English Language Glossary for a Daughter of Refugees

How to find the right words in another tongue

Amy Lam
Gay Mag

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Illustrations by Carmen Johns

TThe first lies I told were in Cantonese. Like when I hit my brother and said I didn’t. Or when I peed my pants at naptime and quietly slipped off the queen-sized mattress our entire family shared. I stuffed my soiled bottoms into the middle of the hamper and put on dirty underwear and pants I fished out of the same pile. I pretended to sleep waiting for my mom to wake me up so I could bargain my obedient napping to watch more TV. I lied again when I first learned about April Fools’ day in kindergarten. My uncle walked me home after school on that April 1st. I innocently pointed to his back and told him a spider had crawled onto his shirt when his shirt was fine. I must have screamed April Fools! in the middle of the Chinatown sidewalk, so full of glee I could admit to a lie in English.

The English language was ahistorical when I was a child. I learned history in English, but English itself had no history. In English, I could name dinosaurs, spelled brontosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, wooly mammoth. I learned George Washington could never tell a lie. His little kid arms wielded an axe, chopped into his father’s cherry tree, and admitted it. I knew who lived in idyllic barns and on farms in nursery rhymes about a cat, dog, cow, pig, chicken, horse, mouse. But the language had little to say about an animal like me. It told me I was a girl, short, black hair, black eyes, this many years old. It said I had a mother, father, and two little brothers. It reminded me often that fluency in English was a kind of capital used to alleviate the psychic debt incurred by people of the diaspora. The better you know English the less sad you’ll be about forgetting your parents’ tongue. It said I could speak English yet it would always be a second language.

The better you know English the less sad you’ll be about forgetting your parents’ tongue.

I was this many years old, with a hand hovering over the ▶️⏩⏪⏸️ buttons of a Panasonic cassette boombox. I had tuned the radio to an FM station somewhere between 100 and 108. I pushed the red REC button to whatever songs were on that afternoon and replayed the track, clicking a mechanical pencil…

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