All the World's a Classroom
Part 1 of a series of posts on Home-Longing.
If my sister speaks English to me, there is a first, instinctive reaction within me that says, “Why are you speaking to me like that?” It’s not because there’s anything wrong with her tone or words, but simply because English is not our first language.
English was a foreign language that we acquired. We did not grow up speaking English, did not fight or argue in English, and did not learn sisterly affection in English. Consequently, English doesn’t fully reflect the nature of our relationship, nor does it capture exactly the sentiments that we want to express to each other. The language that does these things is Indonesian, our mother tongue.
Of course, we get more used to speaking English to each other because we live in the U.S. Yet the psychology of speaking Indonesian vs. English is something that, I don’t think, we can change. Speaking a foreign language to each other makes us feel foreign to each other. It just feels weird, too formal, we often say, as if the language puts a distance between us.
To Understand and Be Understood
Language plays a powerful role in creating that visceral sense of home and belonging in a person. There’s nothing simpler than feeling like you belong when you hear people speak in your native language, especially in a foreign place. This homey feeling comes from the very basic premise of language, which is to connect and communicate to another person on the same terms. To understand and be understood, without having to explain much to say something simple, is to feel at rest, at home.
On the flip side, there’s nothing that makes you feel more foreign than being in a room of people who speak an entirely different language. In this sense, language difference is the first obvious signal of your foreignness. And to find people who speak the way you do is to find your tribe.
The Need for Exposure
As in other cultural experiences, the realization of how deep your mother tongue relates to your psyche probably would not come until you step out of your own world or take on another language. If you never left home, then you’d probably never feel homesick. The more prevalent feeling may be, “I need to get out and see the world.” Yet often, you learn more about yourself and your origin once you can compare and contrast it with a different experience.
Which is why I’m an advocate of multilingualism. Learning a second language is always a good idea. Learning a third or fourth, and for the masters, fifth, sixth language, and so on, brings a different experience each time. And adding a language enriches rather than diminishes your ability in any particular language, analogous to C.S. Lewis’ description of friendship when it is expanded from two to three people: the more we share our minds with different languages, the more we have of each, since each language shines a light on another, whether by comparison or by contrast.
Back to the Mother Tongue
Yet through all the tours of other world languages, nothing will compare to the intimacy and dearness of your own mother tongue.
Nelson Mandela said,
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Your mother tongue is your home. My reading interview with Justin Kim touched on this point a little bit, on the difference between reading in our first and second languages. For me, reading in English is more cerebral, even though this is the primary language I read in these days. The analytical part of my brain is engaged more to make sure I understand what the sentence is saying. Reading in Indonesian, though, is entirely different. It’s more natural, and more often than not, I can read faster in Indonesian. I can sense the musicality of the language more, appreciate the poetry in the sentences more, and feel the text more viscerally. When I read a piece of Indonesian literature, I could feel the humidity of the air, the muddy soil, the smell after the rain, the cracks and stains on the wall, the corner kitchen with blackened wall, the vibrant green that only belongs to tropical floras. It is an echo of where I came from.
Now, another person’s mother tongue is just as precious to them as it is to you, and as Trevor Noah writes, when you reach out to communicate to someone else in their mother tongue, it becomes a powerful acknowledgement and affirmation of their identity and culture… More on this in a future post.
If you happen to be bilingual/multilingual, how have other languages make you appreciate your mother tongue? What’s your experience in reading in multiple languages? Comment below! I would love to hear your story.
“Home is where my best shoes are,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tongue-in-cheek, once in an interview.
Where is home? Not so simple a question to answer anymore, for many. It throws another shade of complication for those who have left the country of their birth, for one reason or another, and stayed out for a while.
I’ve been thinking about home a lot lately, not only in terms of locality, but also in terms of identity. For home is tied to identity, to personal anchors, to our origin and who we are. It’s precipitated by several things. One, I’m nearing that point in my life where half of it is spent in a country that’s not my origin. All this time, I’ve always called Indonesia home, and America is the place I live in.
