I think one main thing that prevents many Americans from traveling is fear of not being able to speak the language where they are going. I understand being nervous about that, but I’ve never understood why it’s such a huge concern. It can be frustrating when it becomes a challenge just to do mundane tasks, but there’s also a liberating aspect to being able to legitimately claim ignorance when you do something stupid.
In some ways, I think going to a place where you look distinctly foreign is easier than going to a place where you might blend in. There’s a certain freedom that comes with everyone expecting that you won’t be able to speak their language, understand their customs and that you will generally act like an idiot. When someone is screaming angrily at you in a language you don’t speak, it’s so much easier to shrug your shoulders and say in a sing-song voice “I don’t understaaaand yoooooou” than trying to argue back. When people can just look at you and KNOW they won’t be able to communicate with you like a normal person, it eliminates that awkward intermediate interaction where you have to EXPLAIN, by acting like an idiot, that you are, in fact, an idiot. You’d be surprised how much easier life is when everyone expects you to be useless.
I don’t speak French except for a few key phrases — mostly, I know how to say “I don’t speak French.” This is not as helpful a phrase as you might expect. Imagine if you were at a coffeeshop in America and you asked the cashier a question and he replied, in English,”I don’t speak English.” I don’t know about you, but my initial thought would be, “You smartass son of a bitch.” I was in a cafe in Paris a few years back and I pointed to the croque monsieur that I wanted on the menu. The woman behind the counter asked me a question and I replied “Desolee. Je ne parles pas Francais.” She gave me a derisive and disdainful look that only an old French lady can truly give and then yelled out to everyone in the restaurant what I imagine was something to the effect of “This gentleman says he does not speak french but he IS SPEAKING FRENCH RIGHT NOW.” She laughed haughtily as did a few of the old and disheveled-yet-still-elegant Frenchmen at the counter. At that moment, if I could have, I would have drowned myself in my cafe au lait to escape my mortification.
I contrast this experience with traveling in Cambodia a few years ago. Mrs. Banh Mi and I were in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with some other (non-Cambodian) friends of ours. There was no menu, just an old lady with a cart with a bunch of weird looking ingredients. One of our friends went to the old lady and tried to express what we wanted to eat. He flapped his arms like a chicken, moo-ed like cow, jiggled his fingers and arms like noodles and generally danced around acting a fool. The old lady laughed, we laughed and a few minutes later some steaming hot bowls of soup appeared in front of us. To this day, I don’t have any idea what the hell was actually in that soup, but it was damn tasty and served with a smile.