Travelling to a foreign country will not only drastically improve your grasp of the language spoken there, but, if your knowledge of the language is basic (like mine), will lead you to appreciate other ways to connect with people as well.
Interacting with young kids is one of the best examples of the ability to form connections with others while using little to no language. Perhaps this is because innocence and a natural curiosity need no words to be mutually understood. Regardless of the reason, I was able to have a great time spending time with my brother-in-law’s family in a small city called Guelmim. One toddler would quite unabashedly come up to me, pull my head down and squeeze me cheeks as she giggled. Another had a seeming endless fascination with my camera, who after seeing the picture I took of him, snatched the camera from me and started taking his own. Seeing the excitement on his face was more than enough to overcome any concern about the safety of my camera in the hands of a toddler. It took a few pictures to show him how to press the right button so he could look at the picture after, but when he finally understood, he rushed to his dad to show him the seventh picture of the same red chair. With another kid, I learned the Arabic words for rock, paper, and scissors so we could play together. It’s played exactly the same way, but for some reason I kept losing a lot more than I usually do.
Much to my surprise, music has also become a great way to connect with others-not because we enjoy music differently, but because we in fact enjoy the same music. As I mentioned previously, I listen to at least as much classic rock here in Morocco as I do back in America. My host-brother, Rachid, and I had a great time going over his collection of rock music. I was startled by how much modern rock he also listens to. Just like in America, Moroccans also enjoy pop music from other cultures and in different languages. While we were sitting around relaxing, one of my brother-in-law’s family members started singing the lyrics to the song “Ai Se Eu Te Pego”, which is in Portuguese. I don’t think he understood what the lyrics mean, and neither did I. That didn’t stop me from singing along as best I could. We all got a good laugh from such an unlikely and unexpected situation. If one time wasn’t enough, I heard some kids singing it in the street while I was walking back from the beach in Rabat. Again, I joined in, soliciting a laugh from the whole group at the idea of Moroccans and an American mumbling along to a song in a language they didn’t understand.
Similarly to music, the movies seem to be a universal form of enjoyment. After one meal, my roommate Tom and I were sitting down with our host mother watching an American movie. The movie was a fairly generic action flick I didn’t think she would much enjoy, but she seemed to be fairly involved in it. I guess I didn’t realize how obvious the antics of the “bad guys” were thanks to my being distracted by the dialogue in English. Anyway, she was so excited that when the “bad guys” opened the container of their stolen money and unwittingly triggered the bomb that incinerated their money and blew them backwards, she shouted “mzein, mzein!” (Good, good!) Tom and I had a good laugh at that-this reaction was the last thing we expected from the composed and motherly figure.
Although I think that nothing is more effective than language for developing deep and lasting connections, at least in the meantime, I have a variety of methods to connect and to share some laughs with others.