Communication Confusion: More Than Language

If you had asked me six months ago where I would be this summer, I would have smiled and told you that only God knows, but that I was thinking New York or D.C.  I would have told you that I was submitting applications on the West Coast too, and a couple in the Midwest, and a bunch in Canada because of my deep appreciation for Canadians’ accents and their manners.

Instead of any of those things, I am halfway across the world in India.  I am spending two months working at Aravind Eye Care System, a hospital chain based in South India that works to prevent needless blindness.  They are able to provide care at little or no cost to thousands of patients a day through their “McDonalds-like” efficiency, maximizing every minute of productivity through their meticulously organized routines.  They have treated over thirty million patients in the past 43 years since the inception of the organization.

Before I left home, everyone I told about my summer adventure had advice for me – don’t walk anywhere alone, be careful about the water you drink, ask for your food to be less spicy, always wear sunscreen and a hat, and make sure your bug spray is at least 40% DEET (except for the no-pesticides crowd, who recommended natural alternatives for obvious reasons).

The hardest adjustment for me has not been the 100+ degree weather every day, or the intensity of the food, or New Music Friday being at 9:30am on Friday mornings instead of at midnight.  I’ve gotten quicker at calculating the time difference between here and home, and I haven’t forgotten to take any of my malaria pills yet.

But one thing I have been, still am, and will continue to be struggling with is communicating with people.  I have a long history of ear issues.  My file folder (or, more accurately, my personal shelf of file folders) at my doctor’s office has been growing steadily since I was four years old.  I’ve had hearing aids since I was six, and they are helpful in amplifying sounds so I can hear the birds chirping in the morning and the dull roar of patients in the waiting room, but my hearing still isn’t perfect.  I can’t tell with any consistent accuracy where sounds are coming from, which is particularly challenging when I need to cross the street and cars are driving on the left side of the road (or, more accurately, wherever they feel like driving at the moment).

My heart leapt for joy when the English movie we were seeing in theaters this weekend had English subtitles.  Unfortunately, closed captioning isn’t readily available for communication with coworkers and other Indians.  I listen closely and try my best to read their lips, and sometimes that’s enough.  When it’s not, I’ll ask them to repeat themselves.  Sometimes that’s enough, but sometimes it’s not.  I can’t help but get emotional about my inability to complete what should be a simple task – at home, it is.  I’d be lying if I said this frustration hasn’t brought me to tears.

My co-interns (fellow Penn students Anjali, Cherry, and Nadha) have been incredibly helpful in navigating these communication barriers.  Their shared knowledge of Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam is helpful with negotiating rickshaw rates, reading signs, and the occasional merchant, but their support extends beyond translation.  They have been so gracious and patient with me, repeating what someone says in English if I couldn’t understand their accent.  They understand when I need some time to rest after a long day that has been particularly mentally exhausting for me to hear people, and they always speak clearly and with a smile so I can understand them perfectly.

It has taken a few weeks to realize, but there is grace abounding in this struggle of communication.  It has not been easy to adjust to, and I will continue to pray every day for an increase in patience with others and with myself.  I can already feel that prayer being answered.

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About Catherine Parr