Check out this very interesting NY Times Opinion piece in which Alexander Stern muses on the rising popularity of the phrase “…a thing.” (“Is that actually a thing?” “When did that become a thing?”) He offers many different takes on the linguistic phenomenon, but the one I found most intriguing is the idea that the modern world is closing the gap between reality and satire. Stern writes, “The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.” Food for thought: is this a thing?
by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17
I am often impressed by those who think in the abstract rather than the concrete. As someone who can only think in the concrete, in language, and even more specifically, in English, I feel trapped by words. Sometimes it is as though there is an emotion or greater conclusion that I feel, but that when I begin to prod, it slips away from me. It feels like Pandora’s box and I catch myself thinking, “No, not that. That is too big a concept to deal with — I will have to do something about it later.” So, sitting in the back of my head, where Anne Carson writes cold water spills down, some hundreds of half-opened thoughts, too big for me to comprehend finishing, remain, and under the cold water, they freeze. Sometimes these thoughts come back to me in pieces. I can remember that last week, walking under the bridge that connects EC to main campus, it occurred to me… something about Ancient Greeks and time perspective (perhaps it was about whether they thought they had magic, or whether like us they imagined someone before them had magic and they had lost it — although probably not that, as it was something I could not look up). I remember feeling like that thought was too big for the linguistic confines of my mind and then shutting it suddenly. Even after having shut it, the glimmer of it haunts me. The thought had tasted like hope and in closing myself off from it, I kept myself from feeling something good and pure. Often these thoughts are more personal: I may suddenly begin to realize that there is something off or wrong with someone whom I love, and then, when the sensation of rotting (of corrupting good memories) begins, and I must learn to hold the two things in my head at once, I close the thought. I tell myself that language is no space for gray area — words are too clearly delineated — meaning can be found — seldom is the connotation both positive and negative.
So, when a friend said to me that she, an abstract thinker, has reached the breaking point of frustration, where she could draw a form to show what she means but cannot put it to language, the idea took me aback. I had assumed, that in abstraction there is freedom. That if only I could escape words, those rotten things, then I would be free to comprehend my true emotions, but with that comprehension comes a barrier. If you truly understand your own sentiment, if you can fearlessly open the box of complex and contrary emotions, of ideas that deserve form but do not fit the concrete, you become somewhat isolated. Communication, even with clear concepts, is difficult (that is why programs like writing and speaking fellows exist), but communication of concepts that require abstraction to comprehend becomes an even more complicated process.
So, how does one communicate ideas that exist beyond the bounds of language. Perhaps I, a concrete thinker, am not best to attack this problem, as I often shy away from the grayer parts of thought. For my own sanity, for the sake of those hopeful and complicated thoughts I have previously discarded, I will try to entertain the issue. It is true, yes, language has limitations. This is part of the game of language, to find its bends and breaks, to see where the gaps between words are, the spaces we have not yet found a way to reach. So, I propose, not necessarily disentangling the abstract thought from itself — but instead prodding it, like you would do with a painting (figuratively, of course), or a piece of music, or a poem you are yet to understand. Try applying a word to it. How does that word fit, what does it cover, where does it fail, how can you qualify its failures, how can you highlight its success? Now apply another word to fit between that word and the abstraction still left uncovered. Perhaps, think of it as piecemeal. For me, the quitting point, is often the moment when I grow frustrated with holding all the words in my head, worse so when I must hold all the inadequacies in my head as well. Try writing it down. Write down what works — write down what about it doesn’t. If you cannot find the words to express what the thing is, try writing down something it is not. Perhaps like music, the meaning will arise in the negative spaces.
Last December I managed to hop from Chile—where I was studying abroad—to Barnard to Columbus, Ohio to Shanghai, China to Singapore, and return to Columbus before the end of 2015. It was amazing, overwhelming, and rather surprisingly gave me a insight into my understanding of language. I’m a Chinese-American majoring in Spanish; therefore, I’m relatively competent in three languages: English, Chinese and Spanish. Would I say I’m trilingual? Eh, I can’t really read or write Chinese, and my Spanish speaking skills are at a point where I still mess up but know how to correct myself. English is the only language I feel truly comfortable saying I’m fluent in. I found out during my travels that my differing levels of knowledge, and the context of my learning experiences greatly influenced the person I was when I interact in Spanish, Chinese, or English.
There have been many linguistic theories and experiments studying the relationship between changes in the perception of personality and multilingualism. American linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, argued that every language perpetuates a worldview that affect how its users perceive and experience the world. Sociolinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp designed an experiment where she interviewed Japanese women living in San Francisco. She asked the women to complete sentences such as, “when my wishes conflict with my family…” When the women answered in English they said, “I do want I want.” When they replied in Japanese: “it is a time of great unhappiness.” The study appears to demonstrate Whorf’s ideas. American English with its directness and lack of formal speech lets people express their demands for freedom. Japanese, with its many forms of honorifics, asks the speaker to consider the consequences of personal freedom at the cost of elders. But what comes first? Grammar and syntax or cultural norms? Was it always a part of the American cultural experience to rebel against family wishes and our language simply melded to fit our needs or was it the other way around? Perhaps, even more importantly, does language actually shape who we are? Does that mean out personalities are not constant? I can’t really speak to the historical or linguistic reasons behind this phenomenon, but I can speak to my own experience.
