Travelling in a global community

A slightly surreal experience yesterday evening reminded me just how important it is to remember that we are really all in a global community now, not insular and isolated. And I didn’t even have to leave the island of Manhattan for this “trip.”

Standing in a deli on 68th & Broadway, waiting for my sandwich to be heated up, I overheard an older woman (typical stereotype – hunched over on the cane, barely able to speak loud enough to be heard, etc.) try to order a bit of provolone cheese to go. She didn’t want a sandwich or anything, just some cheese. The guy behind the counter wasn’t sure how much to charge, so he asked another guy, who asked another. None of them knew. Eventually one of them called out to the boss to ask what the price should be. The boss answered and all was well, or so I thought. See, the entirety of that conversation happened in Spanish, and the woman ordering her salad at the station between the boss and me was NOT happy about it.

This woman starts to lecture the boss about how he needed to speak English because the employees needed to learn English and how no one ever spoke to her immigrant parents in Croatian when they came over. She carried on for a couple minutes, while the boss was rather amused and kept brushing her off. He finished the conversation with a comment about freedom of speech and walked away from her, back behind the counter. I was still waiting on my sandwich and he saw me standing there and asked if I needed anything. I replied that I was all set and that I appreciated the free entertainment while I was waiting, to which we shared a calming smile.

All of the guys working there speak English. They all clearly knew what was going on, and they were rather shocked that this lady was so arrogant about the issue. I, too, was shocked that she was so caught up in the issue. I was tempted to offer to hail a cab for her to get her back to the airport to go somewhere she’d be more comfortable, but for some reason discretion seemed more appropriate at that point (which is strange for me) and I just let it go.

Looking back on it, I think of the various trips I’ve taken where language was an issue. There was the driver in Ecuador who spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no Spanish (at least not correctly) and yet we still managed to get by for an hour or so talking about his family and mine and our vacation and the things we’d seen and the plans for the rest of the trip. There was my trip to Hong Kong where there was plenty of English spoken, but this guy at the butcher shop didn’t speak any and I have no Mandarin or Cantonese (and couldn’t begin to guess which one he was speaking), but we managed to negotiate an arrangement that had me pay for taking some pictures of him and him not attack me with his large knife.

Moral of the story is that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t the same as you. And they probably don’t want to be the same as you. That’s what makes travelling to experience their cultures so enjoyable. Remember that when you’re on the road, and life will flow much more smoothly. Or you can be the obnoxious woman in the deli that no one wants to deal with.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.