A History of Learning English (and American Fetishism)

Whenever I think about how I learned English, I recall a certain scene that happened on one midnight in Chicago. I was dreadfully hungry after waking up in my apartment, so I went out to the snowy remains of the city wrapped up in my jacket and headed to a 24/7 Subway restaurant.

An Indian employee who recognized me as a regular customer was serving a suited up white man holding a stereotypical black briefcase with his right hand. He just looked like the perfect image of a businessman from Getty Images. Like most other orders I’ve heard in Chicago, his ideal Subway sandwich boggled my mind: a meatball marinara baked in an Italian bread with melted cheese and no vegetables. I had gotten used to the volcanic monstrosity since I’ve lived in Chicago for almost two years then; my college schoolmates had always enjoyed eating bread with red, melting corpses dripping on the side after all. Still, the image of a molten lava with a streak of yellow on a perfect, innocent sandwich bore into my mind to this day. That bread reeked of mortality and chopped up body parts. This was before the businessman said to put in some Southwest sauce by the way. I thought I was looking at hell encapsulated in a Subway sandwich.

Meanwhile, I ordered a Subway sandwich the same way I used to order back in Singapore. Roasted chicken, roasted, no cheese, all veggies except tomato (I was allergic to them for a long time and nowadays feel weird eating them in a sandwich), and no sauce. The first time I said this order to the Indian employee, he was noticeably aghast. I wasn’t sure why for a while, but it might have been because I’m one of the few people who actually ate their veggies in this Subway branch. The businessman beside me was surprised too.

He said, “This is the first time I’ve seen someone order this much vegetables.”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone ask that question to me. Take it as you will about Americans. My eyes were fixated on my sandwich being sliced into two and then put into an oven because I found that more interesting than chitchat with some stranger on the Subway queue at midnight.

“Back in Singapore,” I said while repressing a yawn, “everyone eats Subway sandwiches with vegetables. It also gets crowded because people really like how healthy it is, I guess. I suppose it’s peculiar around here, but that’s how it is in Asia. Vegetables are good.”

“Wow, your English is really good from someone there. It sounds very American.”

This was when I turned my head toward him. He had a smile on his face. I knew he was earnest and kind about his praise for it. He meant it well. This businessman really did mean it well. Like everyone who told me my English was damn excellent. You write like a native. You speak like us. All of that praise from him and others echoed in my mind and they began to have a sinister tone to it.

Was I being mocked?

I was praised after all because I didn’t look American — I looked Asian and Oriental. It didn’t matter if one of the official languages in Singapore was English. Because I spoke English well, I deserved some praise. But what kind of praise were we talking about? Was it because I spoke English well for an Asian? Or was it because I enunciate words like an American would? So in that case, did he mean “Good job, you’re one of us now”? Whatever his true intentions were, drenched in innocence as they may be, he racialized us: he was white and I was yellow. He and many others I’ve come to realize were petting me. I did a neat trick in front of them and everyone loved it. Those eighteen years of studying in English — reading the dullest of literatures, acting in drama, watching all the films I could find — all came up to this: to get some attention from people around me and get praised for it. I wanted someone — some sort of parental figure or authority — to tell me that you did an amazing job for going this far and you’re going to do great in the future. And I finally found that figure. A sleep-deprived businessman who thought of himself as an open-minded guy patting on people’s backs without realizing his words were carrying an ounce of the white man’s burden. This was what the eighteen years of studying English came up to. This was what my dreams and aspirations came to be.

“Your sandwich is ready.”

The businessman went out of the restaurant, slightly confused at what must have looked like a horrified expression on my face. I got my Subway sandwich, bought some coconut water from 7-11, went back to the apartment, and ate my sandwich as I resumed a let’s play on Nico Nico Douga. I bit into the sandwich.

It tasted like molten lava.

I have a love-hate relationship with English. It is a colonial language forced upon many societies around the world. Even after the colonists left the continents for good, the languages remain not just as a reminder of their existence but as the only way to get out of this mess too.