During the first month of my homestay in Chile, my host mom asked if my whole family was quiet like me. I was rather surprised by this question. I am NOT a quiet person. I am a SPEAKING fellow. I spent my childhood in timeout because I talked way too much. My mom still has a stack of teacher’s notes to prove it. But that was in English and Chinese. In Spanish, I was always more hesitant. I have to think before I speak. Did the genders match? Was that the right tense? Does no creo que need the subjunctive? In the few seconds I needed to form sentences in my mind, I would wonder, “wait, is this even worth saying?” Thereby, self-censoring whatever I had planned on saying. So, of course I came off as quiet in Spanish. I was also more appeasing in Spanish. I would often say “sí” automatically, not because I agreed but out of a desire to come off as friendly in case I messed up elsewhere. I was also less likely to jump in as a dissenter in my classes, because I was afraid I couldn’t articulate my viewpoints, and just come off as dumb. All of these factors, from the context to my level of fluency made me come off as a more reserved human being.
For me Chinese is the language of food, scolding and innocence. Racism, sexism, inequality do not exist because I don’t know the words for them in Chinese. While visiting my relatives in China, I was shocked by how many of my relatives looked down upon migrants from the rural areas of China. I chimed in and tried to explain that we shouldn’t be making generalizations about people and that we should check our privilege because we benefit from cheap migrant labor. However, I couldn’t find the words. How do you say generalization or privilege in Chinese? Strangely, I could figure out how to say it in Spanish. But wasn’t my Chinese supposed to be more fluent? I can get by in China without any thinking I’m a foreigner. But I couldn’t express my more complicated thoughts. When I finally chimed in to state rather gracelessly, that we just should not judge people if we don’t know them. My grandma tapped my arm and whispered, “Children should mind adults.” I felt pretty indignant, “I am 20 years old!” However, it was true. I came off as rude because, I don’t know how to use qualifiers in Chinese. My Chinese vocabulary and syntax has remained stuck at the level of a kindergartener, so I sound like one. I felt like my 20-year-old mind was stuck in a kid’s body.
When I finally got back to Barnard, and spent most of my days babbling away in English, I thought I would feel relieved to be back home. Finally, the USA, where I would be in on all the cultural jokes, call out all the idiots, and be the loud, proud, and annoying person I always was. Except, there was still something scratching at me in the back of my head. Sometimes I wanted to describe that certain sort of pretentiousness where people are aware of their snobbiness but are actually proud of it instead of ashamed. There’s a word for it in Chile: cuico. But I can’t use that word without sounding like that one kid who went abroad and came back all “cultured”. Or maybe I want to compliment a particularly opened minded person by saying, “you know I appreciated that you can think it open,” which comes from the Chinese phrase xiangdekai (想得開). In English that just sounds weird. I’ve always had the lost in translation feelings with English and Chinese, but I had my family to joke about that with. We pretty much speak Chinglish at home. But who can I speak SpanChinglish with? Maybe the point of this blog post is a call to arms for all the SpanChinglish speakers in the world! Hello, talk to me about and in these languages!
In the end, I’m not quite sure what defined my experiences. Was it the language I used? The context? My level of fluency? The cop out answer: all of the above. My own theoretical-not-based-on-any-science answer: I don’t think I am a different person when I speak a different language. I’m not quieter in Spanish—stereotypically speaking shouldn’t I be louder? —I’m not more childish in Chinese, and I’m not a master of eloquence in English. I’m pretty much all the same, but I just sound different, and have a different pool of vocabulary and syntax to draw from. As a result others perceive my words and actions differently, and I react accordingly. Am I arguing on the side a nature over nurture? Maybe, but I would argue that our nature molds to the nurture society gives us. Languages just happen to be one of those forms of nurture.
 Taken from Alice Robb’s article “Multilinguals have Multiple Personalities” in the New Republic, April 23rd, 2014.
Many people outside the Speaking Fellows program come up to me to compliment my public speaking skills. As a leader for KCCC, the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ, I often have to speak in front of my club members. My co-leader would always say, “Cheryl has a natural gift for public speaking;” however, I would like to argue I was not always this way.
On the contrary, it was not until my sophomore year in high school when I got into public speaking. Many people find it hard to believe I feared even the tiniest public interaction, despised having the attention of only one person. If I told this story to people like my co-leader, they would usually respond back with disbelief and shock. However, looking back, I am grateful for my past insecurities and utter fear towards public speaking, as they serve as a testament to a belief I hold strongly: public speaking is a lifestyle.
