Learning Language By Annie Wells

This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Annie Wells is a 3rd year MDiv student at CST. Once a newspaper photographer, she is now studying to become a chaplain. To see her work from the banana plantations in Nicaragua use this link and click on the picture of bananas next to the text entitled “Pesticides.”http://www.anniewellsphotography.com/content.html?page=2

I have been learning to speak Spanish for years. Sometimes Spanish speakers can understand me. Sometimes I don’t come close to saying what I mean to say. Sometimes when I’m trying to speak Spanish I cannot remember one word in Spanish or English. But I remember clearly the woman who inspired me to learn and for her I will keep trying until I die. 

I was a newspaper photographer working in Sonoma County, CA – the wine country north of San Francisco. I was assigned to photograph an elderly Mexican woman for a story about inadequate farmworker housing. At the time I knew two Spanish words: ‘hola’ and ‘adios.’ The reporter, a fluent speaker, could not be there with me, but he assured me that our subject knew a photographer was coming and understood what the story was about. Yet it was a matter of principle for me to be able to explain to her who I was and why I was taking her picture. However, the woman and I could not make any sense of what the other was saying.

She was welcoming and didn’t seem worried about my presence; but did she know what it meant to have her picture in the paper? This was in the late 1980s and it was unlikely that immigration would come after her, but I was concerned about that and also about her landlord’s reaction. While I felt compelled to do my job and make a picture of this woman in her house with a leaking roof and no heat, I felt conflicted because I could not know what she thought about my concerns. I did my job, but it felt morally wrong. It was one of the first times I felt, to the bone, the power I wielded as a white representative of the press. I signed up for Spanish One at the local Jr. College and began a journey that I thought would be much different than it has been.

I thought learning Spanish would be a little like riding a bike. I would work diligently and one day I’d be speaking like I’d known the language my entire life. That hasn’t happened. What I didn’t expect was the world that would open up to me for trying. I had not known warmth, generosity, and fun like I have come to know with Latinos in this country and other Latin American countries where I have traveled. I have also come to know my white privilege in ways I would not have known otherwise.

In the late 1990s I moved to Los Angeles and worked on the LA Times’s “Latino Initiative.” The idea was that a group of Latino editors, mostly Latino writers, and me (I was the only assigned photographer) would work on stories that brought issues in the Latino community to light. As in many newsrooms, white men set the agenda and the paper was making an effort to correct that. Nevertheless, for a year or two, I was frequently the only white person in the weekly meeting and for the first time in my life I heard the intimate views of people outside of the dominant culture. I had not realized their fury at, and the depth of their struggle against, white supremacy. As well, on some local assignments and those that took me to Latin American countries, I might be the only white person, not only in sight, but the only one for miles. That was new for me too. Yes, at times I was very uncomfortable, ashamed of U.S. colonialism, (especially in the banana plantations of Nicaragua), and ashamed of my blindness to cultures other than my own. I also received warm hospitality from many people of Latino cultures so unlike my own white, east-coast, Anglo Saxon, protestant traditions which were more reserved and exclusive.

One time I was traveling by myself in the state of Michocan, Mexico looking for families of male farm workers who were in the U.S. I was in a small village and went to a home where I was told a particular male farm worker’s family lived. Two women came to the door. They did not know who the man was, but they invited me in to talk about their husbands who were working in the U.S. At 9:00 in the morning they offered me a beer. They had no bottled water and no one drank tap water. Even though I never, ever drank alcohol while I was working, I also knew how rude it was to turn down such hospitality. So we drank beer and ate fried pork rinds together for an hour or two. Before I left they showed me the humble room where I would sleep when I returned some day to visit with my husband and which turkey they would pluck for the molé they would make for our dinner. Would my husband and I have shown the same hospitality to a stranger from Mexico who showed up at our door asking for someone we didn’t know? Not then, but I would now.