It is no surprise that post-colonialist writers like Frantz Fanon begin their books with an observation on language. “To speak,” Fanon writes in Black Skins, White Masks, “means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization.” This means there is but only one inevitable conclusion for the people once colonized under a great power. To speak such a language, people become closer “to becoming a true human being”. In Fanon’s case, black Antilleans were obsessed becoming whiter.

In my case, I was obsessed about becoming American. Moving and living in Singapore from 1999 to 2012 made me want to live in other places more. Television shows like Friends and Hey Arnold! promised me a heaven of individualism and multiculturalism compared to the boring ultra-conformist hellscape of “racial harmony” in Singapore. Racial harmony was a thing the Singapore government dreamed up after the 1964 Race Riots in Singapore that ended Singapore’s affiliation to Malaysia as a state and led to the country’s independence. This was obviously not true because the Chinese controlled the government and the educational system was rigged to allow more educated Chinese (and later, Indians) to attend better universities while Malays ended up attending the equivalent to community colleges to work in shitty jobs at the public sector. I knew something was wrong as a kid when I was playing with my friends on the playground. It wasn’t as “free” as the social studies textbooks said. And the United States of America seemed like a better choice than Singapore based on the TV shows I watched and laughed about.

But I knew that my English needed to be better. When I entered kindergarten in Singapore at 2000, I had difficulty saying words like “care” on the computer and I don’t think I understood that word either. There weren’t that many books in the little apartment we had then too. My mom was illiterate (she isn’t now) and my dad worked in Jakarta; it also didn’t help my parents spoke no English either. When I bought Going Solo by Roald Dahl in the airport — one of my very first book purchases and this came about because I loved reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from the school library — I asked my mom what the word, “solo”, was. Her maternal instinct to teach her children overrode her zero understanding of English; she told me that “solo” came from the Solo River in the Indonesian folk song, “Bengawan Solo”, and that I should one day try to eat some of the pastry found in the bakery of the same name. There weren’t many recourses to learn English then and the internet wasn’t a thing till later in my life, but it was fun learning and mislearning random aspects of the English language.

My parents thought differently. They were poor then and wanted their children to have access to better education than they had. They dreamed that all four kids would at least go beyond high school level, which was where they stopped. My sisters, by virtue of being born way earlier than I was, experienced both Indonesian and Australian education systems; they were beginning their bachelor’s in the University of Sydney. I was supposed to have schooled in Indonesia myself until the May 1998 Riots in Indonesia occurred. I was five years old crawling and walking in Jakarta then. I often saw my dad exit the house in the middle of the night and stand up on a chair by the entrance while holding a huge baseball bat above his head. It looked like he was going to play whack a mole like in the Timezone arcades I used to play. Later, I learned that people in the riots might come to this neighborhood and attack us in the middle of the night because we were Chinese. He probably thought of sending me to a safer space to grow and learn instead of this torn up war zone of Jakarta, which was why I moved to Sydney for a year before finally moving to Singapore.

My parents wanted me to learn English and possibly Chinese in Singapore, so I could easily grow up and work in the adult world. In this respect, I was given a lot of academic freedom since I was a young kid. I could grab an expensive-looking DK Encyclopedia on Earth without too much of a trouble and pore over the words and images on how volcanoes erupt. I still have this book today. And I often tried the science experiments found in children’s books, though I didn’t really understand what I was doing because my grasp on English wasn’t that great after all. Nobody supervised me on what I studied and read up as long as I was learning English.

This however would backfire in the long run. For one, I began to forget my mother tongue, Bahasa Indonesia, because I didn’t have any formal education with it. I did interact with my mom and our maid (in Southeast Asia, maids or helpers are everywhere — I should write a post about it someday) in Indonesian, but it was broken. When I first attended Beng Wan Primary School, I kept hammering Indonesian vocabulary into the English grammar I was taught with. So I started having difficulties communicating with my parents as time went on. All I could muster at the end was English words they didn’t understand and I got frustrated at this language divide separating parents and child. It was like I wasn’t one of their children anymore. In fact, my parents began to suspect I was autistic because I learned to speak at a very late age apparently and I was constantly frustrated with my family to the point I would give up and just played video games to spite them. So I got to meet my psychiatrist who stuck with me for a long time; he was my psychiatrist until I moved to America.

