This is the second article in my America series. It’s (hopefully) a funny one. Enjoy!
Having sung in Chewa at church, spoken Ndebele at home, studied French, learned in British English at school and in American English at university, I have realized how important culture is to understanding a language. For example, when I first learned about ‘vacations,’ all I thought about was ‘time away from work.’ Of course, in the American sense, it usually means more than just being away from work. It’s almost synonymous with “traveling while away from work.” Thus, I can say (in English), “I am going on vacation,” and mean two different things depending on whether I am in Zimbabwe or in the US.
I have said all this as an example – that the way you understand something depends on more than just its literal meaning; many factors, including your upbringing, culture, social attitudes and even your level of concentration do affect the way you understand it.
Okay, enough with the ramble.
So, was I 21? Well, let’s find out.
I’d already flown a few times before when I boarded a plane headed to Florida. I was in a three-seat row and I found two kids already seated. They must have been about 5 and 8. When they saw me take my seat right next to them, they looked unsettled and troubled. They looked like they wanted to say something, but they did not. I ignored it. These kids must be uncomfortable sitting next to a black guy, I thought. Perhaps this will be a lesson to them – that it’s ok to sit next to me. I felt good about myself as I began to peruse the safety booklet. (I only used it to check the kind of aircraft I was in).
A few minutes later, a lady approached my seat. She stopped right beside me and asked, “Are you 21?”
The brain works amazingly quickly. Between her question, and my answer, this is what I imagined: Oh, I get it now! Perhaps little kids are not allowed to fly alone. If they do, maybe they are supposed to sit next to someone who is at least 21 years old. That makes sense because the legal drinking age here is 21. Well, then, my answer is:
“No, not yet. But I am almost 21.”
Technically, that answer was still invalid. If the legal requirement, according to my made-up law, was that I had to be 21, then I still didn’t qualify. Nonetheless, I was hoping that she would be understanding and just let two months pass. I was two months away from my 21st birthday.
I cannot tell you what went through her head after I proudly gave her my answer. But her response wasn’t calculated, because it followed almost immediately.
“I mean your seat number,” she said.
I looked at my ticket, and it had embarassment written all over it. I quickly retreated to row 20.
I was 20 after all.