I went through a French Immersion program in school and came out fairly fluent in the language. When I went to Mexico, I could pick up bits and pieces of the language, and when we studied Italian in advance of our trip to Florence, the French helped me out immeasurably.
But, in my fourth year of university, one of my roommates was from China. Her boyfriend -- whose name was Bean -- was a Chinese student living in the US. They had a tumultuous relationship and she spent many evenings in her room on the telephone. Screaming into the telephone in Cantonese. Overhearing her wasn't optional; understanding her was impossible.
And yet, I tried. Having learned new languages somehow made me believe -- not consciously, not rationally -- that if I tried hard enough, concentrated hard enough, I would be able to catch a hint of what she was saying.
Suffice it to say, I could not.
As a writer, I inhabit other people's heads. One of the nicest, if weirdest, compliments I ever had about my fiction was when an older male friend of mine told me I had a remarkable grasp of adolescent male sexuality and psychology. Recently, I had people tell me my portrayal of grieving rang very true for them.
But, just as my reach exceeded my grasp with languages beyond the Romance group, so there are definite limits to my understanding of other people's psychology.
I came up against those limits with a thud this week. Because I can fairly easily imagine myself into very different lives/genders/characters/persona, I fell into the trap of believing I understood how some -- real -- people thought. And I was arrogant to do so, and wrong to boot. These are people who might as well be speaking Mandarin for all I can understand them.
It's humbling. I like being able to imagine how different people think because it generally gives me sympathy for points of view other than my own. It also adds colour and flavour to my own life, and lets me try on new ideas for size. But what this experience has shown me is that it's all been imagination and guesswork, that even with the equivalents of French, Spanish and Italian, I will never be a native speaker, and with Cantonese-like people, I may have to sit and listen to the music of their language and life, and quietly live my own.