his office.

As a side note I should say that it’s not uncommon to meet Djiboutiens who speak at least four languages fluently. Arabic and French are official languages in Djibouti while many people are also fluent in Somali and Afar. English is also widely spoken with varying degrees of proficiency. It’s humbling for me, an American who speaks one language and struggles by in a second language, to meet a Djiboutien kid who can switch in and out of four languages depending on the conversation.

Language is interesting in the sense that it can separate us as people or bring us together. Words can be tricky – to play at a place (an embassy) or on behalf of an entity (an embassy) is a subtle distinction if you are not speaking your own language. In fact, I’m getting a head ache thinking about this. I’ll leave this to linguists.

In the end, I believe that we would have gotten our visas a lot faster if we had just played “Hit the Road Jack” for the customs officer. But then again, I wouldn’t have gotten the free French lesson.

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