Humility and the art of learning to laugh at yourself

I think there are two certainties with international travel. Perhaps some people experience only one of these certainties, but for me, I oscillate between these two:

  1. I will get grouchy.
  2. I will have many opportunities to laugh at myself.

Because grouchiness is not the most enjoyable blog topic, I’ve decided to focus on the certainty of laughing at yourself. Believe me – this happens a lot. Let me share a couple of my favorite examples.

Learning a language is the perfect platform for humility

It is humbling to have complex thoughts but only simple language with which to express those thoughts. It is also humbling to buy a children’s book for yourself but to pretend you are not. Recently I bought a picture book of animals as a way to avoid rote memorization of animal words. The clerk at the store asked me for what age I was looking. This was actually humbling on two levels: Not only was I buying a children‘s book for my own studies, I was also forced to guess at my Romanian comprehension level.

I stalled, and then finally told the clerk ages 5-10. And I’ll be honest, if my Romanian was better I totally would have spun a tale about my niece’s birthday coming up and her love of animals or something like that. As it was, I considered it a win that I had the above exchange in Romanian. (Moldovan side note – the first clerk only spoke Russian so she had to find another clerk to speak Romanian with me. Oh Moldova.)

This is the book I purchased. Ages 7-12….though I must say it is a challenging read for me

Language Learning + Saying Yes = Guaranteed Laughs

More than a month ago, my Romanian teacher asked me if I would be interested in participating in an interview regarding Romanian language learning with a colleague of his. I agreed….because a good rule of travel is to generally say yes to things. I emailed back and forth several times in Romanian with this colleague, Angela, before we set up a date and time to meet. Since our emails were in Romanian, Daniel came along to the meeting in case things got dicey (i.e. I had to communicate solely in Romanian.)

And it was a good thing he came. We arrived at the meet up location, which is a Romanian language learning center. It is called Casa Limbii Române. Upon arriving, we went into the main office and Daniel asked if Angela was already there. Amidst many stares, we were told that nobody knew Angela. Great. The staff ended up calling my teacher, who contacted Angela, and then called us back to say she was on the way. (Remember, this is all occurring in Romanian. Thank God for Daniel!! And for the fact that all the staff were extremely accommodating.) After this, we were ushered into a library and left to wait.

Some minutes later, a young woman arrived. Only she was not Angela. Apparently she was a student of Angela’s, but she would be the one conducting the interview. However, the cameraman had not yet arrived. So…more waiting. Finally, we are all present, and I am given one of those little microphones to clip to my shirt. The student gives examples of some of the questions she will ask, and then we dive in.

Remember what I told you about complicated ideas being described in toddler level language? Let me try to recreate what that sounded like:

  • What do you like about the Romanian language? Ummmm Romania language is beautiful. It is good for me that person is nice when I speak bad.
  • How long have you been learning Romanian? I learn in 4 months. I learn from America but I learn here when I arrive November.
  • What books have you read in Romanian? I read book Lion…. (Daniel finally has to give me the word for witch) Witch the Wardrobes. It is for the kids, but I like.

I am exactly like all those voicemails and emails that people receive from “African princes” asking for money. And the terrible part is that these gramatically incorrect sentences still took me forever to say. The interviewer and the camerman were SO nice, even as I apologized a million times for being awful. They said it was endearing – which is the word you use when you have positive feelings for something really pathetic.

But you know what? It was kind of hilarious. Daniel and I walked home after and laughed. In the U.S. I consider myself an accomplished professional, here in Moldova I can barely put two words together to talk about a children’s book.

Who am I kidding? Being a human is the only platform necessary for humility

So my next example has pretty much nothing to do with being abroad and pretty much everything to do with just being a human. Daniel and I occasionally attend a nearby church called Biserica Filadelfia. As far as Moldovan churches go, this one is quite progressive: head coverings and dresses are not required for women, the worship music is contemporary, etc. It really does feel like a standard American church experience.

Because this church is just a mile or so away, we always walk when we go. One day that we attended the weather was warm enough to wear a dress but still cold enough that I wore my big winter coat over it (the kind of coat that goes down past my knees.) As it always goes, by the time we walked all the way there and then up the stairs to the sanctuary on the second floor, I was melting inside my winter coat. Also as it always goes for us, we snuck in just in time so the music was already starting as we were settling into our seats. I hurried to take off my coat, squatted down to put something on the floor next to my chair, and then stood up to realize that…

….my dress was literally hiked up around my waist. In church. In Moldova. And although this particular church is less conservative than most, I think they still frown upon flashing the congregation.

I wish I could have seen myself as I responded to the situation. I yanked my dress down, smacked Daniel in the arm for not telling me I was a disaster, and then just fell apart laughing. While laughing I turned around to survey what kind of nuclear fallout I might have left in my wake – who would spend the rest of the church service praying for healing for their own eyes as well as praying for healing for my harlot behavior. I caught the eyes of a granny and I could tell she did not find the situation as funny as I did.

And even now as I write this story, I am laughing!! There is maybe 10% of me that is embarrassed. The other 90% just chuckles over the fact that daily human life can be pretty funny.

“Laugh loudly, laugh often, and most important, laugh at yourself”

Chelsea Handler

Even in less embarrassing situations, I have found laughter to be my favorite response to life abroad. And I am thankful that Daniel and I are taking this trip at this stage in our lives. If I had done this 10 years ago, would my 21 year-old self have been so quick to laugh? Or would I have been too wrapped up in my appearance to laugh when I look ridiculous? Would I have been too concerned about cultural appropriateness to laugh when I make the inevitable mistakes? I can certainly say that humorous humility makes this trip way more fun for me, but I think it also fosters better cross-cultural relationships. At least that’s what I tell myself.