I spend a lot of time reading and writing about programming languages. While this fixation is in part professionally-motivated, my underlying curiosity is propelled by a deep desire to understand, in as many ways possible, the full range of human expression. Programming languages, like mathematical formalizations and human languages, are such forms of expression. Language, being a complex system based in an agreed upon set of rules, offers a framework that is both rigidly structured and yet vastly flexible. Language is a prosthetic for the mind. It allows us to organize information, abstract ideas, form thorough descriptions of our worlds, connect with others, and enable mass-coordination within our species. Language allows us to simulate concepts at the edges of our lived experience. It allows us to escape the boundaries of our physical reality. And yet in spite of all of its precision and power, natural language in particular is ironically ambiguous and fragile. There are never enough words that come close to approximating the full range of our psychic totality. One expression can yield multiple interpretations. The limits of language make communication is a constant gamble; there is always a risk that the words said are not always the words heard.
Earlier today, I encountered the limits of language when I realized that I greatly overestimate my Urdu fluency. This realization was surfaced as a result of reuniting with my aunt for the first time in 20 years. She and her husband were visiting the US for the first time for their son’s (my cousin’s) college graduation, and wound up spending some time in New York City. We arranged to meet in Bryant Park, opposite the Blue Bottle as per her instruction.
When attempting to communicate with my aunt and uncle, I stumbled in conversation, reaching for words my mind has never had to know in Urdu. I frequently misplaced diction, paused uncomfortably, stuttered, and observed my usual pace of speech slow to a halt. The most consistent Urdu I get to practice with any regularity happens in exchanges with my parents. However, like many other Diaspora children, these Urdu streams of consciousness are interleaved with English words, leaving the vocabulary of my native tongue stunted and occupied by vast swathes of English substitution. Rather than being fluent in Urdu, I speak “Urglish”, a linguistic medley that fastens two languages into a pragmatic medium. This means that I can not depend on Urdu alone to form complex thoughts. Given that I only interact with my parents in the language, and because my verbal skills are stuck in a time capsule dating back to when I immigrated, I never developed the ability to parse literary content, nor did I ever learn any slang or colloquialism. I speak with an unnatural politeness. My Urdu is formal, taking on the rigidity and datedness of an older generation while having the unpolished gracelessness of a young, permission-seeking child. I either sound 6 or 65.
Noticing my conversation with my aunt collapse sent me spiraling. I started to over-examine every non-verbal aspect of our exchange: am I dressed appropriately? Was I smiling enough? Too much? It’s Ramadan, am I supposed to be fasting? Should I pretend I am fasting out of respect? Oh, they’re offering me an iced tea. Abort fake-fast. Be real. But not too real.
Growing up at the hem of two cultures can create debilitating cognitive dissonance. It is unsurprising that I frequently descend into analysis-paralysis, especially when I hit the limits of language. Navigating the contradictory values and social norms of two cultures at once can put a child in constant conflict with herself. What is innocuous or even warmly praised in one cultural context can be harshly frowned upon in another. This inner conflict is especially heightened when one culture is moralizes certain beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and ideas within a sacred religious tradition, and is bound to old world respectability politics. Meanwhile, the other culture is founded in the possibility, power, comfort, and privilege of the American Dream: the ultimate reward for assimilation. As a child, I was acutely aware of the penalty each culture imposed on bringing items from one world into the other over the mental border. I continue to pay those penalties. To offer one example, women raised in the Muslim South Asian paradigm are praised for modesty, and often self-minimization. Such qualities that left me woefully unprepared in my early twenties to fiercely advocate for myself in aggressive corporate spaces. And while I never embodied the unencumbered assertiveness, and dare I say, the lack of self-awareness of white feminism, I always felt too loud and too forcefully uncouth at home or in immigrant communities my parents belonged to.
Despite the tug I felt in one direction or another, language allowed me to build bridges between experiences. It gave me a tool to process the dissonance. Becoming aware of the gaps in my Urdu was not just an inconvenience, but it exaggerated the distance I feel from my roots. It is always painful to reach into the mind and return empty, unable to describe our conscious experiences. Forgetting the language of one’s ancestors, however, creates an ache of its own.
Whenever I struggle with my words, my work, or my goals toward creating stability and safety for myself and the people I care about, I try to remember I am only experiencing a small trace of what my parents must have gone through as new immigrants. I can’t claim to completely empathize with their experience, I never will. However, I do have clear memories of my parents being taunted for their accents, turned down for jobs, feeling alienated by the new world they were fighting so hard to survive in. I remember them struggling to identify ingredients in restaurants and grocery stores to check if they were halal, if they were in accordance with the faith that grounded them when everything else felt fragile. Like many children that got bullied for being immigrants, I actively worked to exterminate any lingering hints of an accent, asked my mom to pack “whiter” lunches while failing to understand the tight limitations of a grocery budget that prevented a greater diversity of meals. I tried to eviscerate my roots and assimilate into whiteness. And because of that, I have not only lost bits and pieces of language, but also Identity.