I’m divorced, no longer a newspaper photographer, and now studying to become a hospital chaplain. I’ve grown in the twenty-plus years since I met the Mexican woman I couldn’t speak with. She was the seed. I have known grass-roots women like those of whom Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz speaks in “En La Lucha, In The Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology.” They have inspired me and infused me, not with hubris, but with humility. Now there is a woman from Guatemala in the parish where I serve. She’s 96, has a sharp mind, but no teeth. I cannot understand most of what she says and she has a hard time understanding me. We have a deep affection for each other, though. Every Sunday we hold each other, look into one another’s eyes, and laugh with joy. We don’t need words.

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33 replies

  1. Thank you Annie. I enjoyed and appreciated your experiences with people in other American cultures. I would not call us Hispanics nor Latinos, that would lead me to bring up the issue of Asians vs Orientals, which Edward Said expounded upon in Orientalism. You kindly point out to the ways in which what some call “Latinos” have been rendered faceless in the US. The people who are united by the colonial heritage of Spanish invasions in what is called North, South, Central America and the Caribbean belong to over 20 distinct nationalities and native cultures which are silenced or ignored when we say “Latinos,” which means Latins from ancient Rome, or “Hispanics” linking us to the colonial invaders of Spain with whom we seldom identify–just as few people in US culture identify with being English. What most call “Latinos” and “Hispanics”… we are all Americans. The architects of US territory expansion policies, mostly in the “Marshall Plan”, have conveniently seen to it that there is no demonym or gentilic for the people of the United States in the English language. So, there has been an unconscious appropriation of a whole continent by default, in the absence of a demonym equivalent for the Spanish term “estadounidense,” which means people from the United States.

    Gentilic, in Merriam-Webster:
    1- Tribal, racial, national
    2- Of or relating to a noun or adjective that denotes ethnic or national affiliation.
    From Wiki, “a demonym ( /ˈdɛmənɪm/), also referred to as a gentilic, is a name for a resident of a locality. A demonym is usually – though not always – derived from the name of the locality;[1] thus, the demonym for the people of England is English, and the demonym for the people of Italy is Italian, yet the one used for the people of the Netherlands is Dutch.”

    We are beginning to scratch the surface on the many overt and covert elements and effects of colonization. As a PuertoRican raised in my country/Island, US citizen by birth but not by culture, I am aware of the inappropriate ways that our use of language, even in Spanish, perpetuates oppression by yielding prominence to the oppressor.

    I have been looking for a better word for cariño for a long time… and you just gave me the closest word in English, the language I struggle with: warmth. Thank you for bringing us closer through the warmth, cariño and truths that you narrate in your experiences.


    • Dear Vrinda,

      I’ve spent a good deal of time recently trying to discern and come to terms with my own white supremacy. It is horrifying for me to even write the term for all that it implies. So I appreciate the gentleness of your reply. While I put my story out there, it is not with out some tenderness. Thank you as well for your illumination of US history and also for the inclusion of two new words into my vocabulary: demonym and gentillic. Your contribution to the blog post is important.

      Interestingly, the issues you raise in regard to the naming of peoples from other cultures who speak Spanish was a matter of substantial debate among those who worked on the LA Times’s “Latino Initiative.” Some people felt it was “ghettoizing” both the people in the newsroom working on the project and people we were attempting to write about. Others saw it as a form of genocide. There were certainly people who refused to work on the team because it felt like further colonization to them. That said, it was run by an amazing group of journalists who through deliberation felt like this was the best name for the group. And yes, without meaning to add insult to injury, I did not know what other word to use in my blog. We are all Americans and beyond that, all human beings.

      Con Cariño


      • Dear Annie,
        Your kindness and warmth in responding to a theme that many prefer to ignore gave me a deep sigh of relief. It was like finding a long lost sister in a dark night. I appreciate your describing the challenges that this group of brave people faced, and as a woman I am sure that you had even more to contend with. I also appreciate that none of you abandoned the project, in spite of the challenges in language, this took valor. Colonization breeds rightful indignation, valuable anger that we need not ignore. The polarization that the language of the privileged produces over the oppressed, needs to be addressed even at the beginners’ stage of learning a language. The thrill and humility that you share about your experience learning Spanish and all the cultures that it opens for you is contagious and inspiring.

