Friday, May 27, 2005

guatemalan exchange rates

I had this foreign exchange student in high school named Juan. Juan was (and still is) a little guy from Guatemala, half-Asian and half-Hispanic, who had the rare Guatemalan characteristic of being devoutly Baptist. He also liked sushi and had a thin little moustache at the age of 16. That was all I knew about Juan. I lived in the room next to him, drove back and forth to school with him, sat next to him in class, and hung out with him and the other exchange students and host families for six or seven weeks and that was all I knew about Juan because the only thing worse than his English was my Spanish. There was another exchange student, Abel, hosted by my friend Nick, who was rather fluent and served as a translator for the important stuff. Abel was a godsend for such things, but he came from a remote Guatemalan coffee farm and was rather unhousebroken. Nick had many gripes about Abel’s hygiene and toilet practices and had either the luck or misfortune of being able to explain these things to him. My closest attempt at communicating with Juan was playing the beginning of the Jane’s Addiction “Ritual De Lo Habitual” CD—that part with the woman speaking in Spanish, if you will recall. I didn’t know what she was saying at the time but figured it would impress him. You know how devout Baptists love their Jane’s Addiction.

Anyway, Juan kept up his communicating with my parents over the next twelve years with letters and then e-mails in increasingly less broken English. Mom always thought of him as her Guatemalan son and let me know each time he had a major life achievement. He has two or three degrees and is currently working on a few more, I think. I recall that his second degree was in business or marketing and that mom was rather quick to inform me of this, as I was in the fifth year of my one and only degree. I can only imagine the reaction when he provides them with their first grandchild.

Juan, his wife, brother, and brother’s girlfriend came to Alabama just before last Christmas and stayed at my parent’s place, where my wife and I went down one afternoon to have lunch with them. The moustache was a bit thicker but he was relatively unchanged. After a couple of awkward hugs and the exchanging of Spanglish pleasantries and awkward grins my mother asked that we translate whatever it was they had been talking about for the two days the Guatemalans had been with them, my parents not knowing a single Spanish word. My wife conversed with them rather competently while I tried a word here in there, mostly Spanglish as I said. I like to speak Spanish when there are no Spanish speakers around but become quite nervous about it in their company, fearing I may combine my unconfident words into some unforgivable sentence or cultural insult. I do that enough in English as it is.

We ended up communicate well enough over lunch and a trip to the mall, and have been exchanging emails over the last few months. I feel that neither of us really knows completely what the other is trying to say but manage to convey warm wishes and a few minor details of what’s going on in our respective lives. Juan does much better at this than I. He attempts to communicate in English and generally does well for the first couple of sentences before laying something like, “I’m sure the river at your family’s house is pretty now and I hope you saw where he is.” My parents indeed live on a river but I have no idea who and where this “he” is. The previous sentences give no clue. Juan generally does a good job with the pronoun translation and I doubt the “he” is supposed to be my family or the river. I think he may be talking about God.

My responses to Juan are always in English, written is short, concise, Hemingway-esque sentences that are easy to translate and hopefully amend in some small way for my cowardice at attempting Spanish. I say things like, “I poured the whiskey and liked it. I petted the cat and the cat liked the petting and the smell of the whiskey. My wife tore her dress and I gave her the cat and the cat was purring. I poured her a whiskey and she liked it and it was fine. Then we made the cat wear the dress and the cat was angry and broke the whiskey bottle and shook it at us and then tore the dress some more.”

Only I don’t say those exact things, as Juan does not need to know them. I tell him about us working in the garden and me teaching guitar and then I lie about the cat liking it when we put him in a dress.


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