On one family trip to India when I was 10 years old, my great-uncle took me out to a movie theatre to see a newly released Tamil movie. Afterwards, maybe because he thought he was being “funny”, he quizzed me on the major plot points of the movie, asking questions as simple as the main character’s name and as complicated as the villain’s motivation throughout the story. I struggled to come up with any coherent answers to his questions, largely due to my inability to understand the language. Although I understood Tamil well enough to accept basic instruction from my parents (“Food is ready”, “Hurry up”, “Have you finished your homework?”), I was far from being able to understand the intricacies of a long, complicated, and frankly confusing movie. Also, as a reminder, I was 10. After a string of questions I couldn’t answer, he concluded with, “Maybe it would have been better for you if there were English subtitles.” When I got back to my grandparents’ apartment, I locked myself in a room and cried, bearing the shame of a child who knew they should have done better.
I would grade my knowledge of Tamil as “poor” at best. This stems mainly from the fact that I cannot read it, I cannot write it, and I sound like a fourth grader with low self confidence when I speak it. I have always been jealous of my immigrant friends, who, despite having their own struggles with their native languages, always seemed to be better at theirs than I am with mine. They are able to recall simple vocabulary with minimal effort, communicate on a basic level with strangers, and most impressive, understand movies in their native language without subtitles. In contrast, I struggle to have more than a 5-minute conversation with my grandparents in Tamil before switching into a strange Tamil and English hybrid (Thinglish, I shamefully refer to it as) which is just English with an occasional Tamil word thrown in to give the appearance that I am much better at Tamil than I really am. I’m certain it doesn’t fool them.
My lack in Tamil fluency is not, however, for lack of trying. After the traumatic experience at the movies at age 10, I wanted nothing more than to get better at Tamil. I remember watching Kolangal on Sun TV at 9pm every night with my mother, not because the show was good (in fact, I remember it being very bad) but because I wanted to hear more people speaking the language. As a result, I got much better at understanding when other people speak Tamil, which is leagues beyond where I was just a few years prior.
Unfortunately, there was still a gap between understanding the language and speaking it myself. On family trips, I would engage in conversation that was happening around me in Tamil but respond only in English, too ashamed to push my broken Tamil onto everyone else. Amma encouraged me to at least try and speak it with my cousins, who she felt would be warm and welcoming. Turns out that kids are just mean. My cousins would ridicule my “American” accent while speaking Tamil and would respond to me in English because, in their words, “it’s just easier.” My uncles and aunts would default from speaking Tamil to speaking English around me. I knew they meant well and were only speaking in English to help me feel more comfortable, but the special treatment served as a reminder of my other-ness. That although I was culturally Tamil, I also wasn’t, because how can you be Tamil if you don’t speak Tamil?
Language is at the core of how we share our identity, and communicating who we are is how we feel safe and comfortable with each other. For me, the language I use plays a large part in who I become. There’s English-Deepak, who can be talkative, affable, and occasionally rushes to say things without thinking them through. Then there’s Tamil-Deepak, who is shy, nervous, and quiet, speaking only when absolutely confident that his responses will be grammatically correct. My extended family, and even my grandparents, only really know Tamil-Deepak. They don’t know the Deepak that likes to tell jokes and obsesses over word games. It makes me sad to know that I haven’t been able to share that person with them.
Being able to understand Tamil while not speaking it only makes things worse: I can learn about other people’s identities while not being able to share my own. I know the deeper nuances of my family members – one uncle is reserved in public but loving at home, another aunt is bitingly sarcastic but knows exactly what to say to make someone feel better when they are hurt. To them, though, I am just another “sweet, hardworking boy”, which are adjectives used in Indian households when there is nothing better to say.
At the beginning of quarantine, I nervously asked Amma if she could teach me and my brother Tamil. For the next two and half months, she spent three hours a week teaching us the Tamil alphabet, reading us Tamil children’s stories, and helping us to eventually even write our own names in Tamil. Although I have much longer to go, I owe it to my family and to myself to bring English-Deepak and Tamil-Deepak as close together as I can. I’d love to make my grandparents laugh with a joke in Tamil. Maybe I’ll even watch a Tamil movie without subtitles. The possibilities are endless. I’ve spent so long afraid to learn a language I’ve been surrounded by almost every day of my life. It’s high time I face my fears.
My Name in Tamil
I have a shyness about speaking Chinese that comes from a feeling that I ought to be better at it than I am. When I was very young, elementary school age, I was naturally bilingual. My brother and I used to memorize and recite Chinese shī, of which today I remember exactly one, about homesickness by Lǐbái, which is so well known among second generation Chinese Americans that there are memes about it.
By around middle school my Chinese had been worn down through disuse. I attended Chinese school but did poorly despite doing quite well in normal school. I remember getting my report card one year and refusing to show it to anyone until we got home, at which point I went straight to the bathroom to try and change the letter grades (I did not get away with it). I had a habit of skipping the homework and mostly just cramming for tests, and I coped with it by compartmentalizing away how much of a failure it made me feel. In 9th grade my high school offered IB Chinese, so I convinced my parents to let me take that instead, which allowed me to both avoid learning French or Spanish to fulfill the requirement, and also freed my Saturday from Chinese school.
