Let me start with a disclaimer: I love being an interpreter. I love having a career where I can combine my love for linguistics with my love for people (true confessions: I’m kinda an extrovert); and best of all, get paid for it. Getting up at 4:00 am (occasionally 5 or even 6:00 am) to fight Boston traffic is a small price to pay for the satisfaction I get out of helping Bulgarian immigrants navigate the medical and legal system, and often have some nice interaction.
My (mostly elderly) clients inspire me. Well into their 60’s and 70’s, most are working hard to learn English – often while caring for grandchildren and trying to assimilate into American culture. Their friends are in the villages back home, and they have few opportunities to talk to someone outside their immediate family.
The Interpreter’s Role
According to the ethics of our profession, “cultural brokering” is part of an interpreter’s role. (For example, when a non-translatable term finds it’s way into the dialogue between patient and doctor, part of our job is to explain it – without personal bias or subjective narrative). But in my experience (roughly 15 years, give or take) in Boston’s finest hospitals, most of the fun “cultural brokering” takes place in the waiting room.
Between me, Bulgarian-Speaking-American-Chick – and (mostly) Elderly Bulgarian Grandma or Grandpa.
Second disclaimer: I love these patients. They are adorable. Most of them have been “frequent fliers” for years, and look at me almost as a member of the family – a daughter of sorts, onto whom they can unload their burdens. I don’t mind, and enjoy listening when I can help. Of course, the bounds of professionalism prevent me from getting overly-involved in their lives; but I have socialized outside of work with several of them. (Hey, I am in my 40’s yet have many close friends in their 20’s. Why shouldn’t I gain from the experience and wisdom of a lady in her 60’s or 70’s?)
What makes it fun noting the difference in what constitutes a “polite question” (obvious to me, as someone who lived in Bulgaria for years). So today, after a week of fielding particularly weird questions, I give you The Top 15 List of some of the most bizarre (by American standards) questions my Bulgarian patients have ever asked me – as their interpreter.
1) “Can you fix my cellphone?”
Short answer: “No, I cannot. I am a linguist; unfortunately I know very little about cellphones.” (My teenage son probably could; or my husband, since he’s a telecommunications engineer…but alas; I cannot fix your cellphone.)
2.) “Honey, can you put my eye drops in? I forgot earlier.” (in hospital waiting room)
“Mr. D, I really don’t feel comfortable doing that. Here, let’s wait and let the doctor do it. We’ll be going in any minute.”
3) “Oh, your husband is Bulgarian? Nice.” (Two seconds of silence). “What does he do for profession?”
“He’s an engineer.” (Bow head; hunch over Smartphone. Pretend to do something really important while scrolling Facebook). Brace for next question (related to #3:)
4) “What kind of car does your husband drive?”
“Uhh…it’s like…some kind of a Volkswagen. Why?”
5) “Do you live in an apartment or a house?”
“House…..out in a rural area…..probably you’ve never heard of it, it’s called ‘Rutland’ and it’s like 2 hours away from Boston…”
5a) “Aha!! Really? And how much did your house cost? Just asking…informationally!”
“Yeah…..you know, I really don’t recall. You’d have to ask my husband!” (NOTE: Only time in life I pull the “Helpless Female” routine. But it’s better than saying, “None of yer business”!)
6) “Can you pick my mum up for surgery and drive her to the appointment? And drive her home afterwards? I’ll pay you.” (Asked by patient’s adult son)
“No, sadly I cannot. I’d get fired by the hospital. It’s a little thing called “liability issues”. However, I’ll gladly call a taxi for her.”
Bulgarians are endlessly fascinated by the topic of religion, despite the fact that relatively few of them believe in God. Discussing religion doesn’t hold the same social taboos as for Americans. Still, I’ve had some wonderful discussions as a result of inquisitive thoughts.
7) “Dr. K….is he a Jewish doctor? Because I’ve heard all the best doctors in America are Jewish!”
8) (Closely related to #7): “What do you think this doctor is, by nationality?”
(Patient’s adult daughter, dying of embarrassment): “Mama! You don’t ask such questions in America!”
9) “Marie, Are you Bulgarian Orthodox?”
“No I’m not – but thanks for asking! Isn’t it wonderful what the Lord has done for us?” (Not a joke, by the way. On occasion, a patient will ask me about my family’s church, faith, and religious practice and I am happy to share when asked. Knowing I am a Christian, I have even been asked by terminal cancer patients to pray with them, which I count as a precious privilege. But many times, religion is simply a topic of curiosity.)
10) “How many children do you have?”
“Four.” NOT a weird or personal question…but it leads to all kinds of sub-questioning, such as:
11) “Why are you so skinny if you’ve had four kids?”
I get different variations on this one a LOT. Just this week, on Monday- Macedonian grandmother (approvingly): “Ahhh…you have fixed yourself! You look good.” (Balkan grandmother code for, “You’ve gained weight and look better.”)
On Tuesday – Bulgarian grandmother (incredulous): “How are you so skinny? I don’t eat, yet I am fat. You must not eat at ALL.”
Disclaimer 3: Yes I eat; yes; my weight has been stable for 2 decades. No need to worry about me, thanks for your concern!
12) “Do your children speak Bulgarian?”
Seemingly innocent question, but it is loaded with judgement. What if they don’t? Actually, the younger ones don’t. We taught them Cyrillic after they learned to read in English, but guess what – American public education and all else being equal – we had to teach them more important things (although agreed; knowing another language is a highly valuable skill).
When our younger son, Stefan, was in AWANA, at age 7, he won an award for memorizing the most Bible verses (38!) in his age group. (By the way, I didn’t care then and I care even less now.) But can your grandson do that? No? Then I rest my case.
13) “Who takes care of the children when you’re at work?”
I smile sweetly, because I know where this is going. “I take care of them. You see, my husband and I managed between us until they were all in school, and now that they’re big…well, they all help out. My 9-year-old daughter is learning to cook!”
Not the expected answer, because most of my patients are here in the United States to care for their grandchildren, 24/7. The idea of a working mom taking care of her own children – without the assistance of a live-in “Baba” (grandmother) – is something alien to them. Still, I greatly respect and value their experience, input and wisdom in childrearing, as they are far more experienced than I.
And tired. They are much, much more tired from raising their grandchildren than I am from managing my household.
Much like religion, Bulgarians candidly discuss issues of a political bent without the American straight-jacket of etiquette prohibiting this. I personally have never been offended by this and find it quite enlightening.
14) “So, did you vote for Obama?”
“No.” (Awkward silence.) I use the silence to keep scrolling Facebook.
15) “What does your husband think of Obama?”
I have actually been asked this several times, and I don’t know if (perhaps) the expectation is that if A) he is Bulgarian; then B) he must be a liberal; but the reality is vastly different. My (very much Bulgarian) husband is also a Christian, politically conservative, with common sense in spades. His answer (and I quote): “There is only one thing I do not like about Obama….he is a socialist. I left Bulgaria to get away from the ‘socialists’ and their ideology. I did not like them in Bulgaria, and I like them even less here in America.”
And as George Carlin famously said,
“That seems to satisfy their curiosity.”