ONLY in the presence of The Other do we spare a thought about how we communicate.
On the way to Yogyakarta, the capital of the Yogyakarta Special Region in Java, Indonesia, we stayed overnight at Changi. The airport in Singapore seems more like a city than a gateway.
Its website claim of being connected to “more than 300 destinations in 60 countries” is no boast. Arriving near midnight, we emerged from a flight where at least two infants were babbling and being babbled to in languages or accents my ear was unaccustomed to, and found the airport in Singapore as busy as a hive.
In an anthill, an ant may not probably comment about his companions if they were also from the same anthill.
More arresting than the number of people passing through Changi is the diversity of faces, the Babel of voices. How does one navigate in this disorder?
Even in the age of information, with fingertip-ability to summon data as needed, people still turn to other people. Perhaps an atavistic urge compels us to seek clarity first from the human than from the automaton.
For Bel, my fellow teacher, and I, it was a lady with a clipboard.
The authority implied by a clipboard was easy to decode; her English brought me to the mouth of other language tributaries. Was our accent as mystifying, too, for her ears?
Fortunately, a clipboard stood for efficiency with this worker. She answered all our concerns, sent us on our way, and attended to the next group of befuddled transients.
English may still be the universal language. But in a polyglot world, English undergoes transformations. The spoken word is a far cry from its printed relative, cosseted by the rules of grammar.
At Changi, where the major preoccupation is to wait in between connections, the common medium is not language but purpose. Where is the toilet? How will I confirm my final terminal? What is the wifi username and password?
The wings for communication are clipped when a bridge is needed to cross cultures, penetrate the personal borders of experiences and insights. Can one be really assisted by any of the many Englishes available in our increasingly porous world?
Even Changi sleeps.
In the blue hours of dawn, the workers with their cleaning automatons emerge. We leave the frigid laptop station, where people have long ceased to surf, as if a sleeping spell was cast, catching and casting in stone each one in the act of holding a smartphone or cradling a laptop, gateways and getaways.
We espy a nook but there is another Filipino, garrulous and still eager to unload, while we feel we are nearly running on empty.
A group of workers warns us away from some coaches, which they are about to shampoo and vacuum. We think they are Filipinos; they turn out to be Malaysians. We wonder about the army of worker ants streaming in to replace the duty-free shoppers: Vietnamese? Indians? Sri Lankans? Middle Easterners?
What gives Filipinos the confidence to cross portals is the English we wear like an old but reliable coat.
But at 3 a.m. in Changi, my English is of no use. The roar of the cleaners’ machines overpowers the snores and susurrus of other tongues.
I take refuge in a bookstore, empty and waiting. I think of the billion words of English inside all those pages, shrink-wrapped, inviolate, remote from all contact.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 31, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”