Recently, I spent a week feeling mostly like an outsider.
Not because of lack of welcome – I can’t tell you how many hugs and smiles I received.
Not because no one looked me in the eyes – countless children pointed at my face as if to notice I was the only green-eyed, blonde haired woman they had met.
Not because no one said my name – “Elizabeth, Elizabeth” were words I heard in crowded markets and along busy streets.
But because I visited a country where few (at least of those I encountered) spoke English.
No English. Mostly Spanish.
I only speak English and know only a few words in Spanish. “Mucho gusto” or “Buenos días” anyone?
A funny thing happens when you grow up in the United States, the land where most students take only two years of foreign language in high school to graduate (as I did): You believe everyone speaks like you.
You believe that it is acceptable not to master at least one other language than your own. You equate speaking English with the superior way to form sentences.
You may even go as far as to think that you are smarter than those you meet who don’t speak English. Shameful to admit, but true.
Most places I have traveled outside of the U.S. lately have been cultures where English is revered. Even folks who don’t speak it say they want to be taught.
But throughout my week in Guatemala, I met many lovely folks who know as much English as I do Spanish. And they were proud and content. I don’t see them seeking to learn English anytime soon.
As I was ordering a late lunch at the cafe of a major U.S. hotel chain in Guatemala City – you know, the place you’d expect everyone to speak English – I found myself pointing and using my limited words like “uno mas” and “agua” to the clerk. Again, no English for her.
Was I annoyed? Yes, a little. Was I frustrated at my limited vocabulary? For sure.
But most of all, I was aware anew of my own prejudice. I was in Guatemala, not the United States. What did I expect?
The whole world does not speak English, and it is OK if they don’t. Whoever said speaking English was a decree from on high?
To speak English does not make one superior to another. If anything, to cling to English as one’s only spoken language makes a person arrogant.
It takes great courage and strength of character to permanently enter a culture where you do not speak the primary language as many new immigrants do every day on U.S. shores. I now have a new appreciation.
It is good to be reminded what it feels like on the other side of things.
It is good to remember that language, as God gave it to us originally, was not meant to divide us or to make some of us feel better about ourselves than others.
It is good to get one more “kick in the pants” to remind me that I need to stop stalling and learn Spanish soon.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.