• Andrea Hartoyo

My Relationship with the English Language

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

When I meet new people, normally the conversation goes something like this.

We would start by saying hello, exchange pleasantries and names, and we would discuss the topic at hand. After about 2-3 minutes of conversation, this would often pop up:

Them: "Your English is so good! Where are you from?"

Me: "I'm from Canada"

Them: "Oh cool! But where are you really from?"

Me: "I was born in Indonesia. My parents are Indonesian."

In the words of Chetan Bhatt, by asking me the second question and receiving my answer, they've got me mapped. Most of the time, this is harmless. Most people are just genuinely curious and wonder why a person of Asian descent speaks English with little to no difficulty. Most of the time I find it funny because I never really thought of how weird it is to meet someone who looks a certain way but breaks the stereotypes the moment you get to know them.

Yet, these types of interactions get old pretty fast; I was tired of explaining my story to new people, I was tired of explaining why my English is 'good'; it felt like I had to always explain why I'm different to what the stereotypes are to strangers.

A while ago, I listened to Hayley Yeates, who shared her struggles being an Asian-born Australian and how many people questioned her English skills, not believing that English is her mother tongue. She calls herself a Fasian (fake Asian), and yes, it's a thing. As I read more about it, the more I identify and relate to it. I wasn't born in a Western country, but I understand her struggles as someone who defines herself as a third-culture person. We're physically Asian, but mentally we're not really Asian? Would you call us bananas? Yellow on the outside but white on the inside?

This particular thought passes through me every time I visit my hometown and I speak English. If I'm within the earshot of others, they either do a double-take or sometimes goes as far as staring at me while I'm talking. More often than I could count, many often talk about me right in front of me, saying "Oh, she can't be Indonesian." "Maybe she's (insert other nationalities)". They judge me based on my accent, and not even considering that I can actually understand what they're saying. This pushes me, even more, to think that I don't truly belong; I'm not as Indonesian as the others because of my English skills (which isn't even that good yo). I've surprised some of them before by telling them I can understand them in fluent Indonesian, which normally results in instant awkwardness and them walking away sheepishly.

That being said, I still enjoy speaking English. I consider English my mother tongue more so than Indonesian, because of my life experience. I feel more welcomed and at ease in English-speaking communities. I feel that I can express myself better in English, and the English language is very comforting to think in.

At this point, this is how I feel. I can't really pinpoint why I feel this way. I have a good relationship with my second language in comparison to my own mother tongue, and this goes to show how excluded I feel being in my own hometown.

It's a work in progress, I suppose.

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