Originally Published: Dec.6, 2001
Recently I attended the second ever International Monetary Fund’s Annual Research Conference. My husband Adolfo was presenting a paper, and had invited me to attend. It would be my first foreign language conference – that language being Economics.
Let me preface this by admitting that I somehow managed to skirt my way through public school without ever taking an Econ course. I also shied away from any form of math that was not strictly required for graduation. Math always gave me a stomachache. That I married an Economist, who engages in mathematical formulae as easily as I pull on my socks, is a very strange, if not slightly wicked providence.
It is beneficial, once in awhile, to be the foreigner, the slack-jawed chump who doesn’t speak the language and who goes about with a Day-Glo “Huh?” scribbled across a sloped, bemused brow. If nothing else, the experience can serve to remind us all that in a world blessed with thousands of languages, there is much that will forever dangle out of our reach.
So I entered the snazzy auditorium on the lower level of the IMF with the full knowledge I’d be winging it. I attempted to at least look the part of an Economist – thank God for those years of acting – abandoning my usual hi! -I’m-an-arts-major attire and buttoning on my one navy blue suit, hoping to blend in. I was gratified to discover that Adolfo’s colleague, Mercedes, was also wearing a navy blue suit. Blend I would.
To my surprise, the slender helmet-haired moderator, Eliana Cardoso opened the conference with a joke. Her voice was soft, almost fragile, but held the promise of lightening-quick surgical evisceration should anyone cross her. Her joke to the standing room only auditorium was this:
A woman goes to her gynecologist. She is pregnant with her fifth child and wants an abortion. When the doctor asks her why, she says that she recently learned that every fifth baby born in the world was Chinese. She was afraid her husband wouldn’t understand.
Gynecology jokes? This I could understand! I laughed along with the Economists and sat back to enjoy the first presentation: “Why Are Inflation Rates So Low After Large Devaluations?” by Ariel Burstein and Martin Eisenbaum. A large photographer with a formidable camera began clicking away. Mr. Burstein, a fast-talking ivy-league sort who looked quite comfortable in front of the darkened room full of quotable notables, began to speak - and I was completely at sea.
Sequence of synthetic CPI calculations … Some guy named Runzheimer… Impose PPP for tradable goods. Flight from quality - something about Godiva chocolates versus a Russian substitute. Apologizes for a typo, which read that the Korean Won fell by 3% when actually it rose by 3% - a pretty big deal if you happen to be Korean, I’m guessing. Then, like Zeus’ own doodles, angular and mysterious equations filled the next projection. People around me nodded, as though receiving the credible evidence they required. Next, jagged graphs titled Sweden, Finland, Mexico, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brazil filled the overhead, each looking like an unfortunate patient on a fast track to room temperature.
Part way through the run down of countries, Mr. Burstein looked momentarily panic-stricken when slipped a note by a thinly smiling Mrs. Cardoso. Apparently he was down to two minutes. He shook his head irritably, flipped through his notes, and was obliged to blow entirely through Mexico. He finished, looking somewhat flustered.
After Mr. Burstein sat down, the discussant, a Mr. Ilan Goldfajn, strode to the microphone. A quick check on the word “discussant” in my trusty thesaurus yielded some unhappy synonyms: critic, adversary, disputant, enemy. Misters Burstein and Eisenbaum looked fully aware of this as they watched Mr. Goldfajn nervously. Standing impressively, the light from the overhead reflecting off his glasses and making his ID badge gleam, Mr. Goldfajn proved himself neither a disputant nor an enemy with the simple words, “A nicely done paper.” The room relaxed. He went on to give some constructive criticism, and the authors sat behind their water glasses, scribbling notes, their body language all but screaming, “Whew!”
Listening to Mr. Goldfajn, it amazed me, as it often does, how people with such thick accents – and that included most of the people in the room – can speak such perfect English. The level of education in the auditorium was staggering. I slumped down in my seat a little.
Now from the audience, the sea of black, gray and navy fabric – subverted by the occasional sweater or traditional dress such as a sari or turban – came the comments. Every seat had a tiny microphone to its left, a red button to activate it. I was later told it was a veritable who’s who of Economists that spoke up. Toledo University, Federal Reserve of New York, the IMF, Federal Reserve Board, Claremont, Oxford, Geneva, Italy, Bank of Mexico. For his response, Eisenbaum at first forgot to switch on his own microphone next to his water glass. Some bigwig unabashedly hollered out, “Microphone!” from the back of the room. Eisenbaum blushed slightly, but gamely got in his 2 minutes.
Adolfo had been next to me the entire time. I could feel his distraction, and was pretty sure he had not heard much of the presentation. It was his turn. His co-author, Roberto Steiner sat down at the table while Adolfo headed for the podium. There were a few moments of technical insecurity while he fiddled with the computer. Mrs. Cardoso then introduced the paper, “Credit Stagnation in Latin America”, and he began. His voice showed nerves, but he was direct and clear. The photographer started clicking away again.
It’s quite disconcerting when even your spouse is speaking a foreign language you cannot grasp. I tried, hopelessly. “We also define a credit “bust” symmetrically as an observation in which the credit-GDP ratio lies more than 5 percentage points below trend.” Isn’t one’s “bust” naturally symmetrical, in the normal scope of things, I mused? I then heard that his id was performing better than his ig, that the dummy for the slowdown period was not significant. Um, he wasn’t talking about me, was he? He referred to the famous Tequila Crisis of 1994, and I wondered, did undergrads of that year across this great nation of ours understand the seriousness of this?
He was speaking fast, but not fast enough, I thought. Sure enough, the two-minute note came as a shock to him. He made a dash to the finish. When it was done, I heard a muttering of, “Very good!” from the row in front of me. I preened slightly, my “bust” very symmetrical indeed. Praise by association.
Adolfo and Roberto listened respectfully to the discussant, Alberto Werner (Bank of Mexico), who liked the paper (collective sigh of relief) and spoke very favorably. Adolfo now looked at ease, and Roberto, an energetic, sociable man who seems to have grown up rubbing shoulders with the great and powerful, was completely relaxed, even pausing to put on chapstick while listening. The comments from the audience were good, and mostly seemed to be urging the authors to take the paper further. In his two minutes at the end, Adolfo thanked the audience and said the comments had all been very useful.
Afterwards for lunch, Adolfo, Mercedes and I went Japanese, speaking Spanish throughout the meal. It might not be my native language, but, I thought grimly as I sipped my tea soup with salted plum, at least now I had a chance of understanding what the hell was being said.