08 March 2013

Language

IMG_7085Feb 2013

I used to be, it's worth noting, quite religious.
13 October 2003
I am touched by Mark 1:20: Jesus calling John and James and how they leave their father “without delay.” I am struck by the urgency of their actions and how this same call todiscipleship falls near the call to repent and believe the good news. Discipleship follows very closely after. Maybe this is particularly encouraging to me because James and John leave their father to follow Christ (he is still in the boat with the hired hands).
Yesterday, Martha left and we both held each other cried and prayed and I think I understand this passage better because ofthe pain. I remember God saying that he will bind up the bruises that he inflicts and I rest in that. The best that I can right now, though it isn’t very much. I feel very far from rest, very torn up inside and I blame myself and my poor discipleship.
I wonder what God thinks as he looks down at this: Jesus doesn’t say anything to James and John to comfort them. He just calls them. Maybe the comfort comes later, or maybe there is comfort in following Jesus in and of itself. Would I be worse off not following? I know the answer is yes, but I feel very much like the answer is no. I don’t want to hurt for the gospel and I don’t want to go. I want to stay at home and see Martha over her school break. I want to be back at school.
“Come, follow me.” It’s so simple and there is so much reckless-abandon in the disciples. How incredible Jesus must look.
In 2003, when I first went to Japan, I had only intended to stay for a year and then return to the US to do an MFA in Creative Writing. I went as a missionary, primarily, although this embarrasses me now and I avoid talking about my first year in Japan in Evangelical terms because I was so spectacularly naive and ignorant. I had the whole dispositif of Evangelical Christianity around me, embodied, quite literally, in hands laid on me in prayer before going. It shocks me as I remember the experience: I thought I was right, that I had the truth, and the Japanese, whoever they were, needed to hear it. I hadn't thought about colonialism, the history of missions in the country–none of it. My paradigm at the time didn't require any self-reflection: it only required doing by saying. Proclamation, testimony: the word was with god and the word was god.

The word, I quickly began to realise, was an English word. I had never thought of this before–native speakers are generally not critical of their own language – and Japanese and the Japanese caused me problems. There are myriads of examples of cultural assumptions embedding themselves in language. The most famous one in terms of converting Japanese to Evangelical Christianity is the lack of distinction between singular and plural forms in Japanese – difficult when you're trying to distinguish between gods and the God. Japanese reflects the Japanese: there is no need to distinguish between the two because there is no concept, historically, of monotheism.

After a month and a half of thumbing through a rather useless Japanese book (Japanese for Busy People, but I wasn't all that busy and there wasn't that much Japanese), I got a proper textbook, one that I understood, and began to study hard, sitting under the trees of Ohori Park in central Fukuoka. Suddenly, I could ask for things: I could function and understand and explore. And as I began to acquire bits and pieces, my interest in my Evangelical mandate dropped and my interest in Japan, in Japanese, and the Japanese grew.

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I want to point to one moment where my paradigm started to unravel but there was no moment: just a series of them. For example, there is a shrine on the top of a hill on Meji dori in Fukuoka, Japan — you miss it passing in a car. It's tucked up behind a high rise apartments and an overgrown cliff. I found it by accident, riding my bike over the New Year holiday. I saw a long stone staircase and I stopped, curious. At the top of the hill, there were worshippers, visiting the shrine to pray for an auspicious new year. I had heard, in the echo chamber of Evangelical mumbling, that Shinto religion was filled with darkness. This experience though was nothing like I had been told. Out in the sun, dressed in kimono, the worshippers rang the bell in front of the shrine and stood quietly–earnestly, hands clasped and heads bowed. The priest handed me a shallow bowl of sake; I drank and watched.

Then there was an English class Bible study that I taught in which an old man, Koga san, told me that he, as a young man, had trained with a bamboo sword for the coming invasion of the Americans. I sat across from him having this vague sense that I was on the wrong side of the table: he, of course, should have been teaching me about how the world is, not vice-versa.

Now, ten years later, I am having the same experience in Malaysia, albeit on a smaller scale: there were no hands laid on me in prayer before coming, and I've only implicitly (although perhaps more dangerously) come to influence the culture. And in the same way as in Japan, my first attempts to study the language have added an intense amount of colour to the world here. My first sentence in bahasa, in Malay, 'Ini masalah kecil,' It's a small problem, reflects the way I'm learning the language; Malay, unlike Japanese, is not rigid and strict, but loose and playful. I've had fun with the administrative assistants here who call me 'Doctor Bebek': 'bebek' (duck) being the affectionate term for the small motorbike I ride.

Standing behind the house, talking across the alley with Auntie, I struggle through a series of phrases I learned at class: This is Mia. That's a door. This is a key to the door. This is the door's key. How are you? and she listens earnestly, nodding.

I tell my students week after week, Form is function; function is form. What you say is embedded in how you say it. When you say, How are you? in Malay, rather than English, you do something different.

I am, of course, still a fat white man: our teacher says, 'Don't pronounce the final consonant or you'll give away that you're a foreigner.' I look around the table of students and think, 'The final consonant is the least of our problems.' Still, a fat white man struggling in Bahasa is better than a fat white man demanding his way in English. Language is not a Sausurrean LAN cable from one head to another: it is phatic. It is always phatic. And we can't deconstruct our or any other culture until we can deconstruct the language. It is the first step. And if I can perform some submission in my broken Malay, this is not only a first step, but also a first step in the right direction.
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