October 19, 2010

to give you my first born son

Every week I meet with a group of Bhutanese community members in our area who have recently moved to the United States as refugees. Some arrived a year ago, others a mere 22 days. We work through this "medical orientation program" that I developed with some of my fellow medical students. The program is designed to methodically go through seven important topics about health care in the United States so that they will be better equipped to use the system as they need it. The topics include everything from making appointments to confidentiality/consent to surgery to how to use the ER to mental health. We break into small groups and play-act a lot of scenarios as well as use lots of photos and props. At the end, I always ask them the two main questions of the session and somewhat pray in my head that they get them and the night hasn't been in vain.

One aspect of the program that I really enjoy is a consistent reminder of how hard it is to not understand and to not be understood - and how much more scary that is for someone who is not feeling well. On my first day of the previous session (our first), I asked one of the participants to tell me how to say "thank you" in Nepali, the language spoken by the Bhutanese community. I figured, if they were going to have to try to stumble through English every day all day, I could at least show them that their language would be hard for English speakers, and I thought maybe it would make them smile to hear me use Nepali words.

The man I ask tells me that "thank you" is said, "dhanyabad" (I'm not sure if I'm spelling that correctly). I ask another person who sort of speaks english - to confirm that my pronunciation is correct - "dhanyabad mean thank you?" (she nods yes). Awesome. At the end of the session, after I've asked the questions and wrapped everything up, I say - okay, "dhanyabad, we'll see you next week!" Everyone giggles, I assume at my pronunciation, and nods, Namaste, on their way out. I repeat this every week with the same response of giggles and nods and Namastes.

the final session arrives and one of the interpreters comes up to me and says, you know, Erica, I've been meaning to tell you - I know you think that dhanyabad means thank you, which it does. I just don't think it means it the way you mean it. We use dhanyabad to mean that we are really, eternally grateful. Look, it means, like, "I will give you my first born son I am so grateful - or something". GAHHHHH! and so then I feel like a total idiot and try to explain, but by this point, they all know me and have laughed it off that no one really accepts nor tells me another word for thank you.

so I keep saying dhanyabad and hope that it's just become a sort of inside joke, or at least that it makes them feel like, hey - we're definitely not the only people who have a rough time learning a new language - look at this crazy lady.

hey, if it helps them feel better able to take on the American Medical System, I'll take it.

"On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to the words and phrases that people actually use. From the dog owners I learned "Lie down," "Shut up," and "Who shit on this carpet?" The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. "Is thems the thoughts of cows?" I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window. "I want me some lamb chop with handles on 'em."
-David Sedaris in "Me Talk Pretty One Day"

(a must read for anyone who has ever tried to learn another language for the first time while being in a country surrounded by it and only it)

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