Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Language: Bridging the Unbridgeable?

I started my very first blog on Xanga in Oct 2004, a month after returning to the U.S. to start grad school. Though the precise reasons for starting the blog can no longer be recalled at the moment (I used to think that with so much yet to be seen and learned and experienced in China during a regular day of busyness, what's the point of posting one's inner musings and miscellaneous thoughts online as an exhibitionist?), I do remember this dying yearning to have a space where my inner thoughts and struggles and whatever intellectual or miscellaneous musings may be shared and listened to. Although solitude has long become a characteristic of life throughout the years, never had I felt that isolated and alienated during that first initial month or two in grad school. Having found a great group of friends in SH whom I could share so much of my identity with or be understood fully as well as accepted pleasantly, I was shocked to see that the sudden disappearance of that community of friends. What was even harder to take was the realization that I myself was the very person who put an end to those days of living in a community of kindred spirits, except that even that realization itself was too often denied than admitted.

To many others, blogging may just be another thing in life where they have a community of friends or readers, whether met or unmet, personally known or unknown. To many others, it is a slice of reality through which a certain dreams, aspirations, complaints or woes could be uttered, shared, or released from the inner heart. To some others it may even just be a thing to do from M to F during some down hours of the day while sitting in the office. Certainly, there are people who make a living out of their professional blogs or start off their careers or reputation through by way of such a cyber medium.

For me, though, this sometimes is the only place where I could be completely upfront and honest about myself and to myself. This is where my state of being would finally dare to come out and express itself, allowing that inner voice to take over and speak forth that inner mind that too often self-selectively shields itself from the public or the routines of daily lives. At least in this space, I have the freedom to speak my mind while giving the reader the choice to listen or to walk away.

Stripped away the need to respond or smile or nod or laugh or cast an eye of consent in an immediate manner, I free myself from the pressure to act a certain way to make the listener comfortable while in the meantime liberating my listener from the pressure to take in my daily rants or sentimental utterances if those things fail to ring a bell inside.

At least I put the stuff out there, and the listener/reader is given the choice to walk away or engage further. No pressure on both sides and at times, a unique form of mutual understanding emerges, sometimes much more genuine and straight from the heart than all those social conversations done in a face-to-face manner.

But since I switched to Blogger I've lost a large group of readership. I don't deny that in the meantime I perhaps have picked up a few new ones along the way, but the loss is obvious, and at times it brings me to lament the limitations of language and the inevitable fact that language itself - in the fashion of a particular cultural and linguistic tradition - is key to human communication despite our other common languages such as shared pasts or experiences.

Since my migration to blogger, I've been thinking a lot about how to resolve such issue of language barriers. Could there be a possibility where people who speak or write different languages still communicate? Translation certainly is one of the ways, yet when translation isn't available, what would be next?

More importantly, is it "language" that sets such barrier or it's more of the entire system of upbringing experiences and cultural traditions embedded that language system that ultimately set people apart from one another or strike an unbridgeable gap between two beings? And if the latter is true, how could the act of bridging ever take place? Or does it even need to take place?

These days I often find myself frustrated by the lack of shared common experiences with people. As much as I try to listen, understand, or imagine myself going through the moments that I’ve never been given the chance to really live through those moments first-hand with others, I sometimes still wonder if true empathy could ever be attained. After all, "living" itself is precious, and if I have not been able to partake in that process of "living" in the past, could true understanding really arise?

And since the notion of “understanding” is a like a two-way street, likewise, consistently throughout the years I see the inability for others to understand me even if they have the best intentions in heart. If experiences themselves have failed to strike a common chord due to the very lack of them in the past, could language – whether in written or oral form – itself now contribute anything to the resolution of such unshared stories or memories of one’s past?

And can I call myself a student of literature, an aspired writer-wanna-be, or potentially a literary critique in the future if I can’t even figure this important question out?

梅ちゃん at 3:49:00 PM



at 5/9/07, 4:23 AM Blogger John said...

"Could there be a possibility where people who speak or write different languages still communicate?"

