In multilingual contexts, we are inevitably confronted with the issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. These words have their roots in the social, political, and philosophical problems of “otherness”. Mastery of a common language is a major step across the barrier that generates otherness. Expats who live for a time in, or move permanently to, another culture encounter themselves as “other”, that is, as somehow different from the host culture. I lived in South Korea for five years, and in Thailand for nine; and the more I felt “at home” in either place, the stronger the shocks would be that I would never really be at home in those places. When I returned to Canada, I felt the changes that occurred to me which made even living in the prairie town of my childhood a place where I no longer felt at home. Let’s be clear, I am a white, middle-aged, English-speaking man. That means that in places like South Korea and Thailand I was granted a kind of honour that other foreigners of different genders, ethnicities, and linguistic backgrounds did not get as a matter of course. And in Canada, I am part of the majority. In other words, the kind of otherness I experienced was systematically different, much more convenient and dignified, than those who had to worry about being discriminated against in even the most mundane of activities. But the “at home” quality of a place is a kind of local knowledge and mastery of the common tongue. Once I could move fluently through a Thai town and speak meaningfully with the locals in Thai, people would frequently look past my visual “otherness”. And this increased my sense of home. And it decreased my disconnection from other people, and from the place I inhabited.
Much like being an expat, we are now living in times and places where a little local familiarity and a mastery of the common tongue would go a long way. For we are now slapped awake by the distance of the people who matter the most, wearing masks, and moving about feeling anxiety. If we only knew the lay of the land and the most meaningful ways to express our realities in a common language then we might feel a bit more at home. The map of the land has been withheld, and the common tongue has remained secret for those that lived on the negative side of situation that necessitates movements toward equity, diversity, and inclusion. However, overall our language hasn’t been ready for it, and so we need a little mastery to get us beyond this consistent experience of being “other”, of being different, of being uncomfortable in our place. This metaphorical comparison of the life of an expat and our lives in a pandemic and post-pandemic reality is one way to approach what is really going on.
The genius of excellent metaphors (which the above one may not be an example of) is their ability to become more conscious of aspects of a thing that has been, until the encounter of the metaphor, largely unconscious. Let me explain. Merriam-Webster defines love as “a strong feeling or affection.” Such a definition does not advance our understanding of love, and definitions, by definition, can barely do so on topics such as “love”, or “community”, or “excellence”, or “faith”, or any words that require a multifaceted consideration and experience in order to understand. When we say that “love is a rose”, we are using a metaphor. Love is not actually a rose. But we do readily grasp that love can be both beautiful and pleasant, but also that, if we try to hold on to it too tightly, it will hurt. Paul Riceour, in The Rule of Metaphor, suggests that in using a metaphor, one not only grasps a deeper meaning, but one also changes such meaning. The metaphor may not change the reality itself, but it certainly alters our place and perspective within it.
We all encounter alienation at a level of our identity; we experience otherness as “the other”. Being an expat and living within pandemic restrictions generates the same unsettled discomfort and lack of control that a new resident experiences in another culture. But we need tools to reconcile this otherness, lest we allow the powers that be define and shape our otherness, and define us all-too-dangerously by a single story.
Part 1 – Translation and Home Giving
Let me compare two personal stories.
First, living in a cross-cultural home is unique since my spouse is both a privilege to live with, and she is a professional translator. She is currently working on a revision of the Thai New International Version (TNIV) of the Bible, the task of which is to make the current translation more readable and accessible to Thai readers. In other words, as English readers of the NIV access it, so too should Thai readers access the TNIV. I am privileged because it isn’t merely issues of word choice, grammar structure and syntax that emerge, but also worldviews and structural concepts that are brought into sharp relief. Translation is consistently cross-pressured between the poles of license (i.e. what form is possible to use in the target language) and fidelity (faithfulness to the meaning of the original). An excellent translator will know that a word-by-word translation (usually in the name of fidelity) will not transfer the meanings into the target language because the original language structures are foreign to the audience of the target language. They will also know that moving too far in the direction of license will eliminate the varied possibilities of interpretation that ought to be available in the target language, by relying too heavily on the particular beliefs and opinions of the translator. In other words, in Bible translation, placing Thai words on English structures alienates the readers from the text; taking too much liberty prevents the possibility for the necessary interpretation of the reader. A translation of the Bible should contain, as Walter Benjamin has so clearly stated, “their potential translation between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings.”
The reader of the TNIV, thus, should feel “at home” in reading the Bible, and the home should be open enough to permit this sense of belonging with, and within, the text, i.e. between the lines of the text.
