An Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters

I wrote the following autobiographical text in the Fall of 2012 as a reflective task for the linguistic seminar “Principles of Language Learning and Teaching” taught by Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl.

My parents were coming to the U.S. to visit me, my fiancé and his family for a two-week trip. The two families had met previously, but now they were going to cohabitate and spend quite a bit of time together.  My parents have a very basic knowledge of English and my fiancé’s parents have practically no knowledge of Spanish (except for a few words and expressions). While my fiancé and I could act as interpreters in order to facilitate interactions, I was worried about the cultural aspects of the encounter, not only regarding differences between countries but also differences between families. At the beginning, I felt quite anxious about how the families would handle certain situations. However, I soon realized that it was better to let them be and go with the flow.

Throughout the two weeks there were quite a few misunderstandings, from linguistic to cultural (my parents, in spite of knowing that dinner time is significantly earlier than in Spain, could still not get used to the idea of having dinner so early), yet, as time went by, cultural differences were rendered unimportant, and even the linguistic barrier was dexterously overcome by parental focus and creativity. Thus, they progressively learned what they had in common in spite of having grown up on different continents. Being part of the same generation, they share a lot of the same cultural background (music and movies were definitely a connection: my fiancé’s dad and my dad even had had the same ringtone for their cell phones — the main theme for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Both fathers had eight siblings growing up, and both mothers went to schools run by catholic organizations, which allowed them to swap “mean nun” stories. They all love food and good wine, and that certainly helped them to share bonding experiences rife with anecdotes and good cheer. They were probably critical of some of each other’s habits or customs, but they were focused on communicating and it was readily apparent that they were thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. The last night, we were having dinner outside on the patio and I went inside to get more water. When I came out again my fiancé’s dad and my dad were singing the song “Drunken Sailor”; my dad did not know the lyrics but he knew the song and was sort of humming the tune. I told my fiancé’s dad that I was amazed at how they were able to communicate, and he said that they were “kindred spirits”. After years of witnessing several cultural misunderstandings and encountering an at times surprising amount of prejudice, this was the first time I truly realized the importance of being willing to understand each other that makes all the difference. This powerful lesson is something that I try to keep present both in my personal and professional life.

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