This Here Is Just

From Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness:

But where there is no desire and no shame no one, however anomalous, is singled out; and I think Asra made no connection of this notion with myself and my peculiarities. He saw it merely as a variation on an old theme, and so he chuckled a little and said, In kemmer all the time. … Is it a place of reward, then? Or a place of punishment?

I don't know, Asra. Which is this world?

Neither, child. This here is just the world, it's how it is. You get born into it and … things are as they are. …

I wasn't born into it. I came to it. I chose it.

It must be LeGuin's time in France (on a Fulbright, no less) that taught her to write so soberly of inhabiting a foreign place. People who don't study languages always ask language learners if they're fluent yet. Here fluency means something like passing—fooling others into thinking you learned the language without exertion. Indeed, I get this compliment sometimes: If you'd called me on the phone I would've had no idea. It means, You have learned so much that it sounds like you've learned nothing at all. You lack the learner's signifiers. Your learning is, in a sense, insignificant.

LeGuin, I find, is rightfully unfascinated by the idea of fluency. When you think about it, fluency—as passing—is a strange thing to celebrate, a bit like a pharmacist rejoicing in her ability to eyeball pill amounts without counting them individually, as though that feat were the end of her study. I'm not studying Korean because it's easy; much less to prove that, against the odds, I learned it easily. I didn't, and I am not fluent, because anyone who might have persuaded by my first grainy sentence over the telephone meets quick clarification in the one that follows: I'm a foreigner, so thanks for being patient with me. It's an apology for my language ability, sure, but also for all my other deficits—my expectation that, for example, a cancellation fee would be simply subtracted from the refund rather than asked for in cash.

Here's what LeGuin gets right: foreigners aren't dissuaded of our difference as easily as you might think. Instead, the factuality of difference becomes a kind of comfort, the way putting on a new pair of shoes reminds you newly of walking's lightness. The rejuvenating feeling is the feeling of having chosen.