I was not as articulate in English as I am now. Language used to be a firm barrier in my life during my freshmen year of college. That was the first time when I had to step out of my native language, Indonesian, and begin to think in English. Though I still feel self-conscious with my accent, when I give an in-class presentation or simply speak English with strangers, this language has slowly interwoven into my being. Now I understand many more words than I did before. I can participate in challenging discussions with my peers and professors. What was impossible, has become possible.
Now, the problem is more than just the words of the language; it’s the ability to understand all of the underlying meaning that is expressed.
I take it as an elemental truth that language matters–It’s more than just a tool of survival. The language that we use reflects the story that we want to tell ourselves and our world. At its core, language is always brimming with human dynamics. The more I understand about the language of this country, the more my understanding of its human dynamics expands. When I can speak the language that Americans use, I don’t perceive myself as an outsider. I am with them. Their stories are mine and my stories are theirs.
This is a good sign because I don’t feel alienated and have found “home” in a foreign territory. The problem with this connection is that I also feel their pain. When they have struggles, it troubles me because whenever I hear these stories, I don’t want to be part of them.
Last summer in Indonesia when I told a stranger that I was going to America to finish up my degree, her eyes sparkled with amazement. I had anticipated this reaction. Then she said something so common, “Everyone must be so happy in America. There is no poverty. Oh. I wish I could go with you.” This was the America that she had understood from the stories of her life. Even all my friends are still thinking this way.
My stories of America are different than hers.
I work part time as a banquet server at a local hotel in the MSU area. There, for the first time, I have seen people whose lives are so constrained that, to survive, they have to work three jobs. I feel shame about how fortunate I am, working only one job and still squandering my money on useless things. One of those people that I met was a vivacious middle-aged woman named Y. She has been washing dishes for twelve years and she also works at two other places. “I like this job,” she said with such outspokenness. Strangely, a part of me saw layers of tiredness and some deep inner dread behind her eyes. The next day after we talked, she screamed at an empty bowl, “I hate this job!” During my freshmen year, I’d have just heard her words without being able to construct any meaning, but now I understand her meaning that is different from what she’s saying and the pain she feels. When someone must work more than two jobs to survive, I know that her life is not easy.
One time I overheard two of my Chinese friends talking in Chinese to each other. Then an elderly white man whose hair was unkempt approached them, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use Chinese here!” He laughed like a fool and walked away from them. My friends stood shocked. If I had encountered this man when I was still in my freshmen year of college, I’d have judged him directly that he’s very racist and the rest of white men in America were also racist. Three years later, my answers are a little bit different. I refuse to call him a racist because I don’t know the drive of his intention. Maybe one Sunday breezy afternoon he tried to practice his French with his sweet lover in a café, and someone approached them and said, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use French here!” He felt very insulted and he brought the pain to my friends by insulting their language. Maybe a Chinese man had robbed his engagement ring when he went out on a stroll alone in a park. Or, maybe he once had a horrifying dream that everyone in America suddenly speaks Mandarin and he’s the only one who speaks English and he wakes up feeling extremely anxious about his own future.
Maybe after all, when we are talking about someone who is racist, we are talking about his “unresolved” pain and his immense fear of a particular race. Three years ago, I would not have been able to construct these possibilities. Racism is a complex topic and I still don’t know how to approach it.
As this country enters a new period of unrest, I have noticed a transformation of the language that my friends use. From their language, there is a lot of raw human fear circulating through it. I cannot count how many times my friends have spoken to me of their longings to move to a place with better government.
However, this is something I deeply believe: to only mention pain without mentioning beauty is a chronic failure of living.
I have met some people who have taught me to be kind and forgiving in this country. I have exchanged stories with people whose ideas inspire me to be less cynical and more hopeful with the strained reality that we have. I am forever grateful for having the privilege of exposing my eyes to the beautiful color of the trees in the fall. The liberal arts education that I have received at MSU has allowed my mind to traverse across disciplines, time, and spaces. Philosophy has slowly gained my attention, especially Stoicism, as it has taught me to only focus on the things that I can control and ignore the rest. From the literature that I have read across the years in the MSU library, I get to absorb mind-stretching ideas from some of humanity’s greatest thinkers such as James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, May Sarton, Thoreau, Toni Morrison, and Patti Smith .
Standing up amidst those stories from the people I had met and the writers I had read makes me realize that America is far more complex than what I had seen a long time ago in TV and magazines. Sometimes the stories that I had heard are hard to swallow. I don’t know which side I should trust more: the good, happy stories brimming with hope or the sad, depressing stories with pessimism. In other words, I’m conflicted between choosing one of those sides and being deaf to the other side or taking the contradiction gladly because they are part of my reality. What I’m sure of is my greater understanding when I communicate with my American peers and live life with them, good or bad.
There’s a line that has stayed with me from Alfred Kazin’s journal. In it, he wrote, “The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness,” he continued, “And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know.” The more I ponder about his sentence over the years, the truer it sounds to me—the contradiction that I have seen is part of my reality—inseparable and inescapable. I think this is the best-learning that I have gotten thus far from living and studying abroad. I learned that pain and beauty can co-exist simultaneously. I learned that I need to teach myself to see things as they are, not with the intention to judge but to understand. Education must transcend a person’s view of life beyond a traditional classroom. Seeing the contradiction, is not only a part of my own reality, but also, most importantly, is my education.
Photographs by Vidi Aziz