Lost in Translation
Art by Em (IG: @slimsense)
My experiences were different from those of my family who grew up in Karnataka, of my friends who grew up in America, and of my friends from other parts of the world. This had left, as Kimberly Rooney says, a “triple nothing” in which I had to navigate the world.
I dream in reality.
Just the other night, I dreamt I was back in my childhood bedroom, curled up under two comforters as the air conditioning ran on full blast. My eyes are closed. A hand clasps mine. It’s someone I am close to. The hand slowly trails up my arm and around my waist. It’s hugging me. I smile to myself and turn around when all at once, the hand tightens.
As it squeezes, I start panicking. Flashes of light blind me while phantom noises make my ears ring. I can’t breathe. I can’t move. My mind is melting.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, it all stops.
And I’m floating.
Floating in the night sky that has replaced my room, I try to control my new ability. Down, to the right, I think, trying to make my way over to the barely visible outline of my bedroom door. I try to reassure myself: If I can get out of this room, I am safe. I slow down as I move, like a mosquito trapped in rapidly hardening amber; though it can’t be more than a minute, it feels as though an eternity has passed.
I have just made it to the doorframe when the hand returns. Repeat. I scream silently, mouthing the names of loved ones, hoping that one would save me.
No one ever comes.
This dream isn’t remarkable—my subconscious is capable of creating far more vivid ones—yet it terrifies me above all others because no one is speaking.
When I began attending preschool, my parents decided to stop speaking my native language, Kannada (ಕನ್ನಡ), in the house. My mother—a published poet during her younger years in India—wanted to foster a love of reading and writing in me, much to the dismay of my computer scientist father. He couldn’t refuse, though, as he had tricked me as a toddler into thinking math was a fun game to play before sleeping.
As a four-year-old, I couldn’t have predicted that their seemingly sensible decision would lead to me renouncing my mother tongue.
Kannadiga poet Da Ra Bendre wrote ಪ್ರಳಯ – ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ (Dissolution – Creation) as part of a collection discussing “the rise, life, and decline of a stone idol.” Not unlike Disney’s Pinocchio, the idol must examine its abilities and odd existence to conquer life's challenges. And despite its initial alienation, as it conquers task after task, it does come to realize the significance of its soul, finally beginning to believe it is “normal”—that is, until it must confront its ending.
The idol thinks:
Like a cloud of smoke that scattering disappears,
the remembered form dissolves; a pall begins
to rise and spread; like form is lost within
a dream, a formless darkness fills all space;
the mind is dense and thick, and time itself
is lost, unknowable; unmoving, the
mind has turned upon itself; what world is
this that lies ahead? An uncreating
sight, a picture! unpicture. Do I exist?
What else exists? A spreading moor of silence!
Though I cannot relate to its inhumanness, when I put myself in the idol’s shoes, I feel rooted in natural empathy. Like other aspects of identity, my relationship with my native language was both empowering and occasionally demanding—this disparity between my soul and physical body, between upbringing and culture, was one indication that giving up my mother tongue was the turning point of my redemption arc.
My parents got more than they bargained for.
Instead of becoming the STEM intellectual with a distinctive literary hobby, I became the rebellious writer that could also do well in technical subjects. They hoped for a model minority poster child, and they got the liberal arts buff.
In my South Indian culture, education is valued above all else. As admirable as that sounds, though, this reverence for education is forged in inequality; to be uneducated means to choose a life of poverty and humiliation for your family over stability and happiness. Society will leer at you, questioning where your childhood aptitudes disappeared to, and if you are a woman, multiply this burden tenfold.
For Indian immigrants in America, the choice between teaching their children English versus their native language is black and white. To know English is to be educated, and if one isn’t educated, one will never make it. We were in America, and if we wanted to stay, we needed to assimilate.
My childhood was a bubble. By this I could see injustice happening through a hazy sheen, but I was protected by those same fragile confines; this otherness only became clearer as I grew older. SAT tutors spent most of their pricey time explaining the Reading and Writing sections to me until I showed them that I was worse at math. A technical communications professor was surprised by my “unique” take on an essay, complimenting my articulation. Software recruiters always ask more about my literary experiences than machine learning.
Why is it so surprising that I can communicate in English? Perhaps it’s because I am expected to be good at math and science only. After all, Asians lack communication skills in the eyes of American employers. Or maybe it's all a grave misunderstanding on my end, but all I know is that my parents, my friends' parents, and my home country of over a billion people are frequently reduced to Exceptional Ability or National Interest Waiver green cards.
I never really agreed with this systemic concept, but my family lived their life by it.
The older I got, the more I could see the stress that lurked in my father’s crinkled eyes, the heaviness in my mother's silence that felt at times like it could physically choke me. At the time, I didn’t know exactly why my life seemed like a monotonous Shakespearean tragedy, but I knew that I did not want my future self to end up as hollow as my parents. No longer could I find the words even in English to console them.
So like Pinocchio, I developed a tendency to lie. Instead of lying about four gold coins, I lied about little things, like where I was going out, what I was wearing under my giant hoodie, and how much I was eating. If I was caught, I was punished —which, of course, led to more lying.
My biggest lie, though, was who I surrounded myself with.
That was the great thing about Miyake’s bonfires. The spread of the flames was soft and gentle, like an expert caress, with nothing rough or hurried about it —their only purpose was to warm people's hearts. Junko never said much in the presence of the fire. She hardly moved. The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.
—Haruki Murakami, After the Quake: landscape with flatiron
When I first met the friends I now consider my lifelong companions, I thought they hated me. The girl was a popular athlete, and the boy was a member of our school’s breakdancing team. I, on the other hand, was just an average person. Sure, I had my positive qualities, but there was no extraordinary trait or talent that set me apart like them.
