MY DAD TOLD ME THIS WOULD HAPPEN: I Grew Up Sort Of Bilingual And Now I'm Sad That I'm Not

Sometimes I wonder if it's too late to bridge that cultural divide.
Publish date:
July 10, 2013
language, culture, bilingual

The realization that I was growing up in the middle of a cultural divide came when my friend Catie* peed in my mom's car.

My mom had just picked us up from a half-day of kindergarten. Catie was not only my carpool buddy, but also my best friend at the time. I thought she was the coolest. She not only had sweet 80s flippy hair that her mom let her wear down in her eyes (I was forced to sport the standard issue Asian-child-bowl-cut with bangs), AND she was always game to play "My Little Ponies" with me. What more could a five year old want?

Catie and I piled into the station wagon with the fluffy, velour-like seats (this will be of note in a moment), and began to play with the two or three "My Little Ponies" that we'd left in the backseat that morning.

About 5 minutes into our playing, I got a really bad stomachache. At this time in my life, before it even occurred to my parents to ask doctors about why their daughter was always "the sick kid", my stomach troubles embarrassed me more than anything. Rather than explain to everyone that yet again, Louise felt barfy, I was prone to just shutting down and doing something akin to what I imagine Lamaze breathing is.

On this particular day, my stomach pains struck and I just told Catie, "I don't want to play anymore" and slumped down into my seat in which to commence my breathing. This really upset Catie and her tactic was to keep repeating over and over again, "But I want to play ponies! But I want to play ponies!"

My poor mom. She stayed out of it, mostly because even after five years with me as a daughter there were still times she looked at me and said, not unkindly, "You're weird, darling."

But the constant high-pitched haranguing from a child not her own made her snap a bit and even then I could hear the forced maternal tone she took as she said a little too loudly to Catie, "She doesn't want to play! We're almost home. Can you please be quiet, please, Catie? PLEASE?"

After my mom's intervention, Catie got abruptly quiet. She looked as if she was on the brink of tears, angry in the way only a prepubescent child of the 80s can look when they feel that they have suffered an injustice that somehow threatens their individuality.

This is when I got scared. She just sat there and looked straight forward, radiating rage. I knew what was happening.

"Catie, did you laai niu?"

Somehow my Cantonese only seemed to make her angrier and she stared ahead even harder.

I tried again, a little louder. "Catie, DID YOU LAAI NIU?" Note: Yelling Chinese does not make it more comprehensible.

At this point, my mom heard this and called frantically to the backseat, "Catie! Did you pee in your pants?!"

She didn't need to answer, the smell gave it away. Catie had Revenge Peed, all over my mom's super absorbent, velour-like station wagon bench seat.

I realized the gravity of this when I felt something warm and moist creeping across the seat, and soaking in and around my red cotton tights.

We finally got Catie home, and as her mom scooped her out of our backseat, all I remember her saying to my frazzled mom was, "Oh Catie! Did she do that again?" then laughing in the same way I would imagine a person would if their daughter had made an exceptional lanyard, not an exceptionally LARGE PUDDLE OF PEE.

As we drove away, me huddled on the floor in the backseat so as to avoid the pee, my mom asked me, "Why did you keep saying laai niu (BTW I'm trying to write this phonetically and I'm probably butchering it)? You know Catie doesn't speak Chinese."

I don't think I answered, because by then not only was my stomachache overwhelming, but I felt GA-ROSS because my leg was soaked with somebody else's niu (urine).

You see, even though I grew up speaking English with not only my friends but also mostly with my family, there were still certain words in my young brain that only came to me in Cantonese. "Peeing" or "pee" or "peeing in an accidental way" was one of them. I knew what other people meant when they said, "wet your pants" or something like that, but when I reached for the phrase, only the Cantonese Chinese words came to me.

It was normal to me, and for some reason, I assumed it was normal for the rest of the world. Not so, I began to understand that day.

The same was true for other "bathroom" words like fart, poop, snot, and vomit, as well as a few other random words or phrases like "fever," "smoking cigarettes," "mentally slow," "pregnant," "dirty" and "cat." (One of our first pets was named "Dirty Cat.")

I remember the day I decided to ONLY speak English once and for all. It was when I was at a friend's house about a year later and when I told her I thought I might ngau (vomit), she told me, "Sweetie, you're gonna have to speak English when you're here."

Now, I know she meant when I was in her house because, well, she didn't speak Cantonese, but something in my little brain expanded "here" to ALL OF SEATTLE, WASHINGTON AND AMERICA BEYOND.

From that time on, I made sure I was up to speed on all the American slang and different ways to say things, so that if I ever had to utter the phrase, "That pregnant woman has a fever and I hope she doesn't wet her pants," I would be understood clearly and completely IN ENGLISH.

A part of my brain slammed shut that day.

Looking back on this, it makes me very sad. My parents let me do as I pleased in regards to English, as my mom's brother always encouraged them to let me be "as American as possible", because it would be easier for me in the long run. There was an unspoken fear that one of their children WOULD HAVE A CHINESE ACCENT and all would be lost -- jobs, respect, being viewed as an equal in American society.

At one point, I remember my dad telling me that one day I would wish that I knew how to speak Cantonese fluently (rather than the Chinglish, heavily accented hybrid I speak now). I honestly get a little choked up by that memory, because I told him "I doubt it" and I could almost see the pain in his eyes that his daughter wasn't interested in sharing the language that he, my mother and all of our family had spoken for hundreds of years.

So I grew up with flawless American English. I even went on to become an English major in college, which, despite my parent's devotion to our heritage, thrilled them (even if it was a double major in Theatre).

Cantonese still has a permanent stronghold in my brain, I am still fluent when LISTENING. I can (mostly) understand Cantonese television, my parents and extended family often speak to me in Cantonese and I answer in English, and I can always tell when actors in movies are not really native speakers, but my spoken Cantonese has degraded to the point where I speak like a redneck baby. ("This here good to eat chocolate quick! Eat it!")

I've tried to pick up Cantonese again, but I've since learned that I'm really bad at learning languages. Even though so much of it is rooted in my brain, sentence structure, tones, and vocabulary beyond the colloquial eludes my non preteen-information-sponge-like brain. Every few years I get a bug up my butt to try again, and I'm hoping, this year it will take.

More and more I'm wondering if this is a common amongst the children of immigrants? We try so hard to hard to fit in with American culture, often at our parent's urging, that when in adulthood we reach for our cultural mother tongue, the cobwebs are too thick to dig through.

Ever since I got to Hawai'i my ineptitude in Cantonese has been gone from a gentle nagging from time to time, to a growing obsession.

Hawai'i is a culture that is not only steeped in Asian history, but also one that is intensely respectful of the place from whence your ancestors came. Japanese American, Korean American, Chinese American, those of Hawaiian heritage -- I've met so many people here who live firmly and proudly in two cultures, and I find myself envious at times.

I don't regret my life or the person I've become. I like me. My family likes me. We are not a bunch big on regret. But sometimes I wonder if it's too late to bridge that cultural divide?

Am I "American beyond repair"?

Did you grow up bilingual? Sort of bilingual? Do you wish you spoke your family's mother tongue? Are you rediscovering your family's language? Were you encouraged to be UBER AMERICAN when you were growing up?

*Not her real name. I wouldn't want to risk her becoming known as "the pee girl." Been there, it sucks.