This was also when I started tunneling my efforts into learning English properly because I wanted to be seen as a “Singaporean” as well as an American. I am technically born in Singapore, but I am not a citizen of the country. I am Indonesian. So as far as things were concerned, my Singaporean classmates saw me as a foreigner. It always confused me as a kid and I felt other-ed and alienated. I wanted to be part of the in-group.

So I studied English as much as I could. I didn’t want to be mistaken as someone who wasn’t born here. I wanted to hide away any evidence that I was Indonesian. Aiming for an impeccable Singaporean English, I ceased dillydallying about and read young adult fiction books for the first time; Enid Blyton’s The Mystery of the Secret Room was the first of such books I ever read. I remember renting it from a dingy bookstore, which I would never visit again and I don’t recall the address anyway, and I barely understood a thing. What the book is about, I don’t remember at all either. The fact I remembered this book because of the bizarre cover — the cop especially — is astounding since I couldn’t find a higher res version of this particular cover. All I cared was picking up the words and grammar of the English language that I desperately needed to learn.

That was basically my experience with fiction at a very young age. The stories and characters weren’t the aspects that interested me the most but the words. The units of the book, you might say, are more practical than the overall content of the work. I believe the reason I preferred children’s fiction over nonfiction during this period was because I thought fiction had less tougher words. While science and history books were cool, I figured it would be more practical to learn about everyday lives of kids and adults than the the mystical process of photosynthesis and the great ancient people of Greece.

I was doing the same with Chinese. I borrowed multiple Chinese picture books — god knows what the titles are — from the small school library to read in a Chinese language remedial school. But I had fun with learning Chinese because, while traveling to Taiwan to visit my relatives there, I discovered Old Master Q (also called Lao Fu Zi). The Chinese equivalent of Calvin and Hobbes and Azumanga Daioh, the comic made me enjoy fiction for the first time in the “lowly” form of comic books. I still have them somewhere and remember my Taiwanese cousins explaining some of the jokes I couldn’t get to me. That was the only time I had fun learning Chinese, but it was also the first time I enjoyed reading something fiction.

I wouldn’t get to experience the pleasures of reading fiction for another fourteen years.

Nevertheless, I treaded on and on with my English and Chinese studies. When I entered third grade, I was playing Chinese chess with my classmates in Chinese class. I felt I was somewhat accepted, but my Chinese grades were also slowly slipping away. You see, my mom who was always around with me spoke Hokkien and not Mandarin, the Chinese “dialect” (really, language) that everyone associate Chinese with. I only got to use my Mandarin skills when I watched Mandarin-dubbed shows of Hong Kong dramas that aired on a TV channel, so it couldn’t catch up to the fast-paced classes that assumed your Mandarin was as good as your English. Since I wasn’t in a household that spoke either, I decided to sacrifice Mandarin Chinese to focus on my English studies. I didn’t care if my parents scolded me for my grades dropping to a B-; English was more important if I wanted to reach the shores of America and I did damn well at it.

But then, at the end of the year, the principal of Beng Wan Primary School appeared before us on the year-end ceremony with a grave face. He tapped his microphone and spoke the words that foreshadowed my anxiety to come: “We are merging with the school beside us, Bendemeer Primary School.”

School mergers in Singapore were emerging as early as the 2000s. For a young nation like Singapore, this was bad. A bunch of hypothesis appeared on newspapers like The Straits Times, but the one that seems the most believable is the scenario known as “brain drain”. This is when your educated civilians emigrate to another nation like the United States or Canada. If given the chance, most Singaporeans would of course try to look for a better livelihood elsewhere and the government gave that chance through a very esteemed education. This caused a population decline in the so-called Heartlands, newly built suburbs and residential districts composed mostly of flats, so schools couldn’t fill up the classrooms with kids ready to learn. That’s why schools merge. Layoffs happen. And if the school merged into is known for being a problematic environment, parents leave and move kids elsewhere.

“There will be a new campus,” the principal said, holding back his tears, “built on the fields we once held for athletic days. Beng Wan is no more.”

I saw the teachers who I admired cry and it still echo in my ears. The Chinese characters, 秉文小学, that were engraved on the wall and my mind were taken down and we all sang the school anthem for the last time.

