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Not so lost in translation

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APRIL 17, 2023

One of my earliest memories is of my night routine as a young child. The hour between my bath and my bedtime was spent on the living room couch with my Teochew-speaking grandma, watching a Cantonese drama while being warned about the dangers of laying down while drinking something and eating too many cup noodles.

My Teochew has never been good. I’ve been able to get by by combining the basic phrases I know in Mandarin in order to speak to my paternal grandparents. But let’s be frank, “Have you eaten yet?” can only garner one of two responses. Despite my mediocre understanding and extremely limited vocabulary, my grandparents have managed to recognize the meaning in my broken sentences. These statements would range from when I would update them on a perfect score I got on a third grade reading quiz to when I’d show them my college acceptance letters.

I wouldn’t consider myself a worldly person. But, the handful of experiences I’ve had with people across language barriers have shown me that compassion and understanding transcends the spoken word.

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher tasked me with the responsibility every fourth grader wishes to bear — showing the new kid around the school. There was just one problem: My new classmate did not speak English, and I did not speak a word of Korean. For the next few months, we communicated through a mix of charades and hastily scribbled drawings on the margins of our worksheets. We went from being forced to be seat partners to forming somewhat of a friendship, one that was as close as you can get to friendship where your common interests are confusion and a guessing game of the words leaving one another’s mouths. I look back at our rapport as the catalyst of me gaining awareness of the world around myself — of the fact that there are millions of people, all speaking different languages, but going through the same things. Humans are connected by the plethora of tiny little things that make us human in the first place, and language is just an insignificant dot in the mural of humanity.

On a family trip to Vietnam when I was 14, the most mortifying thing that could happen to a prepubescent girl happened to me: I got my period with a dwindling supply of pads left. Looking back now, it was not a big deal at all, but to 14-year-old Naomi who was sharing a hotel room with her dad and visiting beaches and mountains in 98 degree weather, it was earth shattering. Without the knowledge of where the nearest convenience store was and how menstrual products work in Vietnam, I turned to my only choice — asking for help from a local, who I hoped, as a woman in her 20s, would understand my plight. 

After a Google Translate conversation and a few minutes at the store, she discreetly pulled me aside to hand me my saving grace. Despite the fact that we didn’t speak the same language, the woman showed me a compassion that breaks past the barrier of communication. The kindness she showed me made me even more secure in the belief that humanity is universal in every language.

Language has never been an obstacle I viewed as insurmountable — as a middle schooler, I exclusively consumed non-English content. I watched the same obscure Norwegian show probably meant for kids much younger than me over and over. I spent my lunch periods huddled around the cracked screen of my friend’s phone as we watched interviews of the K-pop group we loved. It didn’t matter to me that I initially had little to no idea what any of the shows, movies and songs I loved were talking about. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I always found some odd method to understand the non-English media I consumed. 

Despite the fact that the Norwegian show I loved contained absolutely zero English subtitles anywhere on the internet, I found that if I listened hard enough, I was able to make rough connections between Norwegian and English words. The context clues I picked up between scenes and through the occasional obscure WordPress review I’d find on the internet sufficed. When I say that we are now living in a world without language barriers, I mean it. The average person has now been gifted with the ability to see themselves in the pages of a book, in the actions of a character on a screen — even if these mediums aren’t in their mother tongue.

I have been lucky and privileged enough to have been surrounded by a multilingual community, and to have been exposed to foreign media at a young age. From the times I’ve been able to help give directions to a tourist in my subpar Mandarin, to the times where Google Translate has been my saving grace, our increasingly technological world has allowed me to form connections with strangers and friends and family alike. Language can definitely be a hurdle — but the relationships I’ve fostered despite it goes to show that there’s always a way over it.

Naomi Lam writes the Monday column on human connection. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 17, 2023