Do You Have Any Fruits and Vegetables? – Jada Chambers

Critical thinking is not something I would have consciously considered when prompted about my skills in the workforce, especially in my native language. One year ago, however, that all changed. 

 

I stand in line at Customs at the Atlanta airport in an utterly exhausted haze. Through the haze, I hear a Border agent’s voice call out over the din of travelers.

“Does anyone here know French?” he calls out. I look for the teacher I’m traveling with. She spoke French quite well. I look again, but I can’t find her. She’s not here. I look again. Still not here. I raise my hand.

The agent waves me over. 

“You speak French?” 

Why are you asking again, you just asked, I think. 

“Yes.” 

“I need you to help me ask this gentleman some questions.”

 A tall, old man with white hair and the same plaid shirt every old man owns acknowledges me. I smile at him and tell him, “Bonjour.” 

The border agent goes through the questions with me. What’s your purpose in the United States, where is your final destination, how long will you be staying, and finally, do you have any food or drink with you? I consider the first question, thinking of the right words. I am so nervous I’m sweating, but the agent nor the man can see that, see that my heart is about to beat out of my chest. I ask the man his purpose in the United States. He tells me. 

I look  at the agent and say, “He’s on vacation.”

The agent nods and repeats the second question. The man and I go through the same process with this question. He’s going to New Orleans. How long is he staying here? This one causes some trouble. I can’t quite hear the man. He holds up both hands and splays his fingers. Ten days. 

“Ask him if he has any food or drink.” 

I start the process again. Something is wrong. Before, I found the words, found some equivalent that got the point across. This time, I can’t think. I don’t know the words for food or drink, not right now at least. I turn to the old man, and finally ask him if he has any fruits or vegetables. He shakes his head and I tell the agent he has nothing. 

We’re done. The French man and I share a moment of relief that this ordeal is over. The older man thanks me profusely, in the (admittedly adorable) formal french only older people use. I tell him it’s nothing, really, and then he leaves, off to New Orleans. 

 

That happened almost a year ago. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think of that day and that old man often. I think of that day with reverence, too. I hold that day dear because it was the first time I was able to put skills I had learned in the classroom, in my major, to use in real life. I was able to communicate with this man and he was able to understand me, even when I made mistakes, and even when I hesitated or felt silly because I couldn’t translate the sentence exactly as the agent had asked it. I was able to make several quick decisions in the moment despite being exhausted, from deciding to help the man and agent, to finding substitutes for words or phrases when I didn’t know the most accurate translation, all while making sure neither man saw that I was anxious out of my mind. 

My experience translating gave me the confidence I needed to continue pursuing my major, and is a constant reminder that I am capable of performing essential critical thinking needed for the workforce, even when I doubt myself.

The author on a roadside overlook in Nice, France, with the Côte d’Azur and the Mediterranean sea behind.

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