I Took English for Granted and Underestimated How Hard It Is to Learn a Second Language

I'm mortified when I remember all the times I was embarrassed of my mom's accent and very "non-American" English when I was a kid.

My mom did not grow up speaking English.

Until she was 15 years old, Chinese (specifically, Cantonese) was the only language she spoke.

In her humble, working class family in Hong Kong, Chinese was all she needed. Sure there were smatterings of English that made it colloquial chatter, but nothing approaching "speaking English."

This all changed when she went to high school. My mom got the opportunity to attend one of the more prestigious high schools in Hong Kong. A school where all classes were conducted in English and it was expected that the students could keep up.

At first, she struggled.

Not only was she thrown into a world where many of her classmates were among the elite in Hong Kong society, but many were Eurasian (half European, half Chinese) and had been bilingual since birth.

My mom suddenly had to learn English and FAST. She took English speaking classes, and studied on her own, but during her first year at her new school my mom felt lost. Some classmates were kind to her — helping her with homework, translating for her, offering friendship in a scary new world — but others were cruel.

In that first year or so at the new school she was called "exceptional" and "stupid," "astute" and "dense," "studious" and "lazy." But my mom soldiered on.

By the time she graduated from high school, she spoke perfect English, sang in the school's English-language opera, and received awards for achievements in English writing and literature.

She went on to work for British and American companies where English was the only language business was conducted in, and moved to the US with her English speaking husband and English-as-a-first-language daughter.

For most of my life I took my mom's ability to speak English for granted. She sometimes spoke to my dad and me in Cantonese, but she could switch nimbly between languages. Though accented in that specific Hong Kong dialect of Queen's English and Cantonese, her use of grammar and vocabulary rival, or even trump, many born English speakers.

My dad was one of those privileged Eurasians who was born speaking English and Cantonese, but even he admits that his grasp of the language can't compete with my mom's.

I'm mortified when I remember all the times I was embarrassed of my mom's accent and very "non-American" English when I was a kid. I suppose this happens to many children who grow up in America (I was in TEXAS too) with foreign-born parents, but I still feel a little sting of shame now.

The other kids would make fun of the way she spoke, and would mimic her in the meanest ways. The more awful of the bunch would straight up say, "The way your mom talks is hilarious."

I wish I could go back in time, grab my 12-year-old self by the shoulders and say, "Mom speaks TWO LANGUAGES FLUENTLY. She THINKS in her second language. She loves Who's the Boss? and GETS IT. At the age you are now, she DIDN'T SPEAK ENGLISH. You have been taking French for five years, and you can say Je suis fromage. HOW IS HER COMMAND OF ENGLISH SOMETHING TO BE EMBARRASSED ABOUT?"

Living in Japan now, realizing how hard it is to make my brain use Japanese, and being grateful anytime a local speaks a little English, I can't help but be in awe of any person who not only learns a second but adopts it as their own.

I recently went to dinner with another fellow US-transplant and her Japanese friends. I was the only person who didn't have a working ability to casually converse in Japanese. One of my friend's Japanese friends spoke English, the other did not.

The night ended up being very enjoyable, but for one of us at the table, there was always a gap in the conversation. Sometimes they would converse in Japanese, and I would try my best to catch the basic meaning of the conversation. Other times, the conversation would turn to English, and I would watch our non-English speaking dinner companion zone out or politely nod along.

My friend would try to translate important fragments of conversation back and forth, but it was time consuming and tended to make the conversation a little dry. A lot of the flavor and nuance of telling your friends about opening your own business is lost when the conversation has to be paused for translation.

Throughout the night, I marveled at the way our Japanese, English-speaking dinner companion was able to quickly switch between languages. Though our "Americanisms" were sometimes confusing, English seemed easy to her.

As I rode the subway home that night, I couldn't help but think about my mom. Here I am, 33 years old in a strange place, where after seven months I have the luxury of being able to only speak a little bit of practical Japanese.

By the time she was my age, her life existed largely in her second language because it had to. She's told me that even though speaking English was easy to her in her 20s, keeping up with her English-speaking expat friends in Hong Kong was often exhausting. But it was expected. She was expected to able to accommodate them.

When it was explained to my friend's friends at dinner that I don't speak Japanese, they didn't bat an eye. Of course, they thought I was Japanese myself at first, but after they learned I was American it was no big thing.

And while I know I cannot be expected to be fluent in Japanese after my short time here, I can't help but think about the privilege I'm experiencing in this country.

While learning some Japanese, I don't have to be fluent. English is everywhere. Especially in the international port of Yokohama, and cosmopolitan Tokyo, everyone can somehow accommodate me. In their own country.

Really, there are no stakes for me.

And yes, English is a global language. In order to get by in many countries, a person must speak at least some English. But I can't help but feel like learning this country's language, at least where I am, is somewhat negotiable.

How many times have I opened my front door to talk to the utilities guy wanting to ask about our internet hookup, and when I explain how little Japanese I speak, he immediately goes to plan B, and I don't have to scramble for language anymore?

How many times have I misunderstood a question while out shopping, and all a sales associate has to do is signal to someone else in the store, and they swoop in to speak English and save me from Japanese?

So many times I've been talking to friends in the US and they say, "Well, you basically live in Tokyo, do you really need to be able to speak Japanese?"

Look, I know I'm lucky. Getting by in life — more than getting by — enjoying life in a foreign country has been possible for me despite my lack of fluency. I am reaping the benefits of who I am, where I live, and the circles I run in. But not everyone is like me.

No, I don't think "we Americans are the worst", and I don't feel guilty for how I am negotiating life here. Japan doesn't need me to protect it from me, or any number of bumbling expats.

Really, I've been thinking about my mom and others like her. By so many "standards" she is not what many would call "educated" or "worldly".

She never went to college. For most of her life she was a secretary, a fast food worker, a bank teller, a drugstore employee, a caterer. She overcame her fair share of racism as a foreign-born woman in America whose speech bears the telltale sound of her birthplace. She hasn't had half the opportunities my peers or I have had.

Yet she worked all those jobs and spat in the face of racism in a second language.

The old gentleman at the train station who helps me when I do something dumb with my subway pass and he kindly helps me unravel the mess in English.

The little old woman selling flowers up in the hills above Hong Kong, who was able to give me clear directions in English when I was really lost.

"Mr. B" from Guatemala, who immigrated to the US when he was 40, taught himself English, and then taught my mom Spanish.

Up until very recently I never really considered what it meant for these people to speak English. I never considered the accomplishment. Of course they spoke English.

So as I reach what might be the halfway point of my time here, I feel a renewed need to pick up my Japanese language studies that have become more than a little lazy. The language is no less intimidating, but that's no excuse.

I may never become fluent, but considering where I come from, who am I to decide that it's too hard?