Rubina Khanam is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. Her doctoral research focuses on language policy and planning in postcolonial contexts. Prior to her graduate studies in Canada, she lived in South Korea for three years while she pursued her Master’s in Applied Linguistics. Her MA research examined discourse markers across speech contexts. She completed her primary, secondary and undergraduate studies in Bangladesh.
We gathered in a friend’s cozy living room to enjoy homemade supper and a movie after that. Some chit chats were filling up our moments as we waited for freshly baked bread. During a lull in the conversation, I was playing with my phone and wasn’t aware of the context when one of my friends made a “compliment” about my supervisor. It went something like, “she must be very nice and generous. English is not your language but she has still accepted you as her graduate student.” I just managed to utter one word repeatedly, “no, no no no noooooo!” It wasn’t that I disagreed with my friend about my supervisor’s being “nice and generous.” My repeated and prolonged “no” was for the second part of my friend’s comment. When I first met my supervisor, it hadn’t seemed to matter to her whether English was my language or not. Does English belong to me? I learned reading and writing in both Bangla অ আ ই (the Bangla Alphabet) ১ ২ ৩ (Bangla numbers) and in English (alphabet and numbers, ABC’s and 123’s) at the same time. I studied William Shakespeare along with other writers of European literature and I researched English in the field of Applied Linguistics. And yet, I have learned that my scholarly journey does not necessarily make English one of my languages and never will be. While it is true that no strangers in the university hallway or on the street ever stop me and say, “hey, South Asian, brown, spicy curry-eating girl, whatever your name is that I don’t even want to try to pronounce! You speak gibberish English. Your writing is so bad that it almost stinks. Are you sure about that? Are you capable of doing a PhD?” But, it is not uncommon, either, that some warm and bright living rooms’ casual conversations cast a serious doubt on my capability of being a PhD student as my “English speaking and writing skills are poor.” I don’t know what to say or how to respond to well-wishers at these living room moments. Suddenly, I just feel cold in a gloomy evening. I stammer. And the open, white, and empty Word file on my laptop waits hour after hour to be filled with words.
Let me tell you about my friend, SunMin (pseudonym). She doesn’t seem to have an English name like her South Korean peers. Perhaps the English world hasn’t reshaped or reconstructed her yet as an Alicia or a Lisa. I don’t have any trouble in understanding SunMin’s English but her professor and classmates do. SunMin stumbles upon words in front of her professor’s furrowed eyebrows. SunMin loses confidence and self-esteem when her classmates don’t want to include her in a group discussion or other activities because of her “poor ability to speak, write and understand English.” She feels humiliated and alone. However, she has found a way to avoid these feelings in her class—she lies! She lies about not completing the pre-readings when her professor asks question about them. SunMin pretends not to understand a group discussion topic. She has stopped all kinds of interactions in this class to avoid using English. She has chosen the identity of incompetent user of English, or as I would rather say, she has agreed to perform her assigned role.
In describing my own experience of negotiating identity through languages, I prefer the word battle over the word struggle. An Indian thinks I should be able to speak Hindi since I am from her/his neighbouring country. A Pakistani assumes I understand Urdu since my country was a part of Pakistan forty-five years ago. An interesting fact is, these Hindi or Urdu language users do not know my first language, Bangla, but they expect me to communicate with them through their languages. Although I am able to understand Hindi and Urdu, and can speak Hindi, –I’m like my friend SunMin. I resist communicating with these Hindi and Urdu language users or with anyone, through their tongues that force me to perform the role of a citizen of “East Pakistan” or “Muslim.” I have to remind them every time that even though my name might sound like a Muslim name, it doesn’t mean I am a Muslim or that I speak or understand Urdu. I have similar unsettled Self experiences when I use Korean. I have enough Korean language skills to order food in a Korean restaurant but the server doesn’t like my Korean and completely ignores me.
He perhaps thinks my white friend’s한국말 (Korean) is more charming than mine. At least I get a chance to say 감사합니다! (Thank you in Korean) but not ¡Gracias! (Thank you in Spanish). I have nearly forgotten that I learned Spanish for a year because I have grown so weary of languages not being my language. And it’s unnecessary to explain to me the meanings of common Arabic words because I have also learned Arabic. I started to learn reading and writing Arabic from Grade 1 and Arabic was one of the additional subjects from Grade 6 to 7 that I had to choose in school.
I often wonder what my language is and what self it makes. My hometown variety of Bangla is not considered “standard Bangla.” It’s not the kind of Bangla you use in school. I learned that about my language one day when one of my classmates asked me with an expression of disgust on her face, “Why do you speak like that?” Confused, I asked her “how do I speak?” She couldn’t explain and I didn’t care about her answer. And even though I didn’t care, I still worked hard throughout my childhood and adolescence to change the way I speak. I’m somewhere in between my standard Bangla and hometown Bangla. And yet today, I feel uncomfortable to hear from others that my Bangla doesn’t have my hometown “accent” anymore. When it doesn’t sound like my hometown Bangla it also makes me some other person who I don’t want to be.
I was in a friend’s living room once again and she introduced me to one of her friends. This person’s first question to me was, “Are you from India?” I said, “No.” She continued, “Are you from Pakistan?” I replied, “No.” She didn’t want to stop and so kept going on, “Nepal? Sri Lanka?” My answer was short and sweet, “No.” She could have asked me her final question from the start, “Where are you from?” I used her language (Mandarin) to respond, “孟加拉国” (Mèngjiālā guó means Bangladesh. It is a simplified Mandarin word). Another friend smiled at me and commented after that, “You make people uncomfortable and enjoy it, don’t you?” Maybe I do. But isn’t it necessary to become uncomfortable in order to make a space for conversation about unequal distributions of power and privilege in this unsettled world?