If you are bilingual and thinking about starting the exciting (and, okay, perhaps intimidating at times too) journey of psychotherapy, you’re probably wondering what language you’d like to do that in.
Perhaps you were born in the United States and grew up speaking your immigrant parents’ language as a second tongue, but did not get to use it much other than at home to communicate with them.
If so, you may have never visited the places where your parents and their parents migrated from, where your family history originated, but still hold on to the language you all share as a way to not lose your connection to them, to what came before you.
You may, on the other hand, also have conflicting feelings about why they made you learn that language in the first place.
Perhaps you moved to the United States when you were very young but having already achieved fluency in your first language, one that became rusty once you embraced English in your day-to-day and which you don’t get to practice much anymore.
Or maybe you have recently arrived in the US and are struggling to find the words you want to use to express exactly what you want to say in English, your new chosen language. You may be starting to feel constantly confronted with a certain humbleness you never experienced back home when fluently talking with friends, or loved ones, in your mother tongue. And realizing how limited an entire language can be. You may also have lived here for most of your life and still experience some of that. I count myself among the latter, having started to embrace my frequent pauses in any given conversation while I try to choose among my double repertoire the most appropriate specimens to convey what I feel at each moment.
Your experience may also be a combination of some of the possibilities I have presented so far. Whichever the case, one of the things you’re probably considering is, should I speak English while I navigate through the therapeutic process like I do everywhere else? Or should I stick with this other peculiar tongue of mine?
As a Latina, I feel I have personally gained a lot through treatment with Caucasian, English-speaking therapists. Although they did not speak the language of Cervantes that I am fluent in and grew up around, we were still able to establish a solid therapeutic connection. Their dedicated care, coupled with the fact that we belonged to different cultures, helped me feel welcomed in a land that was (and still is) in many ways foreign to me, even after living in the States for the last nineteen years. Feeling accepted in their presence emphasized how alike we are as human beings and made other substantial differences almost not matter much, from which I derived a lot of healing.
However, sitting with a therapist who has successfully dealt with the initial cultural shock that comes with moving to a new country has its own set of advantages.
You both understand what feeling “new” somewhere means. And I’m not talking about a new school, a new neighborhood, or a new group of friends. I mean all of that, multiplied several times by ten or a hundred. Being in a new universe –with its own set of rules, its do’s and don’ts, a new linguistic code (i.e. if you didn’t speak English when you first moved to the US) creates a kind of emotional distress that is pretty difficult to grasp unless you have actually gone through the process.
A psychotherapist who specializes in multiculturalism (who has often experienced the joys and challenges of navigating through different cultures themselves) is well versed in that “out-of-place-ness” feeling that comes with transitioning to a new environment, and the psychological upheaval that often entails for the person undergoing such a change.
The Spanish-speaking clients I have helped over the years often comment on how comfortable they feel being able to hear someone who is sitting with them in a professional capacity speak the language they remember having their very first conversations in, the language that their most cherished childhood memories are engraved in. To be in a safe space with another who is able to listen to them deeply and provide compassionate feedback, and to do this in a language they hold dear, is quite meaningful to them. This in the long run proves to be very helpful to them in achieving the therapeutic goals they set for themselves.
The choice is ultimately yours and, as I’ve hoped to explain in this note, there is a lot to be gained by speaking either English or the language of your ancestors, if they are not the same, with your counselor. Whichever the case, I hope you are able to enjoy the therapeutic ride you set out on, and that it allows you to reach the most unimaginable places within yourself. ή♪
There are people who feel deeply attracted to what is different from them.
Perhaps they revel in experiencing the complexities of new cultures, new types of food, of speech; idiosyncrasies most would deem confusing and disorienting. They enjoy the challenge of deciphering new codes and being able to master them (or perhaps the opposite —they like being constantly reminded that they will never be proficient at any of them).
These may be the people who are not afraid to be confronted with the not-knowing inherent to human nature —the brave souls who actually seek to have the rug pulled from under the feet on a regular basis, as part of their usual worldly experience.
I believe I am part of that group.
When I visit Perú, where I spent the first nineteen years of my life, there is still (and I believe there always will be) a sense of “home” my twenty one years of living abroad have not been able to shake off. My pores start breathing differently as soon as I get off the plane I boarded in the United States and start walking towards the airport terminal, my ears starting to get used to the nuances of Peruvian Spanish, the smells of the port-city of my youth and childhood, the chaotic immigration lines, the smells of busy lives trying to survive at roughly $270 a month which recently became the new national minimum salary.
I am at the same time repelled by and pulled towards the chaos, the loud voices, the lines supposed to be one but continuing to multiply, the confusion reigning in the rooms. I already miss Seattle, the city where I have lived for the last seventeen years and is seeing me flourish, where people would know to quietly pick a line and wait for their turn. At the same time there is something fun about seeing what happens if you don’t..
As I make my way through my days in Lima, realizing I am more a tourist than I am a local (as reluctant as I am to sit with that fact), noticing and getting used to the various accents of the people who populate the capital city, my heart smiles as I feel surrounded by the warmth of my fellow citizens, by their easy smiles, their openness to non-locals, their willingness to let themselves be seen and taken in. I am touched by the vulnerability present in the soul of the city, by how little it hesitates to embrace you and show you who it is, something that becomes more foreign to me the longer I spend abroad without a visit. Something I do not want to let go of.
As I travel to different towns in Perú, there is always something to remind me of my “otherness”, of the fact that I stopped fully belonging to this land the minute I decided to establish myself in a different country, to breathe a different air and acquire customs that at times contradict the ones I was raised in. Rather than push me away, however, this not-belonging makes me want to reach in more strongly, a mix of curiosity and dare —is it my roots refusing to let go? The call of my Inca ancestors becoming alive and proudly reclaiming what is theirs? Whatever it is, I cannot ever be thankful enough for. I refuse to fully feel like “a stranger in a strange land” when I am back in what I still consider my hometown.
It is now, at around five in the morning by the side of the ocean, hearing the waves crash as I struggle to fall back asleep in what is supposed to be my serene, relaxing vacation before I go back to work in the “land of the free,” that I feel most at home, lulled to sleep by a sea who has no questions, no complaints, no hurt feelings, no resentment about my departure twenty one years ago or the slightest sense of confusion even —a good friend who is simply delighted to see me back, eager to hold me and not let me go. A loving being that calmly and playfully, fancifully, stares at me and asks, “Back? My child, you never left…”