Tuesday, June 5, 2007


It’s been almost two weeks and I still know no Russian. I’m disappointed because I kinda thought I was just going to pick it up. I, of all people, should know better. I feel like a pretty bad linguist in all senses of the word.

Like all the other families here I am utterly dependent on my translator. Those of us who have not yet had our court dates are accompanied by our translators on our daily visits to the baby house. (After court, we’re on our own.) If you look into the playroom, which we are now allowed into, you see babies playing on the floor, parents eagerly tending to their babies and translators sitting at the periphery of the room tending to the parents. The bonding between parents and translators is progressing far more rapidly than the one between babies and parents. Since most of us have been escorted around being told what to do since we got here, a lot of communication – even in English – must go through the translators. We turn helplessly to them to find out what our telephone numbers are or where we live.

Of course, there are many hours of the day that I have to survive without my translator. I am starting to realize the benefit of learning phrases like “I don’t understand” but until now I’ve been getting by by saying no to anything that sounds like a question and otherwise just staring blankly. It is extremely humbling not to know the language others speak. I feel pretty dumb in all senses of that word.

A few nights ago my “just stare blankly” strategy was revealed to be woefully inadequate. Two young men showed up at my door to remove some extra appliances (a fridge, a tv, a microwave) that have been sitting in my hallway since I moved in. At least that’s what I thought they were going to do. They were not the same two men who had come to make arrangements to remove the appliances, and those two men in turn were not the people to whom I’d paid the rent for the apartment. But lacking any of the crucial skills to be able to figure out what was going on (i.e. knowledge of Russian) I kept opening the door to strangers hoping someone would take the appliances away. The arrangements had been made for 8:00 p.m. and at exactly 8:00 p.m. these two young men that I’d never seen before arrived. I pointed to the appliances expecting them to know exactly what to do but instead they asked me something in Russian. I stared blankly. They repeated their question and I added an apologetic shrug. We went through the routine several times with minor variations. They tried speaking slower and louder. I tried saying “English” in what I thought was a Russian way. As we all became increasingly desperate they reduced their question to a single word which they started shouting at me. At this point I was becoming convinced that even if I knew what the question was I probably wouldn’t know the answer. The taller and seemingly smarter boy took a moment to try to remember if he knew any English and after much effort came out with “who?” which he repeated at least ten times. This wasn’t very helpful. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, he asked for a pen and paper. He began drawing as his sidekick and I looked on expectantly. He drew a fridge and I pointed to the one right beside me and exclaimed “fridge” to show him that I was following along. He drew two stick figures grabbing the fridge and the three of us laughed in happy recognition. He drew the truck waiting downstairs on which they were going to load the fridge and I was so excited that I think I started clapping. And then he repeated his incomprehensible word and the game ended. But in those few moments of glorious communication I was struck by the power of pictionary as a global language.

Eventually the two men who were claiming the appliances showed up and were able to answer his question which turned out to have been “where?” as in “where are we taking the fridge?” Then the one who knew English left me his phone number in case I needed any help during the rest of my stay here.

Throughout the whole experience here of opening my door to strangers that I can’t understand I have never once felt scared and have found everyone unfailingly polite and helpful. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about the world and the people in it until I found out yesterday that my apartment in Winnipeg had been broken into last week. Due to the efforts of my exceptionally kind neighbour and my parents and brother everything is fine but I have to admit that I had a few fleeting thoughts of wanting to stay here and not go back home.


BT said...

Your description is so vivid that I can just picture it happening, right down to your helpless shrugging and gleeful clapping. I am pretty sure I did the same two things -- I KNOW I did the helpless shrugging (accompanied by sheepish expression) -- in Ukraine. With all of this seeming motivation, I am astonished you aren't just soaking up some crucial Russian phrases! Here is how Maurice and I did it: we carried around a notebook and whenever we had time with our translator, we asked him to tell us phrases we wanted to know and we wrote them in our notebook in our alphabet, purely phonetically. When we were on our own, we'd often come up with phrases we didn't have yet but discovered we needed, so we'd add them, in english, to the wishlist in our notebook and then get the phonetics for them the next time we had a chance with our translator. It was really fun and REALLY helpful, and as soon as Ukrainians saw us making such an effort, they really got in to encouraging us, which really spurred us along. I am sure that you could easily learn the alphabet, some key greetings, foods, and questions, and the numbers one through ten in one evening's worth of time. Do you feel like I am nagging you?!

I am very sorry, not to mention surprised, to hear about your Wpg apartment. Is there anything I can do? Don't hesitate to ask.

SG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sky Onosson said...

I can really relate to your frustration. I felt the same way after an entire *year* in Korea. I did learn the alphabet, but that didn't help when I didn't know what any of the WORDS were! Some linguist...

Sorry to hear about the apartment, please let us know if we could help in any way.

SG said...

Hi Jila,
Thought perhaps it would be interesting to you to read a story about how English people benefited from NOT knowing the phrase "I don't understand":
When the English settlers landed in Australia, they noticed a strange animal that jumped extremely high and far. They asked the aboriginal people using body language and signs trying to ask them about this animal. They responded with "Kan Ghu Ru". The English then adopted the word kangaroo. What the aboriginal people were really trying to say was "we don’t understand you", "Kan Ghu Ru"!!!

JG said...

BT: I have a pocket-size Lonely Planet phrase book for Russian with a dictionary at the back. It is essentially the thing you and M. created for your own use. It is enormously useful. I carry it everywhere and am lost without it. And I'm learning at least one word or phrase a day. It is my goal to get into the car every day with something new to say to my driver. Today I learned how to say "how's it going". (My driver and I adore each other. He tries to learn one word or phrase in English each day as well.) When you compare this to what children do betw. 2-3, however, one word or phrase a day is PATHETIC. But unless I devote myself to Russian more seriously, that seems to be my average.

Anonymous said...

Hey there!

Found your blog through Dana, whom I ran into at the bookstore yesterday. Am now late leaving 'cause I can't stop reading. I am so excited for you, and so happyhappyhappy!!

The interweaving of language and baby bonding and communication in these blogs is fascinating. It's like you're moving through waters with many currents, all related.

Is Baby sitting up yet? Does she kick when she's excited? Does she have a favourite toy? What colour are her eyes? Does she have chipmunk cheeks? Do you get to watch her sleep?

I can't wait to meet her, and to see you with her. Let me know if we can help at all with the apartment stuff. Meanwhile, I'll stay glued to the blogs.