Linguistically Jealous…

Last night we had dinner with two sets of “couple” friends. Rice; daal; potato and green bean curry; P and AS made a Mule Deer curried stew from some of the meat my dad gave us at Christmas time; I experimented with some cheese and spinach stuffed mushrooms. Everything was tasty and the dinner was fun.

As with most dinners, the conversation went back and forth, and eventually we were talking about a couple we knew who was struggling with jealousy issues. From that stemmed a conversation about whether anyone of us has ever been jealous.

I’ll admit it. There was one time in particular that I was a bit jealous…

Last week I attended one of the Black History Month events at my work. Former MTV reality star Mohammed Bilal came to campus with a really interesting speech on “12 Steps toward Appreciating Diversity.” One of the steps (I can’t remember which) was, “Learn a new language. You won’t truly understand someone else unless you can talk to them in their own language.” Which brings me to what made me jealous:

The first few years at university the only Nepalis I knew were guys. There were about four or five of them and there had been several others along the way, including P. Some people at the International House used to joke that Nepalis mustn’t let women study abroad, since only guys came to our school from their country for as long as any of us could remember. However, my third year, while I was abroad, a few more Nepalis came to the school, including one girl—KS. I used to hear from P about all the stuff going on at school while I was gone, and by the time I got back to the school in January, I felt like I already knew these new students.

I was surprised though, the first few times I listened to P interact with KS. They weren’t flirting or anything remotely like that (for pete’s sake, KS always called the other Nepalis “dai,” older brother, and you don’t flirt with your older brother!) The thing that made me jealous was that they could communicate with each other so fluently in P’s own language, something that I simply couldn’t do. I remember feeling like I couldn’t connect with him linguistically in the same intimate way that she could because I didn’t understand that much beyond the basics. It wasn’t what they were saying that irked me, but that they could say it. Being able to communicate with someone at that very personal, primal level, so far from home– of course it’s comforting, and I was sad I couldn’t provide that same feeling as well. It is one of the reasons I try not to object too much when others speak Nepali in the US around me (at least when I’m the only non-Nepali speaker in the room), because I know it is such a part of their identity.

The jealousy didn’t last long, but I’ll never forget how I felt, listening (for the first time) to P talk in Nepali with a Nepali girl. I know it was silly, but language is so personal, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. You’d think it would make me even more inspired to learn the language, but fast forward six years or so and I’m still not too far along (I just wish I could enroll in a proper class!!). I’m getting better little by little, but it’s been a very slow and disappointing process.

So there is my jealousy story to share around the dinner table.

8 responses to “Linguistically Jealous…

  1. Dear CC,
    You forgot that P is fluent in both languages-Nepali and English. So you could/can communicate with him as well as any other Nepali can. -:)

    • Yeah, but Nepali will always be his first language, his mother tongue. He said once that he could potentially forget English someday, but never ever Nepali. So even though he is fluent in both, there is something special about communicating in your mother tongue.

  2. What’s nearly as painful is having been very, very good at Nepali, as I was when I lived there (Peace Corps) and now 10 yrs later to know how much of it I’ve lost. I have a friend on the campus I work at who was a PCV in Nepal in the 70s, and he married a Nepali. He is still fluent, and I hate how I can feel my mind slowly trying to make sense of what he’s saying to me when he sees me and launches into “Oh bahini….”. And after about 7 or 8 yrs out of being touch with my aama from my village, I finally got a contact phone number for her and called a few months ago. I couldn’t say to her half of what I wanted to because the words just wouldn’t come to my brain :(

  3. happinessandsimplicity

    C and I were just watching a tv show that had a married couple on it consisting of an Indian man with a thick accent, and a very American blond woman.
    I got to wondering whether that woman had begun or tried to learn his primary language so that they could switch sometimes so that neither of them would be always the one speaking their mother tongue while the other was working at communicating.

    I’m sure it’s less of an issue if the person speaking English as a second language is fluent in it, but C and I were talking about it, and both of us agreed it would be neat to start trying to learn the other language for the reason I mentioned above, and just to broaden your horizons.

    I have to say that sometimes I experience a twinge of jealousy myself about you and P, and all the other intercultural couples I know or know of.
    C and I are both such WASPs that there is little we can learn from each other culturally… whereas you and P have a whole world of new experiences and other things that you can each teach to the other one. I think that must be so much fun, and so interesting.

    I guess C and I will just have to travel and learn about other cultures together. That won’t be so bad. ;)

  4. I think all people who relate and connect regularly to others speaking another language around them go through different feelings about that.

    I remember going to college, the first place I saw groups of people speaking another language around me, and I actually got suspicious about what they might be saying — maybe too much TV where people use another language to talk bad about someone (Seinfeld has an episode about this, actually, with Korean women).

    Put now, in an intercultural relationship with a Nepali woman, I think jealous might be the best way to describe what I feel, too — she lives with her brother, so they will chat a bit in Nepali (though they both know English) when I’m around, or overhearing her talk on the phone, and I wish I could connect more fully with her/them.

    And there is that idea of never connecting fully in a native language, but it’s something to strive at, and taking those feelings and using them as incentive to learn a language can always be a good motivation!

  5. your post was very interesting to me. my partner speaks chinese and its dialects and i find it so hard to learn…i can’t distinguish between the tones.

  6. i really like ur way of writing.i wanna say thank u so much for sharing ur feeling to us.

  7. i have a lot of friends from different country.They are helping me to learn their language.sometime i make funny cause i dont know how to pronounce fluently.

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