        I hope that others understand the beauty of our meeting in this space in the context of the importance to listen to difficult talk. Between white privilege and the oppressed we cannot keep speaking small talk and praise, what Richard Francisco calls level one and two safe talk. Your valor to hold space for my discomfort with crucial terms in language, in spite of your thrill at entering a territory more familiar to me–from a different point of view—is significant of people who can hold space for conflicts and embrace solutions. I feel so privileged and thrilled to read your post. I am fortunate to meet you in the language that you wrote this story. You give me all the hope that I needed to continue swimming under the surface today. I will re-read you other days when all I hear is talk of the weather… not that it does not matter, everything matters these days.

        Con Cariño and Warm Blessings,


      • Dear Annie,
        Thank you for our email. Somehow I clicked send before
        finishing. I am delighted to keep in touch.
        With Cariño and profundo respeto,



  2. Dear Annie,

    Thank you for a beautiful, inspiring post. I particularly appreciate the way your discussion of your experience with hospitality. As someone who also grew up in a WASP-y church setting (at least for the first several years of my life), I acutely came to realize the forced structure of hospitality when I was asked to be part of the Hospitality Team (my church loves committees, but we called them ‘teams’ to make them seem less onerous). I was in high school at the time, and I was happy to be included in church leadership. What I came to realize, however, was that much of what the Hospitality Team did was talk rather than engage in concerted efforts at community building. If I am reading your post correctly, Annie, you describe a spontaneous show of hospitality that includes food but focuses more on the human interaction that happens when time is shared between and among people.

    The most moving examples of such hospitality at our church were for me evident at the coffee hour after second service. Our church is the product of a merger between two congregations and has two services: one at 9am, which is attended primarily by the former (mostly) Anglo-American congregation, and one at 11am, which is attended primarily by the former (mostly) Japanese-American congregation. As someone who was at the time still dependent on a parent to drive her to church, I went to church when my mom did, which was the 9am service, though I enjoyed the worship style of the 11am service more. Coffee hour after second service was almost a full lunch, and there are a core group of people (both men and women) who consider it their gift to the community to make the after-church time an open place for community bonding. Granted, this bonding is usually limited to those who attend second service, but watching the way in which volunteers signed up with a smile on their faces for helping serve after second service was beautiful (and a welcome change from the volun-told nature of “It’s your turn. Bring cookies,” the model I often found prevalent with the first service congregants). While the model of community the second service congregants enact may be considered insular, it is a community that genuinely and deeply cares for one another, and I know I have a lot to learn from them and from others about what hospitality looks like.

    Thanks again for sharing your stories.


    • Dear Erin,

      Thanks for your response to my blog post and sharing the story of your churches two congregations. I like the term “volun-told” I’ve never heard that before.

      You are correct when you say, “you describe a spontaneous show of hospitality that includes food but focuses more on the human interaction that happens when time is shared between and among people.” In the culture of the two Mexican women, to turn down their invitation would insult them. Being in communion with others is very important. That is one of the most consequential lessons and most wonderful gifts I received over and over again as I made more friends with views of the world similar to theirs. In my culture, usually people hem and haw about whether to accept someone’s invitation to visit, especially if food is involved. My learned cultural response to a spontaneous invitation is “no” because one would not want to burden the other. The implied teaching is that people are burdensome. But why would someone invite you in if they thought you would be a burden?

      But beyond the gracious hospitality, I found the women’s level of trust astonishing. I was a strange white woman, driving a car, no less, and with big cameras. I was an oddity to say the least and they did not seem to be the least bit suspicious. In addition, people in that village were poor. They did not own cars. They walked, rode donkeys or bicycles, or took busses. These women sold beer, soda, and snacks from their home to make a little money. (They didn’t have any soda or water that day, hence the beer.) So on top of their trust was extreme generosity, as I was not allowed to pay for what we consumed.


