The first book I read in 2016 is ‘The Speckled People’ by Hugo Hamilton. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I finished every book I started. These days I do not have so much time on my hand, therefore I have to be extra careful about what I pick. I read the first few pages and that usually is a good indication of how the book is going to turn out. The first few pages of the ‘The specked People’ reminded me of being wrapped up in a warm fluffy blanket and a cake baking in the oven while the wind is howling outside.
The book is set in Ireland and is a childhood memoir of the writer, the son of a German woman fleeing the post war Germany and an Irish man who is fighting the English invasion of Ireland. The book is about languages and what shapes our love of a language. This book resonated with my own love of English language. I am a non-native. English is my adopted language.
I grew up in Kathmandu, speaking and listening to four different languages -Nepali, Hindi, English and Newari. Each with its own flavor and English was my language of adventure and escape. English to me as painted by the world of young adult books at that time was a milky white world of clean and wide road, of farms and cheeses, of white bread sandwiches and orange juice, of boys and girls deep in adventures and of everything else that I was not.
At the same time English was the language of pain, torment, timidity, class and sometimes pride. Pain and torment when asked to speak in English in front of the class or to an American tourist visiting your house; class when the bright eyed peer from a posh English school spoke English fluently while you stood awkwardly on the side; and pride when you held a decent conversation in English outside of what you had mugged up from the grade school grammar book.
When I first moved to the US in 2001, English became the language of everything. At first it felt cold, sterile and alien- like standing in the cold that envelops you after you come out of a warm shower with no end at sight. Speaking English was painful. First I had to lay out what I had to say in Nepali, and then I converted it slowly in my head, word by word from Nepali to English.
I began to dislike going to classes that asked ‘what is your opinion’, science, math and language classes were safe choices. I did not have an opinion and if I did by the time I converted what I had to say from Nepali to English- word by word- until it felt just right- and slowly raised my hand – it would be too late already. I was not fast enough for the American kids who had decades of experience voicing their opinion. I remember sitting in a group with my peers- all conscious and wrapped up in painful silence trying to find the right and correct words to speak. And it was around this time that I stopped reading for fun. English was no longer my language of fun and escape but that of reality and struggle.
Fast forward to today, over a decade later, out of all the languages that I speak, English is the one that I am most comfortable with. I like the way I write, speak, and listen in English. I have written countless papers, read countless books, and made countless presentations in English. English is what I am most comfortable expressing myself in regardless of the context – social or professional or otherwise. English language has become my home, it is so much of who I am, and it is what I have lived in for the most part of my adult life. It will not be an exaggeration when I say that I love English language. So it hurts when someone says English is not your native language- it is like when someone tells you that your home is not your home- it is temporary and borrowed.
For my daughter born in the US to two Nepali parents, who has a Nepali name and who will be speaking in Nepali at home- will she be defined as a non-native speaker? Is being born in the US enough to be a native speaker regardless of who your parents are and what language you speak at home?