It was late in the afternoon, we were stuck in traffic, and my new son and I were both wishing I’d taken Amharic in high school instead of Spanish.
Amharic is a language spoken in Ethiopia, the country where my son Nati was born. Because he came here when he was 5 not speaking any English, I’m often asked how Nati, now 6, and I communicate. Usually, I joke that my wife, Mary, and I just speak to him loudly and slowly. When people say they really want to know how we deal with the language barrier, I give the true answer: We just speak to him loudly and slowly.
We’d never given any real thought to adopting until the day we read an article in our Sunday paper about how Ethiopia was facing rapidly increasing numbers of children whose parents had died of AIDS. My wife and I already had two children, Clay, then 6, and Grace, then 4, and our lives were full and seemed complete. But we’d both been moved by the article, and suddenly, unexpectedly, were asking, “Why not?” Within weeks we found ourselves looking at videos of children in an orphanage thousands of miles away.
The videos the adoption agency sent to us were filled with ten-second clips of kids who needed homes. We wondered how anyone could make such a life-changing decision based on nothing more than a mere snippet of videotape. Months passed. We wondered if we’d ever be able to do it. Mary continued to watch the monthly videos, but I asked her to only show me anyone she thought we might really consider.
Mary began speaking to the director of the adoption agency about the possibility of our just donating money, explaining that she didn’t think we were going to be able to choose a child. The director told Mary to give it time. A month later, after nearly a year had gone by since we’d started looking, she sent us a passport-size photo of a 5-year-old boy, telling us we should take a special look at him in the next video.
The new video arrived and we all sat down to watch. The first child was the boy whose picture we’d been sent. We looked at the photo and then the TV. “That’s him!” we all shouted. A second later, my wife and kids were repeating the phrase, but the tone had shifted. The first “that’s him” was the four of us saying, “That’s the boy in the picture.” The second was different-the sound of our lives changing forever. Somehow in that second, Mary and I had become the parents of three kids. That was him.
I flew to Ethiopia to pick up our son. Nati’s father had died of AIDS after receiving a tainted blood transfusion and had passed the illness to Nati’s mother. She was still alive but too ill to care for her boy, and had put him in an orphanage six months earlier. I showed her pictures of Nati’s new family. Nati, sitting on her lap, pointed to the pictures of Clay and Grace and said, “Brother, sister!” When he saw the picture of Mary, he shouted, “American mom!” I promised Nati’s mother, through a translator, that my wife and I would take care of her son. She barely seemed to hear me; she was busy saying goodbye to her boy.
On the way back to our hotel, my guide told me he’d taken five children in the last few months alone to say goodbye to what was left of their families. He said I shouldn’t feel sad, that even the families left behind knew the kids were lucky to be going to America. I tried to imagine how many times you’d have to watch a mother kiss her child goodbye forever before you got used to it.
Claude Knobler is a writer who lives in Santa Monica, California, with his wife, three children, two dogs, a bird and a frog.
Love without language
Nati knew next to no English when we arrived home, so in his first few weeks here, we hired Shway, a woman from Ethiopia, who came in twice a week to translate. Thus, we learned that Nati thought his new brother and sister were kind, that he loved Mary and me, and that he’d been afraid to go to sleep because he thought there were hyenas outside his window. We assured Nati that other than in the movie industry, there were no hyenas in Los Angeles.
Of course, Shway was only with us a few hours a week, so the rest of the time we had to work things out on our own. Some days were harder than others. As Nati quickly learned English, the rest of us struggled to learn Amharic. When, as the two of us were stuck in traffic, he began saying “miissah,” I knew he was talking about food. In Amharic, miissah means “lunch,” but Nati had figured out I’m very bad with languages. On my second day in Ethiopia, when I’d proudly offered Nati “lunch” for breakfast, lunch and dinner, he kindly began saying “miissah” whenever he wanted food of any kind.
I pulled the car over and slowly and loudly asked, “WHAT…NATI…EAT…MIISSAH?”
“Pinlo,” Nati replied.
I made what I feel fairly sure we both think of as the “I’m sorry Daddy’s so stupid but I have no idea what you’re saying” face. Nati repeated the word, which I decided might be “pinta,” “menta,” or “fenta.”
In the end, I just got him french fries. Later, Shway told me Nati was asking for mencheut, an Ethiopian stew.
Other days were harder. When he needed chest x rays, the lab technician glanced at Nati and told him not to move. Nati looked at the x-ray machine and asked, “Shot? Shot, Nati?”
I told him no, and then explained to the technician that Nati didn’t speak English. The lab guy nodded his head, then gave Nati detailed instructions—in English—about why he shouldn’t move.
I explained again that my son didn’t speak English. Then I moved my arms around like an octopus with a complex, debilitating neurological condition. “Look, Nati,” I said. “Daddy move.” I did this until the lab guy began to look alarmed and Nati began to understand what the word “move” meant. I then stood very still and said, “Nati, no move.” The lab guy went to take a picture. Nati moved. I ran back in to do the octopus dance again. The lab guy started sighing very loudly. I had no idea what to do. I prayed for a miracle.
Oddly enough, I got one.
I don’t know where she’d been hiding, but a woman came into the room and asked, “Does he speak Amharic?”
I scooped my jaw back up from the floor, nodded, and the technician’s assistant, who had moved here from Ethiopia, told Nati what was going on. Simple as 1-2-3, or, as my son would say, “ande hulet sost.”
Of course, when people ask how we communicate with Nati, they’re really asking how we explain to him about brushing his teeth or flushing the toilet after every time he’s finished using it. In the end, though, those things really can be taken care of by speaking loudly and slowly. What’s hard about having a child who doesn’t speak your language is more quiet.
We were all hanging out at home, when Nati stuck out his tongue at Grace. There’s nothing odd about a brother bugging his sister, but because we couldn’t really talk to Nati, we panicked. Mary worried about Grace getting teased for the rest of her life. We both wondered if Nati had a mean streak, and how on earth we’d handle it.
We knew he didn’t. We knew he was a sweet, funny little boy. We always know that—except when we panic.
After Nati stuck out his tongue, I walked over to him, stuck out mine, then said, “no,” in a loud, clear voice. I waited for him to say eish, which means “okay.” But he refused, and so I stood there, waiting. He started to cry, and for a moment there seemed to be no way to cross that gulf between us, between our two ways of speaking. Finally I scooped him up and just held him like a baby. And then, together, Nati and I said, “Okay, eish.” I kissed him, and then I got my second miracle, a much smaller one perhaps than running into an Amharic-speaking x-ray technician, but a good one all the same: a happy laugh, a hug, and a good-night kiss.
We do know how to communicate with our son. For the small things, we speak slowly. For the big things, the x rays and the moments of panic, well, for those, it’s simple. You wait for a miracle: an Ethiopian woman who just happens to run the x-ray machine or, failing that, a smile and a kiss that assure you that everything just might work out. It’s as easy as 1-2-3, ande hulet sost.