For both of my siblings and for myself, there are a handful of childhood stories that we could not escape if we wanted.
There are several attached to my name, but perhaps the one I think of most often is this.
When I was three-years-old, the youngest of three children and the only girl, I babbled endlessly. My mom said I’d talk to anyone about anything, and that I’d talk more — not less — as I began to fall asleep every night. One afternoon, apparently fed up with my chatter, one of my older brothers told me that I had to be quiet for 10 minutes. Absolutely quiet, but just for 10 minutes. My mother said that when my brother told me that, I shut my mouth, opened my eyes wide, and began to cry. From a toddler, I was horrified at the idea of mandated silence.
I was so young that there’s no possible way I could remember this happening. And yet, I see the same mental image every time I recall the story: I see myself, from a third-person perspective, sitting in a highchair and wearing a Winnie the Pooh bib, grimacing from under my straight-cut bangs. I see my older brother, with his buzz cut and circular glasses, eyes widened in surprise at my sudden distress. A fabricated memory, of course, but integral to my self-conception nevertheless.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to be silent for more than 10 minutes at a stretch, and I’ve even learned how to be silent without bursting into tears. I’m still an extrovert, but I also sometimes wear my earbuds without music playing, so that no one will bother me. I’m still outgoing, but I also sometimes pretend to be wrapped in my own thoughts so that no one will talk to me too early in the morning. I’m not my 3-year-old self anymore, but that fabricated memory of constant chatter at times feels like a crucial aspect of my personality, following me around across state lines, country borders and oceans.
Not counting layovers in foreign cities, I’ve been to five countries in the past three weeks. Of those five, I speak none of the native languages fluently. My language ability is limited to my native English, to a proficient-at-best French, and to a phrasebook version of Luganda. But, since mid-October, I’ve spent time in Portugal, France, Germany, Spain and Uganda. All of that amounts to more than three weeks of complete or partial language confusion.
That confusion has so far meant that I was anxious about ordering a latte and croissant at every French café I walked into. It meant I stressed about asking for samosas at an Indian restaurant in Berlin, about asking to see a hat at a boutique in Barcelona, and about asking for the price of a motorcycle helmet in Kampala. It meant that I thought about every word I said before I said it and that more often than not I chose to say nothing at all.
A few days ago, I chatted (in English) with a Ugandan woman who recently moved back to Kampala. Before moving back, she lived in Tanzania for three years, teaching English. Having already been a schoolteacher in Uganda, the gig was a perfect fit for her. The catch? Tanzania and Uganda have entirely different language profiles. In Tanzania, Swahili is the most common language. In Uganda, Luganda is the most widely-spoken. Although she’s now fluent in Swahili, she spoke essentially none when she first arrived in Tanzania. For many months, the language barrier must have seemed insurmountable.
But, she told me, her inability to communicate gave her time to listen.
The same is happening to me. I find myself quietly polite more often than not, speaking in English when doing so is appropriate, and at all other times straining to understand a few words of the other languages I hear.
As I fall into a habit of quietness, of what is hopefully perceived as a friendly silence, I begin to realize how much energy is taken up by talking. When I sit quietly in the passenger seat of a Toyota Rav-4, as it snakes through the dangerously busy streets of Kampala, I direct all my energy to watch. When I walk silently down the stone sidewalks of Lisbon, surrounded by street art and young people carrying old cameras, I direct all my energy to listen. I begin to learn, to see how each city shifts during the day and the night and how each city’s people flow in and out of the streets they live in. I notice details I would have overlooked if I’d been preoccupied with the sound of my own voice.
Silence, though, has its limits. As an absolute, it would preclude so many of life’s joys: ordering fresh pastries, building new friendships, haggling at open-air markets. As an absolute, silence is enough to make a person want to cry.
But, when I still my own voice, when I stop it from filling up all the empty space it can find, I become aware of other voices instead. Other voices with different perspectives, different goals, different challenges, different fears. And, when those voices speak in a language I cannot respond in, it allows me to do something absolutely unthinkable. It allows me to just listen.