By Danielle Ofri.
New York Times
Despite three long years of high school French, the best I could come up with was “Je m’appelle Dr. Ofri.”
Mr. M. – I guessed he was from Africa – smiled politely. No doubt he was accustomed to the challenges of communication here, especially in a bustling city clinic
When I called the hospital interpreters’ office, I was told that the French interpreter was “no longer with us.” I hoped he had quit his job and not reached an untimely end.
I smiled sheepishly at Mr. M. as I pulled out the dual-headset interpreter cellphones, the latest and greatest technology that our hospital has invested in.
He watched, amused, as I untangled the cellphones, chargers, headsets and microphones, plugging the various wires into their respective attachments. When I placed one ungainly headset on him, another on me, Mr. M. giggled, his white teeth flashing from his round face. We looked like telephone operators from the 1950’s, or maybe diplomats at the United Nations. Using the small-print guide, I followed the six steps until I had to enter the desired language code. Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Bengali. No French!
I called the help desk and explained that I couldn’t find the code for French.
“Oh,” the person said. “That’s because the system doesn’t include French.”
Off with the headsets, wires and cellphones. I gestured what I hope indicated patience, as I resorted to the last and most expensive option, AT&T. Whatever one may think about AT&T, it has the best network of multilingual employees. In two minutes, a French-accented voice came through, and I sighed with relief.
Mr. M. and I took turns on the phone, and I learned that he was 24 and was from Brazzaville in the Congo Republic. His main concern was a burning in his stomach, especially after he ate.
Even though we smiled gamely at each other as we handed the phone back and forth, it wasn’t really a conversation. It was more as if we were each having our own discussion with this polite but businesslike interpreter. And that’s what our conversation was: polite and businesslike. No riffing on interesting details about Mr. M.’s life in Brazzaville, his journey to America. Nothing about his family, his background, what he did for a living, and how he was making out in the wilds of Manhattan.
I kept my utterances brief, not wishing to overload the operator, and I sensed that Mr. M. was doing the same. I was also cognizant of the dollars ticking away as we spoke, so I tried to be efficient. I even ventured to tell him his diagnosis and treatment before we hung up, something I normally would never do before the physical exam.
We said goodbye to our AT&T friend, and I gestured Mr. M. up onto the exam table. As I palpated his abdomen and listened to his heart, he asked in halting English, “You speak little français?”
I winced as I tried to recall words – any words, frankly – in French. But years in a clinic with mainly Latino patients has made Spanish my lingua franca. “No,” I shook my head. “Solamente español.”
“Español?” he said with a broad grin. “Yo hablo español.”
Spanish? He spoke Spanish? I slapped my head against my forehead. If only we’d known that, we could have saved all that frustration, time and money.
For the rest of our visit, we chatted happily, if a bit awkwardly, in our second languages. I learned that he’d studied Spanish at a university in Congo, and I told him that I’d studied in Mexico. He told me how he had immigrated from Africa two years ago, but first lived in Canada. I myself had lived in Canada, and we found more things in common. We laughed over our mutual difficulty with the street- slang Spanish in New York. And then we were able to review his medical issues and treatment, and I could be confident that he understood.
It had never dawned on me that Mr. M. might speak Spanish. I had assumed that most West Africans only spoke French along with their native languages like Pular or Fulani. And I guess Mr. M. assumed that most white Americans didn’t speak anything but English. We’d both had succumbed to stereotypes.
“Hasta luego,” he said, as he left.
“Qué pasa un buen día,” I replied. And out he went to make his appointments – effortlessly, I presumed – with our Hispanic clerks. (from the New York Times)