Not knowing what is happening is frustrating, even for the most carefree. We all say we miss our childhoods. We all say we long for the days of no responsibility, when fun was the only thing on the agenda. Yet in reality, we wouldn’t want to go back to the days when our mothers told us where we were going right before we arrived. We wouldn’t enjoy others telling us what to do, how to dress, or where to stand. Even the most relaxed among us truly likes to make her own decisions when it comes down to it. That is why not knowing a language can be so infuriating. We are adults, we are used to making our own decisions, replying with our own opinions, and planning our own lives. We are independent beings. What we don’t think about is that language is essential to that independence.
I’ve learned this startling fact by being part of events in a foreign language, and not simple, everyday evenst, but weddings. I was part of two weddings: one in Chinese, and one in Sinhala ( Sri Lanka’s language). While every day life in Chinese is already limiting and “freedom robbing”, a wedding is more so. You are told what to wear, where to stand and how to move. Yet the most frustrating thing for me was the not knowing. As a foreigner, I longed to be in the audience, taking pictures, gawking at the cultural differences, and frantically googling anything I came across, but as a part of the wedding party, I was on display, like a frustrated doll on a shelf . There I stood, propped up, my face painted, smiling and confused.
Being an adult is not just reaching a legal age, but having the wisdom and knowledge that comes along with it. Being an adult is knowing what to do, how to order food, take a cab, pay bills, and talk to a boss. It’s not age that makes you an adult, but wisdom and knowledge. Without language you cannot have either. Without language you don’t know what to do, how to respond or what is expected of you. So you revert back to your childhood. Those of us who left that state are ashamed to return. Suddenly, people are tugging you along, nudging you into place, and shooing you away, just as adults used to. The most humiliating though is when they look right through you. In these moments of problems, you realize they don’t ask for your help because you are not even considered as a solution. No one has need of your wisdom or knowledge, for in this setting your wisdom and knowledge are irrelevant and, in that moment, so are you. These moments are painful for me and hard to describe, so I will just give you two anecdotes:
The guests squint in the muggy sun. A few shift from one foot to the next in the grass where the ceremony is taking place. I smile genuinely, happy for my friends, despite the mosquitoes biting me underneath my sparkly, rose-colored floor-length gown. The Chinese, flowing from the couple’s mouths, sounds quiet and soothing, a nice change from the sharp staccato-like conversations I often overhear from the restaurant workers under my apartment.
Suddenly, all eyes are on me. I watch the bride turn to me expectantly. Now the groom stares down at me too, and my heart squeezes. My groomsman comes towards me, a giant bouquet in his hands. The paper surrounding it crackles as he hands it to me, indicating I am to hand it off to someone else. My eyes scream, “We didn’t practice this,” but he can’t read my eyes; he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t speak English, so even a frantic whisper would bounce off of him like the mosquitoes buzzing around his crisp suit. I turn to the audience feeling ridiculous, like a performer being given flowers for a performance she never did. The bride comes over and takes the crackling bouquet from me. I sigh, resuming my pose. The ceremony continues, and I try to read the back of the bride’s head, to see if I messed up, or was that moment of panic a part of the plan? “Why didn’t they warn me,” my mind fumes. “They had no need,” I remind myself, “I should have listened and understood the Chinese.” My embarrassed heart needs to blame someone, “This is my fault!” I squeeze my bouquet violently and focus ferociously on everything they are saying, determined not be thrown off again. I only realize later my genuine smile has frozen into a strained grimace.
I have finally settled into a pattern of breathing. I focus on the small, shallow breaths that the tight sari will allow. My ribs strain against the pink satin and the pins holding me together. The fans in the church never seem to blow in my direction. I crane my neck to see the top of the stone, Catholic church looming above me. I can feel the fresh flowers in my hair brush against my bareback. Remembering my naked back and exposed stomach in this holy place, I blush, thankful for the layers of make-up they applied that hide my embarrassment. “All kneel,” the father echoes over the congregation, a rustling ensues as the glittering apparel of the women and crisp pants of the men brush the dusty gray floor. I look at the other bridesmaids. How are we supposed to get to are knees? Hundreds of eyes watch, as our pink group struggles to reach the floor with grace. Too soon the father ushers us back to our feet. My mind is lulled by his almost musical Sinhala accent. His mix of British English and Sinhala confuses my American mind, still functioning on less oxygen.
Suddenly, a bridesmaid is backing out of the pew, beckoning us out of the church. I look around. The congregation is not moving. The father is still speaking. Was there an emergency? My chest presses desperately against its glittery cage. Soon we are shuffling down a stony corridor on the side of the church, our saris only allowing small, penguin-like steps. The audience is taking side glances at us as we exit in an unorganized fashion. I snap back to a composed look, aware of their eyes on us. My startling red lips pull back to a smile, but then my lips fall, as I remember how exaggerated my makeup is and how my extreme smile must look grotesque. We meet our groomsmen at the back of the church. A wine-shaped gift, wrapped in silvery paper, is shoved into my hands. My groomsman mumbles something. His accent, thicker than the father’s, brushes past me and his meaning is lost. Before I know it, I’m entering the church, a strange deja-vu sweeps over me, like the sticky heat that hangs in the church, remembering the first entrance we did just minutes ago. Panicking, I realize I have no idea what to do when I reach the altar. The first time I entered, the walk seemed so long, this time it does not seem long enough. I watch the pink girl in front of me. She bows quaintly to the father and gives “her” gift. He blesses her head and takes the gift, adding it to a growing pile behind him. I realize what we are doing as he takes mine. I sigh in relief as I find my place at the pew again, finally enjoying the feeling of knowing what I should do and where I am. I sink thankfully into my seat and then jump up with a small shriek, realizing I sat on my flowers, crushing my bouquet and my hopes of ever understanding what is going on.