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The Case for Embracing Linguistic Identities

7 minute read
Hessler is the author of The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as Beijing correspondent from 2000-2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

This spring, the New York Times ran a headline: “Should a White Man be the Face of the Democratic Party in 2020?” My first reaction was: Along with the face, let’s think about voice. In particular, I’m interested in language.

I grew up in mid-Missouri, but I’ve spent most of my adulthood outside the United States. In 1996, I joined the Peace Corps, which sent me to China and taught me Mandarin. Eventually, I became a journalist, staying in the country for more than a decade. Then I continued to Cairo, where I spent five years studying Egyptian Arabic and covering the Arab Spring.

For me, language matters. After the attacks of 9/11, I wondered if Americans would choose leadership with international experience. Since then, voters have whiplashed between the vastly different characters of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, but there’s always been a constant: none of these men lived overseas as an adult. No foreign service, no time in the military. These presidents illustrate an alternative version of the American Dream, in which a remarkable range of backgrounds all lead to the same linguistic destination. Trump grew up white, rich, and the beneficiary of private education: no foreign language. Obama, the mixed-race son of an immigrant, eventually received two Ivy League degrees: no foreign language. Of the post-9/11 presidents, only Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard) can speak a language at a moderate level (Spanish).

How did this happen? Thomas Jefferson spoke multiple languages, and his successor, James Madison, knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Herbert Hoover and his wife used Mandarin in the White House when they didn’t want bystanders to understand. But since then, over nearly a century of activist foreign policy, only one president has been truly multilingual: Franklin Roosevelt, who spoke both French and German.

Some of it reflects isolation and xenophobia. As a candidate, John Kerry was criticized for his fluency in French, and Trump attacked Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for answering questions in Spanish on the campaign trail. But I’ve found that even people who pay lip service to liberal values often don’t take language seriously enough. It’s rarely seen as fundamental to identity in the same way as race and gender.

As a journalist, everything that I notice depends on language. In 2014, I was traveling alone in Mallawi, a small city on the Nile in Upper Egypt, when an Arabic-speaking local mentioned that there was a Chinese entrepreneur in a nearby market. I met the Chinese, who turned out to be a native of rural Zhejiang province who had never formally studied Arabic or Middle Eastern culture. But somehow he had come to this remote place in order to specialize in an unusually sensitive product: women’s lingerie.

For two years, I tracked down dozens of other Chinese in Upper Egypt, and every one of them was selling lingerie. In a deeply conservative region, where Egyptian families rarely allow women to work or own businesses, the Chinese flourished because of their status as outsiders. They didn’t gossip, and they kept their opinions to themselves. In a New Yorker article entitled “Learning to Speak Lingerie,” I described the Chinese use of Arabic as another non-threatening characteristic. I wrote, “Unlike Mandarin, Arabic is inflected for gender, and Chinese dealers, who learn the language strictly by ear, often pick up speech patterns from female customers. I’ve come to think of it as the lingerie dialect, and there’s something disarming about these Chinese men speaking in the feminine voice.”

I later expanded this research for my book about Egypt, The Buried. I was fascinated by the Chinese perspective on Egypt and the Arab Spring: after all, these entrepreneurs were coming from another ancient civilization with a recent history of revolutions and radical change. Their assessment of Egyptian culture was sympathetic, and they often praised the local tradition of kindness to strangers. But the Chinese were also clear-eyed about Egyptian flaws, probably because they had to be observant in order to survive in such remote places. They repeatedly said that one of the great failures of the Tahrir movement was that it had failed to do anything to improve the issue of inequality between men and women. “If they want to develop, the first thing they need to do is solve this problem,” Lin Xianfei, one of the Chinese entrepreneurs, told me.

When I wrote about the Chinese in the New Yorker, most readers seemed to appreciate the unusual perspective. But as I often find with topics that involve the Middle East, some people had trouble getting past the the black-and-white quality of a byline. “This piece is so orientalist I don’t know what to do,” Aisha Gani, a reporter who worked at The Guardian, tweeted. Another colleague at the British paper, Iman Amrani, agreed: “I wouldn’t have minded an article on the subject written by an Egyptian woman—probably would have had better insight.” She continued, “Well we have articles written by white women about sex & trends around sex, it’s when white men do it about WOC [women of color] that I take issue.”

As an MOL [man of language], I also take issue with this kind of essentialism. Empathy and understanding are not inherited traits, and they are not strictly tied to gender and race. An individual who wrestles with a difficult language can learn to be more sympathetic to outsiders and open to different experiences of the world. This learning process—the embarrassments, the frustrations, the gradual sense of understanding and connection—is invariably transformative. In Upper Egypt, the Chinese experience of struggling to learn Arabic and local culture had made them much more thoughtful. In the same way, I was interested in their lives not because of some kind of voyeurism, but because I had also experienced Egypt and Arabic as an outsider. And both the Chinese and the Egyptians welcomed me because I spoke their languages. My identity as a white male was far less important than my ability to communicate.

And that easily lobbed word—“Orientalist”—hardly captures the complexity of our interactions. What exactly is the dynamic when a man from Missouri observes a Zhejiang native selling lingerie to an Upper Egyptian woman? What if the Zhejiang man speaks entirely in the feminine voice, and if the Missourian has arrived at the Nile via the Yangtze? If all of us now stand beside the same river, speaking in ways we all understand, who’s looking east and who’s looking west? Which way is Oriental?

For all of our current interest in identity politics, there’s no corresponding sense of identity linguistics. You are what you speak—the words that run throughout your mind are at least as fundamental to your selfhood as is your ethnicity or your gender. And sometimes it’s healthy to consider human characteristics that are not inborn, rigid, and outwardly defined. After all, you can always learn another language and change who you are. And the more languages you know, the more you appreciate how hard it is to label another person, because each mind contains its own unique collection of words.

I’m glad that campaign coverage has noted that Kirsten Gillibrand studied Mandarin seriously, and much has been made of the Norwegian and other languages spoken by Pete Buttigieg. Personally, I’m far more interested in the fact that he knows the language of Malta, his father’s island homeland. What’s Maltese? Well, it’s a descendant of Arabic that’s written in Latin letters and spoken by an overwhelmingly Christian population. And so Abu al-Dijaj—“the owner of the chicken”—becomes Buttigieg.

Anybody with Maltese spinning inside his head, just like any Chinese who deals lingerie in Upper Egypt, must have some sense that the world is a complicated, messy, and wonderful place.

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