Lost In Translation: “I Wish I Speak English.”

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Rose is from Cameroon. I’m from Uganda. On opposite sides of the continent, I grew up speaking English, while she grew up speaking French, the languages of our colonial masters. Now here we both are, just outside Washington DC, thousands of miles away from our respective homes, finding kindred spirit in our shared status as immigrants, but failing to communicate because of our language barriers.

What little French I once spoke has been reduced by obsolescence to just a few catch phrases. Rose’s English is as challenged as my French. I have taken the day off so she can braid my hair. I found her phone number on a large red sign hanging on the window of a store in a rumpled Takoma Park strip mall.

So far, I have managed to talk her down from $150 to $120 – we both know no one should pay full price. But our languages make it hard for me to communicate the style I want or for Rose to explain to me my options.

A black beauty magazine lies on top of what must have once been a telephone stool. We both reach for it, expecting salvation, and laughing at our struggle.

Rose’s Ethiopian co-worker steps in and points to a beauty supply store across the street on New Hampshire Avenue.
“Maybe you can go there together and pick the style of braids you want,” the Ethiopian says.

Together, the Cameroonian and I scoot across the street, dodging cars and laughing like teenage girls going to fetch water from the well.

“Pony tail! Pony tail!” I shout as I spot the hairstyle I want on the back shelf of the store.
“Ooooh!” She now understands what I have been trying to describe.
She picks up four packs of the curled synthetic hair braids and we dart back across the street.
“I wish I speak English,” she says.
I laugh.
“I wish I could speak French.”



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