I, like many others, believe an argument with parents to be like a war: It requires careful preparation and a readiness to risk everything for a passionate (and often misguided) cause. You have to load up your arsenal with arguments that dance on being plain spiteful, yet are somewhat reasonable enough that your parents at least humor your futile attempt to win. When the fight’s over, you tend to the wounds inflicted on your angsty emotions and decide whether you should keep fighting or admit defeat. In other words, fighting with parents is essentially a mini Revolutionary War, in which you are the 13 Colonies and your parents are Great Britain — except in this version, Great Britain wins, and the Colonies learn that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are a privilege, not a right, young woman!
But with immigrant parents, there’s an even bigger disparity between the child and parent’s ability to win. There’s often a disconnect between parent and child because the child’s primary language is most likely English, while the parent’s primary language is not. Thus, there becomes a situation where parent and child can either argue with each other in different languages, or one person bends and argues in a language they’re not 100 percent comfortable using.
I am this person when I argue with my parents. While my Korean isn’t bad — in fact, I would say that it’s pretty good — I’m much more comfortable speaking English. However, arguing with my parents in English just wouldn’t make sense. I don’t speak with my parents in English ever, and I understand there’s no point in stating a well thought out argument if my parents can’t completely understand what I’m saying. So, when I argue with my parents, I feel like I’ve brought a mediocre sword to a machine gun fight. I know that even if I was the creator of the Korean language, I would still lose, as my parents have the power and whatever they say, goes. Still, there have been times where I’ve privately thought to myself that if I had argued with my parents in English, I at least could have won.
This isn’t an issue I take seriously, since most of my arguments with my parents stem from first-world problems. Do I really feel unjustly wronged because I couldn’t argue with my parents to my fullest capabilities about why they should’ve let me go to Lollapalooza with my friends? No. I also don’t feel as though not speaking in English has any true impact in the way that I communicate with my parents. Maybe I can’t quite explain to my parents why I need to see Drake in person singing about how he “used to bus it to the dance,” but when I have real, serious topics I want to discuss with my parents, language-based communication issues have never hindered our conversations.
In addition, while there’s a language disconnect that exists between my parents and me, there’s also one that undeniably exists between monolingual parents and children. This is due to the myriad of slang terms, expressions and lines of reasoning children use that their parents don’t understand. Thus, the children have to alter their everyday language when arguing with their parents because otherwise, their parents won’t understand what they’re saying. While this isn’t true for everyone, a vast majority of us use language in our everyday lives that is completely alien to our parents. These differences are of course not as stark as those that exist between two completely different languages, but they’re impossible to ignore. Even if I did speak English with my parents, I certainly wouldn’t speak with them the same way I do with my friends, not just because of the different power dynamic between us, but because of the generational gap. They wouldn’t know half of the terms I use with my friends.
It’s strange to think young people seem to speak almost a different language than their parents — it’s a type of code-switching that comes so naturally we don’t even think about it, and what implications it has. Are we at a disadvantage when we speak with our parents? If we were able to use the language we use when we speak with our friends, without fear of our parents not understanding us or not taking us as seriously, would we be able to communicate better with them? Our parents are not our friends in the same way that our actual friends are, since there’s always going to be an ultimately insurmountable (at least, to most of us) instinct to view them as authority figures. This leads me to believe that most of our communication issues with our parents stem from an uneven power dynamic and a generational gap marked by different beliefs, rather than language differences.
So, while I’m not sure how this code switching negatively or positively affects the way we converse normally with our parents, it’s probably for the best that we don’t fight with our parents the same way we fight with our friends and that there exists a language disconnect that forces children to take on a more formal tone. If we spoke to our parents the same way that people speak to each other in Twitter smackdowns, I imagine that our relationships with our parents would all suffer dramatically and more than one kind of smackdown would ensue.
Does this language disconnect go away as we all get older and all get lumped into the same, slangless, nondescript category of “old people” by the hip, younger generations? Is it possible to win in an argument against your parents at this point? I’m not sure, but I suppose I’ll find out in the future.
Krystal Hur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.