The Laughing Gate in the Language Barrier

On the spectrum of first impressions, in the nebulous territory between repugnance and ubuntu, our meeting with our home stay mother, Regina Themi (R.T.) Mthembu, fell somewhere in the middle. We greeted each other at the threshold of their household, at the doorstep where our entrance intersected with her exit. A woman of sturdy figure and stern features, Mama Mthembu received us with a simple handshake and “Hello” that was neither warm nor unwelcoming. We sat down on adjacent couches and attempted a brief conversation, giving our names, ages, and wholesale praise of South Africa. None of our words seemed to incite more than a simple nod and in the lag time between topics, I was overcome with anxiety to fill the silence with anything, anything, that might break the ice. The result was many start-and-stop, touch-and-go attempts at conversation that went something like the following:

“So Mama, where do you work?”

“I’m a community health worker.”

“Okay, so you’re a nurse?”

“No, I’m a community health worker.”


After watching gospel performances on a fuzzy television screen, the heat of the afternoon drew us out of doors. Mama wore a plaid skirt cut modestly below the knee and a wooden expression on her face that gave little indication as to her thoughts or feelings. We sat gingerly across from her on grass mats, sweat soaking through our clothing, socks pulled high as tick proofing, and smelling of sun tan lotion. Our mission, over the course of the next week, was to cross the gulf that spanned between us, but my tongue felt anchored to the silence that now hung in a bloated shape above our hands. It was a deafening silence, the kind that echoes loudly in the gap where certain conversations should have been taking place and where the inevitable process of “getting-to-know-you” should have commenced. Where was the storytelling? The cultural exchange? The myth busting? Instead, we nibbled on lemon biscuits. They were the same lemon biscuits I was offered my first evening in Cato Manor and tasted just as delicious, though eaten without the same eager bout of talking and smiling that seemed untoward in this new environment. Here, the loudest voices to be heard were the chickens screeching in the backyard.

And then the unexpected happened. Mama’s keen eyes narrowed in on a portion of Elizabeth’s jeans peaking out from beneath her wrap skirt. Instantly, her stoic expression of the afternoon dissolved into a burst of laughter that transformed her features: eyebrows drawn upwards and outwards into curves, eyes brightened, and mouth opened into a beatific smile that was a mixture of surprise and amusement. While our cover was blown in one fell swoop of American-made blue jean, the blunder only seemed to draw us closer. Mama was laughing. We were laughing. And of all the sentences we had half-heartedly put forward, reaching and stretching for that one thing at whose mention we could all latch on to, laughter seemed the most natural topic of conversation.

As a student abroad, one is trained to approach any and all environments with respect, to be mindful of what is said and done, and to consider the meaning of our actions in a new context. As a result, I often find myself treading cautiously and expunging my statements of the slightest hint of political incorrectness, to ensure they were as mild as mealie meal. The rural home stay, I thought, would require even greater cultural sensitivity. We had resigned ourselves to a week of greasy hair. We had brushed up on our Zulu vocabulary. We had been forewarned by Shola, Langa, and John to keep an open mind and had taken their message of tolerance to heart.

In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the cracks in your personhood can never be entirely filled. Little pieces of yourself will always seep through: a piece of denim, for example, or the consumption of pap with a fork, eating the skin of potatoes but not of mangoes, calling a torch a “flashlight” and a line a “queue,” and not know the Afrikaans verse of N’Kosi Sikeleil iAfrika. No matter how much Elizabeth and I tried and despite every intention that felt mindful to its core, we could not help but let our American trappings make an appearance every now and then. And whenever they did, in a flare of red, white, and blue cluelessness, they rarely had the polarizing, “us” vs. “them” effect I once feared. More often than not, they would earn one of Baba’s roaring belly laughs, another rare smile from Mama, or have our little brother Sbo in stitches.

In this way, laughter became a recurring feature of our family dynamic. The Zulu-English language barrier might have expedited this habit. The Mthembu family might have always been this jovial. We didn’t know. All we knew was that if you attempted to build a house of cards, Mama would pretend to be gust of wind about to blow them down. Or that if you struck up a round of “Shosholoza,” whoever was in the vicinity would follow in merry suit. What began with blue jeans snowballed into a week of tomfoolery that depended almost entirely on non-verbal communication. Sbo and I danced to Rihanna songs in the kitchen. No one, it turns out, knew the Afrikaans part of the national anthem. Mama would regularly make animal noises while passing by our window—at times a growling lion and one morning, hissing like a snake while her hand slithered between the curtains. One particular evening, sitting beneath the stars, I began beating my toothbrush like a drumstick to a beat. Dum dum-dee-dum dum-dee-dum. Without a moments hesitation, Sneh plucked a can lid off the ground and tapped it against the wall in an interstitial rhythm. Plink-plinkity-plink-plink-plink. Elizabeth took up clapping. Bum-bop-bum-bop. Our impromptu three-man percussion group carried on into the night, a word-less conversation of sound.

Getting to know someone takes time. Words have to be earned and stories coaxed from their teller with patience and trust. It’s understandable to want to develop a rapport with one’s home stay family, but I have realized that there is a process that must be honored. To my great surprise, I discovered that a lot could be learned about a person by helping them make curry, how they move, think, and interact with others. It might lead to a conversation about Zulu cooking or food insecurity, but if it does not, that does not detract from the value of having spent time together. Despite what our university education might dictate, words are not essential outside the classroom. In many ways, going without them allows one more ample opportunity to listen, observe, and simply be aware of one’s surroundings. Information is still being exchanged, if only in a different form, and meaning can certainly read in the silence.

During his keynote speech at the Time of the Writer festival, Justice Albie Sach’s embedded the story of losing his arm to a car bomb with wisecracks. He pointed to the road of humor that runs through democracy, and commented, with a mixture of light-hearted profundity, “I joke, therefore I am.” It would be unwise to underestimate the good judgment of a person such as Justice Sachs and I for one have resolved to no longer underestimate the power of a good belly laugh ever again.

By Emily Kwong