We all became Bendemeer Primary School students and the campus was home to Bendemeer Secondary School for about three months before it fell into disuse. The campus remained withering in the foreground as I walked around it to go to my new school. The blue uniforms of Beng Wan became a past memory in a few months. Now, I had to wear a brown uniform and remember a new school anthem. I was still too young to make of what had happened; all I remember was a feeling of loss and hurt. The first school that taught Hindi (organized by Pro-Tem Hindi Committee) in the Singaporean education system and the first ever school I attended became a small footnote in a mostly forgotten history of merged schools.

Today, the campus has been demolished and is home to new high-rise apartments. Bendemeer has also absorbed another old school too. Nothing has changed in that regard.

I didn’t have time then, so I thought, to feel sad about school. All I needed to do was study English.

This is where I admit I don’t have much clue of what had happened during this time.

I knew I did boyish stuff then: I harassed girls I liked by telling everyone what the colors of their panties today were (I still feel bad about it today and deserve to get slapped by them) and tried to be fit by running a lot. My second sister was a huge fan of Harry Potter and I was allowed to bring The Order of Phoenix in my small backpack to everyone’s amazement; everyone thought I was insane for reading such a thick volume. And my third sister bought me Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul for my eleventh birthday, which led to this exchange:

Girl: What are you reading?
Me: Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.
Girl: Aren’t you eleven like me? You aren’t a teenager yet!

I had the usual panicked excitement going to the school dentist and all that fun stuff. But other than those small fragments, I don’t recall much.

But I do recall getting good grades on English and being anxious about it. Usually, that would signify a good thing like more computer time privileges. However, that meant I was going to attend the best class on sixth grade and that was taught by the so-called discipline mistress.

Anyone with a role to discipline in education basically means they can administer caning as a form of punishment. Caning in elementary schools doesn’t really hurt in the physical sense, but it is psychologically damning. You are caned in front of the whole school and be made as a lesson to other students who dared to disobey the rules.

I was also considered a problematic kid. In school reports, I was often called a “bright child” with some issues following orders. In essence, I was a bit too individualistic and often questioned authority figures too much for Singapore’s taste. The discipline mistress reportedly had an eye out for me.

So according to my family, I hit my head on the wall numerous times and started crying. I wasn’t able to take the stress away from recently learning the quadratic equation and the anxiety looming behind the PSLE exams (Primary School Leaving Examination, a standardized exam that resembles the SAT except it matters and decides your fate at sixth grade where you will go in your future). And anyone who has read a bit of psychiatric literature would probably guess I repressed those memories a lot.

My family started searching for other ways while I attended sixth grade. They didn’t tell me what they were doing because they were the kind of family who thought stress and depression did not exist; however, they knew I had to go somewhere and were too proud to admit their child may be harboring suicidal thoughts. So in class, I just ended up feeling like I was going to erupt when she looked at me while writing example sentences on the whiteboard.

A few months later, that same discipline mistress I feared wrote a teacher’s recommendation about how proud she was for having a student who will be attending the prestigious Singapore American School.

Singapore American School was where I spent the last six years in Singapore before moving to Chicago. It is difficult to give justice to how much I love this institution in a post like this because many aspects of its education have shaped me today. If you like how I write for example, that’s because SAS taught me how to essay in this particular style. If you enjoy my internationalist thoughts, SAS made me this way. If you like my dumb sex jokes and memes, the humor I developed in SAS is partly to blame. Maybe I’ll write a post about this in full detail someday.

But SAS was also a huge relief for me. The need to conform to Singaporean family values had dissipated. I didn’t fear being caned and the educational system actually respected depressed kids like me. I began developing and embracing my own personality and beliefs in this institution without any pressure from family or peers. And because this was Singapore American School, this was when my love for America grew fanatic.

Everything I thought great about SAS, I immediately thought that it had to do with it being American. This wonderful multicultural ecosphere we got going here came about because it was American. The great liberal arts education and encouragement to seek your own personal projects existed because it was American. And the smart as hell people and athletic as fuck folks I hung out with were like this because they’re American. Like someone seeing fireworks for the first time, I was enamored by the school culture and thought this was why America was great.

