Linh Nguyen: Linh Nguyen’s CommUNITY News no. 1

Linh and her students
The Universal Language

These last four months my life has revolved around language – the learning of Tetun and the teaching of English. Coming to a new country has been like a regression to childhood. In having all the familiar taken away, at times I felt reduced to helplessness without the words to express what I need, which was oftentimes very frustrating. There were so many things I didn’t understand and couldn’t do and I had to be dependent on people again.

A regression to childhood… I definitely recommend it! Like a child you discover the world anew. You start to learn to speak, you start making connections between what sounds go with what things. You struggle and struggle, word by word. People smile half complimentary, half sympathetic as you struggle with the basic, basic requests. The words are gradually absorbed and imprinted into what often feels like a very thick head, until you don’t have to force out every single word. The words begin to flow from the tongue. You can communicate with people and do things…. a new world is gradually revealed with all its little wonders. I’m proud that after four months, I can have some conversations in Tetun (although sometimes I just play dumb when I get negative attention and question after question).

It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand the words, I understand the laughter and happiness…

Linh, with some children from the orphanage adjacent to the school
I am very fortunate to be part of the community of Salesian Sisters here. Living with the sisters felt like being uprooted and going to live in another family. They have a common world, common perspectives and the family routine and schedules… in this case they also have a common language. These naturally lead to some feelings of alienation earlier on, but I am now settling into life very well. Sitting at the dinner table, it doesn’t matter that I don’t understand the words, I understand the laughter and the happiness that surrounds the table. What strikes me is that they work very hard but they are happy with their life. Perhaps its also a good thing that Linh, the incessant chatterbox, has become the listener and observer.

Although I have meals with the sisters, I live in a separate house with a Portuguese volunteer. You couldn’t get two more different people. What do you get when an English speaking, messy, social animal co-habitates with a Portuguese non-English speaking, clean freak who was on the doormat to being forever a religious sister?…. A great friendship! When this immensely different person is the only friend you have within a two hour trip, you cast your differences aside and learn tolerance and acceptance. [In society, what if we could throw aside our differences and determine to get along no matter what?]

The household language is broken Tetun but the preparation of big afternoon teas for each other is the co-language and goes very far in showing support. Despite language barriers, we have been counselors and emotional support to each other. Our communication has become quite fluent. We make an odd pair but we have a lot of laughs together.

I have so much to learn but a good relationship makes a firm foundation.

Linh learns to make cornflour
Unlike me, who must learn Tetun out of daily necessity, English is difficult for the students to learn as they have no pressure or opportunity to use it in village life. Tetun is also such a simple language that it provides limited comparison and comprehension of all the rules of English. It doesn’t help that they were previously educated in Indonesian and are now making the transition back to Tetun and are also learning Portuguese (an even more complicated language than English) all at the same time. Despite the difficulties, I’m up to the challenge and lucky I have two years for it. I have so much to learn as a new teacher but a good relationship with the students makes a firm foundation.
My students are beautiful – full of joy and life. I am always greeted by an excited chorus of Miss Linh, Miss Linh. They laugh at the slightest thing and we are often found walking arm in arm laughing and joking.

[Language is not just central to my present life, the bane of the student’s lives but also part of the struggle of a nation trying to rebuild itself and asking the Who am I? questions.] I’m very relieved that Tetun is such a simple language to learn, but it makes me further appreciate the intricacies and vastness of the English language that allows us to pinpoint so many experiences and capture the richness of life in words.

Some things though can be said simply…. Thank you so much to all of you for your support. I’m here and I’m grateful – thank you.

Hela diak (stay well), Linh

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The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world —
all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them. - Muhammad Yunus