Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Languages

Anyone who has learned a foreign language – or at least anybody who has learned one well enough to speak it meaningfully – can attest how personality changes when shifting from one language to the next. The subtleties of each language – its unique lexicon, the pace of sentence formation, the values embodied in its grammar – gently nudge our thoughts into well-traveled channels that influence the way we perceive the world, how we articulate what we see, the ways we react to it, our feelings, and, ultimately, the framework for how we act and justify our actions. Speaking different languages, we change as a result.

A friend of mine recently expressed it as: “My Chinese-speaking self is different from my English-speaking self.” And I think anyone who lives comfortably among multiple languages can identify with this. In fact, one of the most painful things about acquiring and speaking a foreign language – in the beginning, especially – is the total loss of personality in that language. The speaker's expressiveness is robbed of subtlety. Emotions that could be rendered so easily in one's native language now become impossible to convey in the new one – either through one's own lack of knowledge, or, sometimes, through limitations of the language itself. It is not until much later, when you have begun to master the second language, that you are freed to learn new and vital expressions to articulate what has been left behind. Sometimes these are fair approximations of the emotions you express in your own language; other times, they come entirely unannounced, unfamiliar and new – ideas that cannot be articulated even in your language. Often it is only by their expression that you become aware of the existence of these emotions at all: for these “emotions” do not exist in other languages. In time, as you become more proficient in the new language, you can begin to articulate these new emotions comfortably, to internalize them, to feel them naturally and without a corresponding need for their articulation – such that in time you may even begin to compare them as equals, to recognize the expressive “shortcomings” of your own language. Being in control of multiple languages, therefore, means becoming more aware of how futile any given language is in articulating our inner selves – how we are never fully able to express the extent of who we are as human beings due to the specific limitations of the specific languages we speak.

Each language brings out certain elements of our inborn nature. These elements are there, within each of us, but are given expression only if the right language comes along to release them. Language being a relatively arbitrary construct, it’s interesting to wonder which elements of our nature are being given expression by the languages we speak, and which are not.

Even more fascinating is to wonder of those that are given expression whether one or another is closer to the core of one’s true self. If my English self is different from my Russian self, which of them is the real me? While most people will assume that their dominant language is their “real” one, it would seem highly coincidental, given the wide range of languages that they might otherwise be speaking, that this would ever be the case. How likely is it that the language you happen to speak really is the best one to express the person you really are? Often, it seems, we lose sight of the extent to which our thoughts and feelings are not true expressions of our real selves, but simple conveniences of language. More probably, it is not that our native tongue is any more expressive of who we are but that we are – or become – what our native tongue best expresses.

I can only guess how many hidden dimensions of my personality are never given expression due to my lack of language. My German self. My Japanese self. My Arabic self. All of them are there, yet none are allowed to come out. Somehow, I lose a little of my humanity for not knowing them. Knowing only what I know, I am a sliver of who I might be, just as my words are nothing more than the arbitrary expression of those sides of me that can be released by the words I am able to think and speak.

And so, as humans, we are condemned to become merely what we are able to become, while the seeds of who we really are lie buried deep within us, dormant and shriveled, waiting for the life-giving water of language.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An Open Letter to Mr. Paul Theroux

Dear Mr. Theroux,

I read your recent article with interest - both as a Hawaiian and as a writer who has traveled and written earnestly about a culture that is foreign to me. In the latter regard, we would be peers. In the former, I am qualified to give you guidance. Your conclusions here suggest that you are unnecessarily confused by very simple things. Let me be the one to help you get closer to the pith of what has become a forbidden fruit for you, inasmuch as that is possible.

In your article you note that Hawai'i, which is your current residence of choice, happens also to be the most elusive place for you to write about. This strikes you as irony, or coincidence, rather than the reward for achieving a deeper knowledge of a place with which you are familiar. Is this not a sign that the fruit you are attempting to pick is at once closer than all the others and, therefore, higher and harder to reach? That what might have passed for astute observation or understanding under different circumstances - for example, sitting comfortably on a fast-moving train pulling out of a station after a brief interlude - no longer rings true when given the time for thoughtful reflection and re-reflection? I imagine that the same depth of insight that fails to satisfy you now, in your adopted home in Hawai'i, would have seemed perfectly reasonable in a different time, during your more vagabond passings-through in countless other places. For this reason, the elusiveness of your quest to understand Hawai'i - or, at least, to write about it - is not so much a failure of you as a writer as it is your writerly triumph. Of depth over superficiality. Of humility over arrogance. Of the timelessness of careful reflection over the temporality of literary deadlines and career-making. Ultimately, it is this "failure" that you can hold up as proof that you are a writer in the honorable sense of the word.

In your article you cite Hawaiians as being closed and petty and give examples of how they were not forthcoming in sharing their knowledge with you. One refuses your request outright; others attempt to charge you money for their time. This offends and perplexes you. Your characterization of Hawaiians is surely stilted yet it effectively illustrates the exasperation that you have felt when rebuffed in this manner, seemingly unjustly. Let me explain, however, why this is exactly as it should be. You see, in our culture knowledge is not an entitlement but something that a person must earn. If the thought of paying for the expertise of a teacher is absolutely abhorrent to you, then you should pay for it for that very reason. If, on the other hand, it is your time that is most precious to you, then you should give that very thing - eagerly, with appreciation, and in far greater amounts than you would ever have wanted. You were tested in this way and, regrettably, you failed. The wise guardians of meaningful knowledge must always be there to challenge the random knock at the door, lest all knowledge become the animals in a controlled hunt that are densely herded into a confined space for the benefit of the casual hunter with sloppy aim. Worthwhile knowledge requires investment and sacrifice. It requires commitment and humility. Oh, and purity of intent would not hurt in the least.

Toward the end of your article you allude to a recent recognition that your earlier writing has not always spoken to the essence of things. This is a laudable admission and I commend you for your honesty. A mature author - the intellectually rigorous sort, at least - should see with clearer eyes the faults of his more youthful writing; in recognizing the superficiality of your earlier attempts at understanding, you show that you have achieved this noble plane, and for this, again, you should be commended.

As a fellow writer, and one who does not feel so at ease domesticating cultures that might otherwise choose to run free, I challenge you to learn more about the Hawai'i that so baffles you, to delve deeper into its essence, to cast aside the easier knowledge for the kind that is harder to find and heavier to hold. Your reward, if you are sincere and forthright and if you are blessed with a little bit of luck, will be truth. And the tangible outcome, in all likelihood, will be that most profound and elusive of all rewards for a writer: the ability to find joy and meaning in simple silence.

Best of luck in your future efforts, Mr. Theroux, and thank you for taking the time to appreciate Hawai'i as the unique and special place in the world that it is.

A.J. Perry