I realized this while—ironically enough—I wasn’t speaking English. This epiphany came to me the day before yesterday, while talking to a street vendor in the Barrio China section of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Never having been out of the country before (if you don’t count visiting family in Puerto Rico 10 years ago as “out of the country”, which I don’t), my expectations were a bit tall for my first trip abroad. In my head, the world outside of the U.S. was a panorama of travel brochure photos. These countries had picturesque sunsets every night, clouds skimming over cities and snowballing cotton-ball chunks of history into their skies, so that anyone from anywhere in the world could look up and see the beauty hovering over the ground beneath their feet. The people in these photos had perpetual smiles stapled onto their cheeks, ready to share their culture and traditions with the viewer. It was a nice illusion to live in for a bit, cozy and warm and totally glossy—conveniently ignoring the language barrier I had to hurdle in order to point to the sky and ask the natives what it meant.
Either way, when I stepped foot into Buenos Aires this summer, these ideas were hung out to dry. Here, I was more than la blanquita de la familia, more than una extranjera—I was a full blown gringa, armed with a stamped passport and postcard eyes ready to find my way through this city with a new slice of the sky, sans the words necessary to describe this discontinuity. It was Comic Sans really, the way my hands mimicked font to try and communicate my thoughts in something a little more than Spanglish, a little less than ASL, and a lot like hieroglyphics. I knew I wanted the vistas here, but didn’t know how secure it, how to point to the cloud llena de historia in the sky and understand it. This inability occluded the postcards, burned the edges a bit.
Yet, as I stood in the Chinatown of Buenos Aires with English thoughts, a Spanish tongue, and vaguely Italian hand gestures, I realized that maybe I was missing something. Maybe Spanish was more than just a language barrier I needed to hurdle, an obstacle in the way of perfect comprensión. Maybe the history was spread between the letters of the words themselves, that Spanish is a manner of expression that encapsulates a slice of the beauty I saw in the world before I decided its edges were burned. Maybe my knowledge of English was the limiting factor here.
Anteayer—the day before yesterday. Celajes—the clouds during sunset.
Sometimes so much more could be said in Spanish than in English, con más sentimiento y menos palabras.I bought a souvenir from the street vendor, and before I walked away he asked me what part of the city I was from. Proud enough to have blended in for a bit, I told him the truth—sin mis manos, y sin Inglés.
Jessenia N. Class ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Quincy House.
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