“Watch your language!” — I know what this sentence means colloquially in English. English is not my native tongue. I know no equivalent phrase in any other language I speak.
A hobby of armchair linguists is to quip about words of phrases from one language that have no equivalent in another. Various aspects of a language can be untranslatable—terms, grammatical structures, social structures, word plays, cultural symbols, etc.—and the study thereof forms an entertaining hobby.
It is, however, not what I would like to share today.
The topic, instead, is one that I find hard to share. Not hard because I am afraid of elseone’s reaction, nor because sharing this makes me somewhat vulnerable. It is hard because I lack the language to talk or write about this. And by “language,” I do not mean only words, but also the cultural and linguistic referents that make an explanation possible: I do not know how to bring someone who does not understand this yet, to a place where they do. I cannot yet visualize any intellectual path, any analogy or metaphor, that would make an effective explanation possible.
What then? I’ll make an experiment: instead of an explanation, share experiences.
I call my psychiatrist my “doctor.” I see my doctor at least once a month. We talk in Dutch. We do so because this is the only language wherewith I know how to talk about myself honestly, without pretense, touching my raw feelings and thought processes unfiltered. English would fail, because most words I know in English I have learned from imported cultural artifacts, and therefore convey semantic baggage referring to experiences, scenes, personalities, cultural elements, emotions that I have never experienced myself nor never seen experienced directly. “I” cannot be a topic of conversation in English and simultaneously feel unadulterated, a prerequisite to talk effectively to a doctor.
Consequently, I do not know how to talk about the work I do with my doctor with my USAmerican friends, in English. Knowing the connotations of “therapy” in the USA, knowing the English vocabulary used and yet knowing how inapplicable I feel that vocabulary is to me, any conversation what would refer to my interactions with my doctors feel fundamentally off—inaccurate, flawed, necessarily misunderstood—so I don’t even try. Meanwhile, I do talk about my doctor and the benefits thereof with my friends at home, and I know how to recommend that they seek and find similar benefits for themselves, because I can use with them the same language I use with my doctor.
So, to summarize, my doctor and I speak a language together, and I can talk about my doctor in that language and not in another; not because I lack words, but because I lack myself in its semantic domain.
This, in and of itself, is an observation that could sustain interesting conversations with armchair linguists.
And yet, this is still not what I would like to share today.
What I’d like to point out instead is this. My doctor has brought something important in my life, or rather, has helped me bring several important things together. This work and its consequences are a pretty major part of who I am today. It is thus natural that I would like to share this with those people whom I consider to be my friends. And so I want to! And I do, at least with those who happen to understand Dutch.
Now, I find myself sitting together with friends abroad sometimes. Friends who have been kind to me, open and honest, and whom I feel I can trust. Friends with whom I would love to be fully open about who, what I am. And yet, every time I would like to talk about my doctor, the language I have to use with them makes me feel I am lying, inaccurate, off.
Think about this; how would you feel if you were so cursed that every word you uttered about your favorite topic, about your most important topic, sounded like a lie?
There is an important parallel to be drawn here, one that is also curiously relevant as I will reveal below. Think of closeted individuals. For example, or rather said, in particular, folk who happen to have romantic interests that are non-standard in their surrounding dominant culture, and who hide this deviation from their loved ones, consciously or unconsciouly. Much has been written about their feelings: the shame for lying about who they are, the frustration for not being able to be themselves “fully,” the sadness of knowing their loved ones are missing out on a major part of their identity, etc. Much of these feelings are put into words only at the moment they are shed: one only sees who they can be themselves “fully” when they “come out,“ in comparison with the closeted phase. The relief that comes with shedding the lies reveals the shame associated with them. Only the shared happiness of truly knowing their peers, their loved ones without that filter fully reveals how much is missed when the openness is not complete.
I believe that my feelings regarding how I fail to reflect on my interactions with my doctor during my conversations in English are analogous to that of a closeted individual, except that the topic is not romantic or sexual preferences but rather self-awareness and individual development. And that I cannot readily “come out” of this closet, because I do not have any instrument to do so.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about this other topic. What I precisely identify as when it comes to sexuality and relationships could be a topic of discussion of its own, but suffice say for now that I am keenly aware of the difference between romantic and sexual interests and behaviors, between gender and sex, between love, lust and limerence, and that I have first-hand experience with each location in the triangular theory of love.
