The Bilingual’s Balancing Game

I was 16 when they sent me to compete in this Turkish language olympiad. At the end of our final training day, oğretmenim jokingly told me I wouldn’t be able to win unless I could dream in Turkish that night. I guess it would signal that my mind had stopped translating for me and instead started to think in the once-foreign language, designated it as the ‘primary’ one. The next morning, I woke up vaguely recalling our (short) Turkish conversation in my sleep, and a week later, I flew back from Istanbul carrying a gold medal.

I haven’t been dreaming much Turkish these days, but between Indonesian and English, I could sense that my mind has been struggling to figure out which channel it should let take over as the alpha.

I used to compartmentalize them into my ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ languages. English was simply a language for writing emails at work, for tweeting ideas, for presenting research findings, for thinking about complex frameworks that Indonesian does not have a word for. Meanwhile, my (obviously self-proclaimed) funnier personality was a lot more accessible in Indonesian—I could relax and make deadpan jokes all day long. It was not difficult for me to switch between one track to another; my environment would cue me in and like a chameleon, I would have eased my way into one track.

This line began to blur when I moved to the US and have to also use English to socialize with fellow students. Underneath all the interactions, my English brain has been stretching herself in an attempt to enter an unknown territory and transmit sentences I have never delivered in English before like, “Can’t believe winter is just around the corner!” or gossips about certain professors.

My first semester of graduate school, therefore, had been slightly more exhausting than I expected it to be. I talked to people but felt like I could not fully express myself, such that initiating friendship became futile. The struggle was so real I made myself read a spoken word poem entitled “To the Phantom Jokes that Never Got Out of My Mouth” in front of a school-wide talent show. The first sentence of that piece read, I wish people knew how funny I am in Indonesian.

(By the end of that semester I have made four close friends thanks to negotiation class’s final memo assignment and I have been much happier at school now that I have my support system, but that story deserves its own blogpost.)

I would say that I had been much better at ‘informal English’ today compared to 15 months ago—but it also means that my mind has been thinking a lot in English and I could sense that I would have a ‘reverse struggle’ going back to Indonesia. Not to mention that I had been studying all these cool new theories, frameworks, and concepts for public policy in English. Already, I could feel my brain muscle pulling itself to translate phrases like ‘administrative and political feasibility’ or ‘behavioral nudge’. While living with Wikan helps in maintaining my ‘informal Indonesian’, my English brain has become much smarter than my Indonesian brain, and I worry if she couldn’t catch up.

This winter break, I am going back to Indonesia to do field research for my final policy analysis, which would require me to talk to dozens of Indonesian officials and staff in local organizations. The way I see it, it could be the perfect training lab to help my mind’s Indonesian channel readjust before I come back to Indonesia for good in June. Wish me luck.

P. S. If you happen to be a subscriber to Frame & Sentences video essays (setengah #kode), you may notice that I had been primarily using English. Again, it’s not because I haven’t tried, but the few times that I did, it had always been a nightmare for me to try to convey the same ideas in Indonesian. (We literally have to take 5 times as many shots because I kept making mistakes.) I don’t think it’s because I don’t love my country etc., but because my mind couldn’t access the same depth of thought process in Indonesian. I am working towards changing it, but thank you for understanding. Hope the subtitles help!

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One thought on “The Bilingual’s Balancing Game

  1. Hey, I really feel related to this post. I live in Indonesia, but since the past 6 months my life has been 80% English and 20% Bahasa Indonesia, thanks to my native speaker boyfriend and my workplace that strongly encourage everyone to speak in English. However I do still feel that I’m wittier in Bahasa Indonesia? I can crack a joke, pun, and everything else better in my mother tongue and this actually driving me crazy because I want my English audience to know that I’m fun too. Any advice on this? Thank you and I love your blog and vlog! :)

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