There's nothing to remind me of how far I still need to go with studies of the Mongolian language like trying to say to someone who knows no English: "the dominant language is a symptom of political authority."
He was a writer in exile, and he has just asked why I wanted to learn a little, 'unimportant' language like Mongolian. After all, it's not like Spanish, which half the population of my home state speak. Hardly anyone who does not grow up speaking Mongolian endeavors to learn it, something I learned while looking for a summer language course and finding only one official one in the USA. But it has become more important to me every time I travel to a developing country and see some scantily clad blonde actress on the side of a bus to find ways to participate in regional culture in the ways I can. Now, to be clear: I love American pop culture. I think it's hilarious and totally entertaining and my favorite movies are romantic comedies. But I am, as Slug puts it, trying to find a balance, and since I am better at language than I am at herding camels, learning the Mongolian language is my way to honor regional culture--and express a little political subversiveness. I was born where people speak the language being imposed on the globe, the language people in Mongolia and many, many other countries save up their money to be ble to take classes and study--because without knowledge of the English language, a well-paying job here is virtually ungettable.
Since no translation is ever perfect, a different version of reality/truth is expressed by each different language, and learning an obscure language is outfitting oneself with a new filter through which to understand reality. And that, that's always scary to People in Power.
One of the biggest honors I have had since moving to Mongolia and starting my work with writers was meeting this Inner Mongolian writer living in exile here in UB. His children live and work in Japan in Korea. He is 40 years old, soft spoken, very kind, and the Chinese police went after him three times in 2005 until he finally came here. The offensive documents were books of essays he'd written (in traditional Mongolian script, which Inner Mongolians still use over cyrillic) about politics, race, and society.
Writers in exile are a living, suffering reminder of how high the stakes can get for those of us working in the field of the written word. There is a misonception out there that only journalism can be dangerous to do, that only journalism out of all literature is politically relevant. That misconception is held by people like my younger self in countries like America, where sure, censorship happens, but not always to the violent degree it happens elsewhere. I remember something Linda Oppen said to me of the years her parents, Mary and George Oppen, spent in Mexico during the 1950s McCarthy-era emigration of many American artists. Linda was a young girl at the time and I said it must have been fun living in Mexico with a house full of animals like they did. Linda reminded me that a life in exile is not a happy life, and that her parents were deeply unhappy in many ways during their time there. Ten years away from home.
And for refugees--those whose homes are obliterated and never there to go back to. Too many people to count live this reality, and it's one I can't imagine, a tragedy of the heart too deep for me to see. While there are certain things I learn when I study new languages, how it feels to be forced out of one's home is not one of them.