I can talk to everyone, or it feels like I can talk to everyone. It can get overwhelming sometimes, distracting even.

When you live in a country and you don’t know the language beyond 25 words/phrases (food items, numbers, sports cheers, elementary greetings) you cannot talk to everyone. The extent of my interaction with a cashier at the grocery store would be them asking if I wanted a plastic bag, if I had my MoneyBack card, how much the bill is, and me saying no, yes, and Visa, and thank you, mostly in Chinese and hand signals. I only really understood what was going on because I was there every day and some of the words are just the way they sound. Now I can ask the cashier how their day is going, whether the store is always this crowded, and I tell them to have a nice day as I leave.

There are difficult scenarios, however, in restaurants, libraries and in public transit. I hear conversations, and I start to parse words. One day I was in a library attempting to read and overheard two conversations near me: one about a particularly vicious teaching assistant, and one in Mandarine Chinese, of which I understood half the words (but only the conjunctions and some simple verbs, so nothing of meaningful interest). These two conversations conspired to engage my brain in language processing in two languages, forcing me to not understand anything that was going on in my book, or either conversation. Auditory overload. In restaurants I’ll zone out of conversations that I am a part of when I start to hear another conversation near me, simply because I am out of practice at zoning out language. I will realize I’m listening to the wrong thing, missed what my friend just said, and try to refocus. I’ll nod, and say, “yeah.” Then attempt to pay attention to the right person.

In most restaurants in Hong Kong, unsurprisingly, most of the ambient chatter is in Cantonese. This means I can only focus on my own conversation. I couldn’t parse words in other people’s discourse, so my brain couldn’t find meaning. Once, however, in a bar in the particularly expat heavy part of town, there were 3 conversations besides my own being conducted in English. I was struggling, as were my friends. They weren’t even interesting conversations: a couple tourists talking about pictures at the Big Buddha, and a girl talking to a friend about her unexciting date. I just couldn’t stop paying attention to the words. Being out of practice at ignoring other people talking, trying not to eavesdrop, makes you completely unprepared for the situation. As soon as you can parse language into meaningful units, you start doing it. It happens when you’re learning a new language, when you hear your native or second language, and it is hard to stop. It’s like watching Die Hard and reading Gone Girl at the same time. Avoiding spying on other people can be hard work.

It is good to know the language of the place in which you live. It makes you more social; it makes you understand life around you; it allows you to be helpful to others; it gives you more opportunities. I can have random conversations with people of good fashion sense because I complimented their jacket, or I can engage in conversation with my waiter. It is still difficult to not pay attention to other people talking, especially when they are speaking loudly in a quiet area, but I try to avoid it. Over the last 5 months, I have gotten significantly better at ignoring the ambient conversations around me: just because I can understand something does not mean I have to listen to it. But if you ask an open question in the train in a language I understand, I might just answer you accidentally.

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