What would’ve happened if Ryan Lochte had spoken Portuguese?

Ryan Lochte_RIO

By Jae-Ha Kim
August 21, 2016

Ryan Lochte and his teammates have been criticized for being the epitome of Ugly Americans — self entitled guests of a foreign country. But, I wonder, what would’ve happened if any one of them had bothered to learn a little Portuguese before heading to Rio. Among the common phrases you learn in any foreign language is, “Hello.” “How are you?” “Thank you.” “I don’t speak much (fill in the language of your choice).” And … “Where is the bathroom?”

I get that the four men were scared and nervous after their altercation with the security men at the gas station they vandalized. (Yes, these are grown men, and not kids, as some have categorized them. Lochte is 32; James Feigen and Jack Conger will turn 27 and 22, respectively, next month. At 20, Gunnar Bentz is the baby of the group.)

According to all accounts, they were confused because they didn’t understand Portuguese and the Brazilian guards didn’t speak English. Luckily for them, a bilingual witness stepped in and helped with translations.

But imagine if the Americans had said a few words in Portuguese to at least try to communicate with them on their own terms. Would things have ended differently? Maybe not. I mean, really, how do you politely say, “I urinated outside your place of business and then vandalized your bathroom door, because I’m drunk and inconsiderate”? (One of the swimmers has insisted that there was no bathroom, but this photo in the New York Times seems to indicate otherwise):

Rio bathroom door

The point is, a few kind words can go a long way. Saying, “Sorry!” in Portuguese may have helped defuse the situation. It certainly couldn’t have made the situation any worse.

It’s not the swimmers’ fault that they didn’t grow up speaking foreign languages. The U.S. doesn’t push languages like other countries do. Many South Korean pre-schoolers and kindergarteners begin learning English before they can read or write in Korean. More than half of Europeans can speak a foreign language. But, according to a Forbes report, just 18% of Americans can speak anything other than English.

Those of us who are English speakers are lucky, because with that ability comes power. When we travel to just about any country, we usually can find someone who will cater to our inability to speak the language of the country we are visiting. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to be able to learn a few words so that you can speak to the locals in their own tongue.

Language aside, Lochte’s insistence that he was innocent (until his teammates fessed up) reminded me of some incidents my son and his friends had during their toddler years. At several playdates at our house when my son and his friends were in pre-school, they painted on walls, used markers to draw on our carpet and defaced some toys, including a much-loved-by-me rocking horse. That sort of thing. It probably seemed like a lot of fun when you’re three and four years old and literally don’t know much better. (Where was I, you ask? In the next room for a few minutes making lunch.)

But it was how the parents dealt with it that was eye-opening. One set of parents insisted that their child said he didn’t do it and that their child doesn’t lie. (Something I’ve learned: At one point or another, all children lie. No kid wants to get in trouble.) Another set of parents was horrified and said that while their son insisted he didn’t do it, he was older than his friends and should’ve stopped the other children from running amok. (Later, that child came over crying and apologized for (a) participating in the kiddie rampage and then (b) lying about it.)

There have been a few other altercations as my son grew older — and most were within the norm of children pushing their boundaries; and the boys rectified the matter themselves.

With the more serious issues, we’ve had heart-to-hearts with the other children’s parents. Most brought their kids over to apologize. But there have also been instances where the other adults simply brushed it off with, “Boys will be boys.”

Which makes me question, just what kind of boys are we raising?


© 2016 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved


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