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Geum Hye Kim
July 17, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Migration of Intimacies

I came down to Wellington after hastily signing a tenancy agreement with two home-owners who could speak five languages between them. Little did I know that I would soon think of them as an Uncle and Auntie, rather than the given names printed neatly under the terms of our agreement. I had barely paid my third week’s rent when my newfound Uncle and Auntie began referring to themselves using those terminologies of kinship.

The purpose of this article is not to argue for a homogenous experience for immigrant families. This narrative is simply based on my own experience and words from people around me and those who I interviewed. We mostly belong to the category of university-educated East Asian 1.5 or second-generation immigrant youth in their early twenties. This is my reduction of our shared experiences and I put aside any claims of objectivity. What I am sketching out here, instead, is a kind of undefinable intimacy that is shared within a family of immigrants — which is a unit of people who are considered to be transient, foreign beings regardless of their citizenship status or how far they assimilated into the society they migrated to.

Uncle speaks Thai most fluently. He communicates with his wife and their children mainly through a combination of Khmer and English, and he translates what Auntie wants to say into English for me. I’ve so far picked up only one word in Khmer — yam bai, which literally means “eat rice”, according to Google. The actual meanings of the word are “come eat”; “you could share this plate”; “are you full?”; and “did you have a dinner?” I don’t exactly own that word. When I attempt to utter the word, I merely echo Auntie’s accent and intonation from memory.

I explained to Uncle that I was writing about how multilingual immigrant families communicate at home and experience intimacy. As immigrants, our intimacies are defined in terms of shifting boundaries that make themselves apparent only when one steps over it — and we integrate well, dreaming one dream of “one big neighbourhood.” I asked him if he would like to be part of it. I could ask for anything I need, he said, and did I mind having fragments of multiple languages spoken around me? We both knew I didn’t mind. Perhaps that’s the reason why we signed the tenancy agreement without a fuss. There was an implicit understanding between the similarities in our cultures and our experiences. The minor differences in our customs, or the lack of a shared language, was brushed off as irrelevant.

Around me, I often see other immigrant families slip into what may be called a “home language,” adopt a different diction, or perform a cultural handshake, and with threads of conversation in English weaved in smoothly. Amy Tan, who explores the tensions between Chinese mothers and their US-born daughters in the novel Joy Luck Club, also wrote about this similar experience in an essay titled “Mother Tongue”. In the essay, Tan confesses that she became aware of herself speaking a “language of intimacy,” which is more of a colloquial, non-grammatical English that one picks up at home and is reserved for “family talk.” The English she speaks at home with her mother is not the same as the one she picked up through education and uses to express herself at work.

Immigrant families are families in a mid-flight. Having left one land, these families have not yet come to a complete settlement in another land or lost ties with the land they left behind. Each member of an immigrant family will experience the process of migration in a slightly different way. Compared to their children, parents may lean towards the familiar ways back home. The 1.5 generation children, or the elder siblings who already started their education in their homeland, may stay more conscious about different modes of cultural interaction. The second-generation children, or those who experienced the shift at an impressionable age, may feel an urgent need to define their own identity based on their rich and mixed heritage. The task of translating a simple New Zealand English sentence into a home language, for instance, would lead to the eldest sibling, the middle one, and the youngest sibling coming up with different formulations. The eldest might translate “How are you?” into a culturally equivalent term or phrase of greeting; the middle one might attempt something more literal like “How are your situations this week?”; and the youngest would just settle for “How are you?” It is based on the fact that each of these siblings has varying levels of cultural understanding, linguistic abilities, and life experiences.

The truth is, we don’t usually take the time to reflect on the fact that we instinctively choose to speak English with our siblings, while we talk to our parents in their native language. When you are dealing with the typical generation gap, a coming-of-age conflict, and a mixture of love and disdain that only comes from having lived with someone for so long, the subtle linguistic negotiations in our everyday conversations can be easily overlooked. However, I am curious about these subtle undertones of immigrant intimacies. Why do we gravitate towards one language over another? If you find it more comfortable to speak New Zealand English than your other language, would you be more likely to start conversations with your sibling than with your parents? If you are experiencing a problem related to New Zealand culture, are you more likely to talk about it with your sibling, your parents, or someone outside your home?

