Following a family bereavement, Stephanie Mamonto started to consider how empathy is conveyed online and how different languages enable or limit our expression of emotion.
Living through a global pandemic is not easy for anyone. It’s especially hard when a member of your family has died of coronavirus. Everyone deals with (each) death in a very different way, and when this happened to me, I was numb. I hardly felt anything. Watching my aunt’s funeral on a screen, unable to attend in person because of restrictions, was surreal; almost like it didn’t happen and I was only watching a sad movie.
Talking to friends should have helped me come to terms more with what happened. I assumed that sharing my grief with those I trusted the most would help me acknowledge it. But instead, I found that some of those people showed a lack of empathy and respect, and I wondered: would they have said the same things and acted the same way if they had been speaking to me in person, instead of through a screen?
It’s fascinating to see how people can be so different while having remote conversations, and I came to the conclusion that, while texting and emailing provides a safe space to be able to speak internalized thoughts, it also grants us the license to hide our emotions. We can’t do that when talking over the phone or in person; there isn’t the same absence of tone. Sad emojis in a text are not enough if we don’t articulate our true intentions. In my case, I was sometimes unable to tell whether someone was grieving with me in their own way, or simply fishing for details. Does this lack of human touch and emotion unwittingly eliminate our ability to feel the empathy that we once practiced before we were trapped behind our screens? I’m not really sure. PJ Manney, author of (R)EVOLUTION, once said,“Empathy is created when we discover the things we share.” We might be in this (pandemic) together, but not everyone is in the same boat.
That was when I started to pull away from people. I felt the need to reevaluate my friendship with others, and in the process became very aware of the fact that in Indonesia, we label all people as “friends”, even when we may only have met them once or had a coffee break together. There are not many terms of friendship level in Bahasa Indonesia, and at that time, I didn’t feel like I knew how to describe my feelings without feeling so lonely or questioning someone’s motives.
I tried to find solace instead in things that I have always liked since childhood: I read so many books, wrote poems and essays, attended webinars and online classes – all in English. This language choice was unintentional to start with, but soon I realised that I found comfort and joy in conversing in English, things I apparently couldn’t find in my native language. I also learned to articulate my feelings, mostly in English words, because I found it much easier to embrace my vulnerability in that language. There’s a common colloquial phrase in Indonesia (or Jakarta to be exact): “baper”, an acronym for ‘Bawa Perasaan’, which means ‘beyond sensitive’ or ‘too emotional’. It addresses someone who is taking everything to heart. For me, as a person who is able to feel things deeply, especially in the current circumstances, there was always this feeling of insecurity in trying to explain my feelings, only to find myself labelled as “baper” by the other person.
Some studies show that decisions made in your second language are more reason-driven than those made in your native language (Catherine Caldwell-Harris, ‘How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions‘ in Scientific American, 2012). It’s said that when we deliberate in a second or third language, we actually distance ourselves from the emotional responses and biases deeply associated with our mother tongue. As a result, we gain systematic and clear-headed decisions based on the facts alone. I can be logical as well as emotional in English. I even feel like a different person when I speak in English; I can be more confident in speaking my thoughts or humbly admit that I don’t have any opinions or knowledge of something. (A friend who spent her formative years in the United States also felt the same way. She often struggled to find the assertive and bold version of herself when using her native language back in our hometown, and the only way to get that version back was to switch to using English).
For years, I struggled to find my own words and voice in Bahasa Indonesia, and I was almost always drowning in others’. It was far easier to speak on behalf of brands or the persona of others, and it was even easier to use emojis to convey my emotions. Perhaps it was similar to those who now are hidden behind their computer screens, struggling to find the right words to express themselves without the benefit of human interaction. I found trying to use the language to verbalise my emotions almost traumatic, and this was exacerbated by the socio-economic and cultural background of where I grew up. As the fourth generation child of a Chinese-Indonesian family, I can’t speak Chinese like the older members of my family. My father and my grandparents had Chinese names, but the government ordered Chinese-Indonesians to change their names into more traditionally Indonesian-sounding ones. We don’t practice Chinese culture, as the judgement from Pribumi (native Indonesians) can be really harsh and has been life-threatening in the past. This, I think, created a kind of identity crisis that is not forgotten easily. In this modern era, we’re still sometimes being questioned as to whether we are truly Indonesians or Chinese.
My parents’ love language is not shown through comforting words but basic actions, such as giving their children the best education in the city (my parents don’t have enough money to send their children to study abroad) and preparing us for the tough world outside our minority group. For me, this included language classes in English, French and Dutch – my parents understood that languages held the possibility of opening doors which might otherwise be shut. But in exchange, I have always been expected to pull myself together and be the best example, thus expressing vulnerability was not acceptable. Having been taught that I would never be accepted into a prestigious state university, that my only option would be a less well-thought-of private university, my journey to the best state university in Indonesia was almost surreal.
It has also reshaped the way I communicate with my mother tongue. The translation practices I have done for my work this year have helped me to construct sentences and learn more about the proper context of both languages. The process of converting English to Bahasa Indonesia gives me new insight and a new perspective into my own language. And, during an immensely difficult time, it’s helping me to be comfortable in my own skin.
About Stephanie Mamonto
Other than writing and translating, Stephanie Mamonto religiously lives her life as the Spanish proverb says: “The belly rules the mind.” Follow Stephanie on Instagram @naninimamonto
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages