There’s perhaps no greater challenge to one’s sense of self than travelling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. This experience is so instantly disorientating and isolating that you’re forced back into a state of infantilism struggling to communicate what you mean with those around you. It also provokes self-reflection making you consider assumptions about the meaning of culture and language. Whenever I’ve spent time in a foreign country I’ve felt simultaneously energised with curiosity and very vulnerable as I pondered these issues. This experience is powerfully conveyed in Iwaki Kei’s novella “Farewell, My Orange”. The story primarily focuses on the experience of two women who move to Australia: Salimah from Nigeria and Sayuri from Japan. They meet in an English language class. Gradually they form a bond amidst their different feelings of estrangement and establish a more robust sense of independence. It’s a poignant tale of friendship that considers the ways in which meaning is filtered through language.
Having left Nigeria with her family under strained circumstances, Salimah’s husband abruptly leaves her. Suddenly she’s the sole provider for her two sons so finds work in the meat department of a grocery store. Along with this enormous responsibility, she takes steps to learn English. Accounts of her experience are interspersed with letters that Sayuri writes to a teacher back in her native Japan. She moved to Australia because of her husband’s work and although she was an advanced student in her native country, she’s forced to enrol in a basic English class to learn the language. When tragedy strikes she must reckon with the direction she wants her life to take. Fascinatingly, the beginning of Salimah and Sayuri’s friendship starts before they can even communicate with each other. Their connection is formed not so much through speaking to each other but an awareness of each other – through gestures and presence. I think this is so interesting because it highlights how our sense of other people is mostly formed from observation rather than what people directly say to us.
Sayuri’s accounts written in letter form are more naturally self-reflective as she ponders the various ways living somewhere that she doesn’t speak the language is disorientating and sharpens her senses. She observes how “While one lives in a foreign country, language's main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one's fight with the world. You can't fight without a weapon.” It’s curious how language is something that feels second-nature to us most of the time but when we don’t have the right words we’re left defenceless and unable to express our needs. This applies to both basic physical needs and emotions whose subtlety can become completely lost when we can only gesture or speak in broad terms. Therefore, the connection between Salimah, Sayuri and other individuals in their class is formed more from an intuitive understanding of each other’s needs as women and mothers in a country that is foreign to all of them.
Although so many things about the environment and culture are different for Salimah, the one consistency she clings to is the colour of the setting sun which was the same in Nigeria. It’s really poignant how Kei describes Salimah’s story as the meaning of home slowly shifts for her and this change allows a more expansive potential to grow in ways she never considered before. It’s also shown how expression through language is both communal and highly individual: “the cultivation of the written word, the language that sustains thought, is an individual matter, a thing that endlessly changes as it's propagated inside each person's head.” We instinctively revise what we want to say and write in our minds before putting it out into the world. This is done as we reach for the right words which will better express our feelings and ideas. These women’s stories capture this sense in an absolutely fascinating way and I was greatly moved by their journeys.