The Book

I didn’t want to read it
not because I didn’t want to read it
but because you gave it to me
and I was tired of fitting into whatever form
you chose for me.

So I held it in my hands and looked at it
put it away
took it out again
in spite of myself.
I didn’t want to read it. I knew where it would go
when I was done. I knew where I would leave it
so I didn’t have to look at it anymore.

I was angry,
and surprised that I was angry,
and not surprised because I’ve been angry. It’s not
the first time, and I no longer know
where the truth ends and the anger
begins. I no longer know
what the truth is and why
it tastes different

But so ferocious? So much
red energy, so much
white-hot attention?
There was suddenly so much
space and
in the space I thought of things I had never
thought of before and
in the space I may have changed the story,
may have rewritten the part I played and
the part you played, and
maybe it wasn’t all that it had been, and maybe
looking in from the outside was absolutely

Or so I’d been told before. And the reflection in the mirror
was uncannily similar.
Didn’t you do that to me once, too?

But you can’t make my decisions anymore
so I read it. And I’m glad that I did.
But I won’t thank you for it. I won’t be,
again, what you chose for me.
I won’t say, “But that’s not me!” for fear of
the response I had
once before
when your face opened into a question
that seemed to say,
“But I wanted you to be.”

Braids and Bicycles

“Things I learned from Covid” was the title of a meme I saw online recently and, making light of the situation, it made me smile. It led me to consider what I learned during Covid, things that are well and truly part of my current life and times. There were a variety of things that I learned, as did we all, and I’ve written about my thoughts on online learning, interpersonal interaction, and how to move countries during a pandemic. I learned big things, we all did, but in keeping with the meme that I saw, I’ll keep this upbeat and practical.

French Braids

Part of the before-school routine when I was young was that my mum would do hair. One of us ate while the other brought my mum a comb, brush, and elastics, and then we switched. I remember asking for pigtails (which, having heard wrong as a little girl, I called “pink tails” until she took pity on me in my teens and corrected me) and braids, and sometimes “two pieces tied back”, which is exactly what it sounds like. A low ponytail I could manage myself, but I needed help with a high pony.

Throughout my childhood, French braids remained elusive. My mum couldn’t do them as swiftly as she could everything else, despite buying a nifty tool that was supposed to help you separate the strands and count them (or something). And of course, I loved French braids. My aunt did them for me when I visited and I’d sleep in them, enjoying the texture against my scalp. When I got older, friends did them at sleepovers or at the pool. Much later, I was always a little envious of people with beautiful braids, envious and impressed. French braids seemed impossible, and yet everyone had them. So they couldn’t be impossible.

During the pandemic, I spent a lot of time biking around Singapore, sometimes alone but also with friends when the regulations permitted it. And it was during this time, frustrated at the ponytail coming apart under my helmet, that I learned how to French braid my own hair. I learned just by trying what I had seen other people do countless times. Trying over and over – after all, I had the time.

For a while, I could only manage one braid, but I’ve since done as many as four. Two is usually my look of choice, though I admit that the ends look a little funny with my most recent short haircut. I’m fully aware that these braids aren’t beautiful – I have neither the hair nor the patience for that – but every time, I’m also fully aware of the circumstances under which I finally cracked this mystery. And it makes me smile, every day.

Bike Tricks

In keeping with the theme of spending a lot of time on my bike during the pandemic, it was then that I finally mastered the art of riding a bike with no hands. Having seen enough people (mostly kids and teenage boys) riding along casually hands free, some even texting while occasionally looking up (which I haven’t tried and won’t try), I decided it couldn’t be as hard as I thought it was. After all, I could French braid!

And like most mechanical things, I really just had to try. And try. And balance my weight properly. And ride a little faster. And keep my spine straight and abs engaged. And just ride. Without hands. And then one day I could do it and that was that. Sometimes, a little perseverance goes a long way.

Now I know that riding without hands is less of a trick and more of a means of stretching out the wrists and fingers on a longer ride, or to give the back a break. It is also much easier now that I have bike bags and never ride with a backpack. However, during my time in Singapore, it used to make the security guards at the gate laugh when they saw me. At a school where not many people rode to school, I cycled in wearing dresses and pencil skirts, enjoying the tiny decline after the tiny incline, hands in the air to wave hello. We needed something to laugh at then, too.

It’s easy to make light of what I learned during the pandemic, as easy now to laugh as it was necessary then. These are little things, and I find that it’s the little things that we can grasp and point to. I can’t tell you when I made my peace with the time I “lost” during the pandemic, but I can tell you that I learned to French braid my hair and ride my bike with no hands during this time. I can’t articulate when I accepted solitude rather than being frightened by it, but I can tell you that I find that centre again when putting my hair in braids or removing my hands from the handlebars to stretch. There was an era, a time, and then there is what remains from it.

So what did I learn from the pandemic? Plenty.

Singapore – May 2020

Dreaming in Tongues

Very early on in the German learning adventure that started just over two years ago, I began dreaming in German. This had never happened before, despite a lifetime of exposure to multiple languages. The difference is probably that I immersed myself in studying German in a way I’ve never done before with a language, spending hours after work and on the weekends learning. I grew up with Hebrew beginning in kindergarten, studied French in high school, and had two different forays into Italian and one into Spanish. My parents spoke French to each other when my siblings and I were young so that we wouldn’t understand, and my grandparents have always brought in some Yiddish. But to dream in any of those languages, even when my Hebrew and French were easily conversational? Never.

