“How many would you like?”
“Ba muốn mấy cái?”
“Please fill this out with your date of birth and address, then sign at the bottom with today’s date.”
“Má phải điền vô ngày sinh, địa chỉ nhà, ký tên rồi viết bữa nay là ngày mấy.”
This is how a lot of shopping trips, doctors visits and phone calls go for my family. Someone asks my parents something. My sister or I translate it. My parents respond to us. We translate back.
And I hated doing this. Like, hated it. It was embarrassing for 10-year-old me. I felt like a burden to the workers and thought I was slowing everything down. So every time my mom told me to order food over the phone, I’d feign busyness just so I wouldn’t have to. She’d tell me to sit with her while she’s on the phone with the doctor’s office, and I would grumble and sigh.
I’ve always been proud to have grown up in a bilingual environment, being immersed in two languages that come naturally to me. And I knew that it made my parents proud too, especially when other Vietnamese parents would compliment me and my sister’s seemingly native Vietnamese fluency. Adults would ask us if we were born in Vietnam, and I knew my parents were beaming with pride behind their humble smiles.
I liked talking to my parents in Vietnamese when we were out and about because it made me feel like we were telling a secret no one else would hear, but not when someone was waiting on the other end for a response. I dreaded the deafening silence of someone standing and anticipating a response as I translated what they said to my parents, waited for my parents’ response and formulated their words back to English.
Thinking about it now, I can’t pinpoint an exact reason for having felt that way. Was it because I was afraid someone was going to mock me as some kids did in elementary school? Or was it because I had yet to understand how my translations gave my parents a sense of security?
When I asked her why she would have us translate, my mom told me that it made everything easier, but she emphasized how it made her more comfortable. She feared people would assume our family was “fresh off the boat,” as people say, and hated the feeling of asking employees to slow down their speaking. Her past experiences taught her to expect that these “inconveniences” would be met with impatience and rudeness. Having my sister and I speak up would signal to people that we know just as much English as any other American, though that should not determine whether or not we are treated with respect.
As I got older, I learned more and more about my parents’ immigrant stories. For years, my mom sat in her evening ESL class after tirelessly working multiple jobs during the day, trying to perfect her “th” sounds and the “r” in words like “earth” (which still require my gentle guidance). My dad failed many writing assignments because he could never fully express in his writing what he wanted to say. He can still picture himself sitting in the library studying until midnight while his classmates played football outside, solely because he couldn’t understand what he was reading. Once I put myself in my parents’ shoes, I began to understand their immigration experience with broken English and their constant “uh”s, “um”s, and “oh, never mind”s when talking to English speakers. The “Where I go?” instead of “Where do I go,” or the “Look nice” instead of “That looks nice.” They were foreigners doing their best with the English they knew, but what they didn’t know created another challenge for surviving in the United States.
I’ve learned the best I can do is help ease any burden my parents may feel. Now, I embrace translating for my parents by taking initiative with small gestures I know they appreciate, even if they don’t voice it. I call the doctor’s office instead of just sitting there and only interjecting when I have to. I order the food without my mom asking. I see my dad having difficulty explaining what he’s looking for and jump in for him instead.
I think speaking Vietnamese has done more for me than simply helping me communicate. It has allowed me to understand and value things my parents keep close to them. My mom radiates happiness when she sees me reading her cookbook filled with scrawls and scribbles from her attempts to perfect each recipe. My dad sits back with a nostalgic look on his face as I read notes he used to write for my mom when they were dating. Without a language barrier, my sister and I are able to stay in touch with my grandma and older relatives.
It’s as if we have become our parents’ own personal Google Translate, and that’s not such a bad thing.
I love you.
Con thương ba má.
MiC Columnist Hannah Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.