I have, in fact, consumed and learned an inordinate amount of resources, literature and materials about the nuances of human interactions, in English.
And my saddest linguistic admission is that the Dutch language is mind-bogglingly, maddening inept at conveying most of these nuances.
The best you can do in Dutch is describe what or whom you find “nice“ (leuk). Most Dutch people with limited affinity to this semantic domain in English struggle to perceive the difference between gender and sex; in fact, the Dutch word “gender“ is only a recent import from English. There is no rainbow of sexual identities in the Dutch language: one can be either a homosexual or a heterosexual, and a conversation about fluidity, time-contextual changes in preferences and nuances like pansexuality, sapiosexuality or demisexuality is treated with the same politeness as given to conversations about magic cauldrons, unicorns and leprechauns; even bi-sexuality is rarely understood, let alone accepted.
For so far I have experienced, and to the extent of my linguistic knowledge, the Dutch language, and by extension, the culture of folk who have little experience with anything else, are still at the prehistory of the nuances around human relationships.
Consequently, I do not talk about this with my doctor.
How ironic is that? After expounding in multiple paragraphs about how unfortunate it is that I cannot talk about who I am, viz. my doctor, in English to my friends, what sense does it make that I wouldn’t talk to my doctor about who I am, viz. how I relate to other people including my friends, in Dutch?
Talk about awkward and impractical. And yet, that’s where I am.
Every time I broach the topic of relationships with my doctor, I talk about concrete experiences and general aspirations, and I meanwhile feel like there is a world of nuances that is bubbling up inside me and just wanting to burst into the conversation. Then I search my words, and then I give up—for I simply lack the words to talk about it. And so I routinely feel like I am hiding something, for no fault of my own.
The situation turns from bad to worse when I reflect on my local social circles. Those Dutch-speaking friends with whom I feel most comfortable being my natural self have had, from either their younger age or from accidents of life, limited exposure to those aforementioned linguistic nuances that are now dear, and close, to me. It has become very obvious that they find it hard to describe where I fit in their discrete model of possible human identities. I do not fit the gay/straight dichotomy that they are used to; and I routinely intellectually laugh at their look of confusion when I honestly respond “it depends“ to questions about whom or what I feel most attracted to. The laugh is short however, because I also quickly remember that this lack of understanding also comes with painful consequences: less fluid conversation, more emotional distance, a general feeling of othering which I have no instrument to work against. They say lovingly that I am “weird,” I think “really it is not so complicated,” and I am sad that this misunderstanding is doomed, linguistically, to never disappear.
Furthermore, it doesn’t help that conversations in Dutch only feel genuine and honest when the participants deliberately limit the amount of code switching, which is otherwise culturally perceived as slightly sloppy and careless, and thus inadequate for sincerity (mostly, I reckon, because of doubt that both participants have equal understanding of the foreign words).
In short, my friends whom-I-speak-Dutch-to do not know who I am because I do not have the words to tell them.
Stepping out of the sharing of experience for a moment, I realize that I can relatively straightforwardly systematize in which language the different aspects of who I am exist linguistically—i.e. where I know the “true words“ to share them with others, and, thinking inwardly, with myself.
|Aspect of existence||English||Dutch||French|
|Education, educational methods||✓|
|Learning and scientific methods and practice||(✓)||✓|
|Groceries, household maintenance||(✓)||✓|
|Informal interactions with acquaintances, public sphere||✓|
|Finance and taxes||(✓)||✓|
|Literary preferences and experiences||(✓)||✓|
|Self-awareness, raw emotions, contemplation||✓|
|Practical and organisational aspects of relationships||✓|
|Emotional and sexual aspects of relationships||✓|
|Governance, incentives, power structures||✓||(✓)|
|Social identity and struggles||✓|
|Agency, consent, self-determination||✓|
|Third culture and associated struggles||✓|
|Experiencing and sharing experiences of video games||✓||(✓)|
|Moral and spiritual values||✓||(✓)|
|Cooking, handy work||(✓)||✓||✓|
|Bitching about minor inconveniences||(✓)||✓|
|Philosophy and exploratory metaphysics||✓||✓|
|Deliberate and manipulative lying and bullshitting||✓||✓|
The epitome of this fragmented identity is, as clearly revealed in this table, the split that comes with relationships: I can manage sex and nuanced feelings in English, and manage compromise, consensus and raw emotions in Dutch, but feel immensely awkward doing it any other way.
