“Movement”: A Story of my Life & Education
In the winter of 1987, my father decided to take me along with him on a visit to our home country, Nepal. Due to increasing conflict between the government and extremists in India’s northeastern states at the time, traveling across five states and returning safely to the remote little town in the south of Manipur (close to India’s border with Myanmar) was not easy–not to mention traveling with a ten year old. But daddy had with him good documents from local government offices, one of which was a “movement certificate” for me, written by my school’s principal. After a nifty subject line of “Movement Certificate,” it addressed “whom it may concern” and said: “This is to certify that Master Ghanashyam Sharma s/o Gopi Chandra [Sharma], a resident of Tangpizawl Village, Churachandpur District, Manipur, has been a student of this school since 1980.” It went on to request anyone reading it to kindly let me travel to Darjeeling (in the state of West Bengal in India) and return home to Manipur.
This document, as daddy told me before the trip, would serve at least two purposes: first, it was proof that I was his child–one of the things that a foreigner-looking man might have to prove when inevitably hassled by bad cops, of which there seemed many–and, second, it was a clever way of showing them our home address in India. Daddy had better documents of his residency, but they did the disservice of revealing that he was a foreigner (from Nepal), unlike my document, which only said what part of India we were “residents” of, so this would be a good piece of paper to dig out when questioned where we were from and who we were. Darjeeling, I found out, was the “permanent home address” in the school’s record, a reminder that ethnic outsiders needed an outside address. Never mind that 1) the border between India and Nepal is open by treaty and we shouldn’t have to conceal our identities, 2) those who were paid to be good guys protecting the vulnerable were being bad guys (making money, using hatred of outsiders in the name of law and order, etc), and 3) the effect of good guys acting badly can be very damaging to people’s trust in systems of justice and security.
Beyond the anxiety about identity and security, there was another problem that my father had to also tackle: because all the documents were written in English, he could not tell them apart. So, on the back of my “movement certificate,” for instance, he had written in his native Nepali script: घनश्यामको इस्कुलको सर्ठीपीकट (“certificate from Ghanashyam’s school”). He told me that that was a way of telling the “real thing” from the rest, with a grin to indicate the irony.
I had been teaching him English at the time, but he did not yet have the requisite skills to read or recognize documents as quickly as he would need to during travel.
Luckily, nothing bad happened–and the curious certificate somehow remained in my file.
“Movement Certificate ” sounds like the ultimate metaphor for describing my academic and professional careers, as well personal and social lives, because all of these have been characterized by mobility, the constant shuttling and straddling among and across physical, social and intellectual spaces. After I completed high school–from the Catholic school, which allowed me to move quite a bit between its culture and the varied cultures outside in southern Manipur–increasing insecurity led my family to leave India. At “home” in Nepal, it was my turn to face a language barrier, because my spoken Nepali was poor, and I could only read and write in Nepali as well as dad could in English. However, having moved among half a dozen languages and as many local cultures as a child, I was able to quickly develop fluency in speech and start doing well in required courses in Nepali–even though at first they did seem tough enough to put an end to my ambitions for higher education. The “mission school,” I realized in college, had given me a tremendous background in English language and literature, as well as much passion for learning about languages, literacies, cultures, and the different modes and means that different societies use for educating the generations. After I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees (and teaching for many years in schools and the university), I came to the US with the desire to shift focus from literature, linguistics and theory to rhetoric and composition.
From east India to west Nepal to Kathmandu to the US, education has prompted and made possible movement in my personal, educational, and professional lives. While I will admit that I don’t always find movement in physical form pleasant, I am enthused by the many shifts that movement brings about–like the shifts in my understanding when I learn more about places and people, change in my worldview when I recognize different cultural or epistemological perspectives, and my personal and social growth when I get the opportunity to belong with societies or ideas that were once outside my interest or concern. I have nothing unique or significant to say about the general mobility that education can bring about; what I find striking is how each new stage of academic and professional experience makes movement more meaningful to me, more productive, more desirable, more pleasurable. I just love crossing cultural borders, making professional connections… straddling geopolitical, disciplinary, and philosophical spheres that are often seen as unrelated. The lack of stasis, the disinterest in belonging to this or that ideological or soio-cultural paradigm, and fluidity and cross-fertilization of worldviews that I learn along the way fill my physical and intellectual movements with great meaning and purpose in my life.
