Lost in Translation On the Liabilities of Being an American Abroad
You get so used to walking around feeling like a big smart smartypants, understanding (and disapproving of) most things around you (come on, you know what I mean) and then something simple happens that shows you, in a flash, how fragile and circumscribed that satisfying smugness really is. For me, that something was a recent 6 week sojourn near Colón, Panama, where my spouse was unearthing termites in a dark mangrove swamp, leaving me to brave the sweltering heat with our 2 kids, ages 1 and 4. As much as I pride myself on not being a typical American, this is a pretense that can only survive at home. In Panama I was quite correctly perceived as ignorant (check), loud (check), and dirty (double check).
I may not qualify as a well-seasoned traveler, but I could pass as lightly salted at least--I've traveled for years in India and have visited a few locales in Europe and Central America. In Panama, however, my inner-American rudely shoved all other personas aside to hog the spotlight. Eight years of school-taught Castillean Spanish stood me in poor stead with the resolute and disapproving Panamanians. "Something something something" they'd demand of me, rapidly, furiously. I'd blink slowly. Who was this strange brown woman, they must have thought: she looks like she should speak Spanish but she just stands there mumbling and doing the wrong things. Most satisfactorily concluded I was mentally deficient and a chorus of "No entiende? You don't understand?" followed me wherever I went. "No, no, no entiendo, I don't understand," was my brilliant rejoinder, one that echoed in my mind like a bad song.
There were a few things that I did understand dimly through my heat-induced pre-verbal fog. That the U.S. and corporate allies had transformed this isthmus into their own private commerce-heaven, with the devastatingly arrogant wizadry of the Panama Canal and the multiply gated and guarded free-trade-zone at its mouth. (I attempted to enter it four times, but was rebuffed every time by my own bumblings with bureaucracy.) That the "revolution" that created Panama had been engineered so that the Americans could end negotiations with a state that not unreasonably wanted fair compensation for the colossal excavations. (In a beautiful dictionary-compelled mistranslation that rivaled some of my own, Panamanian revolutionary Manuel Amador wired the States in 1903 to "Urge vapor Colón," which was taken to mean that the Americans should send a steamer to Colón to defend the revolution.) The ancestors of the black Panamanians who sneered at our disheveled, gringo-ness dug the canal under an Apartheid-like system, which felled them at four times the rate as white workers.
Today, the military bases the Americans built to defend and maintain the canal are being recolonized by middle-class Panamanians, who are gamely attempting to transform the prison-like complexes of cement block houses (situated on the most horrific clearcuts) into suburban bedroom communities. We lived in one such cement building. "Good evening," my neighbors would murmur to me politely. "Good morning!" I'd exclaim back in return. Not surprisingly, few were interested in extending such exchanges. Discouraged in my efforts to befriend (or even discuss the weather) with the locals, my inner-American cast about for things to buy, and was disappointed to find very little in the way of colorful local commerce--no equivalent of the turbaned boys selling saffron and the young women selling jasmine garlands whom I'd enjoyed so much in India. Try as we might, we found nothing much beyond straightforward grocery stores, hardware stores, diners, and mechanics, plus the full complement of U.S.-based chain stores. The money in motion was obviously all streaming through the free-trade-zone and the canal, not to mention the drug trade. The whole society appeared to be under armed guard--even the local grocery employed two, both equipped with the biggest guns I've ever seen (particularly in the defense of orange juice and biscuits.)
Beyond these few things, there was little else I could glean, despite my best efforts to hang out and fit in. My lack of Spanish, disheveled appearance, and continual search for a cold drink defeated me every time. My kids, several decibels louder and more effusive than the few local kids we encountered, probably didn't help either. Finally, my sense of myself as a sophisticated internationalist in shambles, we left Panama.
On the plane back to Boston, the steward demanded four bucks for the privilege of borrowing a flimsy set of headphones --and had the gall to insist that I close the shade on the window through which my four-year-old was gazing serenely. "So others can watch the movie," he explained. My understanding and concomitant disapproval was swift, and in that instant I understood that I was home, again.
Sonia Shah Editor/Writer Editor, DRAGON LADIES: ASIAN AMERICAN FEMINISTS BREATHE FIRE (1997) email@example.com