I clocked in at work, knowing for certain that this shift with them would be filled with judging stares and uncomfortable silence. We had no chance to speak during the first half of the shift anyway, having to rush out orders to hundreds of diners at once. During closing, though, this changed. The girl asked the boy a question about his dancing, he showed us a video, and the conversation began. Somehow, the topic went from light banter to talking about our worries and dreams for the future. By the end of the night, we were clinging onto each other next to the company bonfire, as the moon overtook the setting sun.
Like that first shift, my relationship with my friends (including the two more who were later introduced) was filled with surprises—literally. Instead of planned visits, one of them would call and say “get ready in 5, we’re coming to pick you up.” Within the next few minutes, I would be out of the house.
My parents did not like that.
Still, during these excursions, I was exposed to a whole new level of connection, and through many different languages. For the first time, I was having deep conversations about love, philosophy, trauma, injustice, even sex—Indian parents don’t ever, under any circumstances, have the talk. In essence, these people were the main characters in my grand coming-of-age film. While my parents taught me how to survive, my friends taught me how to truly live.
Through our conversations, I found my favorite author, Haruki Murakami; Korean films like Intimate Strangers and In Between Seasons; and cliche Chinese web dramas. All this new culture fascinated me so much that I started to pick up on the mannerisms and keywords used. These books, movies, and shows especially spoke to me because they talked about issues within East Asian lifestyles that no one ever discussed in Indian culture. And since I lived in an East Asian hub, it was not difficult to get sucked in.
Any time I was not studying at home, I was with this group of friends. We often went to parks together, drinking boba to combat the heat while walking along flowery paths. If we needed rest, we would lie on the grass and feed the ducks in the lake. In these moments, I would make a frame with my hands, capturing the peace I felt with my imaginary film camera. As the sun passed across the park, we’d continue walking, talking, and playing until it was too late to continue.
The winters were even more special. Since we had school, we could only really meet during night shifts at work. After long hours of serving customers, we would eat dinner together, swapping stories of funny mishaps or angry regulars. Our energy depleted, we would go back to the bonfire and let the flames thaw our exhaustion, our spirits rising with them until we felt ready to live another day.
In her piece "Red Strings," Kimberly Rooney discusses a Chinese myth about 月下老人, the old man under the moon. According to traditional folklore, 月下老人 ties together souls who are destined to be together with a red thread. To me, these high schoolers were the souls I was destined to meet.
That is, until our red string was cut.
My final year of high school was a fever dream. In short, without outside encouragement, I succumbed to my parents’ dreams for me rather than follow my own. I stopped caring about maintaining old friendships and started caring a lot about how I looked, naive intentions got twisted by a grapple for temporary love, and I lost all hope that I would find myself.
A heavy atmosphere hung over the last night we gathered at the bonfire, even as we put on a front of normalcy. Looking back on our past, I promised myself I would keep those moments safe in my Super 8mm.
The summer of 2019 after I graduated high school, I went back to India for the first time in almost a decade. This is going to be good, I thought. I can speak Kannada again, get taken care of by my elders… it’ll be like I’m a child again. And for some time, it was like that; even after years of not using my mother tongue, I was fluent. I even participated in cultural holidays.
My favorite holiday is Raksha Bandhan (ರಕ್ಷಾ ಬಂಧನ), a day of celebrating relationships between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie a string with amulets on their brothers’ right wrists to protect them, while the brothers show their appreciation by gifting sisters with toys, food, or money. This shows how both boys and girls have a duty to take care of one another, but this ritual isn’t limited to just siblings. Friends, family, people of all genders can tie rhakis or give gifts. Boys can tie rhakis on each other to show brotherhood, girls can give gifts to one another to show female solidarity, and so on.
One day when I was in India, I woke up to my cousin jumping on me. “Neha, come ON! Wake up faster!” I drowsily looked over at his little hand, carrying a string. My eyes focused. I had forgotten about this holiday, since I did not celebrate it in America. After a quick shower, I tied amulets onto his hand as well as my brother's hand; they gave me rupees from my aunt’s wallet. Then we all got into a car to go to my great-grandma’s house, where our extended family was waiting for us. After catching up and eating together, we gathered to again distribute gifts and rhakis, though my brother and I were—for the most part—left out by all but one person.
Even when taking part in cultural activities, there was still that disjunction between my identity and my family's perception of me. My experiences were different from those of my family who grew up in Karnataka, of my friends who grew up in America, and of my friends from other parts of the world. This had left, as Kimberly Rooney says, a “triple nothing” in which I had to navigate the world.
By going back and forth between languages and personalities in periods of my life, I was putting myself in a vicious cycle of disassociation. Until I was ready to accept that my youth was dead, I couldn’t escape.
Every night before I go to sleep, I talk to the moon. In English, Kannada, or fragments of broken East Asian languages, I account for what I’m thankful for, ask to not have nightmares, and send my goodnights to the people I love. But when I sleep, more often than not, I dream. And whether the dream is good or bad, no one ever speaks.
I often wonder if it’s because there is no language for emotions. Differences aside, we all feel similarly as we make our way through life. Anger, isolation, desperation, fear of the future, love, excitement, peace, and many, many other feelings can seem so clear and relatable in our minds. Putting these feelings into words, however, can feel like free-falling into the ether.
By erasing my language, I misplaced a part of myself. But I remain human. And as such, through writing this piece and many others, by putting words to my dreams, I can begin to let go of the past and find myself once more.
So again, I dream in reality.
And if the world puts its guard down, it can too.