Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing

Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing

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-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

“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? 

A Child of East and West, Part 1

A Child of East and West, Part 1

This is the first part of A Child of East and West. This article is the sixth essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth here and here.

 

 

On rare occasions, fragments of thoughts and life experiences can converge into a coherent narrative. This is one of those moments. In my quest to understand the world that forms the essence of this blog, I also gain an understanding of myself, my coordinates in this world. My recent exploration of the Eastern and Western mindsets (Part 1: Why They Differ and Part 2: How They Differ) inevitably led to some self diagnosis on who I am and the backdrop of my existence. These two posts serve as the springboard for this personal essay, and I’ll be using the terms Western and Eastern as they have been described in those posts.

 

As an Eastern living in the West who is nearing a 50-50 split of residency in two cultures, I see myself as a child of East and West. This is my personal story through the lens of these world cultures.

 

From East to West

 

I was born to a Chinese-descent family, both sides, who had immigrated to Indonesia for several generations. In simple words, I’m Eastern, even though the term “East” is an oversimplification of the range of Easternness encapsulated in my background. My Chinese heritage certainly bears traces of the ancient Chinese culture described in the Asian and Western Minds posts (Part 1, Part 2), but Indonesia itself is an interesting case of the East, a confluence of cultures from different parts of the world. I grew up being exposed to a plurality of ethnicities and religions, all within the country, which bore an impression on me. Jakarta as a city that attracted people from across the country and Java, an island that seemed comfortable embracing multiple philosophies in its culture, would befit an environment that can be called Eastern. The role of community, the embracing of change and cyclical nature of life, were themes familiar to me from childhood.

 

Yet even as an Eastern child, my mind and personality had always been Western-leaning. My brain was wired to be fascinated with logic, analysis, categorizations, linear and either/or thinking, which went hand-in-hand with my fascination with science and mathematics. I found the search for and getting the right answer incredibly satisfying, and I subscribed fully to paradigms like the law of noncontradiction, though I did not know it then. I craved clear boundaries and rules and coherent arguments, which, living in the Indonesian society, were often problematic. Rules bent, words were not always exact and most everything was negotiable. My dad used to say to me, “The world is not that simple.” Things were too black and white to me, and I struggled with the fuzziness of boundaries.

 

At 17, I crossed the world and landed in Boston to pursue higher education. Amazingly, even though home was half the world away, I never experienced culture shocks. In fact, in terms of the intellectual culture of the West, it felt like a homecoming. Sure, there were cultural barriers I faced, such as my inability to participate in class discussions due to my non-Socratic Eastern education. The way I saw it, I should keep my mouth shut when I didn’t have anything substantive to say. Thankfully, my engineering path did not require me to speak in class often, and the nerdy MIT world, where science–the pinnacle of Western thinking–abounded, felt comfortable. Things either worked or they didn’t.

 

Parallel to my academic journey, coming to the US also felt like homecoming for my faith journey. It was in the buzz of university campuses with the cerebral and scientific approach to everything that I gained footing for my personal beliefs. Apologetics, intellectual arguments for and against the Christian faith, and the dissecting of the Bible to find a coherent system of beliefs, became the anchor of my spiritual path. It was particularly important to me that beliefs were coherent and philosophically sound, and I found this emphasis on reason in the West refreshing.

 

I often thought in college, why was I not taught this earlier–to reason cogently from the Bible for all tenets of my faith? What was wrong with my home church? Do they not care about theology? Today, I think I know why there were different emphasis in the East and West, which I’ll get to in the second part of this essay.

 

Given the bent of my personality, I thrived in the West. I felt liberated living as an individual and discovered myself through this independence. I was pleased to not be tied to the pervasive social requirements of the East. This was the way to live, I thought.

 

Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was also lonely and I missed the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.

 

To be continued…

[UPDATE: Read Part 2 here]

 

What To Do in Gili Trawangan

What To Do in Gili Trawangan

Just last week, I was in Gili Trawangan, a small island in south central Indonesia east of Bali. If I could take an elongated personal retreat, this would be the place I choose. You can circle the whole island in a few hours by foot or even shorter by bike. There is no motorized vehicle allowed on the island, so you’d get around by walking, biking, or riding a Cidomo, a horse-driven rickshaw.

It’s a WONDERFUL place to be. I could seriously live there for a few months, living the simple life. Wake up, walk, eat, work a bit, snorkel or dive, and hangout with the locals or the multitude of foreigners who visit or live there. Next day, rinse and repeat.

 

How to Get to Gili Trawangan

Where exactly is Gili Trawangan, you may ask. I’ll show ya.

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These are the islands of Bali (left) and Lombok (right), for orientation purposes. To find Gili Trawangan, we’d have to zoom in to the west side of Lombok. It is one of the three tiny islands just above Mangsit in the picture above. You’d have to take a boat from Lombok to get there, which you can charter for a very reasonable fee. Here they are, enlarged.

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What to Do in Gili Trawangan

  1. Snorkeling

The water was super clear! It was like swimming in an aquarium, and I dare say, better than Hawaii. Even better was the price – $10 for 4 hour-trip! Shoot. You could go everyday for a week and it would cost the same as one snorkeling trip in HI. Four hours, three snorkeling sites around the three islands, plenty of aquatic life and turtles. On the second day, we chartered a private boat to snorkel for 2 hours. Cost: $50. Heaven. (Except in heaven this type of thing would be free).

 

When they dropped you off at Turtle Point, you know, the point where the turtles are, some of the guys also jumped in to help you find the turtles and yell out when they find them. Local snorkeling guide – pure awesomeness.

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In the pursuit of turtles, we got stung by a million of tiny jellyfish. Maybe not a million, but definitely in the hundreds. You couldn’t see them, but it felt like you were being pricked all over your body while swimming. I felt like Marlin in Finding Nemo.

 

 

2. Scuba Diving

There are plenty of scuba dive shops on the island, with an abundance of certified dive instructors from around the world who are living the chill type of live on the island. I tried scuba diving for the first time. Kinda scary. Probably because it was too short: ~30 minute in the pool, then off to open water. I freaked out a few times, especially in the beginning. But then underwater, you just gotta rein in the panic attacks. The biggest turtle I saw was during this dive, but I was too stressed out to savor the sight. But I’d do it again.

 

3. Biking

Many hotels have bikes you can use for free. I found it really relaxing to bike along the path around the island, with the sunset on the horizon. I loved it! No cars, no pollution, no noise, except for the horses.

 

4. Enjoy the Island Life

It was just…so…chill…

 

5. Mingle with People – Local and Foreign

Gili Trawangan didn’t feel particularly Indonesian because there were so many foreigners there. It felt like there were more foreigners in sight than the locals, and thus a bit disorienting. But seeing some of these guys was awe-inspiring. They were the backpackers, the teachers in other Southeast Asian countries taking vacation, the entrepreneurs who could work from anywhere in the world, the diving instructors. A good number actually lives there. In my country! I was so jealous.

 

Jealousy turned into inspiration. Now my brain is churning ideas on how to live that way too…

 

In conclusion, Gili Trawangan was awesome. The best part: everything was so cheap, especially when converted to US$! There were vacation packages where you could island-hop all the way to Komodo Island for $30/day. Ridic! Next time, I’ll do this.

 

Indonesia – most fascinating travel destination on earth.

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