To this day, a wistful chord in my heart is plucked whenever I hear a daughter speaking English with her English-speaking mother. This is one of those “simple things in life” that I wish I had. Unfortunately, like many other 2nd generation Asian-Americans, I face the challenges of language barriers in my own home.
My parents immigrated to the US when they were in their mid-20’s. They arrived not knowing any English and had to navigate a new society without any close relatives or friends to help them understand exactly what they had gotten themselves into.
I’m not entirely sure why my mom never really learned English. I can only speculate that it was because she was working under-the-table jobs where she didn’t have to interact with many English-speaking customers. She also became a stay-at-home mom after I was born.
Whatever the reason or circumstance, I just know that my mom couldn’t invest in learning a new language. As a result, she spoke with a thick accent and broken sentences, and I quickly had to learn how to work around the language barrier.
The language barrier wasn’t too bad when I was really young. It’s not like you can have very deep conversations with a 4-year-old who’s just discovering words and has no idea what self-awareness is. The real challenges came when I started elementary school.
English was my first language, but for whatever reason, I had to go to school about a week before the academic year started to take an assessment that would determine if I would be placed in the standard kindergarten class or the ESL class. After taking the assessment, I had to go home and wait for the school to call us back with the results.
When the results were processed, the school called us back for a debrief meeting. By speaking momentarily with my mom, the principal declared that I would be in the ESL class. I think my mom tried to argue, but she couldn’t really articulate her thoughts into English, so she just left the school feeling unsettled.
Luckily, the principal decided to review my assessment right after we had left, and after realizing her mistake, she ran after us and stopped us in the parking lot to let us know that I would be placed in the standard kindergarten class.
The challenges just kept coming after that, and they weren’t always followed by a lucky outcome. Such challenges included teaching myself to fill out different school forms and acting as a translator during parent-teacher conferences.
Once, my first-grade teacher assigned weekly homework for parents to read aloud to their children. I’m assuming she thought it would render cute moments that would bring families closer together.
This was not the case for my family. I asked my mom to read a picture book version of Swan Lake, and she forever ruined the story for me because, amongst other things, she kept pronouncing “Prince Friedrich” as “Prince Fried Rice.” I got frustrated with her, and she got frustrated with me for getting frustrated with her, and we never ended up finishing the story. I believe that was the last time I ever asked her to read a bedtime story.
It was toughest when I was a teenager. High school and puberty were not kind to me, and I wished I could talk to my mom about boys, periods, and clique drama. But as a teenager, I could barely pour out my heart in English words. How could I even begin to express myself in another language?
So, I eventually became angry at my mom. At the time, I couldn’t understand how someone could live in a country for over a decade and not know the language. I was angry because the incident with my kindergarten placement wasn’t the last — but only the beginning — of a string of instances where my mother couldn’t advocate for me. I was angry because no matter how much I screamed at my mom, she wouldn’t fully understand why I was frustrated with her.
I was angry because it felt like my words didn’t matter.
My anger subsided significantly with the end of puberty and teen angst. However, what has replaced my anger is wistful longing.
I feel wistful because my mom is truly a loving person. I’ve seen her patiently listen to her Korean friends’ sob stories and provide deeply empathetic and compassionate responses. She writes carefully crafted notes in Korean that thoughtfully express her sympathy, gratitude, and well wishes. There are times when I wish I could be on the receiving end of her kind words and fully understand what she is saying.
I used to blame my mom for our lack of communication, but now I share the blame. I could have taken learning Korean more seriously. Instead, I was busy trying to fit into the American stereotype and wanted very little to do with my Korean heritage. At the time, everything about being Korean — the different accent, food, traditions, physical features — was embarrassing.
Today, my mom and I make ends meet by speaking Konglish — a blend of Korean and English words. It’s mostly useful for functional purposes, rather than social purposes.
Language is such an important part of life that we take for granted. Sharing a common language can bring people closer together, while a language barrier becomes a powerful obstacle that can tear people apart and make family members gradually drift away from each other.
It’s a sad way to learn a lesson about the power of language and words. I am not able to break through a language barrier with my words, so if there is someone I love standing on the other side of it, I have to work even harder to keep us from drifting apart.
I’m usually proud of growing up in an immigrant family because the experience shaped me into who I am today. I love that I’ve learned to become a creative problem-solver, and in this instance, I’ve learned to communicate through more demonstrative and tangible ways.
But… there are still some days I can’t help but wish that I could simply say what I feel without it getting lost in translation.