The English Din

I step into the terminal. Time seems to slow for a few seconds. Returning to the din of voices that I understand, little segments of sentences which again hold meaning for me float through the air. I’m surprised by the welling feelings of comfort, distraction, and disdain. I haven’t been away for very long, which is why I’m surprised. In the short time away, my mind has come to inhabit some place worlds away from where I grew up. Upon returning, I had expected more comfort than anything else. Instead, I’ve found myself somewhere in between, playing down some parts of myself in order to adapt to the present and respond in an acceptable fashion, to make people feel comfortable. I do this naturally by now, perhaps to a fault. It’s become instinct to hide what is different or foreign to people’s daily lives and respond with the minimum. In the few moments that I’ve gone too far, I’ve suffered the unpleasant consequences. People cut off from you, find you intimidating, can’t relate, and you become a self-proclaimed repository for passive aggressive comments. You could believe that this is an efficient filter of people from your life. I find that it only serves to pain others and yourself in many cases. Everyone has their own world and finds comfort within that.

But let’s go back to the airport. All together – comfort, distraction, disdain. In the short time away, it seems that I’d become accustomed to not understanding the words most people speak. I could block out the side conversations of no interest to me. It’s liberating in a way – to be able to sit in a crowded restaurant, café, coffee shop, party and remain with your own thoughts. To allow disturbances becomes a conscious decision, only allowed when one makes the conscious effort to listen and understand. After being alone in my head for some time, unconsciously understanding the conversations all around naturally becomes distracting and invasive. I find that I’m out of practice at blocking out the endless voices. The disdain only comes from understanding the emptiness of so many conversations. A pair of ladies gossip about the audacity of a friend: “Can you believe it? She’s telling me to do this, but it can only be done with aluminum pans! Well, I don’t have aluminum pans.” The indignation is tangible. What an affront to this poor lady. Yes, of course, when giving cooking instructions, care should be given to consider the recipient’s capacities so as to avoid offense. I’m struck by the banality of so many conversations. Of course, this is the case in any language. I’d only escaped it for a moment.

Perhaps it’s the only positive I’ve found amidst my seemingly constant frustration with the French language. I’ve harnessed this frustration into disdain for myself, rooted in an incapacity to learn and promptly apply. The violence of this frustration has made itself known in the past few weeks. I’ve come to blame language for my persistent dissatisfaction and what I’ve perceived as a regression to propensities I’ve so diligently worked to subdue. Low confidence, an incapacity to make decisions, and debilitating fear of doing the wrong thing all thwart my innate need to be independent at all costs. My already limited conversation has become even further reduced. People pass over me, either out of their own discomfort or my short conversation. And I feel indebted to the ones that don’t. I’m sorry for their efforts for so little reward. It makes me question my potential to be happy in that place. The idea that if only I could move around with confidence, independently, without a constant fear, frozen gaze, or incoherent mumbling. If I could move around without revealing my secret. Instead, my fixed smile seems to say, “Yes, you’ve found me out. I don’t fit here.”

How important that sense of belonging is. How important for confidence, for independence, for happiness. Where does this fear come from? I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time without a satisfactory answer. It only seems to ooze from some eternal black hole that pollutes my every action, each a strictly calculated movement. Despite all of this, I’ve returned to the din of English and find myself hating it. Perhaps it’s only the lack of sleep. Or perhaps I’ve adopted yet another repellent tendency – the Parisian sensibility of endless complaining and haughty disdain.

Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”


And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.