I left home when I was 17. But now, I’m almost here for equally the same amount of years, and certainly I’ve spent all of my adult life here. And so it’s come to a point where I’m not exactly Indonesian–in contemporary terms–anymore, since the Indonesia I experience and I imagine is more than a decade old. Yet I’m definitely not American, culturally, although a lot of my neural DNA is probably American by now.
Two, I am now bearing a child who will be culturally different, of a different citizenship, of a radically different time, from me. I suppose this is true for practically every parent–there’s always a cultural gap between different generations. In my case I mean culturally different literally, geographically.
It’s a kind of double identity crisis. Now I have to think about who I am and who this child is going to be. How will this new identity evolve? So far I’ve gotten away with calling Indonesia home even though I’ve married and even owned a house. Yet the saying starts to feel out of place now that I’m becoming a parent, tasked with the responsibility of creating a home, being a home, for another human being.
The truth: I don’t have an answer to Where is home? I say, “I guess, Colorado,” to get people off my back.
Home-longing, is this non-descript feeling, a craving for belonging and kinship. It’s a bit of a nebulous question, and in the search of hopefully-less-nebulous answers, I’ve been drawn to authors who write eloquently about being outsiders, about experiences of being displaced and removed from your people, and about reconciling the experiences that you belong, yet not, to two worlds.
This is sort of a prequel to what I suspect will be a series of articles about identity, home, and belonging. Along the vein of last year’s articles, A Child of East and West. There is no answer yet–one of those “I write to find out the answer” type-thing. But my search and discovery have led me to hang out with these books so far.
Have you ever felt a longing for home and belonging? Have you lived in a different country from your birthplace? What are your experiences finding out what home means to you?
Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood has a glowing 4.8-star average review on Amazon. He’s a comedian who is currently heading the satirical news show The Daily Show.
Trevor was born during apartheid, which, in his words, “was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.” He grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. Being a mixed child–from a white father and black mother–he was literally born a crime, because the law prohibited interracial marriage or “carnal intercourse” between blacks and whites. For most of his childhood, he navigated life as an outsider, since the way he looked and how he was brought up did not align with the typical constructs of the South African sub-societies. A chameleon was what he called–and still does–himself.
Using Language to Change Perceptions
Yet one poignant insight that he gleaned from his outsider-ness was the power of language in “hacking” racism. Apartheid did not only separate black and white people; it separated every identifiable skin color and subculture to weaken its opposition. Crediting his mother, who really is the heroine of his book, he says, “Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”
If you’ve seen any of Trevor’s stand up, you’ll see that he’s incredibly skilled in accents and imitations. He speaks something like six or seven languages.
I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”
In another instance, a group of guys intended to mob him because they thought he was white. But as they plotted in their language, Trevor, who understood what they said, replied in kind and suggested that they all mob someone else together.
They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
Language, Connections, and Trust
Language is key in defining a tribe.
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.
Yet, he continues, language’s power to divide can easily be reversed.
The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.” “But he’s a scientist.” “In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.” However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”
Reflecting on my own experience with languages, I realized that I was spared weird looks and condescending stares when I moved to the US because I was reasonably trained in English. I don’t recall an incident where an English speaker had to slooowlyy spell out each word they’re saying with his head tipped down, with that wide-eyed, condescending look that I see a lot in situations related to immigration or airport security. At least, this act won’t last long because I could meet them where they’re at in comprehension and speed of pronunciation. But certainly, I see it a lot when I travel with other non-native English speakers who may not be as quick in understanding the rapid speaking pace of a native speaker. It annoys me tremendously.
Incidents like this reveal the deep interconnection between language and trust. People naturally don’t trust those who are different than them. But a common language, even though skin-deep differences exist, can override that prejudice and engender trust.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”
Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood for a treasure of hilarious and insightful stories. I recommend getting the audiobook, which you can get at a hefty discount using the trick outlined in this post.