I have one traumatic memory from this time that has stuck with me. I was at an airport in China with my mom. Mark and Dad had gone off to do something, maybe we were waiting for a plane. We would go to China in the summer to visit family and for those few weeks Mark and I would lose most of our autonomy, going out only when our parents would go out, depending on them for meals, and of course at this age we didn’t have smartphones so there was never anything to do except read books we brought with us and if we were lucky play GameBoy.
We were sitting in the terminal when my mom asked me to go over to the store and buy a bottle of water while she watched the luggage. I was immediately nervous about the idea, and I started running through the list of ways I knew to ask for water – bīngshuǐ, iced water, but that’s more of in a glass at a restaurant, or maybe just shuǐ, but I don’t want to sound like an idiot, how do I say bottled water? Is it kuàngpíngshuĭ, am I even pronouncing that right – while also trying to mentally prepare for other possible interactions with the sales clerk. My mom gave me some money and encouraged me to go, probably hoping that I was just nervous but when put to the task I would be able to succeed and gain confidence. I walked over to the store. Made a few circles around it before stopping at the fridge where the cold drinks were. It was locked so the clerk asked me what I wanted, and I mumbled “kuàngpíngshuĭ.” She looked confused and asked me what I said, and I repeated myself, so she asked if I meant “kuàngquánshuĭ” and I nodded in agreement like I had known the word the whole time with my insides shaking, and she rung me up, and I paid, got my change, and went back to my mom, who made a face when I brought her the change and asked me why the water was so expensive, and I didn’t know, because I guess my Chinese was so bad that I didn’t know how to buy a bottle of water, and I started crying because in that moment I knew that she knew it too: this unstated assumption that if I just stayed shy in Chinese and only spoke when I was 100% sure I knew what I was saying then people would assume I was fluent, this cover I hid under which both made me feel safe and stopped me from actually trying to exercise my Chinese, which is the one thing you need to do to gain fluency, was now and had probably always been a thin lie and if you tried you could see right through it to the crying high schooler who was at that age too old to be crying because he failed to buy bottled water, but old enough to cry from the shame of having failed to learn Chinese.
The expectation I place on myself about my ability to speak Chinese brings out an inner conflict similar to the feeling I get when I am taught about Chinese history by non-Chinese historians – there is a wrongness, or needlessness, like I should already know the things I’m being taught because it’s my heritage, yet of course a historian knows more about it than me, seeing as I have never studied ancient Chinese history except briefly for grade school projects. Of course my Chinese shouldn’t be very good, I hardly ever speak it. But of course my Chinese should be better, my parents are from China and they speak it around the house all the time. I grew up speaking it, or more precisely maybe I spoke it and then I grew up. But still I sometimes find myself wondering if it’s the kind of thing I should be passing on to my future children. What would it take on my part for them to not end up pronouncing the few Chinese phrases they’ll learn in a thick American accent? I’d have to speak it around them all the time. My partner would probably have to speak it. Suppose I speak it as much as my parents did – my early childhood at least gave me much less of an accent than most people who try to learn Chinese as a foreign language. Yet doesn’t the fact that I didn’t end up with that much Chinese mean that I’d have to speak it even more than they did?
Language is a big part of culture. But the truth is that my culture isn’t that of Lǐbái’s poetry, but that of its memes. Not Chinese, but Chinese American. There are parts of my culture that were passed to me from my parents: an appreciation of debate, the value of education, a love of music, these are much more a part of my life than the Chinese language. There are also certain parts of my culture which emerged unavoidably from their immigration to the US: the feeling of being an outsider, learning to “pass” as white, and as I grow older, the perception of my parents as politically old fashioned, an adaptation to the 70′s in China more so than the 21st century in the US. Culture is something that we cannot help but change, and we cannot help but pass on. What makes language different is that its preservation requires specific effort. My parents learned English so they could study and start a life in the US. I have friends in my position who have taken larger steps towards preserving their languages in their 20s. Sijia and Florence, whose Chinese skills are much better than mine, read Chinese novels and watch Chinese TV shows. Max Yu in his play Nightwatch delves deeply into the history of the Cultural Revolution as a way of exploring his family’s past through narrative. It’s not an impossible task.
Language itself was an adaptation. A necessity. You learn a foreign language by immersing yourself in it, by making it the way in which you interact with your world, and the more you force yourself to rely on the language, the stronger your grasp of it becomes. In high school I didn’t have the tools to deal with the shame that I felt. Since then I have learned how to deal with shame, largely out of necessity. I use the word trauma not to mean terrible or dramatic, but to refer to experiences which I wasn’t equipped to deal with at the time. I have learned other ideas like “forgiving yourself,” and “admitting when you’re angry.” I’ve learned how to recognize when I’m being an asshole to someone, and that it feels remarkably similar to the feeling that someone else is being an asshole to me. I don’t know that I would call these things a language, but I do know that I’d just as much like to pass them on, and I believe that with the right intention I’ll be able to.
