What do we have in common?

SamAntonioPhotography Cambodian Children
SamAntonioPhotography Cambodian Children

“It’s bad to say goodbye in my language; instead, we say ‘see you later’,” said the Aboriginal lady to me, teaching me an Aboriginal word, which I have sadly forgotten.

“The Chinese word for good bye, zàijiàn, also means ‘see you again’,” I said.

“In Malay, they say ‘Selamat Jalan‘, which means ‘have a safe journey’.”

“You speak Malay?” I asked her, astonished.

I have met many Australians who speak Bahasa Indonesia and I studied the language for one year, in Year 12, driving my teacher insane with my Malay words and phrasing. But I had never met an Australian who spoke Malay.

“We lived in Penang for a few years, where my husband was a pilot at the Australian Air Force Base. My son jokes that he looks Italian and eats kangaroo lasagna with chopsticks.”

We laughed. We had started off the conversation as two strangers, but parted as two people who had found some things in common.

I have been reflecting on language commonalities these past weeks as I transcribed my interviews with Sabah, Lamia and Iba, from Iraq. I had a thrill of recognition when I understood some of their Arabic words: jiran (neighbour), haiwan (animal) and mustahil (impossible). Iba tells me that I am pronouncing ‘mustahil’ wrongly, because Arabic does not have the ‘h’ sound I enunciate; instead they have two different sounds, which my ear has not been trained to hear, which I therefore have trouble pronouncing.

I recognised those words because they are Malay words. This is not surprising; Malay has absorbed words from many other languages, among them Arabic.

In the late 19th century, Sir John Lubbock wrote this in his book ‘The beauties of nature and the wonders of the world we live in’: What we see depends mainly on what we look for.

It occurred to me that if we look for differences, we will find many; if we look for commonalities, we will find those too, but I think that for us to live together peacefully, productively, in friendship, rather than enmity, in peace, rather than in war, looking for commonalities gives us a better hope for a better future.

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