Updated: Mar 12
Dear Asian Youth,
My hands grasped the home phone a little too tightly as I looked to my mom; she was silently mouthing what I should say on her behalf. “Hi, yes, this is, uh, Mai,” my voice wavered out, “I’m trying to arrange a doctor’s appointment.” The woman on the other end asks curtly, “How old are you?”
Moments such as this have repeated over the last eighteen years: “Um, my mom doesn’t speak English well... so I’ll be translating for her.” In my family, I’m not just a daughter. Rather, I live up to a myriad of other roles too: I’m the one who fills out voter registration forms, translates health insurance correspondences, and composes emails under my parents’ names. Being the one your parents depend on should be a noble duty, a way to give back to the ones who’ve crossed expanses of ocean for the prospect of our success. But the pervading narrative of hardworking immigrant children fails to acknowledge the struggles of an immigrant family, one, in some circumstances, separated by culture and language.
A barrier is something that seeks to divide and at ten, I believed the only barrier to exist between my parents and I were our cultures. They didn’t understand talk show humor, and I didn’t have the slightest affinity for Vietnamese musicals. But as I got older, the notion of familial barriers expanded: a barrier didn’t have to only be one’s culture, and culture and language weren’t exactly mutually exclusive. For some, language barriers are synonymous with dutifully filling in the gaps of our parents’ native tongue. It’s a mother reluctantly pronouncing a string of American phrases over the phone, her eyebrows furrowing, teetering between frustration and reluctance before beckoning her child over for help. For others, it’s hearing incoherent jumbles from their grandparents, wondering what in the world they spoke of— a world they ought to know of, but one that would definitively remain in their blindspot. As for me, a familial language barrier came in the form of volatile banters, a hurricane of angry phrases sewn together and subsequently torn apart, upending any peace in my household.
Over 9,036 miles of land and ocean, my family fled from the war-torn remnants of Vietnam, leaving behind a communist government and all they’d ever known. Pursuits of new dreams in America were accompanied by a foreign culture and language— one they’d struggle to wrap their head around, girding them in both awe and confusion. As such, growing up, I sensed this growing mountain between us. What I wanted to convey to my parents rarely aligned with what they’d hear: a sarcastic, wry joke rang shrill as disrespect to their ears and any attempts to correct me came out as borderline patronizing. One night, I mentioned to my mom how crazy she was, a joking remark as she told me her childhood tales from Vietnam of excursions to the city. Thus ensued an argument over my unwarranted use of the word “crazy” and its negative connotation I had only heard of as we prepared dinner. My mom’s face scrunched up in confusion and anger— had I disrespected her? Had I crossed a line I shouldn’t have? She sat right across from me as dad stood in my peripheral, silent as our jabs began. Monolingual families had it easier, I thought, to converse in one language and never misinterpret words because there I was, in our dining room trying to dissect every aspect of my tone and syllable to understand “crazy” and my unintentional provocation within the Vietnamese language. Evidently, context and culture drew a fine line between praise and offense, and from experience, words hold meanings that can become lost in translation.
That evening, sick and weary from all our incessant arguing, I proclaimed to end any meaningful communication with my parents — why continue when all of our conversations would invariably end in anger? It was silent, as I looked back to my parents, my own words reverberating through the room. Dad stared at me before laughing hysterically at my outburst. I was dumbfounded— did he really find our circumstances funny? “You can’t understand our Vietnamese,” he stated matter-of-factly, “But I hope you understand our love.”
Albeit cheesy, it’s true. The moment I read an interesting book or saw my favorite show televised, all I could do was jabber endlessly to my parents in flawed Vietnamese. It didn’t matter that my parents perceived me as a ten-year-old based on syntax and semantics alone. It didn’t matter that my mom would laugh whenever I mispronounced a word and giggle until she eventually forgot to correct me. Every time our conversations erupted in arguments, words sharpened into weapons, the anger seemed to dissipate by the next day— we never held grudges. Those challenges didn’t stop me then, so why would I allow them to stop me now?
Trying to express simple sentiments or even unsolicited rants of trivial school drama to my parents allowed me to express my love. By listening and painstakingly sifting through broken, misplaced words, my parents demonstrated theirs. They had always gone to great lengths to decode the words of my foreign tongue— even when I didn’t notice—in the same way I decoded theirs. This eventual understanding underscored how the language barrier between my parents and I was at the very core of our unique family dynamic. It was the fervent act of trying and trying despite constant misunderstandings that strengthened our affection. Instead of mulling over who was wrong or right, we now try to learn at least something new from our banters. After our argument that day, my parents calmly expressed to me how they felt when I used the word “crazy”: it came off disrespectful, as if I were calling them irrational or insane. I then explained to them my feelings, giving them a little more context into how Americans use the word: “you’re crazy,” we say to our friends in jest or disbelief. This interaction set the precedent for how we would fight, reconcile, and understand each other from that day on.
While strangers may hear unforgiving words, I see two parents trying to communicate with their daughter. While others may interpret seething phrases, my parents find a daughter longing to be understood. Now, as I look back on all of those fraught moments, I still stand by my statement that, yes, monolingual families may have it easier in certain aspects. But in my family, misunderstandings have proven essential in our plight to understanding one another. Although initially divisive, language has shown me how full and transcendent love can truly be.
- Angela H.