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.