He does. In front of a microphone hooked to a recorder, he told us about everything from his impression of the Niagara Falls, to how to make potato curry, to the legendary Gurung wild honey-hunters dangling on a single rope ladder scraping off nests on the perilous precipices of the Himalayas. And I would sit by the same desk and—knowing that language is the most natural when fluid and uninterrupted—listen to him describe this and that with the ease and affection of his mother tongue, and at the same time, try to pick up an occasional word or two.
My job is to catalog every single word and grammatical detail in these stories with the speaker. However, even as I must maintain scientific standards regarding the language, the two of us often get carried away with larger narratives of the people. From recent history to tribal myths and beliefs and practices, it is oftentimes impossible to pinpoint the meaning of a word without knowing something about the community that uses it. And here and there, a word would come up that defied both of our explanations, like a complex sentiment or a belief. We would exhaust every possible English translation we could conjure up and still find something missing. But then we would both realize that the word had already been understood—not through translation, but through the story itself. The narrative offers not just discrete units of meaning, but a context, a coherent picture of human experience. So we would nod and smile to each other, and contently settle on an approximate translation.
One such word is "tuuh": the literal meaning is "pain, toil, hardship," but the connotation goes much deeper than physical stress. The word comes up many times in the story of my speaker's 19-year service as a Gurkha soldier in the British Army. As a result of a 200-year-old recruitment practice, the image of the Gurkha soldier has become an integral part of the Gurung community's ideals. For strong, ambitious young boys, joining the British Army holds a special honor among all other dreams and ideals. For them, it means walking out of the mountains into not just the rest of Nepal, but the whole world.
Of course, a life of military service is hard and mostly inglorious in modern, liberal eyes. But for the Gurung rookies, it constituted the richness of their life. When he arrived at his station in Hong Kong, my speaker's horizons were expanded for the first time. The realities of training and life inside the barracks were harsh, and he was two thousand miles away from home. But there was no bitterness or regret about all the suffering and struggles in his story—instead, he spoke with a deep sense of necessity, of being loyal to the Gurung narrative of a worthy and meaningful life in order to make ultimate sense of temporary hardships. That kind of necessary, mind-enlarging suffering is "tuuh."
In time, the "tuuh" of his military life would pass. But the intimate experience of "tuuh" has deepened his self-knowledge. Joining the military was his way of living out the larger Gurung narrative. He was bound to be part of that narrative since birth, and it is precisely through living out part of this larger story that he realized who he is—a Gurung man, sharing in the rights and wrongs, successes, follies, ideals, and realities of his folk. It is by hearing his stories that I can get to know him truly. And I imagine it is also by telling them and reflecting on them that he can know himself.
Stories are, in this sense, central to who we are as human beings. They are our treasure and resource, as they reflect our experiences back to us in a way that can make us see truths about ourselves as human beings. But more importantly, stories are for us to participate in because only by being in a story can we attain a coherent sense of the self. In his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way:
"[Man is] essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'"
It is stories that shape our beliefs and morals, and inspire our actions. But to be part of a story means to allow them to give meaning to our existence. It requires us to stop putting the self at the center of authorship, but to "submit" it to the larger reality of the kinds of narratives that makes sense of our being. Only by "finding" ourselves part of a story can we arrive at a profound sense of rootedness.
We have no difficulty finding stories to read—a whole curriculum exists to help us. But the important thing is to make them our own. And this is where my work on the Gurung stories taught me something crucial: If we open ourselves up and let the power of the narrative speak to us, there is every hope that we can truly achieve a better understanding of ourselves—even if it is just through a word.
Lingzi Zhuang is a Columbia College senior majoring in linguistics and computer science. He is head of content of the Veritas Forum, and a member of the Columbia Linguistics Society and Columbia Faith and Action. Lingua Franca runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.