Showing posts with label Migrant Workers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Migrant Workers. Show all posts

Monday, 21 June 2021

The Burden of the Language: A third-language poet speaks

 


Editor's note: Our poetry column returns this month with a guest post by Yulia Endang, an Indonesian poet who works in Singapore. The following is adapted from Yulia's remarks at the Singapore Literature Symposium on 9th May (organised by the NTU School of Humanities' Singapore Studies Cluster), where she spoke on a panel on translation and multilingual writing alongside Tan Dan Feng and Annaliza Bakri

More information about the Symposium, and selected proceedings, can be found here

***

I was born and grew up in a small village in West Java, Indonesia. Our mother tongue is Sundanese. During my childhood, we only used Bahasa Indonesia (our national language) at school. For us villagers, it felt quite odd to speak Bahasa in our daily life though it was alright when we were in the class. We started to learn English at Junior High School, without even any basic English in Elementary School. 

I had the impression that English was strange language because the way words were written was often not the same as the way they were spoken. I never thought that I would one day be working abroad in a country where English is being spoken. All I knew was that English was one of the new subjects I had to learn, so I could pass the exam. I hated English, I always did badly for it. It never crossed my mind that one day I would be able to write in English and even win a trophy for it in a foreign land.

When I decided to work in Singapore in 2006, one of the things that worried me was language. At that time, the Singapore government still required an English Test for all migrant workers to obtain a Work Permit. I passed the exam on my first try, but the first few years here weren’t easy. 

I still remember vividly that at the employment agency, one expatriate family refused to even look at the Indonesian workers' biodata, nor did they want to give it a try by interviewing us. They just insisted that they wanted a domestic helper with good English. Our grasp of English was often being compared to that of people from our neighbouring country.

It was like living a new life in a new place for me when I came to Singapore, communicating and adapting with people with different cultures, food, and beliefs etc. I learned how to learn things, in order to survive living and working here. 


IN A FOREIGN LAND 

Unfolding days like a map 
In an unknown country
I could see more colors to be picked 
To paint my canvas of dreams 
Yet, I feel hopeless
Lonely,
Shedding my tears in a place 
So called ’bedroom’

Miles away,
How could I give up?
How could I return empty-handed?
Even though day has become longer 
Burden on my shoulder is getting heavier
But, I shouldn't give up 
Like I have no choice but to keep on going 
Mastering the map and find my road 

I know, dreams seem fading sometimes
Endless obstacles waving from every corner 
Again, I'm being a stranger 
A stranger to unexpected reality 
Spend my night battling the language 
While is a must to conquer recipes 
In the midst of understanding my fellow's story 

I trapped again and again 
In the endless road in a foreign country 

Adapting to a new place with a different language is a struggle for us as migrant workers. I tried to observe and find a way to learn the language here. Something which helped me so much to cope with my English problem was ‘writing’. I met some Indonesian friends at the Sekolah Indonesia Singapura (the Indonesian School in Singapore) when I was studying there back in 2014, joined their writing group on Facebook, and started to learn how to write poems in Bahasa Indonesia. 

Later on, writing gave me the opportunity to meet new friends from different countries, and left me with no choice but to study English more diligently. In 2017, a friend of mine invited me to take part in the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, and that’s how it all began.

I attended a couple of creative writing workshops at Sing Lit Station, conducted by Jon Gresham.  Google and YouTube helped me a lot too. I watched videos on YouTube and imitated them to help improve my listening and speaking skills. I also signed up for classes with Uplifters where lessons are in English, to help myself improve. 

I started to learn how to write in English not because I had confidence that I had enough vocabulary in my head, but instead as a method for me to get better at English itself. Writing is a force for me to keep on learning this new-tongue, until now. These struggles along the way gave me the idea to write this poem, which I recited at the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition 2019 and was awarded the second place: 

BURDEN OF THE LANGUAGE

All the letters, the words, the sentences 
Jostling in distress 
Fear written all over her face
Demanding by the test 
She felt tension in her chest 
About dreams that she chases 

With all hopes swirling in her 
She sat in a corner 
Feeling heavy burden on her shoulder 
Tried to figure-out the future 
That seems to be a little bit cruel

Her past has brought her here in an unknown country 
Thought she could dodge from calamity and insanity 
Little did she know that she will be welcomed by catastrophe 
While she has no idea what’s gonna be

All the letters, the words, the sentences 
Did you know the difficulty 
To embrace new vocabulary 
In our memory which is troubled by unclarity 
And yes, I found smile on some faces in different places 
Broadly welcoming new guests 
Left me with questions in my head 
as I didn’t hear any syllable being stressed 

But why, why you’re late to compare 
And end up with being unfair 
And you keep on delay until all the letters,
 the words and sentences perish 
Then the rule you demolish 
But you forgot to unleash 
The burden of the language

I feel more comfortable and confident these days with using English, though there is still more to learn. It was a little bit of a struggle when I first worked for an expatriate family as they knew nothing about Singlish, but they have been my biggest support. I was able to talk things out with them, and we often share about our lives in the kitchen when I’m cooking, or about my Sunday activities. I think being able to build a healthy relationship has been one of the rewards of my learning journey. In the past, I would hardly share or discuss anything with my previous employers. 

I heard a saying: “teaching is one of the best ways to study”. So, I have been teaching English to a small number of migrant friends. It is just a small little thing that I share with them, as I am also still learning the language. Sadly this pandemic has hit us hard, but we try to keep on learning over Zoom, with a small number of students. 

I hope this will motivate them to keep going and improve themselves, especially now when study can be done online, and on their own pace.  I’m happy if there’s something I can do for them as I know how hard life here is. After all -- I've learned a lot from them too. 


Note: In Singapore, the term 'expatriate' is often taken to refer to higher-income migrants, while 'migrant workers' refers to migrants in low-wage occupations. 


Yulia Endang is from Ciamis, West Java-Indonesia and  has been working in Singapore for almost 15 years. In addition to writing she enjoys photography which she posted on her social media platforms. Yulia was awarded second place in Singapore’s 2019 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. As an introvert, writing has been giving her another open door to communicate and express her feeling, opinions and responds. Currently she is one of team leaders at Uplifters (a nonprofit which provides free online money management course for domestic workers around the world) and she also shares English with a small group of migrant workers on the weekend.