These questions were largely unanswerable in discussions, partly because our approach to language is often utilitarian. My interviewees seemed to express the view that language is simply a tool to convey their meanings. The majority of interviewees also answered that they don’t often stop to examine their own usage, or the social and cultural implications behind the everyday interactions enabled by the language they speak. It just helps to get points across to others, and we don’t usually reflect on our attitude towards language.

Only to some families, the ability to speak multiple languages attains a mild significance as a distant reminder of a homeland or as a sign of a symbolic victory. For some, the ability to speak more than one language is even seen as a competitive advantage in the labour market, while for others, the inability to speak a language is a source of embarrassment. For the 1.5 generation immigrants, speaking outside home may involve a process of translation. In that case, the concepts they picked up through interactions at home, and the way they arrange the complex web of relationships between objects and people, need to be filtered and moulded into the language they learned through grammar books and dictionaries.

This is why you will hear someone speak in chunks of perfect grammar mixed with inappropriate prepositions and punctuation in the middle of a sentence, splicing together the concepts they intend to express and the proper grammatical structures they memorised. Has/have + be(-en) + -ing makes a present perfect progressive tense, and the addition of an article before a noun determines whether the noun is countable/uncountable, specific/generic, designated/undesignated. These grammatical structures function as crutches when these children play the role of ambassador for their parents, providing translations for the family, and supplementing their parents’ understanding of the official, English documents on important occasions. The experience they gained from the outside world is translated into the colloquial terms of filial conversation around the dinner table. What remains untranslated gets digested with the home-cooked meal, leaving open a space for signature dishes interlinked with memories, exasperations, and longings.

For the second-generation immigrants, the language they learned from everyday interactions with their parents may also be the language reserved for the community of family friends who share the same background. This kind of community may spiral out over time, as the friendship of the parents gets handed down to children who grew up like cousins, and as these children subsequently develops friendships and romantic attachments outside their local community. Small talk and everyday conversations flow out seamlessly, with only occasional halts over complex or abstract terms embedded in one culture or the other, such as those of feminism or politics.

When you are with your parents, siblings, friends, community members, professors, roommates, distant relatives, strangers at a bus stop, exchange students, you would need to choose which language to reach out in. This choice is often a reflex based on your knowledge of the other person, and the underlying assumptions about which language you and the other party finds more comfortable. Intimacy makes such choice easier, and may even make you gravitate towards a particular language without hesitation.

In the meantime, the choice to speak New Zealand English may come with a tension, as your fluency is judged harshly outside the intimate surroundings. The parents of immigrant families tend to speak English quite well, perhaps better than they believe. The only problem is that they may have a different level of fluency for speaking, listening, writing, and reading, and strangers are quick to assess your ability over a single stutter, or a different accent. With intimacy comes the ability to overlook those minor mistakes. At home, and with friends, we fill in gaps in each other’s words, instinctively supplying the correct meaning for a colloquial sentence, an incorrect use of synonyms, or habitual slip of tongue, subconsciously changing “affect” into “effect” based on the contexts, and glossing over culturally different treatments of negations such as “yes, I don’t” — which would actually mean “no, I don’t.” Those who love us, and have known us for longer, are able to see through those impurities.

One evening, the house had a power outage for a few hours. I stepped out with a smartphone torch and saw Auntie sweeping a dim flashlight around the corridor. I spoke English into the dark, and she spoke back in Khmer. Together we went on a search for a better flashlight and lit three candles sourced from various nooks around the house speaking different languages at each other. The electric ceiling lights buzzed back to life just as Auntie went to rummage through a drawer in the living room, which was still dark. I tripped over a cat while trying to tell her. She looked up and saw the light streaming in from the doorway. At that moment, I had an odd sense that what I shared then was a family-like moment.

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