By Alice Lapuerta
We Jabberlinguals live in a decidedly monolingual, monocultural part of Upper-Austria: we live in The Village.
The Village is a small town in the country-side, surrounded by lush forests, green meadows and yellow fields. In the distance you can see the snow-capped Alps. A picturesque place, where fox and rabbit tell each other good night, as one says in German.
Austria in its glorious history is actually known to be a “Vielvölkerstaat” – a state of many peoples. This has been conveniently forgotten by some politicians today. And Austria’s multiculturalism has somehow entirely bypassed The Village as well.
Sure enough, now and then you do hear some fleeting Italian. Or French. Very rarely Spanish. That is because of the French, Italian and Spanish tourists that climb out of air-conditioned double decker busses, with an officious guide who carries a stick from which this little white flag dangles. We come in peace, citizen. Our Village is a bit of a tourist attraction, you see.
But this kind of transit multilingualism doesn’t count. The inhabitants of The Village are not only firmly entrenched in Upper Austrian tradition, folklore and custom, but also in Upper Austrian German. We Jabberlinguals – how can it be otherwise? – are the exotics here. We collect scrutinizing looks every time we venture out of our four walls, jabbering on in our three languages.
“Tourists, of course,” these looks say every time. We get a benevolent smile, because tourists are very desirable. They bring the cash. Once I even got asked, in English, mind you:
“Where are you from?” Surely they must be from America! Or Japan.
“The Village” I reply. This almost always brings the conversation to a dead end. At best, it earns me a confused and disappointed look.
But it’s true. I grew up here (before we moved to Korea, Ecuador and the U.S.). I have probably lived here longer than the person who asked. I have known the school director who was here before the current one, and even the one before that one. I remember what the main street used to look like before the butcher, tobacconist and the grocer were replaced by the big Spar supermarket. I probably know a lot more about this village than you. And even though many people know me by now, I still keep being asked where I’m from. Thus is the Jabberlingual way of life, I suppose. We Third Culture Kids will always remain the eternal foreigners. (I wonder how my kids will feel about this one day.)
Sometimes, it is just too complicated for me to explain all that. It is a lot easier to just humor them and play along. Never mind that I speak German fluently.
“Oh, you know, we are from all over,” I reply chattily in English, all the tourist. I would wave my Polyglot travel guide under their nose if I could, as extra emphasis. “We’re from Austria, Ecuador, Korea. We’ve also lived in the USA. Oh, and we also have family in Sweden.”
“Aha,” they say, evidently overwhelmed. And still the conversation comes to a full stop. I wonder why this always happens.
When I was a teenager I was so frustrated with the “where are you really from” question that I was tempted to add “Pakistan, the Philippines and Azerbaidjan” just out of spite. Except this never ended up being very gratifying because people would just go ahead and believe me anyway.
Now that I am older and wiser I take this question with equanimity. Hey, it’s not people’s fault that they didn’t grow up with the Jabberlingual way of life! So how should they know that this is one of those questions that one simply does not ask? Like “how old are you?” and “how much weight did you gain over the Christmas holidays?”
Sometimes, though, we also get the patronizing kind of look. Especially when we show up on playgrounds, schools, or playgroups – the places where tourists don’t usually tend to hang out. Then you can see their minds working. “NOT tourists. Zuagroasta!” Zuagroasta, that is Upper Austrian for “he-who-joined-us-from-outside”.
“We are the strawberry-picking immigrants,” states The Hubby. He brings it to the point. Strawberry pickers are those Ecuadorians who flock to Spain by the thousands and end up having low-income jobs, as strawberry-pickers, for instance. They live a very hard life there.
But my father-in-law tends to see the positive side of it all:
“It is the Ecuadorian re-conquista,” he says, not without a certain sense of satisfaction. I like this. It is fitting, is it not? We Jabberlinguals have commenced the multilingual re-conquista of Upper Austria, specifically The Village!
But in all fairness, most encounters with people of The Village are positive. They know us by now (“those freaks who can’t decide what language to speak in their family”). In fact, everyone knows us, and I never seem to know them.
We truly love our multilingual life in The Village. We wouldn’t live here otherwise. And if we ever get tired of all the monolingualism here, when the pull of internationality just gets too strong to ignore, we pack up and go – to Ecuador, Korea or the US. Or to a different country altogether.
After all: The Village is where we live, but the world is our home.
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