The landscape of my garden of languages was designed during early childhood. The focal fountain, from which I would forever be nurtured, loved & comforted by, is Spanish. As the language of my heritage, it stood to reason that it be the one at the center of my jardín.

It was important to the original jardineros, mis padres, that a firm foundation be set before adding any other flowers or bushes. Mami taught me to read using a Biblia. We attended misa instead of mass. I had mi primera comunión rather than my first communion. I watched novelas with my Mamita Rosita before getting hooked to soap operas with Papi. The background of all my family fiestas was sure to be Colombian cumbias and salsa. Those closest to me, my village, all communicated with me en español.

In kindergarten, I would add to my linguistic landscape by learning the lingua franca of my family’s adopted home, the US of A. My teachers, classmates, books, and music sprinkled a bounty of seeds in my English garden, where different dialects, registers & accents blossomed alongside each other in colorful harmony.

Further seeds were sprouted by Papi, who would see to it that language learning was fun. There are recordings of how I would mix français and español long before I ever set foot in a classroom. After reading Shōgun by James Clavell, Papi took to 日本語 (Japanese) everything. Thus, he ensured that I leverage what I had learned to communicate with shopkeepers, wait staff and other community members whenever the occasion presented itself.

As the years passed I began planting my own roses, bushes, and trees via Brazilian and Italian music, Bollywood films, and homestays in the Land of the Rising Sun. The latter served as a catalyst to majoring in Asian Studies, where I focused on Japan and China. My travels, whether business or pleasure have provided a multitude of stones for my garden as well. As I’m sure you know, stones do not grow, much like my fluency, however, they serve as a reminder of my experiences and the phrases I have picked up along the way. These stones allow me to reflect upon the countless people I have had the honor of conversing with, who will forever remain a part of my life.

The attention given to the my Asian linguistic life was nurtured by the historical 二世(Nisei - 2nd gen Japanese-American) and 三 世 (Sansei - 3rd gen Japanese-American) community I grew up in, pursuit of higher education and most of all my eleven year immersion as a guest & permanent resident of the Sinophone world. These experiences allowed me to build bridges, much like those in a zen garden, to connect what some consider to be identical cultures. The pavilions you find within may look similar to the unfamiliar eye, but upon further examination their designs, rooftops, and layout reveal unique architectural masterpieces.

The greatest pleasure for me is knowing the effort put forth into tending my garden means that I don’t require other gardeners to take care of it for me. There is no middle man, nothing lost in translation, nor any fear of the unknown, and visitors are always welcome to share their own green thumb expertise. One of my favorite memories is of a young Indonesian staff member at a hotel in Albuquerque. I had stayed there repeatedly within months and remembered the experience as if it was yesterday. I used one of my stones to greet her and thanked her for the body of work she put forth, in her native Bahasa Indonesian. Her reaction to hearing her native terima kasih (thank you) was incredible. It allowed for further dialogue about my own travels to her homeland & my experience with Indonesians in Hong Kong, which were what ultimately allowed me to identify her as Indonesian. Our exchange further opened the door to learning more about her origins and what life trials and tribulations she faced in the Land of Enchantment.

Language brings with it much more than conversation. Immersive travel brings with it more than language. Combine the two and it is possible to attain a more authentic understanding of our fellow human beings. Hence, my motivation to continue collecting stones and planting seeds. My quest is never ending. Much like a garden, languages need to be cultivated. They must be watered (practiced), trimmed (studied), cleared of weeds (building proficiency) and receive endless rays of sunlight (respected).

The truth is that while my garden and all its various flora enhances my life tenfold, it is when I give others a rose or a stone that it genuinely comes to life. The euphoria I feel when visitors stop by my garden, be it for a cup of tea, meditation, or simply to tour the grounds, the time spent on this craft proves its worth as a lifelong investment.

How much have you invested in your own garden? Can you see the flowers blooming? Have the hedges started taking shape? If not, why not?

Image: © Sylvia Marie Roldan