“Who am I?”

No, I am not Jean Valjean, but I don’t think I’ve asked myself this question since I was a brace-faced teenager and even then, I can’t remember if I asked it so directly. As an American living in Holland, working in a Dutch environment, rooming with an Indonesian and Spaniard and dating a German, the question of identity has crept to the surface, encompassing all byproduct feelings of displacement. All of which are an undercurrent for my pining to figure out who I am amidst new languages, new experiences and knowledge.

new languages

I decided to dive straight into the heart (the why) of my identity crisis after reading the book “When in French” by Lauren Collins.

Collins taps into a very prominent insecurity of any foreigner moving to a new country – how do we make ourselves heard and vocalise our true self in an environment ripe for misinterpretation?

Communicating at different levels

As a marketer, writer, and former communications specialist, I can verify that “communication is the act of thinking that communication actually happened.” We interact on so many levels: man versus woman, extrovert versus introvert, left-brain versus right-brain, one culture versus another, native versus non-native, that almost everything said is open to misinterpretation. And just because someone is fluent in another language doesn’t mean they’re native and small nuances can easily be overlooked in simple conversations.

An example: I was at lunch with my colleagues and one had said in English that she fell from her bike recently. In the Netherlands this is a normal occurrence for Dutchies as bikes are an extension of legs and thus falling is quite natural.

When she stated her accident, another Dutch colleague responded at the same time I did, our voices coalescing but conveying different modulations of response.

Dutch person: Did you laugh?

Me: Are you okay?

She responded with “Of course. I laughed.” Falling from a bike is a matter of fact as much as tulips bloom in spring. I wondered if we were that casual about anything in Florida: “I saw an alligator.” “Yeah me too.”

This small conversation taken at face value looks like the Dutch colleague was unconcerned about the other colleagues’ well-being when really what he was actually communicating was C‘est la vie; and I was the outsider, still not processing the commonality of the experience but rather relating it to my own upbringing of bicycle helmets and scraped knees.

Making myself heard

When my German boyfriend came home after taking the dogs out for a quick morning stroll, he saw me in the kitchenette with his grandmother. He had to laugh to himself as he heard his Oma annunciate German loudly at me in an effort to get her point across. Only later after he pointed it out had I realised that her sentences had degraded into simplicity in order to be heard in a way that I would understand. She was employing the same tactics on me that I was doing with her, speaking to communicate my point while debauching the elegance of a language.

Ihr Haus … Schön … leben … Rotterdam … kommen aus den USA … wunderbar … arbeiten … gut

I could drive home the point of what I was trying to say, but not the person behind it. His grandmother doing the same; the nuances of her language completely lost.

Communication is far less straight forward and often requires some sort of context (as in the example of the lunch time conversation) or exploration beyond point conveyance. Knowing that my “point conveyance” communication in German and to an extent Dutch does not illustrate the person behind the words makes me want to cling to my native English more so than ever – as my one true form of self-expression. Or is it?

New languages – Globeish

My English has undergone a transformation. Over the last two years my vocabulary and way of speaking have morphed into something that sounds a bit “off” or “showy” to my American friends and downright “Globeish” to my Dutch and international friends. I use Dutch idioms, ask an innocent “what?” in Indonesian, make very small talk in Spanish, throw in some German terminology, and spell with an extra “u” and remove the Zed from my lexicon to follow the British English standard of my company. On any given day, I’m not sure what will come out when I open my mouth to speak – usually English – but sliced with a serrated knife.

An average conversation before my 8.30a black coffee can look like this:

Me: Hola (Spanish)

Random colleague: Goedemorgen

Me: Alles goed met jou? (Dutch)

Random colleague: Ja, zeker. En met jou?

Me: Prima. Ik ben een betcha moe. Ik moet koffie (Dutch)

Random colleague: Haha, moet? BlahBlahDutchBlahDutch, was het goed? BlahBlahDutchBlahDutch 

Me: Apa? (Indonesian)

Random colleague: Heb jij de nieuwe film La La Land gezien? Was het goed? Ik had gedacht dat je het zou gezien.

Me: Keine Ahnung. Ik had niet La La Land gezien. But I want to. Ryan Gosling had the piano played (German, Dutch, Globeish)

Random colleague: Yeah, I had also heard that. Alright, werk ze!

Me: Yeah, Du auch (Globeish and German)

My morning conversations usually only make sense to me and although I cringe at my backwards way of saying “Ryan Gosling played the piano in the film,” I know that overall I channeled me – the person behind the language.

My identity has temporarily taken on the cultures of many and I find that sometimes words in Dutch or German do a better job of explaining my sentiment than some English words. By mixing English with (primarily) Dutch and German (and without realising), I’m showing to myself and others that the process of learning these languages has become part of me.

The heart of the matter

My hypothesis is that if we communicate the heart or the soul behind the “point conveyance” method of early language delivery, the underlying identity will prevail – whatever that identity may be.

And sure, as an expat, miscommunication can become second-nature to us (second only to travel), but it’s part of the role we’ve shouldered. Therefore our identity has taken on new traits such as patience, understanding, and tolerance. All of which we’re lucky to have gained.