Just like exercise and maintaining a healthy diet, public healthy is something an individual needs to consistently work on. After a host of many motivations, one being my admiration towards the charisma professional career men and women exude when they speak, I became excited over the possibility of becoming a speaker, or even one as charismatic as them. As a result, I took as many opportunities to speak in front of various groups of people as I could about different topics and in motley ambiances. For instance, I did presentations in small, casual settings, such as classrooms and professional environments like a Fortune 500 company in Wall Street.
Since the beginning of my journey as a public speaker, I have made countless embarrassing, foolish mistakes; nevertheless, those very same errors have helped me become a better orator. Although some may have the natural gift of public speaking, I believe the majority of great public speakers all had a beginning. Speaking is not an ability that arises from a few tries, but rather is a gradual process that continually builds off of experiences, which will eventually help the person discover their own speaker style.
College feels like living and never being able to find punctuation
Sentences and questions carry on into the next day next year four years go by too fast to realize when there is a break because the breaks are just other moments where you still remain within the sentence of a college though you are not imprisoned but I guess that depends on your perspective imagine it I could capitalize words to show new beginnings read and pause create huge spaces like Nikki Giovanni well in some of her poems you know but imagine it imagine living and never being able to find punctuation Thoughts have no place to stand on or stop no moments to exhale you keep running reading chasing living being that that starts and continues but is it a start if it never ends do binaries exist with two opposing forces does a part of me stop when I reach adulthood will I know if I do though that must be what I feel after graduation Graduation but I wont really know because I keep going and adjusting to new spaces as if they are new places that I must assimilate into but my presence must incite a change a shift in tone in speech in something that too never ends but that was there before I entered RIGHT why does it seem life is like a never ending gif make it stop make it stop make it STOP Lynn Nottage my favorite playwright wrote a character who wrote a poem that will never be able to find punctuation The poem she says changes and moves and evolves and keeps shifting endlessly searching for a breath
That is never there because you are in college or about to leave Congratulations
by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17
The act of writing outside the academic can often become nebulous, emotional gray territory. Entrenched in the processes of one’s own head, it is easy to lose sight of purpose. Why do we write creatively? Is it an act of catharsis, of battling one’s own duende on the page? Or is it something beyond that – must writing have externality to be valid?
Much of the Writing Fellows program relies on the philosophy that all writers need a reader. So, opening the email containing my sixth rejection letter of the year, I consider, for whom am I writing? If I am writing for myself I can stop submitting. If I am writing for someone else, I should change my writing style to be something my peers want to read. Instead, I attempt to balance the two, oscillating between extreme adaption (I will write like an angry white boy alcoholic) and extreme rejection (I will only journal octaves about plants).
This process leaves me exhausted and melancholy. I am left with a motley of mangled poems that are either too detached from my reality to be valid — or too personal to be read. When a student leaves the writing center feeling hopeful for her work, I am uplifted. This! is why we write! Writing is neither for the self nor for the other. Writing, regardless of content, is expression before communication. Yes, when we write academically we seek to teach our ideas to the reader, but when writing for the sake of writing, for the art of it, we seek instead an act of genesis — whether our material is new or recycled, it is something of creation.
When students stop me mid-question to ask what the professor wants them to say I find myself at an impasse. Yes, the professor, being merely human, has goals and expectation — as much as they may try to remain unbiased – they cannot transform into a completely neutral reader. But, do not write for what you think the professor wants. The writing produced by this filter is stilted. Write intelligently; write a response to the text and the questions raised between it and discussion. I bite my tongue – there is a necessary space in academic writing between the art and the task.
Returning then to the purely artistic writing we are freed. There is no task here – nothing to prove or to answer. And, while we are released we are also relieved of direction. Direction here must come from the internal. Thus, we are lead back to the difficult questions – what is this? what are you doing? who are you?
I was inspired by a Speaking Fellow long before I even enrolled at Barnard College. Her name was Tabia Santos, and when she got up to speak the whole room was in silence. We were mesmerized by her words because everything from her postures to her gestures to the way she projected her voice and enunciated every syllable reflected a great degree of confidence. As a 17 year old, all I could think was, “wow, I’d love to be like her.” That’s when I knew I wanted to be a Speaking Fellow.
I couldn’t be more proud of being a Speaking Fellow. As a senior, I now look back and am glad that I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone to apply to be a Speaking Fellow. Not only do I feel that my speaking skills have developed greatly, but most importantly I have seen the effects of my help on my peers. Public speaking requires a great degree of confidence, or at least the air of confidence. It’s not easy to get up in front of a crowd. The skills and experiences that I have had the opportunity to gain as a Speaking Fellow are invaluable, and I can say that this is probably one of the best decisions I’ve made during my college career. If you are a Barnard student considering becoming a fellow, don’t hesitate. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable.