I Don’t Know What to Say

“Keoi mm sek gong” “Sek teng mou?”

 “I bē bêng-pék”

I was surrounded by mouths moving with familiar-unfamiliar tongues, words I had always heard, but never understood. Back then, it was easier to tune their voices out, easier to choose nothingness than to hear it by default. But the language was inescapable. I found myself wanting to reply, wanting to strengthen the connections frayed by an earlier unwillingness to listen. So I began to do just that. I listened to rhythms and inflections and tones and emotions, and soon enough the words came too. 

I don’t know what to say is the manifestation of this process. It is a collection of stories and reflections told in multiple languages and translated through voice and body. It was the phrase every story began with, the response all interpreters gave upon hearing them, and the feeling I felt as a child and as the one behind the camera. 

With our ever-increasing proximity to various cultures, peoples and languages, it became clearer to me the role a project like this could have within our society. In moving to Bennington College, I found that this was especially the case. Here, stories of grappling with languages rarely spoken at home, of learning to carve a space for oneself in a new place, and of questioning the very nature of boundaries we were taught to maintain, are found at the very core of the college’s student body. It was not until the filming of this project, however, that these snippets of stories emerged as complex reflections that serve to complicate the narratives I grew up hearing. 

More than anything, I don’t know what to say was a collaboration. I could not be more grateful for the honesty, vulnerability, and heart both the storytellers and interpreters showed, and were willing to share with all of you. This project has brought people closer to one another in ways words can’t explain, in ways only listening and feeling could. It is my hope that in moments of speechlessness, we will realise just what to say, even if we are not saying anything at all. 

Big thank you to my grandfather, Gregroy, and Anna Rose for being a part of the series’ second section!

Gregory & Anna Rose

The first thing I noticed when I first met Greg was the conviction with which he spoke, using larger than life hand gestures/body language to emphasise the words. From Kenya, Greg speaks candidly of his interactions with his family upon returning home.

Quite similarly, Anna Rose has a vibrant, infectious energy that never fails to fill a room. Having an interest in the Performing Arts, Literature and Linguistics, I was eager to see just how she would respond to a story told in an unfamiliar language.

Greg speaks English and, Kiswahili. Anna Rose speaks English.

This is Gregory’s story told by the both of them.

Alyssa & Grandfather

Deciding to move away from home to the U.S. was one that spanned several years. It was something that caused tension between my grandfather and I, something that we are still both trying to reconcile. He feared the uncertainty – would I come home? Where would home be for me? And whilst I was sure that I would come home, moving away only made this resolution clearer for me. I had this newfound connection to Malaysia: I felt the need to keep up to date, to maintain my connection to home.

In light of recent political events, I found myself feeling more vulnerable than ever – would my fate be decided for me? A text conversation with my grandfather (shown in this video) highlights these worries: that the home I always thought would be there, the home I took for granted, may not hold a future for me. This video delves into my relationship with my grandfather, the concerns I have, and the hope our people have. It is only fitting my grandfather spoke in Cantonese – a language I only began understanding a few years back…

My grandfather speaks Cantonese, English, Mandarin and Malay. I speak English, Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese (well a little anyways).

This is our story told through the two of us.

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