    • When we speak of hospitality in the US, the context of the term is very different to the flavor of the transparent and indigenous informed hospitality that Annie is describing. I remember my mother, who spoke as a political science scholar about the need for Puerto Ricans to stop giving away our Island to US military bases. She insisted that our hospitality had made the other take over our land, and turned us into beggars in our own soil… The word hospitality, the simplicty and naive people´s joy to serve those who enter the sacred and humble space of their homes is a concept I cannot find has parallels in US culture, where service to a church or nonprofit is more easily rendered because it looks good in the resume. We are talking about very different cultures. I understand what Annie is saying, and do not find easy comparisons possible, any comparison is an attempt to eclipse the distinct elements of trust in the hospitality of indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and other Central and South American countries. These comparisons are probably related to confirmation bias, in countries where US has joined in coup d’etats, the term “hospitality” is a double edge sword.

      I am listening to all of you, here between a rock and a hard place in diverse epistemologies, and know that listening to me is not easy.

      Warmly, Cariñosamente,


    • Erin, I appreciate your response, but need to add my views about a possible misunderstanding.
      Hospitality is a term that raises red flags in Spanish language within the Central, South American continent cultures… especially when our hospitality has opened the door to imperial take overs, historic coup d’etats and untold corruption in our leaders in collusion with US Washington economic interests. Educated people in Spanish speaking countries in the Americas cringe at the term “hospitality” for all the pain that it has brought to us. There is no comparison when a person in the US practices hospitality, or volunteers at a church or nonprofit… it will look good in the resume. Hospitality for us is seriously linked to Christianity and the parable of Jesus knocking at the door of our house. I believe that comparing the hospitality practiced in the US with the hospitality that Annie is describing here shows how difficult it is to enter into another culture as we hold on to confirmation bias. I feel that Annie has authentically appreciated being embraced by the unique indigenous hospitality. No comparisons give us the same picture. Why are we so compelled to compare?


      • Dear Vrinda,

        Your contributions to this conversation are so meaningful to me. I am sure it is difficult to listen to other voices….but your recognition of the “space” created and your articulate, thoughtful and caring responses are encouraging to me also. I do not know if there is opportunity to continue our conversation beyond this blog, but knowing that you feel a sense of relief in my response is important for me as I journey forward as a seeker of justice. Know that I am open to further dialogue in any forum. annie.wells@cst.edu

        Warmly y con respecto profundo.


        • Dear Annie,
          My heart goes out to you for your kindness and all that you hold sacred in
          this space as well as in your dynamic, compassionate ways. You enrich any language, you have showed me that there is no argument when we stand for justice, and you embody what you stand for. I would be greatly honored to stay in touch with you. Thank you for listening to pain that so easily heals and is blessed with empathy. I hope this communing communication in sacred
          space grows and continues. Your valor in these responses will keep inspiring me with new insights on how to better listen to others’ cries in language. I feel humbled by your caring, and hope to read more about your communions and communications with indigenous people. I believe that your warmth embodying hospitality facilitated your recognition of indigenous openness. I am sure that your friends enjoyed your presence and positive dynamism as much as you enjoyed their cariño, it is clear that it was mutual. Thank you for your kind and warm language hospitality.

          I have learned so much from your generous interactions that I hope to keep in touch with you on other areas where language seeks a true friend. You just demonstrated embodied justice in most gracious ways, how else can we cross diverse and unequal epistemologies? As a seeker of better ways to reweave our concepts of justice to include as many others, I treasure your offer to continue in communication, and would like to read more of your works. I feel blessed to correspond with you. (on the day of all saints)


  3. This post is so lovely for so many reasons – I love the pictures you’ve created (just with your words), your honesty, and the insights that you’ve shared. Isn’t it amazing how one conversation can change your life in ways that you would not have expected?

    While not the focus of your piece, I especially resonated with this line “What I didn’t expect was the world that would open up to me for trying.” What you describe is what I’ve called in my (Caucasian) husband’s case the “white discount.” My (Taiwanese) relatives and random people at Chinese restaurants are just thrilled to death that he knows a few phrases and courtesies and they always go out of their way to compliment him. (And truthfully, he really is gifted in languages). What I’ve deduced is that they simply have no expectation that a “white guy” would know Taiwanese (which, as you may know, is totally different than mandarin) and so they feel honored, even, just by his attempts.

