I wanted to write a story about language because someone said so but that would put to rest too many elephants so I sat my shield down and napped and then tried again. The first time, I stopped, because I was afraid. This second time around, I am still.
Trembling, many writers talk about how their bodies are shimmering paradoxes, attempting to express something that cannot be expressed. For them, this is why language is a faker (and a lazy one at that). How will they ever convey what they want to convey when the words they love are too confining?
More about that. A Chinese baby’s first interaction with their soon-to-be native tongue comes from their parents. But they are not truly Chinese until they have lived one-hundred warm, sparkling days. On this special day the baby is named, now integrated with the other Chinese. For those one-hundred nameless sunrises and sunsets, you exist as all those writers dream about – you carry the burden of expressing while being unexpressed.
But when you are named you are still not really defined. Chinese names are not created like most languages in the world. Some examples. English: John Starr. Chinese: Star Kind King. In Chinese I am both continuous and asymptotic, approaching the lineage but never making contact. A wildfire of nature. My mother: Happy Leaf. My grandmother: Raging Storm. Common characteristic amongst us: our loud and glistening voices, our heritage.
Me. I was the booming one, the one with a large gap between his incisors like he was waiting to crack open a nut. Human squirrel, ride on. I did not cry as a baby. The sign reads: VOICE FOR WORDS ONLY. Eventually the sign cracks and dangles by its screws in the deep wind. Maybe this is why my Chinese family members were going to name me Lion. Because I wanted to roar but didn’t.
From time to time, I volunteer as a conversation partner for international students, where we go to a local mom-and-pop coffee shop or see a movie or try out a new restaurant or something else. The point is to keep the student speaking English language until it fully roots itself from their stems.
Let me tell you about Bee. That is not his first name, nor is it the phonetic spelling of his first initial. His actual name begins with an M. He gave himself this title because bees are his favorite bug, since, according to him, they look like Waldo, from books in stores.
I did not follow the tradition of my family. I did not receive my Chinese name until I was buttery with pubescence, my foreign aunts and uncles visiting my Grandma right before my Poppop passed away. What do you mean he does not have Chinese name stuck to the floorboards and began to vibrate. The first night of their visit, they talked – I found a name.
If I haven't been clear yet here you go: I am in limbo with my languages. There are three (four) and they have pulled my threads into the fog, swarming me with linguistic fireflies. My thoughts are a clog of inconsistent phonology and morphosyntactic structures.
The one thing I am sure about: my favorite English word is puff. It is one of the few where form matches function. Each phonemic segment, p /p/, u /ʌ/, f /f/, is exactly the word’s definition – a short release of air.
Walking through nature like an autumn breeze. This is how Bee would describe his favorite pastime when we would meet on cold Wednesdays in November, usually at the park. His beard grew wild like the mane of a lion. He showed me the beauty of his culture in its chocolate richness.
My first language, English, terrifies me. There is so much that we cannot control, especially in the syntax. All words are automatically inflected for case, tense, mood, aspect, without us ever knowing. These features are glued to what we say. Try constructing a sentence that has no sense of time, or building one that plants the subject and the object right next to each other. I feel infected, even if I let my native-speaker ignorance steer for a while. It shakes me.
The only truly beautiful thing about English is its inconsistencies. These fundamental annoyances are also the pieces people hate about the language. To cite a popular example found in most introductory lessons on phonetics – what does the word ghoti sound like? Think about it for a bit.
It’s not goatee, or gaudy; it’s fish. Tough. Ff. Women. Ih. Celebration. Sh. Ghoti. Wonderful. Someone backstage yells English needs a phonetic alphabet! But these oddities contribute to the larger linguistic hodge-podge, and that’s why I’m glad to speak English. We have made our language make no sense to learn. The spiteful man in me grins with a spark in his teeth. In this language, you get many others in the form of its deep snake tunnels of European, African, and Asian loanwords. I love this feeling of connection, even though it is mostly just a feeling.
Also in English: your language is your identity, or at least claims your identity for others. Proof: Korean or Chinese refers to either the people or the language. This is quite the assumption. What if you are like me, a Chinese-American, who can speak neither Chinese nor American?
