30 September 2015

A Married Couple Walks into a Bar ...

wah wah what the ...?
When your marriage comprises two languages and two cultures, communication is challenging at best. At worst, it's a drunken conversation with Charlie Brown's teacher over a bad Skype connection.

The esposo and I switch languages every week. I know, weird system, but there's a reason. Turns out it's really hard to change a relationship language once it's set. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a "relationship language", but there is, and apparently after a while it feels unnatural when you attempt to use the other, sidelined language. It feels awkward. Affected. Like group practice in high school French class.

Every dual-language couple we know has fallen into using only one language or the other because of this.

Some couples start out in one language, but then the situation changes and they need to start using the other. Maybe they move, or one person needs practice to get a job in the other language. A lot of people have told me they tried but couldn't make the shift. Others don't need to change their relationship language, but say it would be nice for communication to be more balanced, to be able to express themselves or use humor the way they can in their native language. Or just for the person doing life 24/7 in a foreign language to get a freaking break.

So the esposo and I decided from the get-go to use both languages. Now each of us knows what the fuck is going on about half the time, which is pretty good odds in a dual-language marriage.

Sometimes I'm envious of English speakers whose relationship language is Spanish because they're more fluent than I am. They can argue in Spanish, they know all the slang. They can freaking tell jokes in Spanish.

So bitter.

Humor is the hardest thing in another language. Well, that and prepositions. It's a big deal for me. I was raised at the tit of sarcasm. I like funny people. I appreciate witty banter, a well-tooled phrase, penetrating conversation dripping with double entendre. Okay, maybe not quite that cheap and obvious, but you get my point. I like funny, but funny is hard in Spanish.

So it turns out I have two personalities. There's English Me and Spanish Me. I'm not even going to lie; Spanish Me is kind of a dud. English Me is fun at parties. Spanish Me, not so much. I mean, I'm not "unfun", I'm just kind of ... there.

Translating humor is a bitch. Take British and North American humor; even a shared language doesn't mean the culture translates. If you're North American, you either love or hate British humor. I find most of it brilliantly subtle and entertaining, but then there are those weird, over-the-top sit-coms bordering on slapstick, and it's like ... what the fuck is that about? And the Brits find our humor about as subtle as Jane Russell's bra. Now throw in a different language on top of the cultural divide.

Imagine you're at a party where half the guests are Seinfeld fans, and the other half, Three Stooges fans. Like that. That's me doing humor in Costa Rica.

If my friends were to describe English Me, humor would be mentioned. Granted, they'd probably make good use of the aforementioned witty turns of phrase to mock me and make me the butt of some excellent joke. Because that shit's funny. If my Spanish-speaking friends and acquaintances were to describe me, they'd probably say, "Es muy amable." Basically, "She's nice".

Right. Just put that on my tombstone. "She was nice."  Zzzzz.

... because a banana.
I'm making headway. You know how it is when a kid starts getting humor? Now he's got jokes. And he keeps starting over, like thirty-seven times, and he says "no, wait," and "okay, okay, so what happened was," and the punch line isn't that good, but the adults laugh because the little bastard has heart and doesn't quite realize he sucks, and there he is smiling, all pleased with himself, not noticing the adults  winking at each other over his head. Poor little fuck. Yeah, that's basically me, doing humor in Spanish.

It's an awkward stage.

So, as you may well imagine, the esposo and I sometimes have misunderstandings. Like every day. It happens often enough that I've decided to make these "moments in the life" a regular feature here. Lost in Translation, perhaps, though that's been done. What the Fuck Does That Even Mean? is also a possibility. Now that you all have the backstory, you're all set for the ensuing chortle-fest. At least try not to point. That's just taking it too far. This is another good reason that we switch it up every week, people -- who wants to always be the one who doesn't get it? Spread that suckage around.

So stay tuned for the first episode of What the Fuck Does That Even Mean? or whatever I decide to call it. (This is where the possum story comes in, for those who are breathlessly waiting.) Hey, I know you guys lost the This Old Motherfucking House series when I moved. I've got your back, amigos -- new show in town. And this one's cheaper. Well, except for my pride.


  1. Steve and I have always spoken different languages....He thinks he is right; I know I am. I failed languages. Hell, I took Latin in high school....no one even speaks Latin do they? You are a wonder. I am amazed at how you have transitioned....although I do miss you crawling under the Seattle house to fix shit.

    1. Hush your mouth, woman. There are things that I miss about Seattle, but That Old Motherfucking House isn't one of them. Tell Steve I said you're right.

  2. I suppose it helps greatly that you are BOTH bilingual. I would guess that often one spouse has the skill and the other does not. And I go back to what I said that anybody who can learn two entire languages is not just smarter than me, but smarter than most people.

    1. Yeah, that's often the reason couples go with a particular language - one person doesn't speak both. But I've talked to a good number of people who say either they or their partner wanted to learn the other language, but they didn't want the whole language-learning thing inside the marriage. One woman told me, "I'm not his teacher, I'm his wife. He can go take classes. Marriage is hard enough." Yikes.

      I was not bilingual when I got here. I was barely Dora the Explorer level. I mean, it was bad. And I couldn't understand the CR accent. This is where that famed Costa Rican patience came in. The esposo had droves of it.

  3. Oh, you people who value accuracy in word formations. You bring it on yourselves. (Oh, look. I see I visited 13 hours and 32 minutes ago. That's fun.)

    Really, I didn't have time to reply yesterday and now I think: nice to be reminded that some blog posts deserve to be read twice. To be lingered over a little. This one is one of those.

    I love you sifting through the many things that mess with how we're perceived and received in the world. Love. It.

    1. It's true, we bring it on ourselves. The esposo, in Spanish, is as much a grammar vigilante as I am in English. Librarian. So yeah, constantly digging into the little details, driving ourselves (and each other) crazy. Now there's a phrase I screwed up a lot at first ... I said it like driving [a car] into crazy, which actually makes sense, but made me sound like I'd already arrived in Crazy Town.

      Your comment made me very happy. Muchísimas gracias.

      Also, you are part of the inspiration for upcoming new series: your post with the wonderful little possum art reminded me of the (also upcoming) story about a possum that was one of the many, many things lost in translation when the esposo and I converse. So consider yourself a muse.

  4. I'm just impressed as fuck that you both speak a second language. I know maybe five phrases of French and maybe about that many Spanish words. I never learned another language, what with Pig Latin not counting.

    1. When my brain reaches its limit here -- usually at night or after sailing past my alcohol window -- I occasionally try to impress people with my Pig Latin. I don't think it exists here. It usually stuns everyone into silence. Which gives my brain a brief respite.

  5. I would be so screwed..I can barely function in English..my English is punctuated every 8th word with fuck, fuck that, or fuck it..I can swear in Spanish..but not sure that would make me a hit at many parties..maybe I should learn Mandarin...yeah, right.


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