I spend a lot of time reading, writing, using, and thinking 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 human languages and mathematical formalizations, are such forms of expression. Language of any kind is ultimately a complex system based in an agreed upon set of rules. Language is a communication device. It offers a framework that is both rigidly structured and yet incredibly flexible. It allows us to organize information, abstract ideas, form thorough descriptions of our worlds, connect with others, and enable mass-coordination within our species. We use language to simulate concepts at the edges of our lived experience and transcend the boundaries of our physical reality. In many ways, language is a prosthetic for the mind. And yet the irony is that in spite of all of its precision and power, language can be ambiguous and fragile. There are never enough words that come close to approximating the full range of our psychic totality. Language thus confines how we understand others, our world, and ultimately ourselves. This is why some programmers carry the burden of choosing “the right” language for a problem, because it orients cognition. By contrast, the limits of natural language present different risks. One expression can yield multiple interpretations, making communication is a constant gamble. There is always a possibility that the words said are not the words heard.
Earlier today, I encountered the limits of my own language with the shocking realization that I overestimate my Urdu fluency. This realization surfaced whilst reuniting with my paternal aunt for the first time in 20 years. She was visiting the US for the first time from Pakistan with her husband 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, and my amusement at her choosing a Blue Bottle which, of all places, felt most distant in my imagination to Islamabad. Then again, what was I expecting, a chai stand? Maybe the contrast between a Blue Bottle and Islamabad stems from my own bias. Maybe two decades away placed a western lens over my blurry childhood memories, widening the gap between us and them. I still never know if I am us or them.
It feels strange to feel culture shock from a culture you are from. 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 babies, these Urdu streams of consciousness are interleaved with English words, leaving the vocabulary of my native tongue stunted and replaced heavily with English. Rather than being fluent in Urdu, I speak some linguistic medley. “Urglish”, maybe. A lingua franca fastening two languages into a pragmatic medium of exchange. As a result, I am unable to depend on Urdu alone to form complex thoughts. Not only do I only interact with my parents in the language, but my verbal skills are also stuck in a time capsule dating back to when I immigrated, at the age of six. 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.
The quickest way to test how dependent we are on language, and how helpless we are without it, is to remove it from social interactions. Even though I only lost fragments of Urdu, simply noticing my conversation with my aunt collapse sent me spiraling into an unusual level of social anxiety. 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 ordering iced tea. Abort fake-fast. Maybe I can be real. But not too real.
Growing up at the hem of two cultures can be deeply uncomfortable. Even with adequate language, you are always trying to make yourself legible across cultural boundaries, trying on identities but never feeling enough of anything. It can create debilitating cognitive dissonance. Knowing that as an adult, I can appreciate how unsurprising it is that I frequently descend into crippling self-analysis, especially when I hit the limits of language.
Navigating the contradictory values and social norms of two cultures at once puts a child in constant conflict with herself. There is an inner culture within the home, and an outer culture, within the rest of the world. What is innocuous or even warmly praised in one cultural context can be harshly frowned upon in another. This internal conflict is especially amplified when one culture is moralizes certain beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and ideas within a sacred religious tradition, familial obligation, or is bound to old world respectability politics incomprehensible to the opposing culture. Meanwhile, the other culture, the outer culture, is founded in the possibility, power, comfort, and privilege of the American Dream: the ultimate reward for assimilation. Any significant social or economic success is dependent on succeeding in the outer culture, even in ways that alienate you from the inner culture.
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 in different ways, at work, with family, friends, and in my romantic relationships. Being authentic is difficult when we are constantly leaving parts of ourselves in one world to enter another. I feel like a constant taboo, and it makes sense why I dissociate in so many contexts.
I feel resentment toward white people who don’t have to code-switch at work. I resent how my own cultural context hindered me economically. Women raised in the Muslim South Asian paradigm are praised for modesty. Quiet self-sacrifice and self-minimization are seen as the most virtuous qualities a woman can have. This left me completely unprepared for the professional landscape of my early twenties, which required fiercely advocating for oneself 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, too forceful, and too uncouth at home or in immigrant communities to which my parents belonged.
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 during my aunt’s visit was not just a social 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. It feels like a loss that is difficult to recover and strange to mourn.
Like many immigrant children who have “made it” in any small way, I live my life in constant comparison to the lives of my parents. This creates a lot of complex feelings. 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 am acutely aware that I am only experiencing a small trace of what my parents must have gone through as new immigrants. Having internalized the pain and poverty of their adult lives through my own childhood diminishes and invalidates my own challenges now. I have clear memories of their struggle to find jobs, of being taunted for their accents and the brokenness of their English, of 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. When I got bullied for being foreign, I actively worked to exterminate any lingering hints of an accent. I 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, not only have I lost bits and pieces of language, but also identity.
What happens when the outer world subsumes your experiences? When you leave the inner world but can’t abandon it fully, so you continue to carry parts of it that feel heavy to you but invisible to others. Ultimately, the outer world is the one that matters; the hand that feeds. Success at assimilation means you no longer choose between food or bills. You are accepted a little more. And while the feeling of otherness never fully goes away, it transforms from the blunt and hostile rejection of your childhood into a covert alienation. You feel a bit more comfortable at the expense of no longer knowing who you are. So maybe the loss of language, heritage, culture, and the disorientation that results is all worth it, because look ma, at least I made it.