My dad used to be fluent in Iban. Now he only remembers common phrases: “sapa namah nuah,” or “what is your name”; “aku ka makai” means “I want to eat”; “selamat pagi” is “good morning.” Whenever my grandparents want to talk about something secret in front of us, they talk in Iban. I know that “lost languages symbolize lost heritages” is a common literary trope in immigration stories, but these people, these headhunters and shamans and chieftains, are not our ancestors. Our ancestors came from Norway and Germany and Italy, from the opposite side of the globe. But I associate with them because they are linked to my grandfather. I, too, am constantly reminded at reunions how similar I am to him: we’re both considered to be well-read, had brief careers in choir, appreciate a good pun, are left-handed.
Or maybe I identify with my grandfather’s study of the Iban, rather than the culture itself. At times I understand why he taught anthropology: I sometimes think I can only understand my family with a cool analytic remove. I know that each generation is taught by the generations before it. Before college, I wondered if I decided on William & Mary because my grandfather taught there, and my father attended, and I was simply joining because the idea of continuing a lineage was appealing to me, gave me a small amount of control. I now wonder if I want to become a teacher for the same reasons. I’m caught between identifying myself as the exile of the family and continuing our family’s traditions. I think I’m willing to become a teacher because I’m unwilling to let go of the last tenuous bonds that connect me to them, to connect my name to theirs.
I want to know what has happened to us, why we’re each our own colonies in the same country. Before I left my house to return to college from spring break, my dad asked me again how my reading was going. “It’s good,” I said, about halfway through The Emperor of All Maladies. “Really good.” He smiled, told me no one else could borrow it before he read it. “And then we’ll talk about it afterwards,” he said, before wishing me good night. The morning after my brother hugs me before I leave for the airport: “I love you, bro.” And as I go through the terminal, my mother waves and shouts at me. “I want you to call me and talk to me about something other than money, okay?” I walk towards the plane; they drive back home. I love them. I love them so much. I want to know what caused us to become strangers occupying the same space.
* Above excerpt is from a piece awarded 1st place in the Tiberius Gracchus Jones Prize category for best work of literary nonfiction as part of the 2012 English Literary Awards.