The phone rings and I pick up for what feels like the millionth time today. Almost impulsively, I stammer through a half-hearted, “Thanks for calling the direct banking center, Ryan speaking, how may I help you?” If I had known that my big break into the world of banking would have me answering phones in a call center, I might have held on to those classified ads for just a little while longer.
This call was a little different.
“There someone who speak Spanish?” A woman asks in broken English.
“Sí, yo puedo hablar…”
I get this call less often, but it’s probably the most important part of what I do. I was hired for this ability that I have, which I always thought was funny because I never really considered it an ability. No, I’m not a native speaker, rather it was something that I had picked up mostly at school with a little support from my family. I kept talking to the customer,
“Primero, cual es su numero de cuenta…”
So maybe my Spanish still isn’t perfect yet. Most people that I help seem to be appreciative that there is someone they can communicate with. Not that they tell me that, but I can usually judge based on how well the conversation goes. I had a woman once who after discussing her transaction history for 10 minutes, told me that I speak pretty well…”por un Americano.” I should be proud, right?
There was this one time though, where I was working with another woman who had overdrawn her account, and the conversation was not going well. I was trying to explained what happened when she dropped the bomb on me – “Quiero hablar con alguien que realmente habla Espanol.” And there it was. My Spanish suddenly wasn’t Spanish enough for her. I couldn’t help but feel hurt; who wouldn’t?
Language is becoming a tricky thing in this country, and it really shouldn’t be. Regardless of what a bunch of stuck ups in D.C. say, the United States speaks English just as much as se habla Español.
Being bilingual is kind of strange, because even though you can freely communicate and manage your way through two languages, it can sometimes feel like you’re caught between the two. Both sides only want the way they speak to prevail—and don’t you dare speak Spanglish because that’s offensive to both. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve tried to talk to my family in Spanish, only to switch to English just for a moment and find myself being told to “stop that.”
We all need to work toward better integrating our languages, not just so we can help our Spanish speakers communicate, but so that we can break down the barriers that English can put on us. The only way that we can do that is through patience and open mindedness. If we all do that, maybe we can finally live in a country that’s more open to everyone.