I had to wait until I was 23 to start discovering who I was. I had to wait twelve more years beyond to start to feel that no major stones was left unturned. There were five milestones.
Their specific nature and the associated story are for another time. Today, I’ll just state that three of them I can easily talk about in any language, whereas two of them are, until now, experiences I made in English and that I cannot share in any other language.
One has been a heavily recurring theme throughout this blog; my friends know the pains I have with the question “where are you from.“ As I learned fortuitously and serendipitously in 2011, these pains have a name, and they are shared.
Learning the true words for this part of who I am was a relief, like a proverbial weight lifted from my shoulders. Merely knowing them has helped me numerous times: I can more easily search for related experiences or techniques to deal with struggles, and I now truly know that I am not alone in that regard, that I share this particular predicament with many others.
Talking about that part of myself with peers, especially close friends who deserve to know about this, is, however, a different matter entirely. Immensely lengthy explanations would be needed to educate, and again I do not easily perceive the intellectual path that I can help someone walk towards an increased understanding of the related concepts. And so I do not.
Thankfully, there are materials that I can point to. Numerous blogs, books, articles, have been written about this topic and various emotional and social aspects around it. It is just a matter of sending a clarifying link during or after a conversation where that topic was mentioned, or where I would otherwise want to open up about myself.
None of this content has been translated.
I can barely refer to it in Dutch social circles, because although most Dutch people can talk quite decent English, far fewer are comfortable reading it. Moreover, by virtue of English-speaking culture being fundamentally foreign around here, it is hard for most to link English-written materials that I would ask them to read and that would be perceived as fundamentally remote, to me, a person of flesh and bones most obviously immediately non-remote.
In short, Dutch people find it a stretch to accept that they need English-written materials to understand someone they know directly.
An incidental yet crucial misfortune, as I only recently discovered, is that my mom simply does not grok written English, like, at all. There is no way that I can effectively convey these things to her. And the saddest thing of all is that my mom is a TCK herself, has always been, and never learned the true words for it. I know this, I often see how much she is missing out because of this, and yet I feel powerless to teach her.
The other is another pretty important topic, back into the realm of relationships, the notion that one can develop meaningful, committed, loyal emotional bonds with more than one other person.
Unfortunately, the semantic field around “polyamory” has been polluted in English by a cultural movement with cult-ish undertones. As the saying goes, “the main characteristic of polyamorous relationships is that the participants only talk about polyamory and relationships” and I experimentally found this to be true—albeit perhaps only for folk who openly designate their way of life using words from this semantic field.
And so I cannot easily talk about this using the most technically accurate words, even in English where they were invented, lest I risk tainting the conversation with the assumption that I can only engage a relationship with someone under the condition this becomes a front and foremost permanent topic of conversation.
Still, the underlying notion is a fundamental part of who I am; notionally, I am a firm believer that one cannot expect a single person to satisfy one’s every emotional and sexual needs and I can spell this out at any level of nuance and sophistication by taking into consideration aspects like unfair expectations, the weight of responsibilities, the recognition of human diversity, etc. (All aspects which I can expound on upon request.)
Meanwhile, again, the true words are unavailable to me. They are neigh impossible to use in English due to the aforementioned hurdle. They are impossible to use in Dutch because of the aforementioned coarseness of the Dutch language and culture when it comes to designating effectively nuances in relationships. Even in a culture where “open relationships” are relatively common and well accepted, with one committed partners and a number of ephemeral accessories, the notion of “multiple relationships,” especially loyal and long-term, simply does not register.
And thus the linguistic opaqueness is complete, with no audience with whom I feel at ease with transparency.
Sometimes, I wonder what life would be if I was tetrachromatic, especially in a significant different wavelength range than the other three already perceived by fellow humans. It is one thing to ponder philosophically about whether one’s experience of the color designated by the word “red” is the same experience as elseone’s. It is another thing, I’d wager, to experience a color which most likely isn’t experienced at all by elseone, and where words will thus necessarily be lacking.