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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)

Five Times I Had No Idea What I Was Doing

5. Lessons at Security

My first day at my new job involved going to court and observing multiple immigration hearings. After relying on directions from another member of the cohort, we made our way to the front of the line at the entrance to get in the building. The security line is similar to the TSA queues at the airport, except moving with much more urgency and a few variations in procedure.

Unsure of what to take off, what to hold in my hand when walking through the metal detectors, and what to put on the conveyor belt, I watched my also-clueless friend go through the line and end up even more confused and crippled with the social anxiety of messing up in front of at least forty people. I took off my jacket and put my backpack on the conveyor belt. The guard watching the monitor says something to me in Spanish. I looked at where he was gesturing and realize he wanted me to take out my laptop. Great, now, this man is under the impression that I understand him.  I take out my laptop and try to hand it to him. More words I don’t understand, only with more urgency. More words, plus aggressive head nods.

My face is getting hot when finally he says, “Put it down! Down on the belt!” and I understand he wanted the computer to be in it’s own bin.

I quickly realized how incredibly intimidating it can be when someone assumes you speak their language, how it’s not just the stress of trying to understand someone but also the stress of everyone watching you drown in a lake of social standards and expectations that can make even the simplest task incredibly intimidating.

4. Ms. Liu (not her actual name)

For those who don’t know, I’m the only one in the cohort who doesn’t speak Spanish because the language I chose to study at Duke was Chinese. Luckily, there is an office clerk at the Catholic Charitable Legal Services who was born and raised in Taiwan. I took a total of three attempts to successfully introduce myself to her. Repeatedly, she would look at me, nod her head, and promptly get back to her work. After an overly-friendly third attempt to ignite a conversation, I informed her that I was an intern who would gladly help her with any work she had. I casually dropped that I spoke a little Chinese and how much I would appreciate the opportunity to practice speaking with her. She attempted to shoo me out of her office multiple times, and ended up giving me the assignment of preparing a testimony.

Having never done this, I asked a few questions on how to prepare a testimony. “No questions. No questions. Just do it,” she said, in Chinese, and turned back to her work.

While most people may be upset by this or frustrated at the lack of instruction, I took it as a challenge. I was just flattered that she took the time to give me an assignment. You know how there are some cats that don’t like anyone and just mind their own business around the house? Imagine the feeling you get when that pet allows you, and only you, to interact with them. Yeah maybe they aren’t sitting on your lap, but hey, you made more progress than everyone else!

With some Googling and advice from a law student sitting a couple desks away from me, I felt a sense of excitement as I started my work. I felt accomplished for figuring it out, and hungry for more challenges and opportunities to come.

3. Cake

Working in a community with a rich cultural identity definitely has its benefits, rich and authentic food is always abundant and the closeness of the community makes every restaurant and street corner feel like a family reunion.

However, when you don’t speak the language, there’s a bit of an uphill battle when it comes to everyday tasks.

While buying lunch in a Cuban café, a friend and I wanted to buy a piece of chocolate cake. My friend spoke Spanish and tried to ask for a single slice in a to-go container. We ended up with two slices of what was actually rum raisin cake on a paper plate with a napkin.  The cashier smiled and said something to us that was not English, Spanish or Haitian Creole, but I’m going to assume he meant well.

2. Commuter Lessons

Waiting for the bus is usually a simple task: we stand in a crowd, the bus pulls over, and we all get on. However, at this particular time it was just my coworker and I who were waiting at the bus stop. We sat and chatted and were baffled when, over a span of 40 minutes, two busses passed us by.

An older woman then stood at the stop with us and waved her arm wildly when the next bus passed by, and it stopped. It was then that I had a true BARNGA moment, a moment of cultural misunderstanding here in Miami. To catch a bus, we needed to hail it and let the driver know we wanted to board. The embarrassment was palpable between my coworker and I as we stammered to blame the system and complain that it was faulty. It didn’t take long for us to accept that these mishaps don’t indicate anything being wrong, just that we were new to town. There’s no handbook that tells you that; it’s just the nuances of the city that we had to learn the hard way.

1. Walking Around Wynwood

The group planned to go to ArtWalk at the Wynwood art district on Saturday night. Instead of taking the van with the rest of the cohort, I ended up trying to meet everyone there. The group sent me a pin of their location. I attempted to open the link only to see “Maps are unable to connect due to error” on my screen.

Without a map to follow besides the blurry PDF I pulled up on my phone, I set out on a trek that wound up taking about an hour and a half to find my group of friends. About forty minutes into this walk, I gave up and decided to explore the area on my own.

It’s incredible how dependent we are taught to be on one another. When was the last time you did something alone, not worrying about other people or how you look or who is looking at you? I felt like the observer of a Gatsby-esque affair, walking past hidden but astoundingly lavish lounges and clubs tucked away on the outskirts of Wynwood.

I had no sense of where I was going, what direction I should have been walking in, and what my plan was to find everyone. But for those approximate fifty minutes, I let that be okay. I didn’t worry about taking pictures or marking things off of a checklist, and still managed to experience more than I ever imagined.

Despite the pressure we feel to look like we are in control all of the time, and convince everyone we know what we’re doing, this week I learned that being confused can be the best way to learn something new.