And I have to say, it’s exhausting.

I spend many weekends speaking more German than English, a critical aspect of immersion that is unique to this language experience. Weekends are also when I watch television or movies, all in German, and it’s not uncommon to find my brain restless on a Sunday evening, dreams unravelling in a series of words and phrases that another part of my mind is (un)consciously correcting or restating. When I wake up on Monday morning and, like every weekday morning, turn on a short podcast of slowly-spoken German news, my mind stays fuzzily involved in the German language. English slips through because I’m tired and takes over entirely by the time I turn on English news radio. And I recognize that I have switched, and I recognize that my sleep was interrupted yet again.

I am at a point with learning German where I recognize that I understand more than I did previously and where my spoken grammar is slightly less poor in certain circumstances. I am growing more adept at expressing myself, though I still (frustratingly) find myself relying on seemingly circumscribed vocabulary, which belies the fact that I actually do understand what people say to me. My nodding and smiling has finally become genuine and I can interject in a conversation, but there are comments I leave unsaid, ideas unspoken. There are things I would slip in as an aside in English in ways that I just can’t do quickly enough in German; I think I’m quieter and more agreeable as a result. Specifically, I’m slower to raise an objection because I don’t have the facility of language to do so. I don’t know if this is a good thing because it leaves me somewhat uneasy for having swallowed my words, but a lifetime of finding objections isn’t necessarily reason to continue. Have I actually changed or have I assented because it’s less taxing to do so?

Not all of my exchanges in German are stilted, however. I am now quicker than before to join a conversation and more successful at extracting the theme based on what I’ve heard. I’m getting better at admitting when I don’t understand and I ask people to repeat new words, but it’s rare that I am then able to use these words on my own in a different setting. (I usually forget them almost immediately, which is why repetition is critical to language learning.) Recently, I made vague plans to meet some people with whom I haven’t spent time with on my own and I surprised myself by following through. It’s a bit like each time I’ve called a doctor’s office for an appointment: Although a successful phone call is the hope, I am surprised and pleased each time it works out that way.

So how does one get better at learning a language? From what I’m told, outside of an intensive immersion course, it takes time. (See above regarding repetition.) The problem is that I’m impatient. The problem is that I think I’m different in German than in English, and I have different relationships with people who I first met in English (including my closest German friends, with whom I now speak much more German) and people who I first met speaking German. I don’t know if anyone picks this up except me, I don’t know if it’s all in my head, and I don’t know if it even matters. But I feel different sometimes, and that does matter.*

On the one hand, meeting people in German and immediately having a relationship in which we communicate in German sets a certain expectation, and I like that. It means I can be a bit quieter without feeling awkward about it (while there’s a part of me in English that’s animated and vivacious, there’s also a part of me that really just likes to sit back and observe) and it means I always have the opportunity to practice my German because that’s just what we do.

On the other hand, I really do like a quick interjection and I like the moments of playing with words or catching intonation and exchanging a grin with someone else who did the same. I have these moments in German and I’m proud of them, but I have never truly appreciated how effortlessly I use English. Now I know. Additionally, I often find that I lack the vocabulary to ask questions in German that I would ask in English, and when I do ask, there’s much I don’t understand in the answers. It’s hard to ask someone what they do for a living as an engineer, for example, because the vocabulary they often use to reply is beyond the vocabulary I generally encounter. Asking about hobbies or travel is much easier because these are words that I know. I love to listen to people talk about what they are passionate about and I can ask probing questions in English that I cannot (yet) ask in German.

Somewhere in those dreams in which I’m half awake, I hope people know that I’m curious. I hope I don’t come across as disinterested. I hope I’m equally kind in both languages, and I hope taken equally seriously, even though I sound much more certain in one language than the other. I would be sad to learn that I’ve misrepresented myself, my needs, my desires in German despite my best efforts. It makes me wonder how my relationships with people will change as my language skills develop, and this is what makes me want to learn, why I’m impatient to make progress.

According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of whom there is a statue in the centre of town because of the significant time he spent in Weimar, “Wer freme Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nicht von seiner eigenen. Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

I have learned a great deal about English through learning German. Mostly, though, I have learned how hard it is to navigate a world in a different language. It takes courage to learn a new language and humility to use it, and I understand this viscerally now in a way that I did not before. It is one thing to admire language learners and accents, and quite another to feel the tension just below the breastbone that comes from wanting to say something and, whether from losing the moment or not having the words, letting it go. Such words come up again in dreams, of course, and it’s no wonder that I wake only somewhat having slept.

Have I found the words in those tangled dreams? Sometimes, sometimes not. There are dreams that come true and dreams that leave us wanting. Living my life between two languages without constantly being aware that I am doing so is a dream that I am working towards, as diligently as I can. And I am grateful to the many people who are with me on the way.

*One of my psychology students once wrote an extended essay on personality development and bilingualism. A very interesting piece of research.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place