When I worked in Malaysia, I made it a point to inform my workmates that if I said ‘fuck’ a few times a day, it did not mean I was angry. Fuck was my catch-all word to denote surprise, amusement, shock, but rarely anger. See, when I was angry, I would cuss in Malay, Cantonese or colloquial English, because the words were far more expressive and colourful. There were also different levels of cussing in these languages that corresponded to my anger level. If I said a phrase that meant body parts or things one could do with said body part (lan jiao), that’s a low-level seething or annoyance. It is the equivalent of the Malfoys calling Hermione a muggle. If I cussed your entire family to death (ham kar chan), it means that I have reached a boiling point so you best get out of my way.
Cussing aside, I was so used to seamlessly speaking different languages in a single sentence that some days it never occurred to me that I was multilingual. That is why I never realised that the English language and its modern evolution did not have the range to describe behaviour, mannerism and experiences that were central to my life. This only became clear after I moved to Australia and rewired my brain to speak ‘proper’ English, or the amusing but nonsensical ‘Australian English’.
As part of my push back, I started mentally collecting a list of words in other languages that cannot be adequately translated to English. My favourite word? Kummerspeck (German), which literally translates to ‘grief bacon’. Anyone who has ever stress-eaten chips or chocolates knows that using food to numb pain is a common behaviour. But is this more common among German speakers? Are people more inclined to do something because they can explain it with words? Or are they more likely to develop a word only when they experience something?
Among my favourite Malay words are those related to social interactions and behaviour, for example, merajuk and pujuk. Merajuk can be closely translated as sulking or pouting, which my Australian friends assumed is a word to describe kids’ behaviour because they could not fathom why adults would sulk. However, in Malaysia, where communication seems to be more measured and people more adverse to confrontation, displeasure is shown quietly. Coldly. Without words. Pujuk has no English equivalent, but can be roughly described as cajoling or the act of comforting someone who is merajuk-ing. Merajuk can also be seen as a manipulative action; you do it to manipulate someone to pujuk you, since the person who merajuk seldom come out of it themselves.
Manja is a word that can be loosely translated as ‘coquettish’, if associated with relationships, or ‘indulgent’, when referring to parents’ relationships with their children. In the former, it refers to cutesy mannerisms often seen in people who are familiar with each other but stops short of being associated with flirting. Manja is the word to describe the giggling, the furtive glances and the softly spoken words.
Even the way Malaysians (and most Asians) greet people has a lot of elements of indirect communication. I was very used to people asking me ‘Dah makan ke’ or ‘Sek chor mei, which means ‘have you eaten’ as a proxy for ‘hello’. This makes sense because Malaysians are notorious for being foodies with bottomless stomachs; it is the basis for conversations, roads trip and Instagram photos. However, this does not actually count as a dining invitation. Think about when people ask you ‘How are you?’ Even on your worst day, you would probably answer, ‘Yeah, not too bad’.
In Melbourne, there are days when I cannot eat another bite of that rich chocolate cake or cheesy lasagne and wish someone understood when I push the fork away and said I was jelak. Not full or stuffed, Just jelak. Or that when I see a cuddly puppy sitting outside a café, I feel geram and want to pet it and squeeze it and speak to it in a high-pitched voice. Or when I went for Melbourne’s zombie shuffle and saw the grotesque make up and felt so geli that my skin itched. Not disgusted or scared, but geli.
I have often wondered if people who are bilingual feel a sense of split personalities when they switch language, and research seems to indicate that yes, they do. In the 1960s, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese–English volunteers, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that they ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was used. For example, ‘When my wishes conflict with my family …’ was completed in Japanese as ‘it is a time of great unhappiness’; in English, as ‘I do what I want’. Another example was ‘Real friends should …’, which was completed as ‘help each other’ in Japanese and ‘be frank’ in English.
So here’s to my bilingual and multilingual tribe. The ones who think and dream in one language but speak another. The ones who have words stuck in their throats because nobody around them can comprehend it. The Danish people trying to explain hygge (coziness, warmth), the Koreans trying to explain han (collective feeling of sadness and oppression), the French trying to explain je ne sais quoi (intangible quality).
We orbit each other, passing each other as we flit between countries, collecting phrases and words that do not always survive the transition to a new place. We may never fully understand each other but let’s never stop trying.
Image: Accident ahead? / Kainet