I think that we can communicate on some level without language. Body language and hand signs can be used to display some basic concepts. However, for a deeper connection to occur, I think that there definitely needs to be some lingual medium that's shared. Whether a new language developed between the two or one learning another's language. I'm exploring this in a screenplay I'll be writing about an exchange student that falls for a local boy.

"is it "language" that sets such barrier or ... the entire system of upbringing experiences ... that ultimately set people apart from one another ...?"

I believe that language poses the most immediate barrier to communication, but certainly having a different set of backgrounds and knowledge can further complicate communication. However, like language, I don't think it's something that can't be bridged. Unfortunately, making the unfamiliar familiar so that true communication can take place is a matter of patience and hard work, like learning a new language. Once the background is reasonably understood, then language itself will be clearer, because the nuance that influences the ideas and concepts presented in language will then be shared.

"And can I call myself ... I can’t even figure this important question out?"

Even though finding shared experiences is difficult, any life lived has points that connect with others. It's true that no one will ever fully understand everything you say and share, but I've found in writing as much as I do, that there's always an audience for anything you have to say, because they might not understand the totality of your existence, but they will understand you when your experience intersects with theirs. As long as you have a voice to speak with, someone has an ear to listen with.

That's not an answer, per se, but I think the binary you create of communication/non-communication is a false one, because of the complexity of the human experience. I might not understand everything I'm reading when I read a novel by Dosteovsky, since I don't understand the Russian context, and so some nuance might be lost, the overarching human story of obsession and guilt is one that I do understand. And so (with some translation), as a Corean American man, I have come to understand, in part, the soul of a past Russian writer.

Just some things to think about.



at 5/9/07, 12:35 PM Blogger 梅ちゃん said...


Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments! For the longest time I think I believed that communications could be attained even with language barriers. Yet the older I grow I also have come to realize that at times, a certain things may be understood fully in the head yet may never be fully empathized in the heart.

Hence triggered the writing of this particular entry.

Although I agree with you completely that even without common experiences, a certain feelings and emotional responses are shared. After all, we all experience anger, sadness, joy, excitement, fear, and so on, and though the circumstances that trigger such emotional responses may vary, the nature of the emotions may be very similar.

A film that I'd recommend you watching - "Last Life in the Universe," a film of collaboration between a crew of Japanese and Thai artists. Something that resonated with me deeply when I was watching it 'cuz the two characters hardly share the same language yet still come to understand each other through a few similar circumstances in life or the sense of isolation from society. A bit slow but even the beautiful cinematography is worth a viewing!

at 5/11/07, 9:32 AM Blogger Ferdinand said...

Last Life in the Universe! Excellent film indeed; did you note the rather unusual cameo appearance of film noir guru Miike Takashi? Incredible film. Dare I ask how you interpretted the final five minutes of film?


I love this topic; I honestly came by just to see whether or not you'd left the 'States yet, and though planning to do something else... I've been side tracked by this topic -- far too dear to me...

I guess there are several layers of philosophical questions.
1) Does language ever _explicitly_ represent thought _absolutely_?
2) Does an individual seeking to communicate ever understand themselves sufficiently to communicate _absolutely_ -- even through, say, writing to oneself?
3) Does an individual using language even to another native speaker, ever communicate perfectly?
4) Is such communication desirable?

Language is a means of communication, it is the most highly developed form of transmission of thought that we have available. Although many emotive and primal/sensual things may be communicated quite well through body language and expression, these tools are rendered useless when dealing with the abstractions rife in discussions of science, philosophy, math, culture, metacommunication and the like. For these finer nuances of thought, we develop language to bridge the great divide between mind and mind, soul and soul.

Articulating clearly enough to make one understood by oneself is difficult enough, I think. Many spend a lifetime seeking their own voice, trying to understand who they are and why they exist.

We can communicate in such a state; we can express our angst and wanderlust and apprehensions -- our hopes and aspirations in the midst of our personal uncertainty. Indeed, perhaps we communicate thus because of our uncertainties.

Interestingly though, as we encode our thoughts, emotions and feelings into this code called language, we may our may not encode it accurately. The lexicon we employ may differ slightly or profoundly from another user... despite each of our best intentions. Moreover, the listener may decode in incorrectly, on top of the complexities inherent in the language. Moreover, double meanings -- triple/quadruple meanings are rife within language; which one is intended? Perhaps all are intended to different extents?

