14 November 2008

My Brain's Competing Hemispheres

"If we spoke a different language, we would percieve a somewhat different world."
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

I was just going through some notes and came across a thought process I wanted to write about earlier in the week. This week was one of those weeks wherein I was reminded of the huge cultural differences (perhaps related to the way language makes our brain work) that sometimes become awkwardly apparent and yet funny at weird moments.

Often when I'm telling my mom about various things that happen at school or elsewhere here, her main suggestion is that I explain what is known academically as "lateralization of brain function" but more commonly as "right brain/left brain." But it's one of those things I can't explain in English, let alone in Slovak, though I am generally more right brained. But that is not the only binary opposition that exists in my brain.

This week, I was sitting at my desk in the zborovňa during a break, leaning back in my chair. The principal came in and commented on my posture and seeming-inactivitity (the truth is that my mind is constantly racing):
Self, laughing: The Italians have an entire concept for this, called ozio -- it's finding the beauty in doing nothing.
Principal, also laughing: Ah, here we generally try to find the beauty in doing something.
Self: See? This is the constant conflict I have in my head, between being Mediterranean and Slavic!
When my rightbrainitude is thrown into the mix, hilarity ensues.

This week, I was preparing for my kružok with the eighth and ninth graders, who are usually so excellent and really surprise me with really creative, thoughtful answers. So this week, I went into it with the following prompt: The answer is three times. What is the question? which promptly sent the snowflakes into a state closely resembling a meltdown. I really should have known better, because right before the kružok, I said the prompt in Slovak to one of my colleagues, and she kind of winced, looked at me like I have three heads, and then said something to the effect of, "I'll get back to you on that one." Similarly related, I do conversation practice time once a week with the vice principal, who is so super cool, and as we began this week I asked her how she felt about the conversation practice thus far. Her response: "I think this is really helping me improve my English, but sometimes I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Like absolutely no clue."

So when the kids went into the closest thing to outright rebellion that they were capable of, I was secretly happy, because their nature is not usually rebellious. "Pani učitelka/Mrs. Teacher, give us a regular question like you normally do! How can 'what is the question?' be a question? Give us the next question please now!" Seriously, they all simultaneously erupted into unanimous displeasure about the question. I tried to talk them through it. I tried to explain that I understood this was the opposite of what we normally do. To no avail. As I was unable to overcome their mental rebellion, we did do something else, a "normal question" like I usually give them. At the end, I told them we'd try it again in the future, and repeated yet again my now-standard mix-of-continental-philosophies stump speech on "language is a creative act and a tool for communication."

Which gets me to the point that I think sometimes between everything that's lost in translation and all of the cultural differences and the way language causes us to think, I must often come off as being absolutely insane and yet I'm also grateful that people are mostly polite enough not to mention it. Sometimes though, it all causes poetry. This week, I was eating lunch in the refectory (usually I eat in a different room, which is another story for another time), and small chat ensued with one of the sisters who's around my age and speaks absolutely no English. Over soup, we chatted about the weather and how cold it was, and she said, "Yeah, it is pretty cold today -- I'm dressed like an onion." My immediate reaction was, "wow, that is an excellent idiomatic phrase! We don't use it in English but I know exactly what you mean!"

For the record, I was wearing a turtleneck sweater, but I did not say "I'm dressed like a coldblooded reptile."

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