Is this Shut Up or Chelsea?

I’m pretty frank about what I think—perhaps to a fault.

At least, I thought I was.

Turns out, this is only true when I’m talking to Westerners. When I’m talking to a non-Westerner, completely different story.

I noticed this while working with the Muhammads. The Muhammads moved to Chicago this summer from France, where they had been staying for a few months after fleeing Darfur. I met them through World Relief Chicago, which helps refugee families get settled in the city. Somehow I always mess up the planning on days when I’m meant to work with them, so I show up in outfits that I’m sure make them think I’m going to hell.

For example, today I got on the bus to head up there and realized that I would have no chance, before I picked them up, to change out of my black and white striped spandex booty shorts and my pink and purple argyle knee socks.

These are normal things to wear for deadlifting. They are not normal things to wear for walking around a Muslim country. Which, granted, I’m not doing. But I assume it’s what the family is used to, and so I try not to look like a Harley Quinn cosplay when I show up — unsuccessfully, I guess.

The first time I failed at wearing appropriate clothes to meet the Muhammads, I was joining another volunteer named Darnell to meet the husband downtown (whose first name is also Muhammad, so receptionists always think we’ve filled out registration forms wrong). I had just worked out and had forgotten another shirt, so I showed up in my sleeveless workout top.

I’m sure I’m not the first woman this family has ever seen in this country with bare shoulders. But I felt uneasy about doing it when they knew that I knew that I was going to meet them. Also, I have a pretty conspicuous shoulder tattoo, which is something even my straight-up American family questions from time to time. I was terrified that Muhammad would ask me about it. I decided, in my anxiety and haste, that I would implicitly apologize for my appearance by bringing everybody a drink from Starbucks when I showed up. Logic, you know.

I texted Darnell to find out what Muhammad wanted, and this ensued:


I didn’t give him a very long menu. My Arabic is decent, but that doesn’t mean I know how to say ‘Frappuccino.’ I also was not about to try to explain a frappuccino in Arabic via text message.

I’m not sure I could even explain what a frappuccino is in English to you. Is it like a slushie? A milkshake? What’s in it? Nobody quite knows.

It’s also worth noting that things get lost in translation via text message. Muhammad texts me in English by sticking what he has to say into Google Translate and then sending me the result. For some discussions I have done the same thing to text him. This makes communication easier.

That doesn’t make it perfect.


I think I know what happened here. There is another volunteer named ‘Scott.’ I think Muhammad didn’t have my number saved, so he typed into Google Translate ‘Is this Scott or Chelsea?’ He probably transliterated Scott and Chelsea, and ‘skoot’ in Arabic is ‘shut up.’

I know ‘skoot’ is a fun word, but please don’t run around saying ‘skoot’ to all your friends. It’s rude.

Sometimes I wish I had Google Translate in face-to-face conversations, though, for when we’re not texting and I don’t know the words being said.

For example, I had no idea how to say ‘birthmark’ in Sudanese Arabic. This became a problem while I was at the doctor’s office with the wife, Zainab, and her daughter Lamar. Lamar has a birthmark on her right arm. But when you go to a doctor and they see skin discoloration and they hear ‘Darfur,’ they don’t think it’s a birthmark. They think it’s a healed burn. And then you’re in there trying to figure out what Zainab is saying it is after she vehemently insists that it is not a burn, and because you can’t translate what she’s saying (which I later learned was the Sudanese word for ‘birthmark’), the doctor assumes that both you and Lamar’s mom are out of your minds and it was a burn, and you just translated the question wrong or something. Then he starts speaking very slowly to you, despite the fact that you have spoken to him, to his face, in just as good of English as he speaks.

Lamar is in love with my water bottle. She likes the rainbow ribbon on top. She finds the water bottle every time I visit, pulls it out of my backpack, and refuses to let anybody take it from her for the duration of the visit. Sometimes when she does this, the water bottle is full, and it’s heavy for her. But she still won’t let go of it. Instead, she comes up with strategies to hold the water bottle. She has tried hugging it, holding it like an infant, and dragging it by the thumb loop. When she doesn’t want to come along wherever we’re going, I’ve had success holding the base of my water bottle and walking along with Lamar voluntarily attached to the other end.

Lamar is a hellion. Probably 50% of the words I have heard both of her parents speak are some version of “Lamar, no, stop!” She gets into everything. She’s especially fond of wallets and scissors — you know, things it’s disastrous for young children to have.

Lamar has two speeds of locomotion. Mostly she uses her slow speed, in which you need to take very slow heel-toe steps to avoid throwing her off balance as you hold her hand.

Her other speed is the one she uses to run directly out into traffic, and it’s fast enough that you have to go from holding a door open for her to diving onto the sidewalk just in time to seize her trailing ankle as she makes a break for it.

This entire experience has given me a newfound respect for mothers in general. Today I watched Zainab pick up her infant child Eyad, stick him on her hip, throw a car seat over her shoulder, and walk half a mile with both of them. I couldn’t move nearly as fast as she could, so I struggled along behind her as I worked to thwart Lamar’s repeated attempts to backflip out of my arms. At one point Lamar saw a bee. This, dear ones, was game over. Apparently we do not like the bees. We DO NOT LIKE BEES. And we are capable of amazing acrobatics to get ourselves as far away from bees as humanly possible. And when Zainab turns around to figure out what on Earth could possibly be going wrong back there, naturally the only Arabic word I can’t remember is ‘bee.’

Have you ever tried pointing at a moving bee? It’s very unclear what you’re trying to say. It looks like you’re trying to write something in the air.

I don’t know that I’m especially helpful to Zainab on some of these outings. I try to do what I can to overcome language barriers and make things easier, but let’s face it — nothing she has to do here is harder than what she has already done to get the whole family here in the first place.

I think about that as a sort of comfort on occasions when they have an appointment that none of the volunteers can help them with, or on occasions when I mess up (which, obviously, is all the time). Sometimes I’m just trying to keep up appearances while inside, I’m freaking out more than Lamar freaks out at bees. I have to remember that, pretty much regardless, at this point everything is going to be fine.

If I were able to recognize that more often, that would probably be a good thing.

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