Learning a foreign language is like learning to speak for the first time. I was an exchange student in the Black Forest in southern Germany during my American Junior high school year. I had to learn speak German, but I also had to speak being a foreigner in a small town. Communication took many forms—visual, nonverbal, verbal, and written. I spent a lot of time just looking around and reading between lines, aka the boundaries where forms of language ebbed and flowed. It was then I realized the value of learning another language; we can actively construct who we are by curating communication through necessity and syntax.
The original piece below is an excerpt from a collection of stories about traveling in the Global South.
I am in the salon, the so-called house of beauty.
I keep looking over my shoulder for my bag. Should I move it off the couch? I can’t reach it in a pinch, that is, if I need to reach it in a pinch. Shit. I look down at the mani-pedi girl working on my hands: How long will this nail polish last? If the weather holds out to be sunny, many days. If it rains, fewer days. Would it rain today? If it did, the sidewalks would instantly turn into super slick walkways. When that happens, I never make it back to the apartment without scraping a toe. I hope the pedi I’m getting sticks at least through the afternoon. I mean, pedi chips would be tolerable, excusable, because what would kill me are unkept hands. I am convinced that people judge me by the number of uncut cuticles that I have on my fingertips; should they see that I have fingers that look like they’ve been run on graters, the disinterested party won’t think highly of me. In fact, the idea of mani chips itself kills my thought process. I’m thinking in English. What if—
“Anastasia, ¿tienes afán?” my mani–pedi girl asks.
I’m jerked out of my thoughts.
“No,” I say. “No tengo prisa, Patricia.” I’m not in a rush. I consciously relax the hand that she is painting; the other hand grabs tightly to the arm of the chair that I sit in.
The mani-pedi girl’s eyes scan me up and down, faster than I can swallow a knot in my throat. She is frozen in motion—her left hand holding a bottle of nail polish, her right hand the nail polish wand in mid-air—a look of confusion on her face. I realize that I’ve been tapping my foot frantically, rocking the other back and forth on the edge of the small salon table and thereby causing it to shake.
I stop my maniac foot. I consciously place it flat on the ground.
She goes back to painting my finger nails.
I feel a sensation in my mouth, and I realize that I’m holding in a big breath of air. I slowly let it out through pursed lips. My head aches a little, and I realize I’m holding in a big ball of English thoughts, too. They are pressing against the inside of my skull, pressing, pushing, wanting to get out into my reality. I resolve to not let them— I focus in between my eyebrows, search for that space in which I disconnect from my thoughts, allow space to enter between my mind and the reality around me. The sensation of pressure starts to recede.
And then I remember why I am here in Medellin: to live in that space between my mind and the reality around me. I need space. A constant reflection of me in the English words that I write, haunts me, surprises me, scares me, confuses me. Giving myself space is a love language, so I leave English-speaking worlds so I might create someone else. Another version of me in a foreign language.
I look down at my feet, wiggle my toes. Those nails have already received their color: red. Fully painted, shiny, beautiful: red. Good.
I flick my glance around the salon: I observe the people whom I have previously dubbed the mani–pedi girls (and even a mani-pedi man, trying to not look at me from his corner). They are all so constructed. They always are: the lipsticked, blushed, mascaraed, brushed, tweezed, and waxed people of the salon. They look like people in a magazine look.
I see a pile of other magazines on the chair next to an older woman. The magazine lying on top—I couldn’t make out the name because the mast head was torn, something in Spanish—features a picture of a pair of two blindingly-white-toothed, blond-Japanese-technique-straightened-haired, raccoon-like-dark-eye-makeup actresses. The caption reads: The beautiful life of Hollywood.
My stomach turns.
English dominates the world at large. Holding space for myself in another language, even when the ghost of natal language follows me, is a love language.
I return my gaze to themani-pedi girl—Patricia—: the concentrated look on her face calmed me a bit. I was comforted, actually, that the denim wash jeans she was wearing had a little pudge spilling over the waistband, her shirt with a few beads of lint and her brown face with a pimple at her hairline, the roots of her dark brown hair showing under box auburn, her own hands with unfiled nails in need of a pedi herself.
Patricia looks up at me. “Cómo se llama esa cancion?” she asks. Then she turns her gaze down, picks up a bottle of clear polish, shakes it. She starts applying the top coat to my left hand.
Patricia, ha! Her coral lipstick was fresh. Nice. But—What is the name of that song? Oh, Patricia, there are so many. “Um,” I start to say. “Cuál?” Which?
She breaks out in a grin, takes her nail, digs it in to the side of my cuticle and removes some polish that dripped from the brush tip to my finger tip: “You know, ‘atrevéte-te-te—‘”
Aha! …I inhale softly, and we both look up—meet each other’s gaze, and I finish the chorus: “salte de closet, destapate, quitate el esmalte.”
“Sí, Anastasia! Eso!” She taps my thigh with the back of her hand. A warm gesture. I appreciate that. We laugh.
“La otra,” Patricia says. I place my right hand on the table, gently withdraw the left. Patricia continues her work.