Disclaimer: This is an old article. It has materialist, opportunist and extremely individualist undertones. It goes off topic too. End disclaimer.
When I was a freshman in college in Cali, one time we heard in the dorms that somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody we knew had died in a car crash on a road trip up to Seattle or some place. Two people, boyfriend and girlfriend.
One of our dormmates was a Republic 49er girl from Taiwan, South Cali-raised from about age ten. She blurts out: “Oh my God! Were they Asian?”
We made fun of her all night, but we knew she wasn’t that cold-hearted. We knew what she was feeling when she said what she said. In South Cali, if you’re East Asian, then 95% of the people you care about, 95% of the people who care about you, 95% of the strangers who you can really bond with, 95% of the people relevant to you … will be East Asian.
Like I said, my parents used to grill me, “Are you Chinese? Or are you estadounidense?”
To the extent that that was an effort to prevent me from being Anglo-washed, I appreciate it. Taken at face value, though… Why should I be limited to being Chinese, or estadounidense, or even both?
Looking back, I see that, for me, learning Spanish was a way to lay claim to a broader identity as a random Américan — a man of the Américas — way beyond the estadounidense identity that had been put on me somewhat kindly by society but became, at some point, a narrowing factor.
Likewise, learning Cantonese and Hoklo were ways to claim a Pacific Asian identity much more universal as well as “authentic” than the politically invented 49er Republican Chinese identity trap I’d been raised into.
A Slovak saying goes: “Koľko rečí vieš, toľkokrát si človekom.” However many languages you know, so many times you are a person. I can relate. With each widening or re-creation of my identity, I see myself different, and because of that, I see the world different.
Or is it the other way around?
As my path began crisscrossing Southeast Asia, I took on Vietnamese, Thai, and Malay-Indonesian. By this time I was getting pretty good at learning languages. I would learn on and off, in spurts, and mostly in a relaxed way.
People say Malay-Indonesian is easy, and it has been for me, although to master it might be just as much work as with any other language. I started by reading lots of sentences to myself on the bus in L.A. I didn’t know how much I’d learned till I got drunk in Kuala Lumpur. All that Malay started coming out.
I left Malay alone for two years. I refreshed it before my first trip to Bali. Soon, people were asking me if I came from somewhere in Java. That surprised me.
On my last trip to Thailand I had got to where I could hold a conversation. People were surprised to know that I didn’t live in Thailand, had never stayed there for more than three weeks, and didn’t have Thai ties of the romantic kind — pun with Mandarin tàitài (太太) intended. I was just a random guy that spoke some Thai.
Don’t mind but that’s just what I was going for, what I’ve been going for all along — without even knowing it.
I’d like to add other tongues to the mix in the near future. I’ma get into them on and off, left and right. One day I’ll be that dude in this or that city, talking to random strangers in Tamil or Iloko.
People say Southeast Asia is coming together. That’s mostly on a diplomatic and big business level. Thanks to colonialism, then nationalism, the people of SEA mostly have nothing to do with the people in the next country over. They’re more likely to have made friends and had a cup of tea in Hong Kong, Sydney or Toronto than in the country a few hours away across the border.
People say this is because the lands of SEA don’t share a common language, like Hispanic América, nor a common religion, like Europe or the Islamosphere. People figure SEA is such a random mishmash of tribes that it can only connect with itself through English and “modernity”, Singapore-style.
But if Europe can be considered to have a common religion due to most of it being formerly Christian, then by the same token SEA has a common religion: the Hindu-Buddhist blend that prevailed throughout SEA before the coming of Islam.
The Theravada Buddhists of the mainland and the Hindus of Bali and Champa are direct descendants, but the mindsets and heartsets live on in the Moslem and Christian zones too.
Even the exceptions — Northern Vietnam, the South of China, Taiwan, and the Ryukyu island chain — share a Buddhist background on a broader level. On top of that, the commercial culture of the South of China is the mainstream business culture of SEA.
The languages of SEA don’t belong to one language family the way most European languages class under Indo-European, but if you’ve took the time to learn two or three of them, you know there are deep, hard-to-explain similarities under the skin of these languages. Linguistically, like any longstanding contact region, SEA is one big echo chamber.
SEA can get together without relying on English, without the middleman, without the one Ring to rule them all — not just to avoid getting “gatekept”, but also to create deeper flows and deeper resonances between people and people, from the roots up, two or three or five humans at a time.
It’s on me to be that random Southeast Asian, prim@. It’s on me to live in SEA countries and cities not my own, soak in SEA languages and customs that I wasn’t raised into, and live my life — “play for keeps” — all over SEA.
And then, gods willing, go west to India, Persia, Arabia and the Africas, and over to the sun-kissed keys of the Caribbean and the white walls and dark eyes of América Latina, and then back around to Manila like the Galleons of Acapulco. It’s on me to keep on doing it, bigger and badder every time.
This has been my project: to become globally local — randomly universal.
A true story told by Paul Barbato in the Polyglot Project hit me like a Tonka truck:
My parents are both hapas … and are fluent in Korean however they never taught my sister and me how to speak it growing up.
When I was 17, I moved out of my home and after graduating high school I went against my parent’s wishes and ran away to Korea. … After living there for a year and a half, I decided it was time to crawl back to mom and dad. When I came back I noticed three things about my parents I never knew before.
1. Dad used a lot of slang
2. Mom had a Gyungsan-do accent
3. They both used LOTS of swear words
It was like I had just unlocked a secret door to the fortress of my parents. Language made me understand and connect to them in a way I never had before. Now I’m 23 and on a mission. I want to do exactly what I did when I was 18 all over again… But all over the world. There’s so much to see, hear, taste, feel, jump, run, climb, laugh at, meet, enjoy, appreciate, absorb, learn and experience in this world.
¡Eso! You, me, and them, we could be anybody — three times, five times, fifteen times over. Here’s to my lives and yours.
Read more —
part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker