Lingua Franca

Expos, Spotlights, Writing

Darren Jian

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. Those are people who crossed an ocean to come to this country.” ––Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom

“How long I should wait?”

Upon hearing my dad say those words, I suddenly felt something bubbling up deep
within me, like magma struggling to find a pressure outlet. It was a bleak, windy, January evening, and the last rays of light had just disappeared behind the looming Bay Area hills. There I was, a scrawny third grader in the locker room of the Carlmont High swimming pool. My friends and I were drying our hair after swim practice, and they looked up to stare at my dad, as if he were speaking in an alien language. A wave of feeling rushed over me: sadness, frustration, embarrassment, and above all, shame. For the first time, I felt ashamed of my dad. In front of me stood a successful businessman and a talented engineer, a handyman and a homework helper — my very own dad, struggling with the grammar of the English language. He would frequently tell me the details of his origin story, how he had to work several side jobs to ensure that he was the first in his family to attend college, how he founded his electronics manufacturing company in 1980’s China with one assembly machine he purchased for 200 yuan (about 30 U.S. dollars), and how he used that machine to generate a large profit in his company’s first year, despite having one of his designs stolen by a rival manufacturer. He could do nearly everything, from managing his own business to designing kitchen appliances, and I was dumbfounded by the fact that he couldn’t master English, something that came so easily to me.

“Dad, it’s ‘how long should I wait,’ not ‘how long I should wait,” I said, mimicking a heavy Asian accent. I turned to my friends. “My dad always makes mistakes when he speaks English. Like, instead of ‘don’t worry,’ he says ‘don’t wuh­lee.’”

My friends giggled and I felt an unexpected surge of happiness. Bringing up some of my dad’s most comical errors was almost therapeutic for me. I could feel all my frustration over his substandard English beginning to drain away as my friends and I exchanged laughs over his accent and the ridiculousness of his blunders. I raked through my brain for more examples of his awkward slip­-ups.

“And when he orders pasta at a restaurant, instead of ‘spaghetti,’ he asks for some ‘spa­tah­kee!’”

I couldn’t stop myself. I continued to list every single English mistake I had ever heard him make, all the while continuing my exaggerated impression of his accent. Once I was done, my friends were still laughing. Although my dad’s miscommunications had only just evoked a visceral reaction within me for the first time, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest, as if I had finally released a flood that had been building up for centuries. I was finally able to express the embarrassment I felt whenever others couldn’t understand my dad, the embarrassment at the fact that he couldn’t speak English as well as I could. I felt as if his accent and difficulty communicating reflected on me, making me seem less American in the eyes of others. By poking fun at his slip­ups in front of my friends, I had distinguished myself from him and cemented my status as a societal insider. My friends had thought my anecdotes were funny, and I was sure my dad would take my mild teasing in stride. After all, I thought, he was probably used to being uncomfortable in public, with English like that. I looked over at him. He stood off by the side, with an expression on his face I would only later recognize as a grimace. I thought nothing of this, and as we walked back to the car, I happily chatted about school, the things I had learned in class, and the exercises I had done during swimming practice. Only then did I realize how quiet my dad was. He walked silently alongside me, and he seemed transfixed by the glowing lights emanating from the houses in the hills above us. I didn’t understand why he was so solemn, so I assumed that he was just tired after a long day.

On the ride back home, I asked, “Are you okay?”

He responded curtly, “I am okay.”

My dad was obviously bothered by something. I was confused. I reflected back on all I had said that day, but my mind was drawing a blank as to why he might be upset. I then thought about how I had brought up his language errors in the locker room. I told myself that it couldn’t be the reason––my dad knew that his English wasn’t the best, and he definitely didn’t mind me poking a little fun at his mistakes. Besides, he was probably used to being uncomfortable in public. Curious, I pried deeper.

“Are you sure? You seem a little angry.”

My dad sighed, “Son, ask Mom to pick you up from practice next time.”

I was taken aback. I now knew that he was deeply unhappy about my actions after swim
practice, but I couldn’t understand why it affected him so much. To me, my dad’s accent and difficulty with English were very public aspects of his identity, and I thought that he would find my impression of him and the recollections of his mistakes to be funny.

“Why are you so upset?” I asked.

“Today, you make fun of me in front of your friends. I know my English is not good, but I have no time to learn. I feel bad you do not respect me.”

I thought about the frustration and shame that led to my outburst, the satisfaction I felt while gleefully imitating my dad’s accent and revealing all of his conversational slip-­ups. I suddenly became very interested in the seat in front of me. As I moved my hand across the cold, hard, unforgiving surface of the seatback, I began thinking about how he interpreted my teasing as public humiliation, how he felt disrespected and unappreciated as a father. I hung onto my dad’s words––the fact that he struggled with English not out of a lack of skill, but because he was too preoccupied with work to learn the language. What I didn’t realize was that for him, English was at the complete bottom of the priority list. It was so far at the bottom that he was willing to put up with the social setbacks of struggling with English and even face scorn from his own son in order to focus on supporting his family. Compared to his sacrifices, my worries about fitting into American society seemed to be unimaginably shallow and of microscopic importance. I was so blinded by this need to be accepted by others that I came to associate my dad’s entire existence with his inability to master a language, instead of with his ability to love, support, and provide for me.

Today, I have come to view my dad’s mediocre English not as an embarrassment or a source of frustration, but rather as a mark of all that he has given up to guarantee a better future for me. In fact, even as I write this paragraph, he is in China conducting business in Mandarin and Cantonese. I know that as he works to ensure my well-being, the idea of learning to speak English without an accent is not even a thought in his mind.

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Loung Ung

Loung Ung

Spotlights, Writing

“On previous trips the pirates have stolen valuables, killed people, raped and abducted girls… the women work frantically to ugly themselves up by smearing black charcoal paste on their faces and bodies. With ashen faces, some of the younger, prettier girls reach into the bags we have vomited into and scoop out handfuls of it to smear on their hair and clothes.”

In this excerpt from First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Loung Ung recounts one of many trials she faced in her journey to America. Not even ten years old when she encountered these pirates en route to Thailand, a common detour for  Cambodians pursuing refugee status in the United States, Loung had spent the majority of her short life fleeing violence under the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime. Since the Communist takeover on April 17 th , 1975, Loung had watched the merciless and systematic murder of nearly a fourth of Cambodia’s people. Loung’s memoir has been translated into nine languages and recently converted into a movie. She has worked to shed light on the Cambodian Genocide, too often overshadowed and forgotten in world history. Even deep into the 21 st century, slow legal processes and outright neglect have allowed criminals like Pol Pot and Ieng Thirith, top leaders of the Khmer Rouge, to die in custody without ever facing justice for their inhumanity.

Loung Ung’s sequel, Lucky Child, outlines the struggles she faced as a child immigrant who fled the war-torn jungles of Southeast Asia to the snowy hills of Vermont. Since coming to the US, she has graduated college, been reunited with her family abroad, and inspired millions to engage in activism. She now resides in the Ohio with her husband and has spent her life doing a variety of altruistic work that includes working at a Maine shelter for abused women, with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and doing landmine research with the Peace Action Education Fund.

Andres Bonifacio

Andrés Bonifacio

Spotlights

“Reason teaches us that we must be united in will, united in thought, and that we might have strength to search out the reigning evil in our Nation. This is the time for the light of truth to surface; this is the time for us to show that we have our own sentiments, have honor, have shame, and have solidarity.”

— translated excerpt from Andrés Bonifacio in Ang dapat mabatid ng mga Tagalog (What Filipinos Should Know)


Andrés Bonifacio is hailed as a national hero in the Philippines for his revolutionary work and is often claimed to be the “father of the Philippine Revolution.” The Philippine Revolution occurred during the 19th century as a response to corrupt Manila Spanish society, the social, economic, and religious constraints under Spanish rule, and the poor treatment of indigenous peoples.

Bonifacio was originally a member of reform leader José Rizal’s La Liga Filipina, which sought reform for Spanish rule in the Philippines. The organization, however, dissolved almost immediately upon Rizal’s arrest. This prompted Bonifacio to form the secret society Katipunan, or in its entirety, Kataastaasang Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (“Highest and Most Respected Society of the Children of the Country”).