    Language really does open doors–and trust! :)


    • Wow – there’s a term for it – the “white discount!” I have been the beneficiary of it many times. It is so true. People do not expect me to speak Spanish and are so happy that I am trying. Yet, I have friends who have roots in Mexico and who look like they should be able to speak Spanish, but they grew up during a time when immigrants were trying to assimilate and as children were only allowed to speak English. The result is that their Spanish is as fractured as mine. They receive derision from the same people who are pleased by my attempts.


      • Annie – yes, all true in my (and my peers’) case indeed. We so-called ABCs (American born Chinese) often feel double shame at our lack of language proficiency (once from our parents/relatives, the second from “outsiders” who equate our looks with certain linguistic competences). I’m somewhere in between (with my decent Taiwanese language abilities), but you are exactly right – my Taiwanese or Chinese peers are shamed, while folks like my husband are praised!


  4. Annie –

    What a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing. Learning Spanish has been on my to do list as well for many years. I took Spanish in high school, but sadly, I didn’t put those lessons to use fast enough and many of them have faded away. This summer, I traveled to Costa Rica for a week and a half to visit with my friend, Lindsay, who is teaching there. I had tried to practice my Spanish in preparation for the trip, but when I arrived, I quickly realized that if I did not want to try and use my Spanish, I would not have to. In fact, Lindsay, who had been living there for over a year, had yet to really become comfortable with the language. This was partly because, one form of hospitality that nearly everyone offered to us, was the gift of struggling through English in order to communicate. Whereas I often feel very embarassed and scared about trying out my Spanish (which is unfortunate, because learning by speaking is really one of the best/only good ways to learn the language), Lindsay’s friends continually offered hospitality to us through their willingness to speak to us in our “native” language, even though we were tourists in their home country.

    Now, I did try out my Spanish every now and then, but this trip left me feeling sort of guilty and ashamed on behalf of myself and the white Americans in the United States. In the U.S., as the immigration debate has intesified, there has been a lot of ugly rhetoric surrounding Latinos in this country, including statements that say things like, “If you are going to live in this country, you better learn our language,” etc. But nearly every time I have traveled out of the country, I notice that the people in the country I visit know English much better than I know their home language. One of the effects of colonialism — both from Great Britain and the United States — is that we get a free pass with language. We expect that people will cater to us and speak “our language” while they are here, but we don’t provide the same form of respect or hospitality when we travel to another country, and we are often not even expected to. Your blog post is a good reminder to keep working at learning Spanish….and being willing to put it into practice during my daily interactions. Thanks!


    • Hi Hannah,

      Thanks for reading my post. Just keep at it. My ability to speak Spanish ebbs and flows depending on how much I use it. I have found that during graduate school I am especially inept, even though I am serving in a church where there is a Spanish-speaking congregation. I think it has something to do with the part of my brain that is struggling with all of the difficult academic material. For whatever reason I have trouble accessing the “Spanish language” part of my brain. I’m trying not to be too self-punishing, but I am going to try to spend some time this coming summer after I graduate in a country where people speak Spanish and in a location where there are not English speakers. I have found the same thing you have – if there are English speakers around, their English is usually better than my Spanish and we default to English.

      I could rant about the curriculum at CST that purports to prepare us for the future but seems blind to current demographic facts of immigration in this country. If we are to serve in churches now, we need Spanish language competency. I think there is a class offered every other year in regard to liturgical Spanish – but I have not seen anything else. I have also come to see that it would be nice to learn something about the Korean language. It’s embarrassing, but the sounds are difficult for me and it has taken me far to long to learn some of my classmate’s names.

      Don’t know where we’d find the time but I’d be willing to work on Spanish with you. I looked at this online course a number of years ago and it looked like fun. Take a look and maybe we can give it a try? http://lomastv.com/ (ok maybe over Christmas break if you are in town)


  5. Dear Annie,
    What a great post. You have led a fascinating life and reflect on it with a humility and a quiet humor that’s amazing. This post gave me a lot to think about. Having grown up in England where it was expected from second grade on that you were learning a foreign language (French) it was a bit of a shock when I first moved to New York and found that the students were not starting to learn a new language in the classroom until 7th grade.

