“When Words Can’t Speak,” Lauren Salem (2014) — Inquiry 1

Writer’s Reflection

I would say the writing style of my essay is pretty informal, but inquisitive. I like to ask and answer questions within my writing. I would also say it’s very examinatory. And mildly intellectual/amusing. I chose to write it this way because that’s the way I speak. And I think it’s important to do that because this essay is about language and how we use it to communicate. I love words, and I love using them. So I take every opportunity I can to use them to provoke questions and thoughts, with a bit of sarcasm and some alliteration mixed in. (I think alliteration is really rad).

I think this is different than things I’ve written in the past because I don’t normally get to write about things I’m actually interested in or even love. I love language, and communication, and I have a lot of opinions on these things, so I guess because I’m actually interested in the topic I’m more passionate and delicate with my writing. I think when we like things we are keener on putting more work into them.

“To have such an odd mix of love and pain neatly tied into a bundle that was a suitcase and a plane ticket was odd for thirteen-year-old Lauren”.  I’m not normally great at using metaphors, but I love reading them, so I thought I’d add one in. So that’s different than things I’ve written in the past. I’m also not used to referring to myself in the third person. You don’t normally get to do that in essays, and I don’t normally do that in general. So that not only strays from my typical speech patterns but my typical writing patterns.


In the Arabic language, there are two words that share similar sounds and pronunciation. They are “beheb” and “behdel”. One means love, and the other is a slang term meaning “to hit”. During my first encounter in Jordan, I was provided with a good dose of both. I was hit with the immensity of frustration that sprouted from the language barrier of my Jordanian relatives and me, but I was also hit with the immensity of love that surrounded me from them. To have such an odd mix of love and pain neatly tied into a bundle that was a suitcase and a plane ticket was odd for thirteen-year-old Lauren. Up until that point in my life, Arabic was commonplace only in my dad’s shouting matches with his siblings and my grandmother’s cooking. I never spoke it out of necessity. I fumbled around with it into the plastic of long-distance telephone calls on holidays and birthdays and at church during the Easter Vigil. Separated by 3,000 miles and seven hours of time difference, it was hard for me to imagine that the voices with these foreign tongues on the other end belonged to the bodies of my immediate family. It took flying across the world and running hard into a physical language barrier for me to fully encompass what it means to truly communicate.

My mother and father were both born in Jordan. My mother moved at the age of three and my father at the age of 21, only to marry my mother. While the majority of my mom’s family has already moved to Cincinnati, the only member of my dad’s family in the states is his sister. The remainder of his family still live in the same houses their families have owned in the countryside since the 1930’s. When my parents told us that we would be going to Jordan for six weeks during the summer, I was a little taken aback. Up until that point, Jordan was a fairytale land of camels and Kings and cactuses. It never occurred to me that it was in fact a place that I would one day step foot in. I feigned excitement so my dad wouldn’t be- upset, but secretly I was more anxious than I ever had been in my life. I couldn’t communicate to my dad that I was excited for the opportunity but didn’t want to go purely out of fear and anxiety. In the weeks leading up to it, while all of my friends were buying new bikinis for the pool, I was buying clothing that wouldn’t offend the hyper-conservative members of my new homeland. Aside from packing and stressing, I was intensely focused on cramming as much Arabic into my head as I possibly could before we embarked.

Something that always stood in my way of learning Arabic was feeling like a child. I hated the unintentional condescending tone of my family members when I would try to speak in Arabic at a family gathering. Instead of listening to what I was saying they just laughed and pinched my cheeks. It’s similar to the embarrassment a child feels when taught something cute by an older family member. They will be taught a dance or a bad word and when the rest of the family gathers around to laugh about it, the child runs away with face in hands. This feeling of childlike shame was a huge factor in preventing me from learning the language myself. I despised feeling vulnerable, and I despised not being taken seriously. This feeling was only further enhanced when we actually arrived overseas.

Getting off the plane I was irritated, exhausted, and anxious. I didn’t know the people I was about to live with for a month-and-a-half, I had no idea where we were going, and I hadn’t slept in over a day. I was entirely caught up in my own struggles, but suddenly my entire perspective shifted. My uncle came to help us with the luggage, and it was the first time my dad had seen his brother in seven years. The love shown between them was something I had never seen before. It shed an entirely new light on my dad. What shocked me more though was how my uncle greeted me with even more joy than my dad, even though we had never had a full conversation. It was a beautiful moment that set the tone for the rest of our trip.

Meeting my cousins was another issue, however. Being in the same age range and such, I couldn’t wait to get to know all of them and have a blast. The only problem was that I couldn’t get to know them at all. They are much more rowdy over there than here, and I wasn’t quite used to that. So when there was no verbal communication that I could comprehend and I was getting shoved around by my burly male cousins, I was not having an enjoyable time. On top of that, having always been a girl that never focused too much on the more girly aspects of life, when you can’t sit down over a cup of coffee to chat with someone and your only method of communication is through common interests, like being of the same gender, things get very tedious and frustrating. The entire time I was there all I wanted to do was get to know what they thought about life, what made them happy, what they enjoyed doing, but because I never learned Arabic and they never learned English there was a monumental obstacle in our relationships.

As frustrating as it was, I think I took it all for granted, but I didn’t realize that until the last week of our stay. Towards the end of the trip, I started isolating myself from everyone and just watched TV by myself in the living room. One day I was feeling particularly homesick and it was apparent to anybody who saw me. My parents and brother were all off doing something else, and I was alone in the house with my aunt. She came in and saw that I was upset, still not saying a word, and just beckoned me to come with her. She took me outside to show me the fruit trees, the vegetable patch, the sheep tied to a tree, and the wildflowers growing there. She was able to communicate to me which fruit was the best for picking, and we worked away in silence. When we went inside I helped her clean and cook dinner for everyone, still in silence. It was then that I realized that as frustrating as it is not being able to get your words out, or to verbally communicate with someone, words aren’t always the most important thing in relationships with people.

I love words, I love talking to people, and I love communicating. However, it took me going to a foreign country and losing my ability to speak to come to terms with the fact that you don’t need to tell someone you love them for them to know it. Cooking dinner in my aunt’s tiny kitchen with her was one of the most loving moments I have ever experienced. Sometimes the most impactful messages are the unspoken ones, and I will never forget that.