Nostalgia in a Foreign Place: Speaking in Mother Tongues

Years ago, I worked as a Pharmacy Technician at CVS Pharmacy, through college and the year before going to Medical School. At the time, I had my eyes set on a dreamy sunset of wanderlust and adventure. My thirst for “World Knowledge” pushed me to learn as much as I could about other cultures. I had patients with origins from around the world that would come into the pharmacy, and I tried to learn to understand bits and pieces of where they came from. To the little Iranian grandma that came with her daughter to the pharmacy to translate for her since she only spoke Farsi, I would say, “Salam. Shoma chettori? (Hi. How are you?)”, she would smile, “Khoobam! Merci (I’m well! Thanks).”Or the sweet Swedish woman that would teach me bits and pieces of Svenska, “Glad pask (Happy Easter)!” Or the Italian widow that had few friends and would come to bring me a CD of old Italian hits after our discussion of my studies in Italian and my hopes to go abroad… And of course, the hundreds of Spanish speaking patients that I saw over the years. Especially the kindest young father that would come in to see me to pickup medications for his child, that was at the time, battling Cancer.

I had a long talk with someone earlier about leaving their comfort zone and leaving the area they came from, because if you don’t, you may never understand how little you matter and how much you really aren’t important – I have said that before and will likely repeat it in future posts. I am a strong believer in leaving your confined space to understand your wordly place. I have been to places where I was NOT the one that was speaking a foreign language to my patients, but where those around me were speaking a foreign language (English) to ME. Travel has humbled me as an American to realize that English, while it dominates the world, is not the only thing out there. And you know what? It’s really scary being somewhere where YOU are the foreign language.

There are so many people for whom English isn’t a first language living in the US, and this is important, for all of those that are seen increasingly to go viral for this close-minded belief that everyone in America should speak English: America has no established language, that’s what makes it great.

Yet, despite these things, people come to America everyday in search of something better or different than what they came from – I will never forget the mother I met almost 2 decades ago as a volunteer at a Children’s hospital that had carried her son all the way to the US from Latin America because he had been shot by a gang member and was paralyzed, they had no help. I will never forget the kind patients that have fled their countries in search of asylum. I will never forget how scared people are. It makes me sad that these lives are the center of such ignorant debate in politics – I have met hundreds of immigrants, legal and not, and almost none of them choose to use government safety nets, they’re too afraid.

As such, I have spent all of my time, any time I meet someone from somewhere I don’t know or someone for whom English isn’t their first language, learning a little bit of their culture. Hidden away in Montgomery County, Texas in an area that is overwhelming White, I revealed to a mother in Clinic whom I could tell was only half understanding what I said, that I spoke Spanish. She started to tear up. She was relieved and emotional and nostalgic for her home back in Latin America. She had moved to be with family, for her kids to be closer to grandparents, but it had been hard – she was comforted to have a provider that could actually understand her. There was once a patient of mine that was Swahili, her child had a complicated medical condition and we would spend hours each day with the ONE Swahili interpreter in Houston that we could find. Yet, not everything translated, there was always confusion. But I made my team learn some Swahili, and you would see her smile more than ever, Jambo.

Most Americans will never have the privilege of understanding what it is like to be somewhere where nobody speaks the same language as them, nor will anyone that never leaves their home town. It humbles you, it teaches you patience and it makes you realize that the understanding of language does not equate with intelligence, nor ignorance, nor whether or not someone is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person.

At the end of the day, as a patient, all one wants is to be understood. And as a doctor, all I want to do is understand. Learn another language and it will open our world.

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