The following was an exchange at an Auckland airport security checkpoint:
Officer, in a most Kiwi accent: so, are you moving here today?
Romanian: no, I am coming here to live.
The other day, I was trying to say the words cognitive effort to describe what it takes to utter something and mean it, but those words did not queue up on my tongue fast enough; I instead said cervical toil, and then justified my blunder with an explanation that cervical has a similar, if not the same, root as the French cerveau, meaning brain. I have to come up with these explanations for my mistakes, though sometimes those also require explanations, and eventually it becomes exhausting to write, say, or even think anything further.
Immigrant Identity 101: Constantly Translating Something
This life course is about how migrants around the world negotiate their own cultural backgrounds with the cultures they encounter, dominant or marginal, in the countries they come to inhabit. We explore how the complex processes of identity formation stem from interweaving aspects of language competence, behavioural acculturation, and cultural identity, and how technology use in an environment of increasing globalisation both amplifies and stymies the development of self. We employ the theories of James Marcia, Erik Erikson, Dina Birman and Edison Trickett, among others, to construct the methods by which migrants build, refine and maintain aspects of their selfhood in geographically, socially, and ethnically diverse contemporary contexts.
Thinking something up for me is like passing over a mound of earth with a metal detector. When it beeps, it beeps because there’s a feeling there underneath and that’s what tells me where to dig, and I dig, and sometimes I have to dig through inchoate things, miasma, unrelated associations before I pull anything out that I can express. So sometimes I find clickety things, things with sharp edges or tartness, and sometimes I find words, but the beeping is still going on, which means I haven’t found the words, you know? The words. But sometimes it stops beeping and what I pull out is something completely unexpected. What feels warm, luxurious, turns out to be a worm or a carrot. Sometimes I get stuck in the earth of language, the mulch I’ve acquired over all these years, and having a conversation with someone is this slow, chewy thing, because the words have to be uprooted and sometimes, often, it’s disappointing when they do come out because they’re gumboots and we were looking for rabbits. Sometimes, often, the words come out slick with oil like they’ve been sardined in a crude deposit for eons. Yet sometimes they come out all sprinkled with dew and only slightly oof and we all turn our heads a little sideways, as if in art mode trying to decipher an abstract painting.
I know, I know.
Sometimes my words don’t work.
I keep putting foreign currency in the coin slot.
No, it’s not all I have.
But it’s all awfully the same shape.
Noise remains something undesirable for people trying to communicating because to communicate is about agreeing and you can’t agree if you’re too much noise in the background, if your grammar is emitting frequencies terribly awful. I don’t just mean agreeing in the nod-your-head sense but agreeing in the pick up my thread or idea and run with it to build ourself a sweater home. Slow down. Use simpler words, this is what they say. I have my native language and my second language and even my third language but they want me to speak a kind of quiet.
They not alone, I want to speak quiet, too. Quiet is a sea and calm. Quiet is woosh and ohm and going to the Sunday market, bumping into a friend and having a conversation about your dogs while picking out potatoes. I should not disrupt the distribution of the sensible. I try not to.
It’d be cool if there was an option to toggle Autocorrect on my tongue. What I’d say would have a user-friendly Apple sheen.
My French teacher used to say that knowing many languages is like having different pairs of glasses to see the world through. He was right. But he didn’t mention that it would not be so easy to keep myself to wearing one pair at a time, and wearing many is at once both uncomfortable and unfashionable, though inevitable.
I pick up the pronunciation of te reo Māori more easily than Anglophones because both te reo Māori and Romanian are phonetic languages. In my first year of living in New Zealand, I discovered that the word ‘honey’ in te reo Māori is mīere, almost the same as the Romanian miere and pronounced almost identically. A te reo Māori teacher once told me that, in her experience, migrants put in more effort to pronounce words than Pākeha.
I decided to learn French in high school because many French words share morphology with Romanian words. The French for ‘moon’ is lune and the Romanian is luna. Honeymoon is lune de miel or luna de miere. I like the early period of language acquisition, because notions can talk to each other without the burdens of context, register and tone wobbling the equilibrium of their match-making.
Noun: immigrant (keep the prefix; it signals your intent to stay put)
Verb: être en train de
Together in a sentence: The trying immigrant is en train d’essayer.
Sometimes my sleeve is folded way up and I dig way down through two or three slipstreams of language and pull out a bone and it’s a bone to pick with someone and it’s iwi and it’s osteoporosis in the making and it’s a Kinder Surprise metaphor for the marrow I was looking for and it’s something to chew on and suddenly I’m a dog. I never know what I might find, nor what I end up finding anyway, but I relish turning it around like a Tetris block and then sticking it somewhere it fits, burying it in the ever-ground. It’s not always satisfying: the words in the sentence don’t all disappear in a flash of great understanding but if I do it often enough and for a long time people come to know what I mean.
The other day, I said to three poets that I didn’t want to step on anyone’s cape. They grinned. Called it a wonderful image. One of them mentioned the usual phrase is step on anyone’s toes, but that’s not what I imagined when I said it.
How do I love thee? Let me translate the ways.
In English, I love you.
In Romanian, te iubesc.
In Tagalog, mahal kita. This is almost everything I know how to say.
In French, je t’aime.
When all of these fail, flowers.
When all of those fade, these parentheses ( ), two concave palms from my chest to yours.
A Romanian current events programme called În Premieră interviews Romanians and subtitles what they say if their grammar is incorrect, if they mumble, or if they speak with a heavy regional accent. The subtitled people are frequently older people or peasants, or young children. If I were ever interviewed by them, I would feel embarrassed, for surely I, too, would be subtitled.
Thankfully, metaphors are my jam
and bread and butter and plate and knife.
On the days I’m most self-conscious about my linguistic prowess, I claim that I’m not fluent in any languages. I can’t speak any of them in a way that’s river-like, in a way that just flows out of me. But maybe there is a way to imagine fluency among multiple languages, a quilted kind of fluency, veering from one to the other and have words come out in whatever original language they may.
I know what you’re thinking: language doesn’t work that way, and people don’t work that way, as in they don’t often come equipped with the languages that I know to the degree that I know them to be able to comprehend, keep up and maintain a conversation. But it’s something to think about, isn’t it, to have languages braid through one another, to have their grammars host peace talks in each other’s dining rooms. Globalisation 2.0.
But as it stands, in this version of the sea, I am always trying to get across, wading for words to come while breathing underwater. I quickly run out of bated breath; speaking feels like an anti-flow, the unfluent, the gasping for words.