Following my sudden and unexpected unemployment a few months ago, I wound up facing a choice. While I interviewed for new positions, a seemingly endless process, I could either sit around home waiting or take a temporary job in the meantime.
The presentation of this choice took a subtle form and went something like this:
Shelley: “So…planning on putting pants on today?”
Shelley: “I think you are.”
Kids: “Mom, why is daddy starting to smell funny?”
Me: “I need to work.”
Rather than accelerate what in my house we call a “marriage builder,” I took a job with a construction company building commercial grain bins.
This seemed like a good idea for a few reasons. First, the pay wasn’t bad and the owner of the company was under no illusion that I would be maintaining my employment any longer than necessary. And second, I was a combat engineer in the Marine Corps. How hard could this be? (I was clearly neglecting to acknowledge the fact that fifteen years had passed and my physique is significantly more doughy than it once was.)
I had no idea this temporary job would turn into three-and-a-half months of hard lessons.
Not necessarily hard in the sense of the work, but hard in the sense of coworker relations. You see, only one of the twenty or so crew spoke any English, and he quit before I did. So much was the cultural difference that I was referred to as Gringo as opposed to, say, my name.
Through trial and error I discovered three very distinct universal languages.
The first was forklift signals. These are basic hand gestures that are the same in Nebraska as they are in Dubai. For example, a closed fist indicates “stop”. They satisfied the need for basic directional instructions.
The second universal language was swearing. Swearing satisfied the need for more emotional or urgent communications. For example:
D*mn! = “This 300 pound panel is crooked, and we are going to have to remove it to get it aligned.”
Sh*t!! = “I seem to have lacerated my finger. I think I might need medical attention.”
F*ck!!! = “Jose is dead.”
Until my English-speaking cohort quit, these first two languages were about the extent of our communicating as a group.
It wasn’t until after my friend quit, though, that the third universal language revealed itself. Much to my surprise, it was kids.
Once I was the only remaining native English speaker, I found that the other guys started feeling sorry for me and became more willing to attempt conversation. The most common opening personal question was, “You have kids?” I found it fascinating that these guys who had so few English skills would go to that question first.
“Yes,” I would respond. “Three boys, and you?”
“Santo vaca que está loco!” Translation: Holy cow you are crazy. “Yes, a son and daughter…no wonder you look tired.”
This exchange repeated itself a dozen or more times and had a couple of outcomes. We not only developed a familiarity with one another, since we were all working towards getting home to our kids, but we also finally became a team. I also had the closest thing to friends on the job that I’d had in a month or more. And since we were commonly working 14 hours a day, it was nice to have a few buddies around.
These men worked twice as hard as I did for less pay and patiently waited 4 hours for me in a McCook, NE, Emergency Room before driving my dehydrated and heat-exhausted ass 3 hours home in the middle of the night. Language barrier or no, these were good, hard-working men.
Our companionship became apparent not because we started hanging out after work or chatting about the latest ball game; rather, it revealed itself when they stopped calling me Gringo.
After three months of working with these men, I finally became Chris.
I’ve never been more proud to be called by that name.