It was delusional and ignorant of me back then to think everything great meant that it must have come from America. But I knew very little of America except the snippets I got to read on The Straits Times about the Iraq War. The moral complexities of war meant little when all I knew was the tanks and guns the US Army had.

But that kind of delusional fantasy drove me to be better in English. I had all the recourses I need to speak better English and it should have been easy.

The problem was nobody understood what I was saying.

Singapore English is largely derived from British English and words are pronounced and sometimes spelled quite differently from there. Words like “tutor” sounded off to many American teachers who privately taught me; I wasn’t able to express how I was being tutored by a Singaporean teacher, which gave me the great impression that “tutor” wasn’t an American word. There were few people who corrected my English too before I entered SAS. Silent consonants like the second ‘b’ in ‘bomber” became voiced and I started calling bomber planes as bomb-buhs to the hilarity of my US History teacher at that time. I also wanted to attend drama classes because I fucking loved Hollywood movies then. But I learned that my accent was way too thick for many American classmates to understand, so my drama teacher told me to keep on practicing the same lines over and over again. Aye need-ed twoo maykuh shurr Aye eenunceeyated da pruhpurr way.

The books my school told us to read were pretty tough too. I had to read The Outsiders at seventh grade and felt really stupid about it because the slang found in the period of the book was virtually unknown to me. I did enjoy reading some nonfiction books again, in particular books about the food and nutrition industry. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal haunted me with images of cows being slaughtered in the worst of conditions and that led me to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which was an engrossing read on the ways we eat and what might be healthier. I believe that was my first encounter with veganism, something that still isn’t a thing in Asia.

But I also started picking what books to read too. I didn’t know of Amazon (not a thing in Singapore until this year!) or Goodreads, so I went to Borders back at Wheelock Place (back when that was a thing) and bought random fiction books I thought was interesting.

The first book I ever bought with my own money was the horrifyingly bad book called An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brook Clarke. I still have that book somewhere and I would have burned it if not for how personally significant that book was to me. It was after all the first book I ever got from browsing through books. Don’t read it. It sucksssss.

The second book was Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The cover I had was the film poster and it had big words on the top, “Now a Major Picture”. I bought the book because it was now a major picture and I loved film then (still do!).

Hitchhiker’s first confused me as a youngster because I didn’t really understand the sense of humor it was driving at. But as I reread certain passages like how towels were “about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”, I started laughing and getting it. It was the first English book I ever got. It took me fourteen years, but I finally understood an English language book for what it was.

I was thrilled and read as much Douglas Adams as I could. It helped that my American thespian friends were huge Anglophiles too and we talked how hilarious Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was. These same friends later introduced me to Monty Python and the Flying Circus and I got interested in environmentalism (which would later develop into my leftwing thinking) after reading Last Chance to See… by Adams himself. I still admire the writer and British humor to this day.

I also got to read Calvin and Hobbes anthologies as well as The Far Side comics in the massive school library. Of course, I didn’t understand one little thing about the latter; however, I did keep borrowing and rereading certain parts. I often pat myself in the back when I finally understood a joke. But with Calvin and Hobbes, I felt like I was gaining a connection to my imagined version of everyday America. I thought about touching snow for the first time, imagining I was in Calvin’s shoes and escaping from my ruthless parents, and drinking the mystical, unusual drink called lemonade — something I had never drunk before.

I’m not sure if I would consider any of this as a pleasure derived from reading, but I do think it stirred up the imaginations of my young mind then. I just thought America was this great suburb like in the Archie’s comics with everyone hanging about. I dreamed of that more than any of the books I read during school or for leisure.

And that’s why I needed to make my English better. After I entered high school and saw how difficult some English classes were, I told myself that before I turned 21, I’m going to read 1,000 books in total. That way, I know my English would be American.

Why a thousand books? I’m not sure today. But I knew when I was younger, I figured all educated American adults have read a thousand books when they turned 21 because everyone around me was smart.