    After reading your post I was reminded of Tim James, a candidate for Alabama governor who ran on the campaign of “English only,” and, having grown up in Europe, I much prefer the both/and model of raising our children to speak multiple languages. As a Christian, we have to address issues of hospitality head on in order to reflect the radical inclusiveness of Christ. We can also look to the words of Paul with generosity when he writes about being a ‘Jew to the Jews’ and a ‘Greek to the Greeks,’ etc. To adopt the model of servant we have to be able to speak the “master’s” language (if we’re going to use those hierarchical terms), even when that requires going the extra mile to learn a language other than the one we grew up speaking. I recognize that model may only seem applicable to people from the dominant culture but if we are ever going to move towards healthy balance and transform white privilege into mutuality, it is a place to start.

    Awesome post.


    • Angelina
      Thank you for your response. You are so right. It is our responsibility to learn other languages, especially because of our privilege. And yes, it is hard. Learning Spanish is not be something that has come naturally to me. But my life has been enriched beyond measure for my efforts.

      BTW See my note to Hannah. Los Mas TV anyone?

      Let’s occupy Alabama.


  6. Beautiful post, Annie. I feel so honored that I have gotten to study a little Spanish beside you and watch your determination in this quest over the years. And your writing–so wonderful!!!! Not just a photographer, but a writer, too!!!



    • Hi Hilary! Thanks so much for joining us :) I have been such a backslider in my language attempts recently. But hopefully this summer I will regain what is now buried. Remember Lil? She used to make me say the word “periodico” over and over again and really move my mouth when I said it so I’d get the vowel sounds right! Sometimes I use it to warm up when I have to read scripture at church.


  7. Dear Annie,
    Thank you so much for your blog. I enjoyed reading about your experiences very much. I share a lot of the same reflections with learning another language and with traveling in other countries and having hospitality shown to you. I have only traveled to non-English speaking countries and I always try my best to learn “the basics” of the language and use it. I get nothing but welcoming, affirming and positive responses from the locals. I have experienced nothing but kindness every where I’ve traveled. This summer in India, our car had broken down on the side of the road and in 115 degree heat we were stranded. No one could speak fluent Hindi so we couldn’t fully understand what was wrong because our driver spoke very little English. Several cars passed us but finally one stopped. It was a group of guys who were old college buddies traveling together as a reunion. They spoke to our driver for us and found out the problem and offered to take us touring the forts with them (that was our destination too). So we piled about 10 people into a tiny old car and drove up this mountain to tour the forts while our car was being fixed. The guys told us that it was their duty to help us and show us their country because we took the time out of our lives to visit India. Wow! I couldn’t believe it. I also feel like you Annie, I would have never in my life stopped to help someone on broken down on the side of the road in the U.S. – much less who cares if they are local, immigrants, whatever. Now I totally have the opposite response. I can’t believe the extreme kindness and hospitality that has been shown to me throughout my travels. I only hope I can return it as I meet strangers in my own country.


    • Great story Amanda! I love that the guy who helped you said it was his duty. It is our duty! Although I still might use my cell phone to call in a stranded vehicle if I were alone in some parts of LA….But yes, it’s interesting that what we consider extreme hospitality is common sense to others. My sister read my blog post but chose to write me an email instead. She essentially asked, “What is the matter with us?”


  8. Annie,
    Wonderful post. So much of what you said resonated with me. As you say, “They have inspired me and infused me, not with hubris, but with humility.” It’s amazing how much we can learn without words if we just remember to humble ourselves. I remember constantly being given what Professor Kao calls “white discount” while living abroad. For nearly two years I struggled with conjugation and vocab but was given such grace for my effort. I was continually humbled by the open hospitality and warm welcome I was given, especially in the beginning when all I could say was “hello” and “thank-you.” In America I would hardly expect someone to house and feed me, a stranger, for two years, but there I became a member of the family. Upon returning to America it struck me how often we as Americans fail to grant the same grace to those who don’t understand as much English as we’d like. I applaud you for continuing to study Spanish even as it is a struggle for you (and believe me I know how hard languages can be). But, it is also true that we can learn so much by what is not spoken. Thanks for sharing.


