BETWEEN FRIENDS: Language and the cultural divide PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 26 May 2014 14:29



Communication is one of the means that keep people connected to promote understanding, harmony and peace.  At the same time, though, communication has proven to be the cause of misunderstanding, disharmony, and sometimes, even violence.  There are many means of communicating – with the eyes, the hands, the body, even the sound of silence.  The clearest and most common, of course, is with the use of language.

Since the beginning of the world, language among peoples has been the means to express ideas and emotions resulting in love, anger, pain, cooperation, and death.  Since the beginning of the world, many languages have since been born and have died adjusting according to man’s needs for linguistic expression.

Today, the world around has an approximate total of six thousand seven hundred three (6703) languages.  If this number is more than enough to promote understanding, peace and love among different cultures, many times it has also proven more than enough to cause trouble.

Emie was a fellow scholar from Lanao who had fallen in love with an American employed as member of the maintenance staff of the East-West center administration building while we were doing our Master Studies at the University of Hawaii.  It was a beautiful relationship between a girl from a Muslim royal family and a soft spoken and gentle-mannered American who claimed to have come from “a little town in Texas which was not even on the map.”  Both were blinded by the power of love that set cultural and social status differences in a corner. But one day reality struck.  He started talking to her about getting married.

One evening as we walked back to the dormitory after dinner at the cafeteria, Emie confided that the day before Michael had broached the topic of marriage.  Instead of reacting happily to it, she started to cry and they definitely weren’t tears of joy.  When I asked her why, she said she loved Michael very much but marrying him was out of the question.  The women in her family were arranged to marry someone within the clan to protect the property and clan interests.  She begged for a solution.  I excitedly advised her to run away with him.  I told her the world was so big with enough places to hide in. They could go to Europe, the Middle East, and South America.  Emie shook her head as the tears fell.  But my solution wasn’t good enough.  Emie said her family had money.  They would look for them.  They would find them.  And they would kill both of them.  What she said next made me speechless in admiration of her.  She said: “They can do what they want with me.  They can even kill me. But not him. No, not him!” And then she broke down in loud sobs.

I saw that the passionate protest was borne out of a very deep attachment for the man she had learned to love so much. I felt so sorry for her. For, although she loved him very much, disobedience to tradition was unheard of in her family.

What happened next was beyond my comprehension and my ability to explain.

Emie got sick and was confined in the university dispensary.  We tried to find out what ailed her, but no one could or would tell us. She wasn’t bedridden.  She just wasn’t well enough to go to class.  Michael would find time from his job to visit her.  There were times when he would ask me to go with him.  After a few minutes inside I would find a reason to leave them to give them privacy.  After more than a week of confinement, the university decided to send Emie home.  We sent her off at the Honolulu airport on a wheelchair.  We learned that her family met her in Manila and brought her home also on a wheelchair.

Soon, after Emie left, I would get calls from Michael to have breakfast or lunch or dinner together at the cafeteria.  Meanwhile, his letters to Emie remained unanswered.  We both missed Emie and so it was not difficult to readily agree to get together.  We talked about her and almost everything under the sun that a Sociology graduate and an American Studies student could discuss together and slowly enjoyed getting to know more of each other.  Until one day, I realized that dining together two or three times a week at the cafeteria and enjoying it immensely was getting to be too much of a good thing.

One Saturday afternoon he called to suggest dinner, that night, off campus.  I told him I had to go to the bookstore near the supermart for a book I needed which I couldn’t find in the library. I had only that night and all of Sunday to work on a paper due the next week.  He offered to take me to the bookstore.  I lied that I preferred to walk, that I needed the exercise.  Before he put the phone down, the disappointment in his voice was unmistakable.

That afternoon after classes, while I was walking down to the bookstore I could sense and hear the sound of a car behind me.  Because I was so occupied thinking how I was going to work on my paper, I did not mind the sound at first.  But a few feet to the bookstore, I turned and saw him in the car following me. I panicked.  I hurriedly turned into the bookstore to get lost among the bookshelves.  Peeping behind a shelf, I saw him come in.  I tiptoed from one shelf to another as he went around looking for me.  When he couldn’t find me, he left.

That night I avoided the cafeteria. I took a sandwich and a cup of coffee from the vending machine in the dormitory and stayed in my room.  I also avoided all calls.

I couldn’t stay away from breakfast the next morning.  I was too hungry.  He was waiting for me halfway to the cafeteria and, with a pained look, immediately asked why I was running away from him.  I wanted to deny it but the lie would have been too clear.  And so I thought the only way out was to tell the truth.

“I’m sorry, Mike.  But we belong to different worlds.”

He looked at me a long time, puzzled, speechless and visibly hurt.  Then he turned away, shaking his head.  I stood there rooted to where I had stopped and wondered whether I had said the wrong thing or the right thing the wrong way.  I tried to call him back but I couldn’t find my voice. I tried to go after him but my feet felt like lead.

I hadn’t meant to hurt him so.  When I said we belonged to different worlds, I had meant that we belonged to different cultures that could make it very difficult for us to reconcile our origins and get along.  Being friends was great.  But being more than that, and I could sense that was where he was trying to lead the friendship to, worried and scared me very much. Two days later, I learned from a friend from Davao, to whom Mike had unloaded his hurt, that I had said that he wasn’t good enough for me.

I was shattered. What had gone wrong?  The way I said it or the way he had understood me?  Could I have expressed my idea differently and still have meant the way I wanted it to?  Very clearly he had misunderstood me.  Did our differences in culture cause the divide?

I never saw him again after that, nor did I get any calls. Shortly after, someone else started occupying his table in the office.  When I discreetly inquired where he was, I was told he had resigned from his job and gone away.  They didn’t know where. — The article relates a true experience of the writer, a retired professor of English and Literature, when she was working on her Master in American Studies in the University of Hawaii on an East – West Center Scholarship.  She is currently Director of Media of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, an organization based in Zamboanga City dedicated to foster better understanding and harmony between Muslims and Christians and other cultures and religions.