The Language Babysitters and the Grown-Up Infant


In use

Don’t worry, my surrogate mom will deal with this.

I sat in my apartment, thumbs twiddling. I was waiting for a mysterious stranger. There was no way of contacting her–my cell phone and internet service had been cut off, which was what prompted her visit. I turned off the lights to wait in the dark, as being without internet or cellular made me feel like a caveman anyways.

My real estate agent had sent her. Charlie was twenty-something and awkwardly tall, as though the material that made up his body had been stretched too thin beyond the original blueprints. His English was superb, which was his purpose in my life. Aside from securing the apartment in which I currently dwell, he was also my personal caretaker. He dealt with my problems when they grew to a complexity beyond what cereal to buy or how to brush my teeth.

Confronted with a cell phone that no longer cell phoned, I grunted and bawked and mashed at it like a Neanderthal or a grandpa dealing with a DVD player. My technology no longer did technological things, and I was already out of ideas. I scratched at my heavy, sloped brow, and attempted to wifi-squat until I could contact Charlie and whine at him to solve my problems for me.

Within hours Charlie had conscripted a young woman to find me at my apartment and shepherd me through the city. She attempted to give me a ride on the back of her tiny, delicate scooter, but being twice her height and weight made the prospect unfeasible, and her offer to let me drive her vehicle through the rain in Chinese traffic terrified me to the core.

I trudged to Xinghai Square where my plucky sherpa led me to the telecom office. Hissing fluorescent lights illuminated the bored internet clerks who ignored my presence, rather understandably. My guide and the clerk conversed for some time, exchanging waybills and discussing what I recognized to be account numbers, and having deep conversations, I assumed, about internet service packages (though with my level of Mandarin, it is entirely possible that they were discussing baroque music or the best way to cut up a pineapple). In time, it became clear that my entire purpose during this visit was to hand over money, that I was a cog in a machine being operated by actual humans.

I was the child running wobbly circles around a pillar in the mall while the adults spoke, and if I behaved myself I would be rewarded with a lollipop (or returned access to Reddit and Youtube). I felt, for a moment, like I should be offended. That I should consider being volleyed around like a badminton birdie in poor taste, that I should find it dehumanizing and belittling. But then again, I sure did want my internet, and the nice ladies were going to take care of it for me so long as I shut up and continued smiling.

Besides, this wasn’t the first language babysitter I’ve had.

Mart. Luther

Please refer to my language guide. She will do all the talking from now on.

I remember my German friend Rose that first time that we arrived in Munich, and how she benevolently shepherded me around like a pony in a carousel, never letting me feel as helpless and childish as I was. I remembered Ty and Faith in Mexico, filling in the stultifying gaps where my Spanish puttered out and I was left drifting into a terrifying orbit of Spanish-language conversation. I remember moving to Korea, shaky and uncertain, a colt wobbling along testing out his new running legs. With my blobby, unformed Korean barely cogent enough to order me a slab of pork belly, most of the fine-tuned efforts towards maintaining my livelihood in the country fell to my co-teacher.

Our relationship was interesting: in many ways we were colleagues, planning lessons together and sharing resources and drinking tea and talking about our tedious weekends. I thought of my coteacher in the vaguely friendly way I think of all coworkers—cordial, utterly passionless, the kind of people I might help move or attend a wedding for, but usually under duress. My coteacher felt much the same way about me, and would wave me on at the end of the day or complain about the principal or when one of the teachers in our office wouldn’t stop futzing with the thermostat. We were civil, professional partners, exchanging knowledge and acting as equals. Except for those various times when she was also kind of my mom.

Periodically my coteacher was tasked with ferrying my then-Koreanless self around the city to banks, doctors, immigration offices and beyond. She would quietly and serenely prepare my life to be lived, occasionally asking for my passport or my bank card or my blood, allowing me tiny vestiges of control over the rocking boat of my existence. I imagined bank tellers looking at this unlikely pair and trying to figure out our relationship to one another as she took care of my decision-making and all the difficult aspects of my life – was I her adopted son? Her foreign boyfriend? Was she a distant relative with power of attorney? A desperate passerby with an accompanying good Samaritan?

Was I her adult colleague, too unprepared and incapable to handle himself, necessitating and interpreter and minder to tend to his various needs? No, no, surely not.

At first I found the whole concept of having a handler to be a little condescending, for it to so quickly be presumed that I was a blundering boob. That my employers naturally thought me feckless and insouciant, drooling and slack-jawed and unable to work most basic machinery or put two pieces of Lego together. That my presence at most of the various pitstops of adulthood was largely ancillary only exacerbated the feeling. I would sit idly in a wheely chair with my mouth agape, catching flies and letting my pupils dilate as I stared into harsh bank lighting. Periodically  I would produce my identification or DNA and then I would be allowed to sludge back into my useless stupor.

Of course, I could and can get things done. Whether in my now-decent Korean or my hilariously poor Mandarin or in my middling French or my barely coherent Spanish, I could certainly bluster my way into getting a bank account or a flu shot, if I had the gumption and tenacity. There’s a lot you can do if you bring your passport and a bunch of money and Google translate with you and keep smiling pleasantly until people take pity on you.

But ultimately, the smile and pay-your-way method is still time-consuming. It is belaboured and exhausting and makes you feel just about as dumb as you look. Having a language babysitter doesn’t make you look any less stupid–but at least you look stupid and important.

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14 thoughts on “The Language Babysitters and the Grown-Up Infant

  1. lol @ “I was the child running wobbly circles around a pillar in the mall while the adults spoke”.
    I don’t mind looking stupid & important as long as I am getting my work done 😛

  2. Haha, this is great! I absolutely understand how frustratingly comforting it would feel to have someone play language babysitter for you. However, at least you aren’t having to navigate scary places like immigration a offices by yourself. Better a little indignity now than to be deported later! 🙂

    • This is… absolutely true. While I like to boast and puff my chest that I could probably strongarm my way through Immigration with a grin, money, and my winning charm, the guarantee that I will not be booted out of the country later is pretty sweet.

    • Truth pie. Google translate also only goes so far in terms of grammar — pretty solid in terms of the romance languages, but as soon as you get something even vaguely different in terms of subject-verb-object order everything turns to shreds!

  3. Lovely images of your helplessness and subsequent boredom, though I imagine it was less enjoyable to go through.

    We’re headed back to Japan, and may end up living in the community instead of on an American military base. I look forward to lots of the patient smiling “please somebody help me” conversations.

      • I think that’s an accurate assessment. Oddly enough, while they’re super polite and patient, a friend of mine who is practically fluent (lived there for years, married to a Japanese lady) also gets the “sorry, your Japanese is so terrible” reaction when he tries to hold conversations. It’s weird.

  4. Ah what a fitting testament to that unsung hero of living in a place where you don’t know what the heck is going on or how the heck to figure it out. Reading this made me think about all the (many millions of) language babysitters I’ve had in my life, quite unaware of what a major role they’ve played in my cultural adaptation. Needing one ain’t the funnest experience in the world, but they sure are a lifeline when you’re adrift…

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