A stranger in a foreign language

A stranger in a foreign language

As a small child I already felt intimately at home in the worlds created by language. My twin brother and I would build infinite wonderlands for play and as soon as we could read, we spent hours buried in Dutch books. More than once did our parents have to call our village library, when I had lost track of time and had forgotten to go home. Books allowed me to be in worlds that were endlessly more fascinating than my lonely village in rural Friesland, on the northern edge of the Netherlands.

My secondary education at a gymnasium provided a proper induction into Dutch high culture: I learnt to translate the Classics from Latin, picked up art history and read more works than my teacher ever demanded of me. To emphasise the fact that we were to be not merely Dutch but also Frisian intellectuals, the requisite poetry masterclasses organised once or twice a year would occasionally be done in the language of our province. I could make obscure literary references, recite a 17th century poem by heart, and even thought myself worthy of tackling the themes of the impossibly intricate The Discovery of Heaven by the complex Harry Mulisch.

For me, therefore, the ideal of Erasmus’ Res Publica Litterarum has always seemed like an almost real place, a place in which I desperately wanted to make my home—it seemed a far more understanding and erudite world than the village world in which I actually resided. My ridiculous attempts at writing short stories would always flounder for lack of inspiration and discipline, but what mattered to me was that I tried, for a brief moment to reach out and be a part of it.

It is perhaps because of this that I was so much more aware of the shock that followed when I moved to university. In the Netherlands, learning English is necessary, even when taking a degree in Dutch. My degree of choice, International Relations, was even more cosmopolitan, being wholly taught in English. While I already had a decent command of the ‘language of Shakespeare’, I had never made acquaintance with the Bard. I felt like I had to pack up my things and move to a new world. This move would turn out to be so definitive that I now speak English to my friends, write in English academically and personally, and even reason in English in my mind. I felt like I had no choice, because I wanted to be part of that grand, exciting world, far away from the drab routines that my ancestors had followed for centuries.

But in my mind I still feel like an immigrant from the smaller Republic of Dutch Letters. I was raised with different myths that told different stories with different morals. But just like other immigrants, I have started to detach myself from my old home. When in October my aunt visited me in Paris, I noticed that my native language rolled off my tongue in ungainly sentences, and was filled with misplaced and awkward Anglicisms.

The Netherlands as a whole seems to live in these two worlds. In the big cities, it is possible to live in an “English” Netherlands. You can live in Amsterdam and interact with government and locals without knowing a word of Dutch. When foreigners appear on television, the audience is supposed to be able to understand without translation. The turn to English is progressing so rapidly that after Parliament recently allowed regular primary schools to teach part of their classes in English, German and French, some worried that our national language would be confined only to the home, making English the language of business and education. Hence, thanks in some part to this characteristic of the Netherlands, my migration to the English ‘republic’ was not an arduous trek, but it still did leave me feeling like a stranger in a foreign land.

For real migrants, the alienation stemming from the move to another nation, which we should remember is always constructed by language, must thus be doubly so large, since you in fact engage in a double migration. You do not get to negotiate the conditions under which you join, the circumstances in the new land: you either take it, or are marginalised. The main origin of friction for migrants is then perhaps the failure to recognise the dual move that is required. Going through the formalities of the citizenship ceremony to prove their new allegiances is not sufficient by itself. They need to move their mind as well, at least partially, to the imagined community of their adopted home. This, however, can be a traumatic and infantilising experience, when one’s former erudition turns into grammatically incorrect stammering.

I recently read an article by Prasenjit Duara, in which he made clear the distinction between civilisation and nation. The former, universally attainable, was over time replaced by the latter, which is exclusionary in nature. Whereas early on Japan could still claim to have inherited the mantle of Asian leadership by virtue of having ‘mastered’ Western civilisation, the nation-state excludes civilizational senses of belonging. The rise of Chinese nationalism around 1900 spread the idea of national independence in Asia as a form of liberation, a way to distinguish oneself from the West. The chief force behind this identity formation, as expressed most clearly by Benedict Anderson’s concept of printing-press capitalism, is language.
The English language community I am part of is perhaps more closely related to the concept of a non-spatial civilisation. When I run into other citizens of this Republic of Letters in universities and on travels, it is easy to connect with them, just like one would when meeting co-nationals. Nevertheless, in a world where nation-state and civilisation are supposed to overlap most of the time, this can give rise to a sense of estrangement once you are back in ‘your’ country, when you no longer primarily identity with ‘your’ civilisation. Is this Europeanisation? Or am I just growing up and choosing for myself where I want to live, and who I want to be?
Often those who migrate do so in part to escape something at home. I am from a province that has its own language, Frisian, which we did not speak at home. That made me somewhat of an outsider, ‘import’ as it is called, and perhaps this instilled in me a sense of restlessness.

My education showed me the way to a much more inclusive world. But it is hard work to ‘learn’ this civilisation and at times I long for the comfort of home. Living in Friesland still comes to me with ease. But when I am there, I now feel detached from my world of books and writing and thinking. It is maybe no coincidence that from this very province comes the epitome in Dutch poetry of not belonging, J. Slauerhoff. But in his despair, he found hope in his own creation.

Nowhere but in my poems can I dwell,
Nowhere else could I a shelter find;
No love of home preoccupied my mind,
A tent could be uprooted by the gale.

Nowhere but in my poems can I dwell.
While I’m still sure that in the desert bare,
In steppes, in towns or in some wooded vale
A roof can still be found, I have no care.

Though it be long, the day’ll dawn without fail
When before eve my former strength declines
And pleads in vain for the frail words and signs
I once built with, and earth will have to keep
Me enveloped and I’ll have to bend down deep
To where my grave bursts open, dark and pale.

J. Slauerhoff, translated by Paul Vincent

By Sense Hofstede