So two islands, sending messages through the ether, seek common understanding. How challenging, I agree!

Which is why non-verbal communication again becomes so strangely vital... despite the inability for this form to communicate abstractions -- it is the form with which we perform "error checking". We discuss in abstraction, and verify by the "meanings between the lines"...

Does the listener "get us"? We read their body language and their eyes, perhaps even their smell to get a chance at discerning whether they understood; at some visceral level, our meaning and our feelings. Have they come to a similar place emotionally, because of our discussions in the abstract? Or did they arrive at some other place, a visceral mis-match... communication didn't go through.

How much we desire to be understood...

I resonate with you in this -- as you well know! Though whether you believe that I understand "where you're coming from" may be debated, ne?

You know, I think the greatest irony of a wealth of experiences is that it allows one to draw on the disparate influences, thoughts, and feelings to welcome others with a sense of being understood; and yet makes one ever harder to be understood.

As jjc points out, it is not a mere dichotomy -- for indeed, a misunderstanding on your listeners part -- a misunderstanding of your words may yet lead to deeper insight into you than even you had intended. It's the beauty and wonder of language, our best and worst tool to bridge our existences to another.

Descartes would be proud -- the demon hemming in his virtual prisoners, may hem them in by the words entering and exiting their cells.

And agreeing farther with jjc, given the difficulty in finding people that understand you in one's own language, is it so unreasonable to rejoice when someone intuitively connects, despite a wildly divergent background?

One last aside:

I've found that one of the things I find most tragic (irrationally so) about the loss of nuance in translation is when another person doesn't understand the contextual beauty of an individual. Without understanding the context in which an individual develops; be it across oceans or across the railroad tracks -- it is nigh well impossible to understand how unusually and uniquely a person has really developed. I'm not a proponant of the idea that everyone is equally special... Everyone is unique, but gifting and gifts are not the same -- from person to person. Recognizing rare talent or rare clarity in an individual is something that is an intensely epiphanous experience to me. I can't help but wonder how often, when two people come from extremely different backgrounds, whether they can really appreciate the distinctness that the other possesses. I guess there's been a couple times that I've said to myself, "there's no way he understands how special that gal he's with really is..."

On the other hand, this double edged sword cuts a different, and positive way. Sometimes baggage that an individual carries in one milieu is not baggage at all -- or rather, it is unrecognized -- in another milieu. Cultural stigmata in rigorous, traditional asian regimes can be arcane to outsiders -- and thus, friendships outside those circles may ultimately be more freeing.

I think this phenomenon exists strikingly in legalistic commonunities...

I hope -- very much -- yume-chan, that you may find such heartfelt -- soul-felt -- understanding anew when you return to asia.

Be well,


at 5/14/07, 6:15 AM Blogger amy said...

technical question: how is blogger different from xanga, and why have you lost your original audience since switching?

response to your blog entry: i've been quite intrigued by the phenomenon of blogging, particularly the writing of blogs of a personal nature in this very public medium. i find it interesting that you blog in order to "[allow your] inner voice to take over and speak forth that inner mind that too often self-selectively shields itself from the public or the routines of daily lives," while also hoping for some kind of engagement, exchange or dialogue. In effect you wish to escape from the act of public communication, yet hope for it to happen in cyberspace (while allowing the reader to 'walk away' if s/he so wishes). But are there no social conventions in writing? And is communication truly more effective or 'genuine' in the literary form? As one respondent has noted, non-literary or non-verbal communication can often express "meanings between the lines," thus perhaps sometimes -- not always -- personal interaction will better help two people reach a level of mutual understanding.

One final note -- I think this is the first time I've seen you respond in your blog to postings! Regardless of whether or not you respond to blog postings via personal email, I do think that fostering and maintaining an interactive dynamic in your blog is important to keeping your audience with you. If that's one of your goals, that is.

cheers to blogging,

at 2/17/10, 2:26 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today is my lucky day :)
Apple is giving review copies of iPad to 100 lucky person. Go to http://bit.ly/d9QOON and apply for it.


Post a Comment