As the founder and leader of the Katipunan movement, Bonifacio championed for independence against Spanish colonial rule during the course of the Philippine Revolution. Bonifacio kicked off the revolution by leading thousands of his followers to tear up their community tax certificates or cedulas in defiance of taxes created by the Spanish, which stirred nationalism among the Filipino people. Bonifacio became a critical leader in the Revolution as he lead several revolts to reclaim territories in defiance of the Spanish regime. His efforts allowed the organization to grow from 300 to 30,000 members, highlighting his ability to unite people in the fight for freedom, despite the possible repercussions they might face from the Spaniards.

Although José Rizal is more commonly known as the national hero of the Philippines because of his pacifistic approach to Spanish rule, Bonifacio has undoubtedly earned the credit of achieving independence after a 333-year Spanish rule, through his leadership in putting the Philippine Revolution into motion.

In honor of Bonifacio,  Philippine Legislature passed Act No. 2946 in 1921, establishing his birthday (November 30) as a national holiday in the Philippines. Filipinos celebrate this holiday by visiting the Andrés Bonifacio Monument (more commonly known as the Bonifacio Monument), which is a memorial monument in Caloocan, Philippines designed to commemorate the Philippine revolutionary.


“Rizal planted (the) seed of revolution; Bonifacio watered it”

— Manuel F. Almario from the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Lan Samantha Chang

Spotlights

“Ming forgot the delicate taste of his grandfather’s favorite fruit, the yellow watermelon. He forgot his father’s hopes that he might study hard and rebuild China. He forgot the fact that he had once desired to earn a Ph.D., to work in a laboratory, to discover great things and add to the body of humanity’s scientific knowledge.

He replaced such useless memories with thoughts of Charles. It was for Charles that Ming had taken his job in Iowa and bought his house, because he believed, since Charles was born, that he could make a new life in America. He struggled through clumsy conversations at the office and employee “happy hours,” practicing his English. For Charles, he read the local newspaper and mowed the lawn. With Charles in mind, he struggled out of bed on winter mornings, fighting sleepiness and persistent dreams.”

— excerpt from “The Unforgetting”, from the collection Hunger

Lan Samantha Chang is a writer and a daughter of Chinese immigrants. Chang’s writing mines language, memory, and history to create fiction of extraordinary range. Her award-winning first book, Hunger, examines the sacrificial combination of desire and loss that haunts members of immigrant families. Chang then spent a decade composing Inheritance, a love story that spans seven decades from China to Taiwan to America. In her most recent book, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, Chang turns her attention to the minds and lives of contemporary poets.

Her work has been translated into nine languages and has been chosen twice for The Best American Short Stories. She has received creative writing fellowships from Stanford University, Princeton University, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Chang is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from which she has received a Teaching-Writing fellowship and a Michener-Copernicus fellowship.

“One of the things I think is very interesting about immigrant families is that the children end up feeling comfortable in an entirely different language than the parents. And that was one of the issues that I wrote about repeatedly in the stories in Hunger. So, for example, a parent who depends on her child to basically be their translator in the U.S. for them. The child who longs to know the parents’ stories but is unable to access the language…. I think I became a writer because there was so much silence in the house on such basic issues that I was required not only to investigate to find out what happened, but then repeat to it myself and other people in order to understand the story.”

David Henry Hwang

Spotlights

“As Asian-Americans, the charge that is often lobbed against us is sort of the least original: the idea that somehow we’re perpetual foreigners, that we can’t be trusted, and that even my father, who was patriotic to the point that it was kind of a joke among his children, would be accused of being disloyal to America.”

David Henry Hwang is an LA-born Chinese-American playwright. His many works reflect his sharp and thoughtful insight into the social and personal implications of race and ethnicity. One of his best-known works, M Butterfly, is based on the true story of a French man who carries on a multi-decade affair with a Beijing opera performer he believes to be a woman, using this unusual narrative to examine the blend of sexism and racism inherent in Western imperialism.

Hwang is a Tony Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time OBIE Award winner and a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Hwang has also won the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels Award, the 2012 Inge Award, the 2012 Steinberg “Mimi” Award, and a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award. His newest work, Kung Fu, dramatizes Bruce Lee’s journey from a troubled Hong Kong youth to an international icon.

“I’m interested in internationalism. It’s the new multiculturalism. How we deal with each other isn’t sufficient any more. It’s about time we examine how we interact with the rest of the world we live in.”​