NO MAN’S LAND
– Anik See
An old Persian friend of mine, who left Iran 35 years ago in his late 20s, once told me that he doesn’t have a language anymore. His Persian is disappearing and, being a literary intellectual, someone for whom precision in words is paramount, he felt his English wasn’t up to snuff. I disagreed with him, and found it a bit sad that he felt that way.
Then, nine years ago, I left Canada for The Netherlands, for the singular reason of love. A fork in the road that veered towards excitement and the unknown, a question mark turned into an exclamation mark. It was not an easy decision, but it also wasn’t a difficult one. I did not know what I was giving up, or what I would gain. That’s become a bit clearer now though it’s ever-changing, never fixed. And the point is now moot.
I’ve been told I’m acquiring an accent in my default tongue, English. A handful of Canadians have pointed it out in recent years; a group of tourists in Amsterdam whom I helped with directions; a man in the Yukon whose bed and breakfast I stayed at for two nights. Even my mother (who has a strong accent herself), though she says it only comes out when I’m on the radio.
I, of course, haven’t noticed an audible change but I do notice my English failing me once in a while now, especially in conversation, when I’ll automatically and unwillingly insert a Dutch word if the English one isn’t subconsciously and unfailingly at hand. To add to that, Canada and its English are evolving in ways I’m not aware of because I’m not a part of its daily life anymore. I catch myself watching ‘The Wire’ or ‘True Detective’ with subtitles, that kind of thing.
I now recognize the feeling my Persian friend has, and all the emotion that comes with
it. When you leave your default language, your default culture, you exist in a kind of no man’s land. You begin to feel, whenever you open your mouth, that you can’t say exactly what you want and how you want, in any of your languages; and that nothing can ever be completely
understood, everything is, always, lost in translation.
I once met a man at a party who told me that for his whole life his dream had been to drive across Canada, to get away from the stifling crowdedness (his words) of Amsterdam and The Netherlands, of the microchip-like quality to its landscape, all straight lines and
predetermined, and get to a place that was raw, whose fate was as yet undecided, to stand somewhere and see no one.
This man, he drives from east to west, starting in Toronto. He drives and he drives and after a few days of just driving, not really having paused, he decides that the prairie he’s reached by then is the place to get out of the car and experience the vastness of the landscape. It’s his first time and so it has to be just right. He turns off the highway and drives down a secondary road until he thinks he’s reached his place. He gets out of the car and walks into the middle of a field. He stands there, he says, waiting. He doesn’t really know what he’s waiting for. Off in the distance, his car door dings. He looks around and sees nothing. No house, no tree, no hummock behind which something could be hiding. There is nothing to suggest human existence, or any life at all, except for himself.
The thing he’s been waiting for starts to arrive. Slowly, slowly. But it’s not what he thought it would be. It’s panic. He starts to suffocate. Can’t breathe. He runs back to the car, the dinging door, and tears down that road back to the highway, never leaving the car again – except for gas – up until he reaches Vancouver, four days later.
Turns out, vastness is not what he wanted. Turns out a small, crowded, microchip-like
country is just fine when presented with the opposite.
I was on one of the Friesian islands in northern Holland once, where the edge of a village met the sand and the sea. There was a cafe full of Dutch tourists drinking espresso and coffee with milk. Surrounding the cafe and village was a split rail fence, the kind you’ll find in a horse paddock. Wouldn’t keep much out; it’s more an idea, a demarcation that something different is happening here than on the other side of this thing. Here = social. There = antisocial. I was standing on the outside, by the sand and sea.
The tide started to go out, and fast. The Wadden Sea, between the islands and the mainland, is shallow and sometimes a pathway between the islands emerges at low tide. So when the water started to withdraw I was suddenly faced with hundreds of metres of sand,
which had been submerged minutes before . I walked towards the beach and kept walking, following the water as it retreated, nearly running now, hardly keeping up. I turned around to see how far I’d come. I saw thousands of people inside the split rail fence, having their coffee, being social. I saw I was the only one out on the sand, which by now stretched for a kilometre in either direction around me. I wondered if I’d done something wrong, if suddenly I’d start sinking into quicksand, or get swallowed up by a whale. But there was no danger. Just differing views on the preferred place to be.
If you want to stay in The Netherlands, after a certain amount of time, you have to complete a series of ‘integration’ tests – four language tests, and one called ‘Knowledge of Dutch society’. This test, which you might think would include questions about history, geography, political systems and practical things like filing taxes consists of nearly 40 questions, almost all of them about public procedures and behaviour. They can be frustratingly nuanced and borderline offensive.
