I read the menu board and placed my order through the drive-through speaker. In her native Spanish, the employee assisting me rapidly confirmed my order and asked several follow-up questions; I answered “yes” to each question even though I didn’t understand what she was asking me. In the end, the order totaled $9.62. When I opened the contents of the bag, it was like opening a Christmas present, since I had no idea what I had just ordered. And, well, it was Christmastime after all, even though I happened to be in Puerto Rico.
That experience was my first lesson as an American who only speaks English in a place where – although both Spanish and English are official languages – Spanish is the dominant language. Over the years I had wondered why non-English-speaking workers would indicate understanding during training when they didn’t understand. Now I realize it’s a case of assumptions. I thought I knew what the employee at the fast food restaurant was asking, but I was way off. I had never been on that end of the conversation, and now I have a fresh perspective on non-native English speakers and training in the U.S.
I also have a new appreciation for the people of Puerto Rico. While there recently, I was in daily contact with people who’d had no power for 12 weeks. And for some of them, they knew it would be many more weeks before they did have power – and that might be a little optimistic. Not one person was rude or even expressed aggravation at their plight. In contrast, I am aware of utilities that had their front-office glass shot up by angry customers three days after a storm passed.
Even in Puerto Rico’s larger cities, such as San Juan in the northern part of the island and Ponce in the south, where some power has been restored, there are still few working streetlights or traffic signals. Driving outside of San Juan, where there is no working traffic control, has become a mix of jousting and bluff. The practice is to speed up to the intersection and see if anyone slows. If they do, you are in. If they don’t, you wait and surge forward at the next driver. Yet this contrived system of driving is absent the aggression and manic reaction you might expect. No one blows their horn, points a gun at you or even gestures. It’s how you get around, and everyone is simply working it out.