Bridging cultures at the supermarket

Sunday, May 17, 2020 - 6:49pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chughtai

It was one of the few days out of the entire year that my mom had a day off work. On that bright and early Sunday morning, she decided there was no better way to spend her free time than to go grocery shopping with her eight-year-old daughter at Pathmark, Brooklyn’s equivalent to Michigan’s Meijer. Expecting to buy groceries in bulk, my mom pulled out her red, four-wheeled foldable shopping cart from the living room closet. Without a car, we lugged the cart with us from our apartment on 7th Avenue to the supermarket eight avenues away. 

After enduring the 0.9 mile walk to Pathmark in the 80 degree heat, I grabbed a weekly ad beside the automatic doors as my mother searched for a supermarket grocery cart in the parking lot. Immediately after entering the supermarket, I rushed towards every kid’s favorite place: the snack aisle. After a brief moment of deliberation, I tossed a pack of frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts into our shopping cart. 

At the same time, my mom was standing in the middle of the aisle flipping through the colorful pages of the weekly ad, forming a mental list of the items she needed to buy that day. Honey glazed ham and La Yogurt were must-haves every time we shopped here, and we made sure to grab them from the deli and frozen goods section. A gallon of Lactaid milk, a family pack of boneless chicken breast and two dozen eggs later, our shopping cart began to reach its limit. 

Before heading towards the checkout line, however, my mom suddenly remembered that we were running low on cooking oil at home. We searched through all twelve aisles, passing by shelves holding Bounty paper towels, birthday cards and dog food. Still, corn oil was nowhere to be seen. At last, my mom decided to not waste any more time and approached a nearby Pathmark employee, a young Caucasian man, restocking the shelves with spaghetti boxes. 

With her strong Cantonese Chinese accent, she got the attention of the man by performing her own rendition of the phrase, “Excuse me.” 

“Ex-suh-cu-seh me,” she said with an oddly higher-than-normal pitched voice as if she were mocking Barbie’s voice. It brought shivers down my spine and not in a good way. 

The man put down the box of spaghetti from his hands and tilted his head 90 degrees to face my mom, giving her a nod of approval that he was listening. 

Without knowing how to say “corn oil” in English, she began conversing with the man using her limited English vocabulary. The conversation consisted of her using broken words and phrases, including “use make food” and “help look,” in addition to her making gestures of cooking with a pan as if she and the man were playing a game of charades. She looked silly doing so, and I couldn’t help but feel second-hand embarrassment. I wanted no association with the scene and I was sure the employee felt the same. Observing his facial expressions as she spent a minute trying her best to describe what she was looking for, I could tell that he was flustered and getting lost in the conversation. 

My mom grew frustrated that he couldn’t understand her and called me over to help translate. In spite of learning English as a second language in school, I was able to read, speak and write in English fluently — even better than in my native language. This made communicating my mom’s needs to the employee easy. Asking him, “Where can I find cooking oil?” was a simple interaction for me. With that one question, he understood me right away and prompted us to head towards aisle three, where we were able to find our oil and finally check out. At that moment, I realized how powerful being able to speak English in America would be. 

 Afterwards, I started taking note of other incidences of when my parents would try communicating in English. Each time my dad ordered from Papa John's, he would stiffen up and avoid complete sentences: “Pizza. Large. Pepperoni. Cheese.” His accent made his orders sound funny, but at least he was able to get his message across to the workers. Whenever my mom attended my parent-teacher conferences in school, she would need a translator in the room to assist her. Sometimes, they wouldn’t have enough translators available, so I would step in as a replacement. Each time, she would ask the same two questions in English: “My daughter doing good?” and “Jenny have good grades?” I found it uncomfortable whenever she spoke in English because she tended to use the same usual high-pitched voice as in the supermarket, followed by an awkward chuckle. I wondered to myself, does she act this way because she feels uncomfortable having to talk to native speakers of a language with which she is unfamiliar? Although my mom would not completely understand my teacher’s response without a direct translation, she could comprehend certain phrases and words which helped her gauge a general idea, including “participation” and “report card.” For immigrants who came to America in their late 20s with a vocabulary that stopped at “hello” and “bye,” my parents’ English was not too shabby. Each time I’d hear them attempt a conversation in English, I would think about how fortunate I am for being able to learn at an early age; I couldn’t imagine having to face their hardships of not being understood by most members of society. 

As the years went by, however, I started to understand how it felt to be in my parents’ shoes. I was losing touch with my Cantonese language the more I embraced American culture and schooling — neglecting one side of my identity in an attempt to emulate what I saw through Western media. It wasn’t until I was in middle school I found it difficult to hold a conversation with my parents about anything because my Cantonese vocabulary became as limited as a four-year-old’s vocabulary. I couldn’t order food at a Chinese restaurant without needing my parents’ help and I did not know how to interact with my relatives whenever they visited from China. I felt tense and alienated while talking to Cantonese speakers, even to those who were related to me by blood. I didn’t remember having such a hard time piecing sentences in Cantonese together or saying the Cantonese equivalent of the word “lettuce” until then; was I subconsciously letting my mother’s tongue slip away for the sake of social acceptance in America? Was it possible for me to have a balance of both worlds? 

My American accent jut through as I spoke Cantonese, just like how their Chinese accent did while speaking English. The improper grammar usage and misplacement of words that I noticed in my parents’ speech was evident in my own as well. I had no excuses, and my young age gave me the opportunity to relearn Cantonese again. I wanted to be able to speak to my relatives, to be able to order food independently, to not stutter and forget the Cantonese equivalent of an English word. Acknowledging that communicating in my native language was just as important as knowing the primary language of America, I took the time to find a balance between my two cultures. 

All this time, I had been taking my native language for granted and let it slip away from me because I felt that knowing English was more important and useful than knowing Chinese in a mainly English-speaking country. Seeing my bilingual identity through a different lens now, I made another realization: my mom would not have found the cooking oil if I hadn’t known both English and Cantonese. I was the bridge. Forgetting how to communicate in Cantonese felt like losing half of my identity as a Chinese-American. It was crucial to me that I kept a hold of my two cultures. I began to take baby steps towards my goal of gaining back the Cantonese fluency I once had. Small acts such as successfully ordering a meal at a Chinese restaurant or being able to give an elderly Cantonese lady directions to the right side of the train platform is progress to me. I am actively working to find peace with my two identities. It is not a competition between the two cultures that represent me, but rather a recognition of how fortunate I am for being able to experience both worlds at once. I am proud of being Chinese-American. I am the bridge.