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In Malay, care cannot be described in just one word (and hati is more than <3)
Opened up a small wormhole while trying to find an accurate translation of care in Malay and ended up dissecting livers, hearts and other body parts
There was a time, maybe two to three years ago, where the word care was waved about everywhere and was attached onto everything; from art curation to state strategies to commodities that were all swirling softly with some sunshine bright promise of good feelings and better days to come. I too, swayed along, and made work that looked at care practices, beholden by this fictional way forward and that maybe if
we I begin to think deeply about care, other pathways of coexistence, one forged by kindness and compassion may begin to reappear. Tbh, especially when the pandemic was beginning to shift the world sideways,I found myself caught between wanting to sustain this surface level blanket method of care and being made aware of the need (and energy) to repair what seems to have been swept under that very same blanket.
I haven’t really spend time to mediate these feelings until recently when a friend mentioned over dinner that code-switching to our native language when feeling emotionally heightened is common for bilingual and multilingual folks. This is kinda true because all the expletives that seem to spill out from my mouth, in moments of anger or panic, are dominantly in Malay. Even the language in which we dream are situational and we tend to code-switch accordingly.
One study asked the subjects what they thought made the difference, and they said that it was determined by the people and or the setting that was being dreamed about. If you thought of your family back in your country of origin, it’d likely be in that language regardless of whether it was now your dominant language. And if you were dreaming about people you’ve known as a young adult, living in another setting where you spoke a different language, you’d be dreaming in that language. It was combination of where the dream was set, what language was associated with that, and what people were in the dream — that’s what they said determined it.
So what does this have to do with care? Well, it got me thinking about the word care and its origins and this was what I found:
Old English caru, cearu "sorrow, anxiety, grief," also "burdens of mind; serious mental attention," in late Old English also "concern, anxiety caused by apprehension of evil or the weight of many burdens," from Proto-Germanic *karō "lament; grief, care" (source also of Old Saxon kara "sorrow;" Old High German chara "wail, lament;" Gothic kara "sorrow, trouble, care;"
Meaning "charge, oversight, attention or heed with a view to safety or protection" is attested from c. 1400; this is the sense in care of in addressing (1840). Meaning "object or matter of concern" is from 1580s. To take care of "take in hand, do" is from 1580s; take care "be careful" also is from 1580s.
The primary sense is that of inward grief, and the word is not connected, either in sense or form, with L. cura, care, of which the primary sense is pains or trouble bestowed upon something. [Century Dictionary]
Hah, the weight of many burdens indeed. In Malay, care itself does not carry as freely in one word. When we say saya sayang awak, which means I love you, it tangentially also means, I care for you. But then there’s also saya jaga awak which means I am caring/will care for you and this in itself means to take care of someone, and not necessarily to love them. Then there is the term we use that is equivalent to an at the end of the day greeting, take care, which is jaga diri. Diri here means self and so jaga diri can also mean self-care. Jaga also means alertness, to be awake, to stay awake. Berjaga is to stay awake all night. The word jaga-jaga, carries with it the weight of a warning, to be aware, to be careful. Jaga is also used as a kind of guarding, a guardian or caretaker.
To stay awake, to keep awake and be present carries the weight of care, the labour that is shouldered, the weight of many burdens. This, I feel does not get addressed enough. Think about healthCARE providers during the pandemic, full-time CAREgivers, CARE workers. CARE is heavy, hard and an exhaustive labour that is not evenly distributed enough and usually falls on those with not many options or with no extended support. But this version of care is not as easily packaged as the soft, warm feelings of saya saaaaayang awak that have been made readily available in stores in the form of care packages. Let’s be honest hun, how many prettily packaged bath salts, soothing teas or scented candles do we really need before we can figure out how to take a load off each other?
Back when I was doing a one-month residency in Bandung, I realised that take care was not jaga diri but hati-hati. Hati-hati within the Singaporean Malay context has the same weight of jaga-jaga. A warning of some possible calamity that might happen if one is not careful enough. Hati-hati here is dominant in its tone, maybe because the most I ever heard it was when I was younger and caught in some final destination fashion and my mom screaming hati-hati lah dek at the top of her lungs. But the intonation that my dear friends from Bandung used when we say our last goodbyes for the night as we head our separate ways has a sweetness to it. Hati-hati feels like a goodbye hug or I may never see you again so please take care of yourself as I would you when I am with you. Hati-hati is all is full of love and we are keeping an eye out for each other through these words. Hati-hati is a shared prayer that we remain safe until we see each other again.
The root word of hati-hati is hati, which can mean both heart (as in metaphoric-heart more so than the organ) and liver. We have a separate word for heart as an organ and this is jantung. This is where it gets a little complicated. So when one says you are in my heart in Malay, is to say awak dalam hati saya instead of awak dalam jantung saya. BUT heart attack or heart beat is not translated as serangan hati or degupan hati. Instead we use the scientific term for heart which is jantung (serangan jantung, degupan jantung). The metaphoric-heart is hati and the word carries a second meaning in Malay, one which I truly feel has no English equivalent. The closest word to hati is batin. Batin is one’s innermost self, akin to the soul but not quite, because it can also mean hidden or unseen. If jiwa is soul, then batin is the soul’s character traits, its feelings and thoughts. However, when one takes a deeper look at the function of these organs, this double-translation seems to be rather poetic.
We cannot deny that the heart has always been the main character in our body as it is the sapao muscular organ that keeps on pumping to ensure that we do not die. (I guess I do not have to say more). And much like most main characters, it suffers from a main character syndrome and metaphors such as follow your heart, your heart wants what it wants or the heart of the city all indicates some kind of mono-central beating life force. The liver however is the largest internal organ of the human body. It cleans toxins from the blood, processes what we consume into nutrients, regulates the amount of blood in our bodies and regulates the chemicals in our bodies. The liver is literally the MVP and get this, it has the capability of regenerating up to 90% of damage. The liver as an organ is one that repairs, nourishes and provides. Not organ-shaming here because both liver and heart are intimately connected and is “a relationship that cuts both ways”
So yeah where are you going with this, ila? Well I proudly proclaim that the Malays have gotten it right when they akin hati (batin) to the liver because this organ is doing all the heavy lifting, all that labour, all that care work and yet it has an ability to and for repair. Maybe this sustained beating heart approach of caring to survive needs to shift to an inner re-structuring that focuses on modes of regulation, replenishment and repair towards a society that supports and opens up possibilities for us to regenerate ourselves, to buka (open up your) hati and learn to carry that weight of many burdens together.
Also before I end, I didn’t know where to fit this but to be considerate and compassionate in Malay is hati perut which is translated as liver stomach. Maybe it requires another round of wormhole-ing for another time.