Monday, July 29, 2013

Tripping Over the Language Barrier

["Let Inga Tell You," August 1, 2013] [La Jolla Light declined to print this]  © 2013 

I grew up in a house where you never hired anyone to do anything – not paint the house, not mow, not shovel snow in the winter, and certainly not clean.  My parents, like my husband Olof’s, were huge proponents of child labor. 

So when I first moved to California as a bride, it was a while before my then-husband and I ultimately decided to succumb to the luxury of an alternate-week cleaning lady, and a mow-and-blow service.   But I had no clue how to hire anybody. 

Since the reason I finally opted for cleaning services was that I was working full time and wasn’t going to be in the house, the first question I asked of an applicant in my early naiveté was if written instructions in English would be acceptable, or did she want to take her chances with my Spanish? 

Initially I would be puzzled when I came home and found that although my lovely hard-working new hire had checked off all the things on my list, many hadn’t been done.  I had to conclude that although I thought my college Spanish was adequate (if a little heavy on the dictionary consultation), it probably sounded to her like a Japanese calculator manual. 

But what I actually discovered (I’m a slow learner) was that the problem was more serious than my helper not being able to read my Spanish.  She could not read, period.  Cleverly (and I was actually pretty dazzled by this), she identified cleaning products by colors of the cleaning product bottles or pictures on the labels.  Unfortunately, the blue bottle at my house contained a very different cleaning product than the blue bottle at another customer’s house as I discovered when she cleaned my sofa with X-14 mildew remover for showers.  When I really understood the reading problem fully was when I walked into my kitchen with several bags of groceries and fell flat on my back, my cleaning lady having cleaned the hardwood floor with lemon oil furniture polish.  She pointed tearfully at the label and kept repeating madera (wood). 

I’m actually hugely sympathetic with language issues (and immigrants in general), having had a mother who taught ESL and having lived a total of three years in two separate foreign countries whose language I did not speak at all when I arrived.   I would literally have starved to death had I had to earn a living in either place.    I have painfully clear memories of entertaining the locals with my fractured efforts at their native tongue, never mind the total frustration of trying to deal with bureaucratic and technical snafus in a language that is not one’s own. (Try negotiating a phone tree in Portuguese.)  But it took my spine about six months to fully recover from the madera incident. 

My early gardening hires tended to present a different problem.  They had a very fluid idea of “Thursday”, which sometimes meant Monday, and other times meant three Wednesdays from now.  My yard would morph into quasi-jungle mode fairly rapidly.  Tracking them down was problematical due to an ever changing list of contact information (whatever I had was always the “old” number) but I still recall with fondness the endless list of creative excuses for their absences: 

Gardener:  My trock, ees brawken.  (Looking at some of these trucks, this was not hard to imagine.) 

But far more often, it was:  My abuelita [grandmother] in Guadalajara, she die. 

Inga (puzzled):  “Didn’t she just die four months ago?”

Gardener:  That was my other abuelita. 

Gardener (two months later): My abuelita in Morelia, she die.

Inga:  I thought both of your abuelitas have already died.   And didn’t they live in Guadalajara?

Gardener:  Oh, theese one, she is not my real abuelita.  She is abuelita in my heart.  (Pats heart.) 

The abuelitas continued to die like flies over the next year.  I have to say that the mortality rate of abuelitas in Mexico at that time was staggering.  OK, they’re abuelitas, they’re old.  But as far as I could see, there was a serious abuelita  epidemic going on.

But ultimately, I got the hang of both hiring help in general and hiring international help in specific, and have been lucky to have same wonderful people for decades at a time.  But I definitely look back on that first year with a smile.  Even when I feel that lingering twinge in my spine.


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