Fun With Your Foreign Boo’s Fam, Language Barrier Be Damned!

by: Ieishah Clelland

On Honey’s birthday last spring, we headed to his brother’s house for a family get-together. It was my first time meeting them. After introductions were made, we sat in the garden sipping fruit tea, munching on an assortment of cakes, and chatting in translation.

A little white table off to the side overflows with gifts. Everyone on a sugar high, the men of the family lifted Honey up in his chair, in some birthday tradition among German men, and sang a raucous song.  Honey’s brother and nephews are the only ones who speak English; I question the eldest about what he’s going to do after graduating high school. We talk about nightclubs in the city, his youth center job, and South Africa, where he plans to volunteer next year. It’s all very civilized. Until the balls make an appearance.

Papa Honey is a retired sports and history teacher. He taught Honey, who’s just retired from professional volleyball, how to play. Sport is so written in this family’s DNA that Grandma gets into it. Apparently she used to attend all of Honey’s matches, screaming passionately from the sidelines. She’s doing the same from a lawn chair today, as we stand in a circle in the park, hitting a volleyball around.

I’m sweating like Jezebel in a Jesus joint, in 3-inch high platforms, wide leg jeans a la Victoria Beckham, and a suede jacket. It wasn’t quite warm enough to take the jacket off, and even if it were, the flowery little top underneath wasn’t meant to go solo. Nevertheless, Papa Honey is impressed enough with my skills that he gives me a few pointers.

I’m getting my Gabrielle Reese on, when Papa’s sister and I go for the same ball. Her, “Ich! Ich!” doesn’t register as “I got it this!”. So I move in on it. So does she. She jerks her clasped hands up to hit the ball. My face is in the way.

Auntie Honey punches me dead in the eye.

My eye is stinging and filling up with water, but can see the whole family running over, arms outstretched, horrified expressions on their beautiful faces.

“You ok? Alle ist gut? Alle ist gut?”

“Yeah. That’s why they give you two eyeballs, “ I answer, and give ‘em all “no-big-deal” shrugs.

“That was the initiation,” Honey whispers, and kisses my forehead. I laugh. And keep on playing. One eye open.

I date men who are not American. Stands to reason–I’ve lived in 5 different European countries over the last 12 years, with an autumn-long stint in Nepal last year. Only the parents of 1 out of my last 3 boyfriends, spoke English. I didn’t speak their languages either. (Seriously, who speaks Serbian??) This, however, has never been cause for concern for me. Why? As much as 94% of all communication is nonverbal. Therein lies the key to cross cultural communication, especially in the face of a language barrier. Sure, I’ll have to learn German sooner rather than later. But that will just be icing on the cake for Honey’s family and me. We already have such a great rapport that my learning German will only mean that Papa Honey can no longer get away with trash talk on the badminton court on Sundays.

Furthermore, communication barriers, at least initially, are not just about language. They can be cultural: what if you’re just not clear on what’s appropriate to say? My family talks sex and politics pretty freely…does his? Communication barriers can also be personal. Shyness can inhibit your ability to express yourself to strangers. In my experience, your body is the antidote. Get in there. Get physical. It’s a foolproof way to make a good impression, and beyond, to bond. Let me share just a few words on what’s worked for me in the past.

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