Buzzfeed recently released an episode of second generation Americans who had no choice but to translate for their non-English speaking parents at an early age. Buzzfeed asked these individuals, many of whom were of Asian, Middle-eastern, and south American descents, several questions:
- What is it like when your parents speak broken English?
- What makes learning English so difficult for your parents?
- What is it like being your parents’ translator?
- How does it feel to have had grown up with parents that struggled with English?
- Why do you translate for your parents?
- How do you feel about your parents now?
My parents are refugees of the Vietnam War. Their home land is Laos, but during the Vietnam War in 1975, there was another war that took place in the land of Laos called the “Secret War.” This war forced thousands of families, many like my parents’, out of their homeland, fleeing on foot with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They crossed over the Mekong River while hundreds met death before even making it to refuge in Thailand. From Thailand, my parents registered to start afresh in America.
Just like the young men and women in the Buzzfeed video, my parents, too, speak and understand little to no English. Since an early age, my siblings and I shared in the responsibility of translating for my parents. I remember speaking to adults on behalf of my parents since the age of 6 whether it be over the phone, at the front door or the supermarkets and department stores. To this day, I still hold onto that mediator responsibility.
Although my parents hardly understood English, they always attended my school conferences, greeted my teachers with smiles and handshakes, made friends with other of another language despite the language barrier, gave English speakers the benefit of all doubts.
But growing up, I remember there was this one time when my mom went to the grocery store to buy food to prepare for that night’s dinner. As she put the groceries onto the counter, the cashier immediately noticed that my mom, a non-English speaker, was alone. Upon realizing this, the woman cashier then snickered nasty, racial slurs in front of my mom. The woman’s eyes rolled and glared at my mom, and her brows wrinkled, giving my mom “that look.”
My mom came home upset. She felt hurt because of the way the cashier verbally harassed her for not understanding nor speaking English, and only because my mom couldn’t speak nor understand English, that cashier woman felt it was okay to verbally abuse my mom. My mom felt ashamed because she couldn’t understand nor speak English although she’d taken a number of ESL classes for several years, and to mention, she had to give up on learning the language just to work alongside my dad.
That cashier woman broke my mom to pieces. She didn’t consider the fact that my mom had to flee her homeland to a neighboring country as a refugee of war. She didn’t take a second to think about all that my mom had endured in life: leaving her homeland by force and saying good-bye forever to her family that she had left behind only to come to this country. She couldn’t find it in her heart to see my mother, a breathing and moving person, as another human being.
As a second language learner, born and raised in this country, I have heard countless stories from my parents and so, so many others like my parents who struggle daily with the English language and get harassed and bullied by people. Alone, it’s already hard making new friends, adapting and learning new things, asking for help; it never has to be like this.