    • Annie – One more story in response to your beautiful post. When I was growing up in SoCal – before my 25 year foray back east – it felt like there was an understanding emerging that we all had to be bilingual. For me, that felt like part of the deal. I benefitted from my colleagues recently emigrated here (most of whom spoke Spanish) and they, I hope, from me. And then came along the next wave of anti-immigration activities, and that hope seemed to fade away. I went on, actually, to become fluent in Spanish (I used to dream in Spanish), but it faded away after not being used for several years. And increasingly, I found that what academic Spanish I could recall was poorly matched with the actual language spoken by friends and colleagues from South America, Mexico, and beyond. I’ve always known that to only speak English – at least for me – was to in some way not fully acknowledge my spanish-speaking compatriots. So I applaud you and hope, after graduation in May when maybe I’ll have time to take up something new, to refresh my Spanish and start actually communicating.
      Again, thanks.


      • Hi Lara — did you see the end of my post to Hannah and to Angelina? Among the zillion other things we are doing, maybe we could meet in the Edgar Center for an hours after Feminist ethics and watch Los Mas Tv together and start remembering/learning Spanish as a group….That’s so cool that you dreamed in Spanish. I have a couple of times when I have been in Spanish speaking countries for awhile.


    • Hi Katrina,
      Thanks for your reply. “White discount,” is a great term. I wonder if Dr. Kao has coined something??? How fun would that be. Maybe we should work on a definition for the wiki page. Maybe we should make an actual Wikipedia entry for it. Seriously :)


      • I’m not sure if I coined the phrase; it’s just something some of my friends and I have been using for years since I signed-up for one semester of Mandarin Chinese in my frosh year of college. (In that class, the Chinese prof would do small things to “shame” those of who were of Chinese descent but who weren’t Mandarin speakers – Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc. while she would lavish praise on the white students for the smallest learning gains… But a wiki or wikipedia entry? Love it! Take that for democratization of knowledge!


  9. Anne you paint such a clear picture of your adventure, thanks. As someone who struggles with language, I’m delighted and amazed with the people who are open and inviting to helping others out. I’ve received so much positive reinforcement when traveling to other countries and struggling to communicate. In Spain, I slaughtered the local language, and was met with laughter, coaching and lots of good cheer. Thankfully, I’m ok not being close to either perfect or proficient with languages so I always try to communicate in Spanish or whatever the local language is which often ends in my waving hands trying to convey my message. I think the universal commonality is the genuine desire to communicate and learn which is most often met with appreciation and openness. Something that can’t be faked from either individual. The same principals seem to apply to many aspects of life, so often people offer assistance, help, advise and the like because they’ve been in a similar position and appreciate receiving kindness so they’re willing to return the gift, sharing our human desire to connect, learn and contribute. Perhaps the women in the village will never know the gift you received from them, but I’m sure that because of their hospitality many people too have touched them. What a great world we create when we remember how welcome we feel when people reach out to us and the great blessing we receive when we give with no expectation to receive.


    • Hi Sharon — thanks for reminding us of the importance of mutuality in a simple act of kindness. I once worked as a legal assistant at a big San Francisco law firm. I was with a young man working on deadline to get some paperwork completed. It was past lunch and we were both very hungry. He went to the local McDonalds and returned with his lunch to work in the office with me. We only had about 30 minutes of work left and I was planning on getting something to eat when we were done. But he knew I was hungry and tired and offered me some french fries. I declined. He said my name and I looked up. Then he held out his little bag of fries and said simply, “receive.” He wanted to be kind to me and could not as long as I refused his offering. I took some fires and we both were happy.


