Traveling around the world, you hear a lot of stories. Endless stories, from all corners of the globe. Stories from other travelers, stories from local people, stories from yourself as your own experiences solidify and are woven into your personal narrative.
Many stories that come from those who find themselves to be strangers in a strange land tend to revolve around some interaction with locals, and almost without fail, at some point will contain something akin to: “He/she didn’t speak any English.” The result is often a failure to order the right food, or a failure to catch the right bus or get the correct directions to a destination. It is always a storyline that distinguishes the object of the story as not living up to the expectations of the subject.
I find this to be quite telling. In each country I spend more than a layover in, from Spain to France, Uganda to Tanzania, Thailand to Vietnam, I do what any responsible traveler ought to and learn basic greetings, thank you’s, and some numbers to navigate transactions. This year in Southeast Asia I’ve tried my hardest to go beyond this and learn enough to have a simple conversation at least.
Unfortunately, most travelers don’t do this at all, and I’m always shocked in places like Thailand that hosts millions of tourists each year that people bring with them an expectation of locals speaking English. When they don’t, those locals get written into a narrative told to friends back home as characters who “didn’t speak any English.”
Regardless of whether this inability is viewed in a negative light, what’s striking to me is that we never use the words “I didn’t speak any [whatever the local language is].” This assumes that the “other” in the story is causing the story teller an inconvenience or some confusion because they don’t speak a foreign language (one that most English speakers erroneously assume everyone in the world understands at least a few words of), and not that the storyteller is causing themselves an inconvenience because they didn’t take the time to learn the language they needed to navigate the situation.
Stories can tell a lot about a person and how they engage with others. When the storyteller talks about their misadventure being exacerbated by another person failing to live up to their misguided assumptions, it perpetuates those assumptions to whoever is listening to the story. I’m guilty of this myself, but next time I tell such a story (or hear it), I hope I stop to think about how i bring a total stranger into my narrative. I feel like we should all try doing the same.