What I couldn't hear was the way his mouth is pressing itself into shapes that don't come naturally, his brow scrunched with concentration. His command of my foreign language is solid, but the distance from his shores to mine still show themselves clearly. Where English demands a staccato T, his Asian tongue finds a softer W before struggling for a small D in there at the end. And he is reading out his name, letter by letter--a particularly cruel joke, these layers of language, especially over a cell phone. He reads it three times, and even with the assistance of his face there are a couple letters I'm not sure of. I balance whether to offer help--is it still help if it takes his dignity as payment?--but my New England social walls stand firm.
I remember learning the alphabet in French--ah, bey, cey--and wondering at this refraction of English, or rather sister-refraction to something older still. Even that sister-tongue was too much for me, and after a few years of tests and one trip to the country I refracted, myself, spinning hard into this language I was born to, admiring others from a cold and comfortable distance.
I have never needed to know someone else's words. I've picked up a phrase here and there--I can apologize and order a street hot dog in Castellano, can pepper my speech with French tones, can make an occasional German outcry--but these have all been casual, friendly, uncritical. I know nothing of women fleeing war and rape, coming to cold New England cities with their walled-in people. I know nothing of college boys crossing half the planet for education and career. Even in Houston and Salt Lake City this spring, I went nowhere without my iPhone in hand.
My best friend calls me an intellectual snob, and this is true: I like knowing things, and I like demonstrating that I know them. I like learning new things from you--but partially so that I can demonstrate knowing them later. (It occurs to me, I may be a minor comic book villain: Dr. Thesaurus, ABD, perhaps.) And so I spun hard into an English degree, learning grammar and linguistics and Shakespeare, learning to say "kuh-neef-eh" when reading Chaucer (a world when you used every letter and none were silent), learning the rhythm and form of sestinas and sonnets, learning how this (every) language is a breathing, shifting, living thing: that my grandmother's English died before she did, and that I will live to see "whom" become archaic, and have already seen "new-ku-ler" be an accepted pronunciation.
And it comes back to the boy in the bus station, to the woman in the grocery store line. It comes back to what I do as they force my words out of them. And in the wondering, a memory from fifteen years ago slams into me, resounding like a gong. So clearly, I can see the ancient woman in Arles, running her little shop of cookbooks and wooden kitchen tools. In Paris, every native had cut us off with, "English, please," with an eye roll. But this woman--the wood witch from any fairy tale you can name--clasped her hands and leaned forward. She had none of my language, and so she waited with eagerness, nodding enthusiastically at each successful (though butchered) word. I don't remember our words, but our conversation is clear in my head, where the refractions play themselves out: She did know the fish soup from the restaurant last night. This cookbook, here. No, no charge. Take it. Make soup. Remember your night in Arles. I don't remember the cookbook, or the soup. But a lifetime later, I remember her.
In there somewhere is why this learning, this ever-trying-to-know-more is good to be applied here, in the devotion to something that will never be stagnant and finished, where there will always be someone learning. I hope I am a good teacher, and student: one who remembers the hard learning, and doesn't become my grandmother, insisting that being right is better than being understood.