I knew a small kid who jumped three grades and had read a book called Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell; he told me it was the most important book to read and, of course, I read it and loved it (I did think of the dystopia government being unrealistic because it was a bit too lenient — Singapore was worse). My English teachers who were surprisingly either Australians or Canadians taught us how important it was to read literature especially of Shakespeare’s whose ideas still permeate today. And my History of China teacher claimed that classics are classics because they were timeless — their great ideas were still relevant today and they’re funner to read than most books today.

So I just read books designated as literature. What that means was I looked for publishers like Penguin Classics and Vintage Classics in airport bookstores. I read Crime and Punishment when I was around fifteen — I still recall finishing it in a Hong Kong vacation while waiting for my third sister to finish up her FitnessFirst session — and grumbled reading Catcher in the Rye the next year. Around that time, I also discovered Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy by pure accident — the cover was pretty, it was published by Vintage Classics, and my username was similar to the eponymous character on several websites — so I read it on one bus journey to the local gym and loved it. And of course, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald taught me about the strange, metaphysical concept known as the American Dream. Everything I read was literature. I barely touched Calvin and Hobbes anthologies again and forgot Douglas Adams. All I did was read the well-loved books written by the deadest of old white men from the Western literary canon, which I later learned about and obsessed over.

I wanted to read 1,000 classics and be the ideal American adult. That meant I needed to force myself to read 70 pages per day. I was an excruciatingly slow reader then (probably .2 pages per hour), so I suffered reading some of the dullest books I knew. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens bored me in a few pages and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was only interesting to me if it had zombies. But I wanted to finish them regardless, so with most books I tolerated the dull writing and flipped the page.

After all, I wanted to speak, read, and write good English. Studying can be dull most of the times, so this was normal.

I started constructing sentences based on the literary novels I’ve read so far. Most of my essays then were stilted and featured a bizarre amount of tense errors and run-on sentences. I thought at one point that I would never be able to write a good English essay like anyone. Rereading my own essays made me realize how foreign my English was. I started looking for internet recourses and found TV Tropes to help with my literary criticism, but for obvious reasons that I may someday write about, it actually ruined my essay-writing skills.

With these failures, I wondered if I would ever sound American. I once recorded myself for a documentary project I had to make and heard what I thought was foreign cackles like a parrot’s. It didn’t sound like the voice I had imagined up in my head. I thought my voice sounded cute like a young white girl’s, not this bloated, heavy Asian and masculine as fuck voice. It was gross. But where did the impression of me having the voice of a young white girl came from? I thought it was a bit strange. It was probably because I read too much Alice in Wonderland and I just loved watching white girls in films. I of course would think I had the voice of a young white girl. How silly of me. Today, I know of it as voice dysphoria. Because I thought in my head how if I were ever an American I would be a young white girl frolicking in the plains of Idaho, I could never be American after hearing my own cackling voice.

So I started hating myself. Hating my own Asianness and my own gender. I couldn’t stand my own voice. It sounded too un-American. Everything I wrote and spoke was just too Asian. And I felt sick and detached over my own body.

I didn’t know anything about gender dysphoria or trans people then since SAS never taught me this. But I believe if I was taught this information, I might have come out as trans because I really disliked how I was male and the pressures being the only son in the family had on me.

My identity was pretty much broken. I would never be a “true human being”, a white person. I didn’t think much of the future. I just wanted to rot in Singapore because I was very much a fake human being who couldn’t speak a lick of good American English. Even though I visited America a couple of times during this period, I felt like I didn’t really jive well there. And I was just a tourist after all. Another foreigner in the lands of America. So I gave up.

Until my parents said that I might be able to go to America if I find a college there.

I don’t know why I picked Chicago. It might be because I’ve never been there and I don’t think I would ever visit there if I don’t study there. I moved to Chicago right after I graduated from high school. I turned 19 in a mysterious area I’m supposed to call home. And Chicago is probably one of the two homes I feel like I somewhat belong to, the other being SAS itself.

But Chicago wasn’t the home I dreamed up to be. Incidents like the one that happened at Subway at midnight made me realize I was messed up in the head. No one in America read 1,000 books. In fact, people were at awe over how much I read — around 500 at that time — and the knowledge I’ve accumulated. Classmates and professors told me I was “well-read” and “knowledgable”, that I was far ahead of any American student in the college I was in.

