“The Woman from the United States Knows Nothing”: Embracing Incompetency, Part II

A few days ago I found myself alone in an office with three deaf women. They were giving me instructions, which I’ve discovered is nearly impossible with a double language barrier. I just kept shaking my head and shrugging. Though I now know a few words in sign language and sometimes can catch a few when watching others, on this day I was completely clueless. One of the women then signed three words that I happen to know: “woman,” “United States,” “knows nothing.”

The woman from the United States knows nothing.

Exactly a year ago today, I wrote a blog entitled “Settling In & Embracing Incompetency.” I was grateful to stumble upon it again and found comfort in knowing that feeling totally incompetent a little less than a month into a YAV year is part of the trajectory as a whole. Ironically, I also remember talking with friends last year about how working in a garden and being in a choir for the first time was like learning two new languages.

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Here I am a year later in Moyobamba, literally learning two new languages. I’m hyper aware of how little I know. From 9 until 6 every day, I’m immersed in sign language, whether it’s at the office with my coworkers or in the classroom itself. There are a few Spanish speakers there who translate from sign language into Spanish, so I’m working through a double language barrier. Meals and weekends include immersions in Spanish with my host family in their daily routines and formal classes for Spanish four hours a week. I go entire days without speaking English.

I know so, so little. For the first two weeks, my supervisors and my host family took turns picking me up to go places and walk me to and from work. My thirteen-year-old host sister helped me navigate the town in search of laundry detergent, then taught me how to hand wash my clothes and hang them up to dry. They’ve been hanging up since Saturday (I’m writing on a Tuesday night) because it’s rained every day since I hung them up (and it just started to rain again).

I hope I gain a sense of self-sufficiency here soon, but for now I’m aware of how radically dependent I am on my host family and coworkers. I’m dependent on not only them showing me around, but also on their hospitality and unending patience with me at having to repeat themselves multiple times.

“The woman from the US who knows nothing” is a new identity for me. Parts of my personality that have been affirmed and positively reinforced no longer apply here. I’m rude. I don’t say please as often as I should because all my mental energy is poured into the structure and grammar within the sentence itself. I forget the right phrase when I’m speaking to people and I end up saying something far too brusque for the context. I can’t crack a joke. Humor requires a knowledge of nuance in language, which I don’t yet possess. I do my best now to read body language and facial expressions (especially important for sign language). When someone laughs I usually nod and smile as well. I smile and nod a lot, actually. I know my face must look totally blank. Sometimes when I say something and even when I think I’ve said it correctly, the people around me give me the same blank stare I know I often give them. I often ask “me entiendes?” (do you understand me?) and they laugh and say no. And when they ask me the same question, I say the same.

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I find myself in a fascinating paradox where I’m experiencing both radical hospitality and incredible loneliness. I’m surrounded by people showering me with love, grace, and patience, yet I’m frustrated that I lack the tools to connect deeply.

Last year I wrote that I’d discovered a deep-seated fear of being perceived as incompetent. I tried to live into that incompetency last year and felt like I owned it to a certain extent in Little Rock, but that’s in large part because of the trusting relationships I developed. All of my top strengths (according to the Strengths Finder test) are oriented toward building relationships. I was able to let go of a desire to achieve and my fear of failure in part because of the relationships I’d built and the connection I felt to the community. Here however, I lack one of the most basic tools for building relationships: a common language.

I hope it gets easier. I’m told that it will, and I believe it. But for now, I’m searching for what Paulo Coehlo calls the “Language of the World” in his novel The Alchemist. After the boy had been a shepherd for many years, he sets out on a journey and begins to understand this new language along the way:

“But the sheep had taught him something even more important: that there was a universal language in the world that everyone understood…It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

There are universal experiences like joys, struggles, growth, community, wonder, and laughter that we can all participate in, no matter what country you’re from or whether you can hear or not.

A slinky showed up in the office yesterday. I saw one of the students, a nine-year-old girl who happens to be deaf, playing with it, so I joined her. We played with that slinky for over an hour. We created several new games and tried all kinds of tricks. We experienced mutual excitement when we discovered something new a slinky is capable of and then mutual disappointment when we inevitably tangled it up and stretched it too far in an effort to fix it.

This was a powerful reminder that relationships are not just built on the words we communicate with each other, but also on universal human experiences that transcend language, like laughter and wonder. This was the most connected I’ve felt to anyone since I’ve arrived in Moyobamba.

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There is so much to learn as I continue leaning into my incompetency. In the meantime, I’ll search for the Language of the World, to find moments of beauty and truth embedded within the language beyond words, central to the human experience.

May you travel in an awakened way,

Gathered wisely into your inner ground;

That you may not waste the invitations

Which wait along the way to transform you.

-John O’Donohue




2 thoughts on ““The Woman from the United States Knows Nothing”: Embracing Incompetency, Part II

  1. Emily, I can totally relate! I have also experienced that contrasting hospitality and loneliness while abroad. While in Ecuador, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t express myself or really show my personality due to the language barrier. I especially missed jokes, but that changed with time! You’ll get it 🙂 and in the meantime you are developing empathy and a greater understanding of what your deaf community members must feel when with people who do not sign. Wishing you the best! Grace


  2. I love reading your writing, Emily! I’m definitely feeling all of this, too. I have to constantly remind myself to embrace my incompetency and be okay with struggling as I get words out and hearing speech but not understanding it and then being perceived as rude or bored because my face doesn’t know how to react to what I’m hearing. I still can’t imagine how much we’ll improve in the time we’re here, but we’ll at least get better at “embracing incompetency” which would also make things easier. I do have to say that you’re quite amazing for taking on the challenge of learning two languages!


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