The other day, when someone at a party asked me what my “first” language is in a way that made me feel unwelcome, I said, “It depends.” When she asked, “Why?” I said, “Well, if you’re asking about the first language I use in the morning, it depends on who I’m talking to, what I am saying, and so on.” A former high school English teacher who had taught a lot of ESL people, she retorted: “Why do you complicate matters and not even accept that your home language is your ‘first’ language?” I grew up speaking several languages at home too, and although she was right in some ways, “Not right now,” I responded, “not when we are watching football, talking about linguistics, and speaking English.” Even if she magically started understanding my “home” language, Nepali, the next moment, I wouldn’t be able to express much of what I was then saying in it, because English would come “first” to the service in that subject and context. “I guess I am talking about your identity, like what country you are from?” said my interlocutor finally, half embarrassed and half angry. I said, “In that case, you can just call me a happily confused multilingual dude from nowhere in particular!” before I told her that I was born in Nepal, grew up partly in India, moved to the US, and didn’t like that she talked to me so slow and so loud that I wanted to be uncooperative.
I love to move–or, to borrow a better term from Suresh Canagarajah, a scholar of language and literacy from another South Asian country, Sri Lanka–to “shuttle” among languages, cultures, worldviews. Physical and social spaces are often regulated by cops, so to say, of different kinds; but languages, cultures, and epistemologies are fluid. For me, they are pleasantly shapeless. They allow ideas to flow, relationships to build, meanings to evolve. So I move.
As a scholar of composition and rhetoric (plus literature and language), especially when I consider the current moments in the histories of these disciplines, I find myself excited by how these disciplines are deliberately crossing borders. I am enthused by the the ways in which many members of these disciplines are increasingly engaged in the intellectual acts of crossing boundaries placed by tradition. I relate to my experiences when I hear conversations about the need to look beyond geopolitical homelands and politically constructed epistemological fences within which these disciplines have been historically conceived. Since I have always simultaneously occupied the spaces of home and abroad, inside and outside… since I’ve always half belonged to fixed or reified spaces, identities, disciplines, and worldviews… since I’ve always refused to embrace ideologies underlying any reified phenomena… since I’ve always in one way or another spoken better in the voices of “others” than in what would be conventionally expected to be mine, I am excited by the current waves of ideas in my academic disciplines, which have begun to necessarily question centers and borders and limits. I like the appreciation that is taking place about the cross-fertilization of ideas across politically constructed or culturally defined knowledge paradigms.
But I remember the words of the British poet Robert Browning: I am an incurable optimist. I hear the complaint that our discipline is still provincial and centrist, especially with regard to how academic “communities” continue to be defined–and I don’t disagree with them. “Rhetoric,” for instance, still means “the rhetoric” of one particular geo-historical rivulet of ideas to many in our discipline, the Greco-Roman-Anglo-American history of rhetoric (to borrow a term from Damian Baca). Forget about the Ganges, the Amazon. . . Yangtze, Niger, Shatt el Arab, Murrumbidgee, even Niagara.
And yet, when I turn the pages of journals in my field–which I do with an expectation for new ways to look beyond conventional boundaries–I find that expectations largely fulfilled, more and more often. These are good signs that the disciplines of rhetoric and composition are being reconceived and developed, like they should be, as unbounded spaces where the intellectual traditions of all societies and cultures around the world are valued, shared, and benefited from. Not long ago, I used to teach college English majors that “all roads lead to Rome.” Today, when I say that some roads also lead to Kathmandu, it sounds meaningful.
In response to difficult experiences in a violent place and time, my father used to evoke the Sanskrit saying “वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम” (all the world is one family). While such simple assertions can also conceal histories of domination and the attempt to coerce unified visions of the world or to see others in one’s own terms, the desire to move beyond conventional borders into “discomfort zones” with the purpose of belonging with or learning from “others” can show us many ways in which people, societies, and cultures have more in common than we tend to assume. After all, all the rivers of the world flow into one big ocean whose different sections we’ve given different names. The “waters” are not the same, the ocean is. I like to move, to see how things are connected, how intellectual communities can bridge rather than establish separate spheres. While I understand that difference is a convenient tool for learning and often for achieving social good, I don’t think we can afford more of it, especially in the conflict-ridden world today.
Or that’s how I like to see my life, my education, and my profession: as moving and belonging across borders. Moving can mean rhetorically persuading an audience; touching someone’s feelings, by looking at things from their perspectives; presenting a proposal; flowing, like rivers; traveling from one place/society or culture to another. When I compare the kinds of difficult moving that I do with those that my father did to support his family, I never fail to appreciate when my professional communities try to remove intellectual checkpoints and bad cops along the way. And I try to contribute to that process, through my learning and life.