“Your insight from the many types of media and experiences you have,” one of my favorite writing professors told me, “is beyond any American student here.”

Maybe it was my fate to be other-ed as an international student by my classmates because I was just that insightful. A good friend of mine told me in private that people were talking shit about me — about how I was a know-it-all and a “teacher’s pet”. She defended me and said that I actually worked hard to reach where I was now because she knew a little bit about my situation.

But I wonder if it’s worth it to learn English when I’m alienated by the people I wanted to be. Maybe those “teacher’s pet” mumblings were right to a certain extent. I wanted to be acknowledged as someone worthy to be an American after all.

The only things I were looking forward to was Japanese media. I discovered anime near the end of high school and consumed as much as I could during the worst of winters and days when I didn’t feel like going to college. I felt guilty wasting my parents’ money, but I began enjoying something for the first time in a long time. I was tired of English language media, but Japanese media was fresh and had different perspectives I never thought about.

And then, I found the video game series Atelier again. That’s when I resolved to learn Japanese to combat against my own nihilistic view of the world and the English language itself. That was when I started to fall in love with fiction again.

As I read visual novels and checked out other kinds of Japanese media I wasn’t aware about, I started sobering up and returned to reading English language works. Just not the stuffy kinds written up by dead old white men.

I read Orientalism by Edward Said and learned what being other-ed and Orientialized meant. Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere features episodes of American diasporas just trying to survive in this urban world. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. is an excellent history of the black resistance movement and why it is important to remember the successes and failures of political movements. Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a flawed but beautiful novel about an America I didn’t know about — an America of minorities trying to live in the inferno of white privilege and generational conflict.

Singaporean literature got onto my radar too. I read up the histories of countries and cities I had lived in but ignored for my quest for America. There was another bigger and more interesting world out there and I wished I knew about this years ago.

I also enjoy reading the children’s literature I skipped while growing up. Charlotte’s Web was a surprise to me because I never got to read it. Any book for kids that dealt with grief so eloquently deserved some praise. While I had a difficult time getting into young adult books, I’ve been curious about some titles and plan to procure one of them in the near future.

Reading in English has become a means to find the different worlds few people know about. It is unfortunate that I know English this well, but I feel accomplished reading texts about cultural imperialism and how they manifest in different contexts. I also feel impelled to write about Japanese texts, especially ones that remain unknown, in English so more people know about these lost voices in the world.

Maybe that’s why I write. To find these lost voices and microphone it to the whole world. Else, no one will understand what is in the other side of the world and people can remain ignorant of others’ pains and joy. That’s at least how I try to see myself in a world that is getting more Anglicized every day.

That said, I wonder if this post is enough for people to understand why I’m like this. I’m not sure if I actually suffered through any of these episodes and there are the voices in my head saying that I did profit from learning English — after all, I wouldn’t have a blog like this if not for me learning English this long. However, I can’t help but feel the need to write this post because I have to. There’s no way about it.

English is a strange language. It possesses an overpowering identity because of its de facto status as the current lingua franca. People get obsessed with the language because it’s the only way to speak of business and law in most cases. Yet, it is not theirs. And it is easy to get alienated with it if you have to grow up with this language. You start wondering if you even have a culture because languages are connected to cultures.

Yet, in its hegemony of culturelessness, one can find a way to build one’s own culture. Like a volcano forming islands in the ocean, subcultures emerge to substitute for what is lost. It is no replacement for the lost histories in the world, but it helps ground us in a new type of reality free of estrangement.

On another snowy night in Chicago, I ordered the same Subway sandwich. This time, I looked up and saw the Indian employee. He smiled and asked for my name. And then he said, “I’m actually Bengali.”

“Ah. Thought you were –”

“Indian. I bet Americans here think you’re Korean too.”

We both laughed. It looked like I still had a lot more to learn, just not English this time.

2 thoughts on “A History of Learning English (and American Fetishism)

  1. Wellenbrink May 25, 2018 / 3:02 pm

    The businessman was not mocking you, not at all, very far from the truth. He was expressing his envy with praise. It’s true; people often share their aspirations over the accomplishments of others—praise. In fact, I sent you a message admiring your abilities just the other day.

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