Opinion | Biff America: Rolling across languages
When trying to make myself understood by those who do not speak my language, I’ve found it helpful to speak very loudly. It was for that reason that I yelled at the two Hispanic children I encountered while bicycling through northern New Mexico.
My mate and I were on our fall getaway, hiking and biking in nearby mountain states. We were down in New Mexico doing a 20-mile bike ride that linked dirt roads, singletrack and a bit of pavement. We passed through a small town with more trailers than stick-built homes and a graveyard decorated with colorful idols, saints and figurines. We were unsure how far down the paved road we needed to go before we would turn off. We passed no stores, diners or business where we could ask directions.
We saw only three people during that quarter-mile we biked through that small town. There were two guys patching concrete in front of a Catholic church but neither seemed to understand us. We then came upon an old lady raking the dirt in front of her trailer. Though her English was spotty, through pantomiming and pointing at our map she was able to point down the road and hold up two fingers, which we guessed meant miles.
Just before the turn off to the national forest we saw two little brown-skinned kids, a boy and girl, pushing a bicycle. The girl was older, maybe 7 or 8, the boy a couple years her junior. I noticed the chain had fallen off their bicycle — obviously the reason they were pushing not riding.
Assuming, like the older lady raking her yard and two dudes doing concrete, the urchins did not speak my language I yelled, “DO YOU NEED HELP WITH YOUR BIKE?”
The excessive volume of my question and my approach from behind caused the little boy to jump. If I surprised the little girl, she hid it well. Rather, she turned, smiled and said in English with perfect diction, “Oh thank you sir. My little brother was showing off and caused the chain to fall off his bicycle.”
The easiest way to put a chain back on is to turn a bicycle upside down. It took a couple of minutes to reinstall the chain and I then took out an adjustable wrench and slipped the rear wheel a little further into the horizontal drop-outs to tighten the chain.
As soon as the bike was once again upright, the boy jumped back on and began doing fast donuts in the road. His sister yelled at him in Spanish and he slowed down. She turned to me and said, “Thank you so much for stopping to help us. Enjoy your ride.” She hollered something to her brother again in Spanish and he then turned to me and said, “Thank you sir.”
Just before I turned I looked back and saw the little boy riding circles around his sister as she walked down the dirt road. The irony soon hit me.
Here I was making assumptions, due to my own biased preconceptions, of the language proficiency of those two kids when in truth they were much more linguistically capable than I. Both of them spoke two languages well, while I, with my heavy Boston accent, have to repeat myself in much of my own nation.
Like it or not we all are, in some part, products of our parent’s values. By today’s standards, my parents were bigots. It is not that they felt blacks, Jews, gays or the New York Yankees were necessarily evil or inferior. They just subscribed to the various racial, social and religious stereotypes of the day.
During my teens I judged them harshly, the years have since tempered my opinions. Both my parents were the children of immigrants — biases for them was an excepted reality. They were of the era when newspapers ran employment classifieds with the disclaimer “Irish (Catholics) need not apply.” Their upbringings were ones of a prideful and suspicious separation of the races and religions. This attitude softened as they aged, but they never totally let go of it. If history is any indication, each generation brings a more enlightened outlook. My parents were certainly more open-minded than their parents and I’d like to think I’ve totally broken the bigotry mold (New York Yankee excluded). That said, I do sometimes need children to remind me that America’s future comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. And hopefully many of them will ride bicycles.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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