  10. Dear Annie,

    This is a really beautiful piece. After we talked about your ideas for your post in class, I was looking forward to your reflection, and you did not let me down! :) I particularly enjoyed the tension you highlight between the ability to communicate with intent (and without words), and the value of learning the language (and the words) for the intent to matter at all.

    As I read your piece, I could not help but think of some of my experiences as a child. My step-mother is Filipina, and when I was 12, my family all traveled to the Philippines for a month or so to visit her family. Because of the U.S. military presence there, most Filipinos were at least bilingual, so I rarely found myself in situations that I was challenged to communicate without English. I remember playing with some of my step-mother’s nieces, nephews and cousins. Play can often be quite beautiful because it is its own language; for a while we did not communicate through English, but through the imagined rules of the game. Eventually, however, as beautiful as the moment was, in an instant I was reminded of my privilege; one of the kids brought out an old, somewhat rusty bike (a recent Christmas present) and started riding around on it. Every so often, the kid riding it would give it to another kid, and so on. Eventually, one of the kids offered me the bike. I turned him down. I wish I had accepted. I was too uncomfortable, not because I didn’t think it would be fun, or because I had a much newer bike at home. I was uncomfortable because for one of the first moments in my life I had realized all that I had taken for granted. I wanted to crawl out of my skin (quite literally). I stood there as the rest of the kids continued to play. And yet, guilt wasn’t the answer; the answer (at that moment, anyway) was to accept the offer, and to ride the bike. The answer was to keep trying to communicate!

    I do not tell this story because I wish to generalize about “third-world” peoples. The Western valorization and romanticization of the South/East as purely hospitable and innocent says more about our own Western colonial past and present, and very little about “those” peoples themselves. Such essentialisms also blind us to the real differences (linguistic and otherwise!) among all those peoples. I tell this story because I share your valuation of communication; intent (to communicate) is never everything, but it can be a step in right direction. Perhaps we can learn something from children in their ability to communicate through play. Kids don’t always need words. Perhaps a better way to put is like this: kids make up their own words. We can never leave our social location behind (nor should we!), but perhaps play shows us one way of working with our location in the name of communication and new community.

    Today, I am nearly reading fluent in six other languages, and yet I regret the fact that my aural and oral skills in these languages are meager at best. When I study languages, I have had a bad habit of focusing on just learning reading abilities. Your piece reminded the absolute necessity, the ethical value, and the beauty of actually being able to listen to others in their languages. Thank you.


  11. Hi Annie,

    Your blog is really fantastic! Thank you for sharing your experiences of different cultures other than your own. I was really touched by your sharing especially the hospitality to a stranger in Mexico. It is very much similar to my Kachin culture in Burma (Myanmar). Most of the Kachin houses in villages do not have keys. We never lock our houses. Every visitor, stranger is always warmly welcomed and can stay for a night or a month. Visitors or strangers can cook, eat foods, drink tea and water by themselves even owner of the house is not present. No need to ask permission from owner. We don’t have a custom of reservation and appointment. Everybody is welcomed in anytime. This is the way how we show our hospitality to strangers in my own Kachin culture. But, the meaning and practicing of hospitality is different from one culture to another. Anyway, your post really remind that I have a beautiful custom of hospitality to strangers/visitors. Thank you very much for your inspired post.


  12. When one of my Greek friends said to me, “Karolina, I go you here after,” which turned out to mean “come back later,” I lost my pride and began speaking Greek in more or less the same fashion. I believe speaking to non-English speakers and watching television are the best ways to learn a language. I learned most of my Greek “by ear.” This is not the way I learned Italian and Spanish in school. But you have to give up your fear of not sounding smart enough.


  13. Great post Annie! You provide such a vivid account of your experience (leave it to a photographer). I was curious about the instance in which you describe feeling shame for your privilege. Were you able to express that to anyone at the time? Would you have felt comfortable informing your boss about the interplay of privilege and the experience of working ‘with’ those who will never have the same privilege? And do you think that perhaps your concern for people, for individuals, surpassed that of the reporters and editors involved in the same stories? (I wonder why the reporter who spoke Spanish didn’t offer to go with you that day–seems a shame to think of that woman as not requiring an interpreter).


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