Being able to speak a few languages and working in operations mean that most days I am requested to divert attention to specific groups of customers not fluent in English. In my line of work, this ranges from simple explanations (“The convenience store is that way”), to playing translator (“This item on the menu includes item xyz“), to service recovery.
Then some days there are the odd requests. The most note-worthy so far happened a couple of days ago.
A family of four had been about to depart, and was bound for the airport. The elder son decided he wanted to stay, and apparently had words with his parents where he insisted on staying. His mother, whose motivations I have not the expertise to completely grasp, called for assistance. As our conversation was initially over the telephone I had thought there was a heated argument ongoing and they needed someone to run interference, and I had assumed this was an adult son who wasn’t quite sticking to the family’s travel plans, and the more elderly parents were insistent.
I forgot what they usually say about assumptions, because the son was at most in his early teens and he had been sulking outdoors when I met his mother, who was in the lobby waiting with luggage. The story I got from her was brief, and the nature of the language and cultural habit meant negative things are alluded to more often than spoken about outright. Her son didn’t want to leave, and she had trouble trying to get through to him the implications: booking a hotel room (during peak season), adjusting flight tickets, and in the worst case scenario involving the police should he decide to run away. In short, he was throwing a tantrum while in a foreign country and his mother didn’t know how to handle it, and asked if I could say to her son what she didn’t manage to convince him of. She requested for help for someone who spoke her language, in a foreign country, to discipline her son because she didn’t have the heart to.
At the time, my thought processes ground to a halt for a second or two.
I’ve had to converse in my non-native language about the country’s history and attractions; I’ve made tour bookings and restaurant recommendations, I’ve carried heavy bags for able-bodied people, checked under beds for lost items, coordinated large groups, washed teacups, entertained children, changed currency, scrubbed sinks. Playing disciplinarian to someone’s child while the parent was right there, and at the parent’s request, had not been anything my imagination had thought of when I think about my job. It was unimaginable because it would never have happened in my family as my parents were always hands-on with our discipline.
Ultimately, the father got through to his son – their content of their conversation remains a mystery because I decided not to hover – and I didn’t actually have to speak to someone else’s child as if I was his parent.
Left an interesting memory to share though.