Shopping in the local HEB grocery store I round the corner to the paper goods aisle and find myself with a frazzled woman searching frantically through the plastic baggies. She cannot seem to find the specific baggies she needs and does not notice me standing behind her. I try to mind my business but can’t help it and ask, “Can I help you?” She turns to me, obviously frustrated and nearly enraged, “They’re all in Spanish!” she yells. I don’t believe this was intended for me but I happily obliged by saying, “Yes, isn’t it great!” with my toothy grin. She obviously didn’t think so, grabbed a box of bolsas para sándwich, turns around brusquely and stomps away. I could have been more helpful and should have translated sándwich for her, alleviating some of her frustration… or not.
So I turned to the shelves and noticed that in fact all the boxes of baggies had been shelved with the one and only bilingual side out. How daring! Upon further examination of the box, out of the six sides the box has, only one side displayed a bilingual description of its contents. Granted both languages had equal billing, that is, both the English and Spanish descriptions were in the same font color and size and could have easily been confusing. Although… English did come first. Why this woman didn’t notice this, I don’t know. Perhaps she was in such a hurry, pressed for time, running late, or any of the many reasons we all speed along not taking time to breathe, much less read, that she did not notice the English text. Perhaps it was the intimidation or the insecurity we feel when faced with a foreign language and culture. It’s that frustration we feel when we can’t communicate our thoughts clearly while in foreign soil and we can’t understand the other. And to feel this way in our own home? Infuriating!
Needless to say I do appreciate HEB’s effort in supplying its customers with bilingual product descriptions and would urge the company to add more languages, on more products, and throughout the store. Austin is a diverse city with its own diverse culture and Austinites should take pride in its multiculturalism and multilingualism. Not only should we ‘Keep Austin Weird’ but we should also take the time, slow down, read, and learn from our cultural weirdness. As a Spanish language teacher I frequently hear from language students that the only way they will ever learn the language is if they go abroad and immerse themselves in its culture. True, but when this is not an option why not immerse in the language right here? The cultures and languages have come here, why not embrace them, read them, befriend them, and enjoy.