In August of 1992 I left Oregon as a Rotary Exchange Student and flew to Switzerland for a year long exchange. I was armed with a bright smile, a German/English dictionary, 4 years of high school German and the full optimism and excitement that comes with graduation.
I was going to live with a wonderful family in a small town in the north-eastern part of the country. My host dad was a cheese maker and I smelled of Emmentaler Käse for the entire year. My host mom ran the store on the street level of our house that sold cheese and dairy and chocolate and eggs and yogurt and all of the wonderful things that contributed to the 60lbs of weight I gained living there. I had 5 host sisters, who were all older than me and took me under their wings to teach me everything I needed to know.
It was an incredible, wonderful and life changing experience. It was a year of learning a new language because my 4 years of school German didn’t cover the various dialects that are spoken and Swiss German in itself is a completely different language. It was a year of trying to figure out who I am when I wasn’t under my parent’s roof and a time where I figured out what I wanted to put out into the world. It was a year of trying new foods, learning about a new culture, leaving the safety net of my small town where my whole family lived and where mail took 2 weeks to get from my native home to my adopted home. No internet back then!
I started in a new school and I had to try to make friends even before I was able to speak in a language. It was a time of putting myself into scary situation after scary situation and not always fitting in but carrying on. It was also a time of loneliness and frustration and longing for things to start getting easier. And then they do. And then you feel at home and like you are successful and you have integrated. And then it is time to go home again which means having to relearn your native language which has suffered at the expense of your adopted new language. You have to see if the person you found and put out in the world fits in with the life you left behind. Your friends moved on with their lives and you are missing the new friends that took so much work to bond with. You eat the food you grew up with but miss the food that reminds you of everything you left behind. And worst of all, the language you anguished over, and struggled with and had a love affair with is something you constantly struggle to clutch and hold on to despite it not fitting in with your original life. Reintegration is as hard as the initial integration.
My friend Kris was the student to head to Switzerland the year after I went and she and I became friends when I helped her prepare for her year away. She understands all of this and suggested I read the book “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri. She had just finished it and thought it would be something I would enjoy based on our shared yet different experiences. I went straight to my local bookstore and picked it up.
All I can say is: YES! THIS! I found myself saying this over and over. I found myself remembering my first German/English Dictionary – it was yellow with blue and had a plastic cover. I hated it because it didn’t have all of the words I looked for. My second dictionary is one I still have. It is falling apart. The cover is torn. It has been marked and highlighted and notes made and it has traveled as my companion on many trips and to many classes. Ms. Lahiri’s book is a collection of essays about her love affair with the Italian language and her journey to Italy and her decision to move her family there. It covers the fear of the unknown and the loneliness in not being able to connect with people through a shared language. She writes in such a beautiful and eloquent way explaining the various feelings people go through when they put themselves out there, into these types of scary situations and thrive through dedication and perseverance.
I read a few reviews online about the book, and some made me feel a bit sad. They couldn’t understand her being so upset when she put herself into this situation. With every situation there are joys and challenges. She writes in a very real and raw way about her feelings in this adventure and I went back 25 years to days where I found myself sitting at home on a Saturday feeling so sad and low. I didn’t have anyone to do anything with since everyone was busy. I missed my family, I just wanted to hear some English, and I wanted an “easy” day. I put myself in that situation and I would never go back and change it, but there are points where you just don’t feel a member of the society. You are an outsider and that is hard. It reminded me of all of those feelings and I thought of all of the people who helped me, encouraged me, cheered me on, and supported me through all it. I wasn’t alone and I think about my husband and other immigrants to countries all over. If we help them and support them they will fall in love with our countries and our language. They feel like outsiders and if we bring them in things could be so much different.
I found this book really interesting that on the left pages the words are in Italian and on the right pages they are in English. The whole book was written in Italian to begin with and she had someone translate it into English. I love to see to words of the country she loves next to the words I could understand and the juxtaposition made had us seeing what her life looked as you hold the book in your hands. Native words in the the right hand, adopted words in the left. This was poignant to me being right handed. Things in my my right hand come second nature and are easy, things with my left are more difficult and take so much more thought. I could imagine German words there instead of her Italian and how my life looked in the past.
I loved this book and feel like people who have been through like experiences will really relate to so much of her writing. Folks who have not experienced this might try to open their mind to her words and feelings and perhaps apply it to the people you see around you who might be learning English as a second or third language. Consider their fear or loneliness in living here, away from everything that is familiar. I think this is a really lovely piece of literature and I highly recommend it.