Early in her amazing career, my friend Leslie spent some years in New Guinea teaching English quite unsuccessfully to remote villagers, the Papuas (the fuzzy-headed people). Over a lovely dinner at L’Ybane last week in NYC, she described the difficulty of finding a way to bridge their pigeon English to its proper mastery. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of the cognition, she explained, it was that she found herself not wanting to change the way they expressed their world. They said “mouth-grass” instead of mustache. She didn’t want to alter that, and found herself adjusting to their way instead.

The papuas didn’t adopt new words indiscriminately—they would jerry-rig something they were already familiar with to the essential meaning of some new thing. For example, they were familiar with 1) the shape of the blades on an electric mixer, and they knew that 2) the white man’s Jesus lived up there in the sky somewhere. So when a certain hovering aircraft made its first appearance over the island nation during WWII, the locals referred to it as a “mix-master-belong-Jesus.” That said helicopter to them. Whenever she corrected them, they would nod sweetly and affirm the circumstances of their lives relative to the object: yesyesyessss, mix-master-belong-jesus bring medsin. That was all they wanted to know about helicopters.

Nowadays Leslie is a consultant to federal asylum program based in DC. She works with foreign victims of horrific torture—usually young women—helping them learn English and adjust to life in the states. She tells me those years with the papuas helped her develop a skillset she now relies on daily to avoid common word-triggers including “darkness” and “men.”  She says a creative vocabulary is also essential in understanding what the women are trying to say to her. Knowing how “push-me-go/pull-me-come” translates to handsaw helps Leslie comprehend what she is hearing from these women who were brutalized in ways that words can’t contain. Leslie said that under certain circumstances, some of these women still bleed sometimes . . . and will bleed for the rest of their lives.

© L. Seaver 3/13