Through interacting with the customers at his father’s shop, Bee picked up quite a few languages. His first language, Arabic (is Bee Arabic, then…?), sharpened itself against the majority of the clientele, but he also began to acquire Urdu and Tagalog as the years went on. Many work in Saudi speak Urdu and Tagalog very good, so I learned these at that time. And now, English must shine through, dear John. Our first meeting, he told me all of this. I was amazed. Maybe even upset, but barely.
One aspect of English that bothers me: Truth and truism exist, the nouns formed from the same adjectival base true (arguably). Yet we only have one word for love? Not to be dramatic, but this munches on oddity with large teeth and strong gums.
Moving on. I am ashamed of my second language – Spanish. It remains a stunted growth of vocabulary and grammar, an amorphous gel of disgrace. I stick to podcasts and local taquerias but venture out no more than that. Espero entenderme un día. But until that day comes, I don’t feel ready to take it on.
Persian, my third language, roars. Producing it is done with your throat after it has been dipped in acrylic paint and splattered across a vaulted canvas. This is not a stereotype. This is not a racism of many colors. Truth.
Many constructions in Persian, whether they be at the sentence or word-level, are metaphorical and leave the interpreter to fill in the holes. For example, library. کتابخانه. Home of the book. Or perhaps, hurricane. گردباد. Round wind. English can sometimes be like this, though as native speakers the poetics are often lost to our tongues. Eat shit.
I worry that I am only all the holes of my languages. In English, I am alone. In Spanish, I am something, I think. In Persian, I am finally beautiful.
Yes, my dear John. It was beautiful, Bee began. In my country, I work with my father in boots store as the child, where Bee packed shelves with souls and soles and engaged with customers. It was in the small alley. He was very good at his job. The best in all of Saudi. Also, the best beard according to the female customer. We both laughed.
But still I am empty, at least a little. There is no Chinese in me. Let me rephrase – there is no usable Chinese in me. Besides doing funny accents my only connection to the language of my ancestors are the phrases, “They are reading newspapers” and “I am a woman.”, along with a very select set of food-related vocabulary involving dim sum items. These are not very useful unless you are a hungry woman in the morning, and I am not that. So Chinese is my black hole, manipulating my pulse with its gravity. I am losing time.
Yes, in all ways, Chinese loses the clock. By this I mean Chinese does not have tense on the verb in the traditional (a.k.a. European) sense, choosing instead to indicate order of events through adverbs. Chinese lofts itself above time’s linearity. This feature of Chinese is also why all English translations of the language are forced to a dirt path instead of being allowed to reach up to the low, damp branches of trees, hoping to climb high enough to see the sun shimmer. Imagine writing about a river flowing, but not having to describe it now or what it was in the past. The river was and is always an entity fully coursing against soil and rock. There is no time for the river. Can you see how in moments like these English appears especially ugly?
But, unlike Chinese, we organisms do not transcend time. We must roll along with the tide of linearity.
Yes. Families form unidirectionally as well, and it seems that Chinese wants to escape my bloodline. Growing up, only English and Chinese were spoken in my household. My grandma always shouts the latter to my mother because she has no one else to talk to in her native tongue. It is wisping away from her. Worse, my mother can only understand Chinese. She always responds to my grandma in English. Then, there’s me at the table, open-mouth boy. I sit there hungry and unable to fully grasp my culture, my identity, my ancestors. I am disappointed in myself. There are no roots in my body worth settling.
Perhaps the only way to understand myself while floating through this limbo is not through words, but through language’s movement to others.
I asked Bee to teach me some Arabic, and he gratefully obliged – this is the norm for most of meetings I lead. Both parties should feel like we’ve dipped our toes in multiple languages. Arabic has a complicated grammar that we both knew I wouldn’t understand in such a short time, so we stuck with something simple.
انا في صحة جيدة . I am well. In return, I gave him a phrase in Persian. خدا نگهدار. Goodbye (lit. May God hold you dearly). He nodded, then repeated the phrase. We both knew that we had given away our gaps for others to fill, that we had become not holed but whole.
That was two years ago. Yes. It has been lifetimes. Yes. How the languages we don’t speak are the ones which form metal bridges. Even though I don’t feel honest with language. Yes. It moves elsewhere.
Yes. I am not against language or its frequent infidelity.
to be completely honest,