Words transmit knowledge. They let us communicate expertise and experience so others can learn to do almost anything. Words help us conquer our emotions by being able to break them down into units and tell others so they can understand. They help us overcome. I always believed that words make things nearly perfectly clear. The problem lies in words used to confuse, rather than clarify.
My purse strap cracks so we take it to a cobbler. The repair consists of little more than glue but he asks for more than we expect. His response: “Yes, of course, I glued both sides,” as if he doesn’t understand. I ask my maid to move the coffee table. She agrees while donning her abaya. “Please, now, before you leave.” She said ‘’yes’’ then leaves without doing it. At the store I forget beid from reading cookbooks, so outline the shape of eggs with my hands.
For an expat, miscommunication is part of life. But among friends, in the same language, it’s no better. My husband’s co-workers’ wives discuss over tea how charming life in the “West” is. When I offer my opinion, their silences say, ’don’t prove us wrong in front of others. Don’t ruin our fantasies.’ They know I was born, raised, and educated in America, but somehow, marrying a non-American and speaking their language rather than dominate them in English has negated my experience. I’m a lucky fool. They are less fortunate, but wiser.
You’d expect family to understand you, but my mother-in-law and I both speak Urdu as a second language, in different accents. Our phone calls are like this: “Yesterday the doctor said…” Is it static or her accent? “Where’s the problem?” “In my…”
I cast glances at my husband to translate. Then, like my former maid, I pretend like I know what she means. “I’ll pray it gets better. I’m fine, the baby’s fine, your son’s eating well. Do you want to talk to him?” And I do what I know to be rude: I wait for a chance to pass the phone off to my husband.
With my older brother, someone I should be able to speak frankly with and understand more than anybody, it’s only more grounds for miscommunication. I tell him about life in Kuwait, the deportations. “When are you moving back to Pakistan?” When others would ask me when I’m coming home for good, my brother is sending me further afield. I try to tell him I wouldn’t be moving back, but moving to, since I’m not even a national, just married to one and Pakistani through descent. It’s not my country. I try to tell him the political situation, the salary of an engineer versus the rising cost of living, having to live with in-laws, but he accuses me of being sheltered, seeing things narrowly, not knowledgeable.
He talks about our parents coming to visit him. “I don’t want them in my life. But I know you’ll take their side anyway.” So why call me about it? He assumes they don’t like his girlfriend, and that they’re cheap and don’t want to pay for anything. The bride elect wants a Mughal-style Bollywood wedding, even though she’s white and we’re not Mughal or Indian, and two dresses, an American one and an Indian one, billowy flower arrangements, Moroccan lamps, a $5000 diamond ring, an open cocktail bar when we don’t drink, an elaborate five-course dinner with three different buffets, and for us to foot the bill when none of our guests can come since it’s out of state. And my brother doesn’t have a job yet after his medical residency.
“Why can’t you change the date if you expect them to pay? Or at least have asked us before booking a venue, if you really wanted us to come?”
He accuses me of being dumb on purpose, a romantic. I want to tell him he’s unfair to our parents, who took out loans on their name just to make him a doctor. I never told him he’s unfair to me by not planning his wedding around my ability to travel. I want to tell him so much more. But it’s meaningless.
My baby stops babbling and arches his back in his highchair, with “no language but a cry,” I turn off the phone. Anyway, I can’t let my husband come home and assume that I lack my only brother’s support and respect. My brother doesn’t care about the position that puts me in–when my relatives and in-laws ask who he married and why I didn’t go to the wedding, I’ll have excuses and lies to make to save face, to protect myself and my family from appearing divided and dysfunctional in a culture where your family (your men) is your strength.
I’m guilty of it too, not being clear enough. Knowing the market, I’ve cleaned up the worst of it for the reader. One day I might quit writing, stop talking, anything to end the frustration of not being able to communicate.