Friday, September 7, 2012

The Rosetta Stone

The more Japanese lessons I take, the more amazed I am at what must have been the first linguistic bumblings between the Sengoku-era Japanese people and Portuguese traders who maybe missed China by a little bit. Maybe we would still be completely clueless about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics had the Rosetta Stone not been found.

But when American, Singaporean and other journalists, students, academics and average private citizens set foot in each others' worlds, we don't have the benefit of a single Rosetta Stone pointing us toward a better understanding of the perspectives, intentions and meanings of our exchanged words. By no means are the two peoples meeting physically for the first time, instead, our worlds are colliding in a way which has never been done before - and this is a process which many people feel invested into, myself included.

It's an unholy swirl of identity issues, moral ideas, as well as hopes and ambitions common to many young people who believe in earning a good degree and enriching their human spirit intellectually and morally at the same time. It is natural to feel strongly about an institution which has been a key part of one's past journey through young adulthood, or an institution that promises to be a key part of one's individual and societal future. Clearly a fair number of Yalies, past and present, and Singaporeans, students or not, are invested in that. I know there are others still itching to enter the dialogue, be it on a public platform, between groups of friends or within the expanse of their own minds.

It can be frustrating to see the dialogue stagnate with a line drawn dangerously often at national boundaries between two adversaries duking it out. Keeping in mind that my previous post on this subject was/is meant as a private rage outlet, what I find actually, truly annoying, is the seeming lack of advancement of the conversation.

We seem to be stuck on asking おまえはだれ?
Trying to explain that my mates and I came from Portugal. Accidentally.
What do you mean by a 'free society'?
What does it mean to hold fast to the liberty I cherish?
What is that freedom anyway?

I think that rather than attempting, with good intent, to turn completely to convincing the other party with reason alone, we must acknowledge that feeling various emotions well up from within ourselves is a very human phenomenon - one that isn't just a vestige of our baser self, but is instead a clue to understanding our individual and societal psyche. As well as our own mental health. Arguments can carry on till the proverbial cows come home, but constant attacks are more likely to harden the mind as a bunker than open them enough for cultures and consciousness to flow out of it and touch another mind. I'm sure some Christians can understand when I say that the mind is never converted to understanding ('belief' is not the right word here), only the soul. And just as God can reach past the walls of Man's heart and touch his spirit, so too should we endeavour (in a secular context, but no less 'spiritually') to share the essence of what it means to be us with them - and for us to coax ourselves into allowing them to share what it means to be them with us.

I know of people who see what appears as HATEEEE and who lament, "if only they knew us". And they have a point, if only they knew us. But is that not an exciting challenge? To move quietly amongst fellow students to share about our differences and discover our similarities. We might never become close enough to be 'one people', but that should not be our aim in the first place. There is no room for missionaries or ambassadors, only people in constant Brownian motion.

Perhaps we may discover that it isn't fear of an authoritarian government that limits our freedom of speech, but cultural values rooted in events recent to a half century back or ancient as a couple of millennia.

Perhaps we may discover that keeping one's mouth shut sometimes is not an unenlightened, backward thing, but a grace.

Whether you are a first-generation student of YNC or an individual invested in another way, it may be healthy to be mentally prepared for a process that probably will take years, lack a grand finale/happy ending, and likely piss off lots of people along the way. Everyone has a piece of this Rosetta Stone, and the more pieces we elephantglue together, the closer we come to understanding hieroglyphs. Whether one views this as an exercise in society-transformation or a step in the journey of personal betterment or has some other motivation, it is humbling to think of this as a little school embedded on a small island in a big world in a bigger universe at one point in the expanse of time and history.

But it shouldn't stop one from dreaming big.

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