‘Mo is in the emergency room with a wounded hand. A man sitting next to him asks what happened. (This is accompanied by a series of photos in which two people – a black man with a bandaged hand and a white man – sit next to each other, gesturing or speaking.) When Mo
tells him, the man says, “That wasn’t very smart of you.” How should Mo respond?
a) by choosing somewhere else to sit
b) by saying the man is right
c) by telling the man he isn’t so smart himself.’
The test does not explain the way something has been said, but assumes you have been living in The Netherlands for a number of years already and have begun to understand the cultural nuances of the country, as compared with your own. The ‘correct’ answer is the one that is the ‘most Dutch’; whether or not you agree with it – that is precisely the point of the test.
I’m Canadian with German parents and I live in Amsterdam. Two passports, two and two-half languages (English and Dutch, German and French). German is my mother tongue. I spoke nothing else until I went to school, and continued speaking it well until I started
learning Dutch nine years ago, and then my German all but disappeared.
When I’m in Holland I have to explain why I’m there since most Dutch can’t fathom a Canadian wanting to live there – imagine, they think, a Canadian giving up all that space and freedom in the landscape. When I’m in Canada, I have to explain why I live in Amsterdam. When I’m in Germany, I have to explain why my German is substandard for someone who holds a German passport. All fair enough.
But the interrogation doesn’t come where I expect it the most. When I re-enter Canada, I always prepare myself for the barrage of questioning that never happens. I can still enter the line of those with Canadian passports, even though I fill out the customs form as a visitor to Canada. No one ever asks me to explain that.
If my son is with me, many papers need to be shown; that I’m his mother; that yes, I have a different last name; that no, I’m not married; that yes, his father and I live together; that yes, his father knows that we’re travelling together; that yes, we will love each other til death do us part. And at a dinner party? Forget it. Half the conversation is taken up reluctantly explaining my name, background and all of the peripatetic decisions I’ve made that landed me, the daughter of immigrants from Europe, back in Europe, unmarried but happily together with the father of my son.
Some days I just want to be Jane Smith, born to two Canadian parents, raised and still living in Toronto, one language, one passport, husband and children with the same last names. Not often, but sometimes.
I often leave customs and dinner parties thinking, ‘I can’t possibly be the only one whose life can’t be summed up in one sentence, or one document. Does everyone else lie?’ Where is the latitude for nuance in such a black and white world?
The thing with Canada, the thing that gets me every time, the thing that lets me know I’m home are the bilingual signs. ‘Welcome to Canada!/Bienvenue au Canada!’ Anywhere you arrive in Canada, you will see those signs. It is a reminder of our special status, our uniqueness in the world, how the perception of our country is frozen in centuries-old history.
I’ll let you in on a secret. Canada isn’t really bilingual; unless you arrive in Quebec, the French will stop at the border. The federal government has always been determined to advance this half-myth mostly because it’s original, and gives us some cachet in the international arena. Sure, Quebec is the ‘French part’ of Canada but it’s officially unilingual, not bi. And of the ten provinces and three territories that make up our country, only two are officially bilingual in French and English: New Brunswick and Manitoba. The truth is, unless you live in or next to Quebec the French-language schooling you receive in Canada is subpar, and taught in Parisian French; it will render you useless and misunderstood should you venture into the French-speaking part of your own country, which has its own version of the language. The truth is Canada is a polyglot of Dene, Hindi, Mandarin, Cree, Farsi, Gaelic, Italian, Portuguese, Inuktitut, Polish…you name it.
But those bilingual signs, they are powerful for someone who grew up with the myth that only French and English counted…
The last time I returned to Canada I passed those signs, let the feeling of home sweep in, rushing up from the terra firma, past my toes, my knees, my stomach, pausing for a brief, almost undetectable moment at my tear ducts and then filling me completely. I am Canadian, I thought with a grin, as I walked down that hall in the airport away from the plane. Je suis Canadien!I walked down that hallway listening to flight and baggage pick-up announcements in Japanese, Tagalog and Russian. They made me smile. How progressive we are, us Canadians!And then I reached the customs and passport control area. There were two lines: ‘Residents of Canada/Résidents du Canada’ and ‘Non-Canadians/non-Canadiens’. I stood there a while, trying to translate, to decipher where I was to go. And I realized I am neither. In my own country I was at a fork in the road that needed a third line, perhaps even a fourth. The feeling of home slipped off me, spilling onto the carpeted floor I was standing on, dispersing in millions of multicultural beads like quicksilver while I tried to decide which fork to take.
Anik See is a Canadian freelance writer, radio producer and translator living in The Netherlands.