My Mother's Tongue

by Duranya Freeman; photo by Melodie Swanson

I am biracial. Unfortunately, I am also monolinguistic. Unless I explicitly tell them so, people think I am wholly American. If you stare at me for long enough, I suppose you could pick up on the odd texture of my hair, the darker shade of my skin or maybe the wide, round eyes characteristic of my mother’s family. Little clues that somewhere under my Connecticut father’s crooked nose and small chin lie my mother’s Sri Lankan genes which irrevocably tie me to a land halfway across the globe. Yet, I don’t drink tea six times a day. I don’t tilt my head when I talk. I don’t celebrate the full moon. And, saddest of all, I cannot even communicate with my relatives in their native tongue, Sinhala. 

I tragically failed at languages in high school. I jumped from Spanish to Latin and back again like I was juggling a hot bowl of pinole. When my teacher asked me what the weather was like outside, I would frantically try to catch the eyes of one of my classmates, and finding no savior, choke out the word gris, gray, or azul, blue. Somehow, I graduated with the minimum required language credits and passed Spanish, though I knew few phrases other than “no comprendo.” I fully intend to postpone the pain of Colorado College’s two-block language requirement as long as possible.

My mother tried her best to raise me with an awareness of my heritage. I was taught to respect my elders, treat everyone as family and hold my head high—Her quick temper and stubbornness I picked up of my own accord. However, as my mother’s first child, much more time was spent videotaping every raisin I stuffed into my mouth than teaching me Sinhala during the most critical time to learn languages: childhood.

I don’t resent her for this. Honestly, I blame myself for not trying harder to learn the language during my family’s visits to Sri Lanka every three years. I blissfully tuned out while my mother rattled on with her friends at endless lunches and teas, engrossed in a book and half-listening for any mention of dhal, a word which I knew meant the arrival of the next meal.

The crux of my language deficiency came in the summer of 2013, when I spent a month in Colombo as a journalist at The Nation, a weekly newspaper distributed around the country. I spent my time as a features writer and assistant graphics designer. However, there was a glaring barrier between my coworkers and me. Although the newspaper itself was in English, my fellow graphics designers knew only Sinhala. 

I arrived in the office on my first day in a rickety three-wheeler. The dark skin of my uncle, who rode along with me, thankfully prevented the driver from grossly overcharging me. However, when I got there, I was given no special treatment. I was assigned a desk in the back room alongside journalists who had been working at the paper for years. The youngest one there was a brilliant twenty-year-old who had graduated early from university and ran her own blog. As an editor for my high school newspaper, I thought I had come in with some kind of preparation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had no idea how difficult it would be to adhere to not only daily deadlines, but hourly deadlines.  

The most difficult parts of all though, were the times when my superiors would rush in and machine-gun-fire some command in Sinhala at me, then wait expectantly for my reply. I would stare at them as if they were speaking in tongues. Finally, I managed to lick my lips and croak out, “What?”

They would stare at me in turn, as if I not only was speaking in tongues, but had actually turned into one. There would be a few minutes of unbearable silence, and then they would burst into the most raucous, embarrassing peals of laughter I had ever heard. They gestured to me and then back towards the door. “Amma Sinhala, no?” I shook my head shamefully, wishing more than anything that my cheap Dell monitor would suck me into its depths and send me on a high-speed network connection right back to suburban Pennsylvania. 

Yet after everyone in the office had had a good laugh over my problem, nothing changed. I was still assigned the same number of tasks, still expected to complete them at the same time. If I had to travel into the city to interview a local artist, my boss sent me with Ravi, the Sinhala photographer for the magazine, without a second thought.

It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to learn an entire language in the course of four weeks, so I had to make a choice: either I would suffer through the internship being quite possibly the most awkward person they had ever encountered, or I would learn a way to overcome what became a bigger challenge every day.

I found my answer in Ravi. I sat beside him one day in the company van while he chatted to the driver. Halfway through, he seemed to realize that I’d been mute the entire time and threw me an apologetic smile. I caught it midway, and then, after some hesitation, threw him one back accompanied with a laugh. He started laughing too, and pretty soon, we were all laughing in the humid eight-by-three foot space encased in torn leather and the smell of cigarettes. I was thrilled. I hadn’t uttered a single word, yet I had made a connection more meaningful than all the ones in English. Throughout the day, we got each other laughing at the most ridiculous things. More at ease now, I felt comfortable directing him to various places in the art exhibit. I started using my entire body to convey what I was thinking and feeling.

It’s such a cliché to say that laughter knows no language, but in my case, it was true. I did eventually pick up some key phrases, but the majority of my better days in the office came when I refused to let my lack of Sinhalese serve as an emotional as well as linguistic barrier between myself and my coworkers. I learned to get my feelings across physically rather than verbally, a language everyone around me could understand.

Language is just one wall we build. Yet barriers exist between people all over the world. Sri Lanka, for example, has been a politically turbulent nation for almost four decades. The two main ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamil, have been at odds with each other ever since the Civil War in the 1970s. After the disbandment of the radical Tamil Tigers, the country destroyed its walls, dissolved military blockades, dug up mines and once again opened the north, especially the northern beaches, for everyone to enjoy. There is still tension between the two groups, especially since Tamils and Sinhalese have different physical traits and separate languages, but the country is slowly healing. Sri Lanka, along with the rest of the globe, divides itself based on race, gender, religion and status. What need is there to also divide ourselves with words?

College students all face this problem at some point in their lives, whether it be in a tortuous Spanish classroom or a semester in Greece. Unless you have spent extensive time studying the language of that area, there is a good chance you will find yourself choking on words while clutching a bilingual dictionary. Instead of agonizing over how to say “chocolate” in German (okay, maybe that’s a good one to learn), an emotional, physically expressive conversation is a much easier dialogue to have. Maybe our cavemen ancestors were on to something after all.