Second, my wife and I bought a home last year. It is a 1970’s bungalow. The main floor has three bedrooms, a master bathroom, and an ensuite bathroom on one side, and a L-shape living and dining room on another, with a kitchen nestled on the inside of the “L”. The basement has the laundry/furnace/storage room, a large recreation room, a den, a full bathroom, and a good sized bedroom. One feature that reminds me of my childhood home is a screened in veranda off the kitchen. It is so structurally similar to the home I was raised in that I immediately felt at home… from day 1. I overlooked the god-awful lavender walls, and the impracticality of a dining room meant for entertaining in a time where entertaining others in our home is literally breaking the law.
However, my wife did not feel at home immediately. After much discussion, she declared that the house did not feel like her home. She had grown up in places where the kitchen was a focal point of what a home was. Our L-shaped living/dining room hid the kitchen from life, and that would not do. A kitchen needed natural light. A kitchen needed to be a place where more than one person could be in it without it feeling crowded. It was as if the house was structurally alienating her every minute she occupied it. And so we renovated it, opening the L-shaped wall with installed “windows” and teak-wood counter tops. We changed the grotesque lavender to a more Zen-like white and grey/green combination that supported blue furnishings that fill the room with a spirit of trust and stability. She is now feeling more at home, and experiences it as a place of renewal. The house of my youth had to be renovated and translated to be a place where she feels “local” and to be able to be herself… between the lines.
Whether it is Bible reading or living in a home, we metaphorically translate what is foreign into familiarity and move what is to what ought to be. That is, overcoming otherness is bringing our uniqueness to a situation not originally intended to accept it, and then translating and transforming the situation so the uniqueness can feel at home.
And so, when presented with diverse and excluded “others”, we must transform our institutions and systems in such a way that we all can feel at home.
Part 2 – An End to the Pandemic and Renewal
As we see the roll-out of vaccines, we may anticipate an “at-long last” freedom to be. Let’s not underestimate the depth of the phrase. We could think of it merely as a freedom to shop again in stores, to travel to other countries, or to get together with family and friends that we haven’t been together with in ages. We could think of it as a relief from the constant and so-called “burden” of wearing masks in public. However, it would be beneficial to think of this at a deeper level. The freedom to be may in fact be just that: a freedom to occupy reality as if that reality is local to us, as if we had the actual language to engage with it. Could we develop the common tongue that did not mistake the signs of reality for the reality itself? Instead of moving about the world anxiously, could we all take on the project of translating and transforming the structures of our world to be a place where our uniqueness can be at home?
If we are to do that, then of course we will all need to recognize that regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity (or any intersection of these categories) we are all alienated to some extent or another. The life of alienation is filled with all kinds of vices, and we can recognize it as a type of colonization – co-opting our natural needs into corporate and religious systems, and into false categories that now divide us. And we need to have some vision of what these structures will look like. Colossians 3: 5 – 11 gives us a clue as to what needs to change if we are to experience such a renewal:
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (NRSV)
Our renewed world will be distinguished from the world we used to live in: one filled with fornication, impurity, chasing desires (passion) and idolatrous greed. But we have a task: to get rid of anger, wrath, slander and abusive language. And we recognize that we definitely live with these – so we need to make a project of discarding these.
And this requires that we translate and renovate, both ourselves and our institutions. And so, like my spouse who has an equal and equitable interest in our home, we can treat the institutions that make up the human artifice as the world we inhabit as needing to be fit for human habitation – every human. The human artifice, the world we inhabit, must be made a place in which all perspectives can find a home.
We need, like an effective metaphor, a common language that has plenty of spaces between the lines. We need a language for how to thrive.
The lingering problem, of course, is that the languages we have for thriving are hidden or obstructed. They are mediated through social media, priests, experts and religions. They are co-opted by ideologies like nationalism and socialism, or obscured by churches who attempt to live out creeds. They are colonized by corporate agendas.
Perhaps we might all get comfortable with metaphors again. The point of institutional movements to equity, diversity, and inclusion is, of course, because one dominant metaphor just won’t do. Love is not merely a rose; it is also a captive animal.
2 thoughts on “A Meaning of Otherness: Colossians 3”
When were you in Thailand and were did you work? We were missionaries in central Thailand with OMF.
We lived there from 2006 – 2014. We lived in Bangkok, Rayong, Kampaengphet, and Chiang Mai. I worked as an English teacher. When you say Central Thailand, where precisely?