Chance encounters, improv Spanish

OAXACA,Mexico

Two college-age women approached me today near Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo.

“May we sing a song to you?” they asked. One was short, with braces, and dark hair; the other was taller, fairer, with curls.

“Why?” I asked, surprised at the request.

“We just want to make you happy,” the one with braces said.

“Make me happy for a donation?” I replied.

“Only if you want to,” the other said.

“Okay,” I said. “Please sing ‘Las Mananitas,” a traditional birthday and celebration song. They cleared their throats and sang reasonably well. After that, we talked for a moment and I learned they were art students. One studied drawing, the other painting. I gave them a few pesos, and the one with dark hair asked if I would like to hear “Cancion de Oaxaca.” I agreed, and she sang it in Zapoteco, the indigenous language. Then we wished each other “buena suerte,” or good luck.

How do you feel about chance encounters with strangers? Do you draw back, or lean in?

This chance encounter was utterly spontaneous and its outcome depended entirely on my response to their question. Although I’m long out of Spanish classes, this is still part of an on-going immersion process. Each encounter opens up an opportunity to use the language in a new way, in a different context, and with someone holding another point of view. I think of it as leaving the greenhouse of carefully cultivated classroom lessons and taking root in the soil of the street.

Only an hour earlier, I stopped in Oaxaca’s Zocalo, the normally placid and magnificent square between the cathedral and the government offices. But it wasn’t tranquil today. Tarps shaded much of it, here and there were pop-up tents where activists slept. Banners bore faces of adult protestors in detention, words denounced oppression by the state government. Other banners decried the disappearance of 43 students, along with a makeshift memorial of candles and a few wilting flowers.

Stopping at a table, I asked the three young women about the cause they were promoting. They laughed nervously as they talked. Their table had cans for donatons to the families of the students who disappeared. Each young woman was studying to be a teacher, one of Mexico’s best-paying opportunities for youths from poor villages, and they came from such places. The brutal loss of 43 students like themselves made them edgy and I heard tension in their voices. Although friendly, I felt their underlying anxiety from knowing it could happen to them.

“What are you doing in Oaxaca? one asked.

I told them I was teaching English in Tlacochuhuaya, another poor town. They smiled. I put 10 pesos in their donation box, and moved on.

Such moments come by chance, but they come if we look for them. Four years ago, on my way to Cuetzalan, I shared a bus seat with a campesino, a man of the country. In a jean jacket and cap, he might almost pass for a Minnesota farmer. Pedro and I began a conversation, and I asked him about the crops growing in the fields along the highway. “You know agriculture?” he asked. I said I grew up on a farm and knew agriculture.

Very quickly, our conversation and relationship changed. Within moments, we were deeply engaged in a conversation about the technicalities of agriculture in Mexico and Minnesota. The questions and answers flew quickly, some of them I didn’t understand at first, nor know how to answer. But we talked and talked for two hours until he got up to get out at the town of Libres.

As he prepared to leave, he said: “My family is having a fiesta in three weeks, I’d like you to come.”
His invitation caught me off guard. For a moment I thought I’d misunderstood him. “It’s an invitation?” I asked, to be sure.

“Si, una invitation.”

Joining his family would be interesting and I was filled with many emotions: pride, joy, and excitement that I could establish rapport to this extent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. “I would love to meet your family, and you are very kind to ask me,” I said before I told him I couldn’t go because I had to return to the U.S. in a week. “I’m sorry.”

He looked down for a moment and then shrugged the way you do when you can’t change something. “Well, next time,” he said as he got off the bus.

What to make of these encounters? I’ve had lots of them in the last seven years. What do they add up to?

Experience. These encounters are what classroom lessons prepare us to. Classrooms are the beginning, not the end. Encounters are reality, this is language in context, language in use, language with muscles, and flaws, and surprising turns. It helps to think of these moments as “improv theater.” We just make it up as we go along. And in the moment, we are both the actor and the audience. This is where we build our confidence; confidence based on navigating social moments. It’s confidence honed by speaking with people without preparation in the topic. It’s confidence strengthened by straining to understand people whose articulation, or grammar, or syntax is out of whack, partial, imperfect. It’s real speech by real people leading real lives.
How do we do this?

First, let’s step away from our comfort zone in the hotel, the cafe, and the tourist shop where the conversation is predictable, limited, and the environment is familiar.

Second, let’s seek new territory. Look for an activity that piques our curiosity, or is new. Ask a someone an open-ended question to initiate a conversation. We aren’t looking for immediate information, like the location of the bathroom. Our question is intended to elicit an opinion, a point of view, something we and the other can share, if only for a moment. And we might ask the other person something about themselves. It’s that simple.

Third, let’s be present in the moment. Give the other person our full attention, listen closely, following up with another question if we can. Most of us are flattered by the attention of others. We are paying a compliment by being fully present to them. And they will reciprocate.

These are the steps I followed in each of the encounters above. In the case of Pedro, through an extended conversation, I made a friendship, however fleeting. In many other cases, I’ve encountered the same persons a year or two later and they have remembered our meeting. In one case a man recognized me before I noticed him.

This is immersion 2.0, the on-going learning, polishing, and perfecting of our Spanish.

Here’s your assignment. If you’re traveling, step away the hotel, cafe, or shop and look for a situation, a place, an activity where there’s an opportunity for an unexpected encounter. And if you’re not traveling, why not take a trip to the nearest Mexican grocery, mercado, or restaurant and use your language there. It’s improv and no one has ever died from doing this. And in the process, you might just receive the gift of friendship.

Next: el Dia de los Muertos

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