Being the primary meal preparer between myself and Michela during quarantine also means that I strongly influence what we pick up on our weekly grocery trips. It’s not that I’m an amazing cook, but thousands of hours of food media have definitely emboldened me: I may not be amazing, but I am fearless in the kitchen. Some of our quarantine staples have been: pan fried chicken thigh, roasted broccoli, Chinese string beans, chili-lime kale salad, french omelette with cheese, kimchi fried rice, tacos with fajita veggies, and Chinese egg and tomato. We also cook frozen food, ramen, pasta, rice and other grains, and we also order-in a few times a week. We get variety, but I also have a bias towards familiarity so I don’t go looking for new recipes the way I did with Mark when cooking was a weekend activity instead of something I do to have food.
Michela and I have been reading about police abolitionism, which it turns out actually isn’t very radical. The main idea is just that most cities in the US today task their police forces with a lot of stuff that might be better handled by other organizations: answering calls about people living on the street, mental illness calls, and small crimes. Abolitionism is a call to shift funding from the police to these other organizations and social programs which reduce crime.
A few weeks ago when we went grocery shopping, Michela picked up some fresh rosemary. I was skeptical about how we would use it. She didn’t have a plan, and we’ve let food go bad accidentally several times in the last few months, so I’ve been trying to take a conservative attitude on groceries, only buying things when I had a plan to use them. The rosemary ended up sitting in the bottom of our fridge for several weeks, despite near-daily reminders I would bother Michela with, that we still needed to use the rosemary.
My first response to the idea of abolition was that it made sense but I wasn’t sure why it was preferred over reform. Reform has been “tried” but to the extent that it hasn’t worked I also feel like it hasn’t been wholeheartedly implemented. Part of the problem is that attempts to reform the police from the outside tend to be met with extreme skepticism and patronization from the officers, according to Vitale in “The End of Policing.” Vitale also calls out reformist policies like community policing – the idea of some prototype of policing where neighborhood police are known and respected in the community – which call for things like increasing reliance on Police Athletic Leagues, positive non-enforcement activities with youth, and more focus on getting to know community members, things that Vitale says do not reduce crime. It’s worth noting that community policing has been shown to increase trust in the police and decrease perceptions of biased treatment, even among residents in high crime and high poverty neighborhoods.
Yesterday we made rosemary pesto off of a recipe from the internet. It asked us to make the pesto in a food processor, which didn’t work for us because the rosemary needles just got mucky and wouldn’t pulse, so we scraped it out and chopped it up on a cutting board. The pesto was delicious after we added some lemon juice and pasta water. I’ve never cooked with rosemary before, and I probably wouldn’t have if Michela hadn’t pushed it on me, so maybe I should be less resistant to buying things I don’t yet know how to cook. Being forced to use rosemary taught me about it as an ingredient. It’s intensely herby and a little throaty. Fresh rosemary has a sort of bitterness to its aftertaste, but by adding more acidity and salt we were able to balance it out.
While there is room for investigation when looking at reform and abolition, I do think that from the current state of things, both kinds of policies move us in the correct direction. The rerouting of funding is overdue. As Dallas police chief David Brown said,
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops … that’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
This blog officially endorses police abolitionism and rosemary.
One time in high school we watched a clip from a game show called Golden Balls where two contestants choose to split or steal a shared prize a la the Prisoners’ Dilemma. They get 1 minute to reason with each other about their options. If they both choose split then they each get half of the prize money, and if they both choose steal then neither gets anything, but if one of them chooses split and the other chooses steal, then the one who stole gets the full prize.
In the clip we watched, a short and innocent looking lady is matched against a man, and she spends the whole minute pleading with him not to choose steal. He agrees early on, and then spends the whole minute reassuring the lady that he will split. Then when the timer runs out the lady chooses steal and the man chooses split.
I’m writing this post because nothing has ever made me angrier than the class conversation that followed, in which a girl in my class said that she thought the lady was kind of a genius. That she technically didn’t even lie because she never outright promised to split, and that it was impressive how she was able to outwit the man, and isn’t that what the game is all about? And I’m actually seething with rage just recounting this. Because what kind of fucking idiot, what kind of narcissistic and condescending piece of shit do you have to be to not only betray someone when they acted out of good faith and meta-rationality – but on top of that, to think that you outsmarted them? As if it didn’t occur to the man that the woman might choose steal. It’s literally the point of the game you moron. There’s only two things the woman can do, and your tiny brain thinks that doing one of those things is some sort of unexpected remarkable play? Well here’s the bit you missed while you were jerking yourself off on how much better than other people you think you are: when you chose steal, YOU DID THE UNREMARKABLE THING.
You did what a monkey would have done. You followed your immediate incentives. I’ll see you in 30 years when your heart is full of hate and you deserve it, and not just me – every discerning and intelligent person in your life will have sized you up, and we’ll all judge you for it, and you’ll never change our minds unless you begin to change yourself, which will never happen because you can’t see past your stupid forehead, and it’s the year 2050 and you’re still here, congratulations you got carried on the shoulders of people who care enough about others they HATE that they didn’t leave them behind on the dying fucking planet they created. Here’s your stupid fucking banana Einstein.