English Language Glossary for a Daughter of Refugees

How to find the right words in another tongue

Amy Lam
Amy Lam
Sep 24, 2019 · 13 min read
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.

What could I have known about lyrics describing the boredom of being at home watching Arsenio Hall and picking up a phone to dial seven digits? How could I have understood the chorus, a sample from an American film about white men fighting in the Vietnam war, was wrong? Not wrong as in incorrect, but wrong as in I was in elementary school singing me so horny me love you long time. I knew enough English to think it was a love song. I sang the word love, didn’t I?

Despite having never watched Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, I can nonetheless imagine the 24 frames per second depicting white men wrestling with mortality, morality, and war with my aunties and uncles as background fodder. The titular sample from the 2 Live Crew track “Me So Horny” is from a two-minute scene in the film, easily found on YouTube in a clip called “Full Metal Jacket — Me love you long time — Papillon Soo Soo.” The first and only time I’ve sought out this specific scene from the 1987 film was while writing this piece. Full Metal Jacket has never been on my representation matters playlist.

Papillon Soo Soo is a British Chinese actor with five acting credits to her name on IMDB. She plays the Vietnamese sex worker who saunters up to two white American privates sitting at a city sidewalk bar. She negotiates, kind of dancing in place, as if she can hear the same Nancy Sinatra crooning “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” on the soundtrack. She goes from $15 to $10, repeating her sales pitch of me so horny me love you long time. The bartering, played against the jangly tambourine and thumping bass line of the song, feels carefree and ordinary. Her accent is all wrong. It’s not Vietnamese. The lack of specificity and nuance in her voice, a lazy imitation of a generic accent, has morphed into its own faux syntactic authenticity once it escaped her mouth and printed onto film. Finally, one of the men take her up and tries to convince his colleague to join him, “Well, buddy. Feel like spending some of your hard-earned money? They don’t have these gook whores serving officers in the Viet Cong.” Nancy Sinatra’s song shifts sonically for me after this line of dialogue. All I hear is “these gooks are made for walkin’” as Nancy sings the refrain once more.

EEven though we had a ten-foot tall tree in our own backyard with branches heavy with their crisp sweetness every summer, it wasn’t until I saw them stacked in a neat pyramid at the Lucky’s that I knew my favorite fruit was called a persimmon. I was a teenager and could pass a biology quiz on photosynthesis but did not know the name of this fruit. My parents grew a garden of words I did not know unless I saw the same green thing in the produce section with English signs: long beans, cilantro, green onions. I whispered persimmon persimmon persimmon to myself on our ride home from the grocery store. It felt like a mistake that a fruit the color of sunset could have a name with so little grace, that sounded so closely to permission. Now, decades later, I can appreciate the way the word, based on the Alongquinan pessemmin, makes my mouth roil and hiss and hum. In Cantonese, my parents call them ci zi, a word I had long forgotten and can’t pronounce correctly.

Recently I found Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons,” a poem where Lee tangles with English (and love and grief). It made me wonder how many of us are kindred through the honeyed flesh of persimmons? The poem begins:

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

The antonym of sweet, on my tongue, is bitter. I had heard people say bitter and I was in junior high, old enough to use context clues, before I understood the word to mean the taste of medicine. Children don’t need to know how to say bitter unless they’re complaining to their parents about something they don’t want to eat and it was enough to say fu in Cantonese. It didn’t occur to me to ask my parents to look up Chinese words to tell me their English equivalents because I was the one who was supposed to know them innately. I vividly remember my seven-year-old brain folding in on itself because I didn’t know the difference between thick and thin. I thought both words meant skinny and little but had no one at home to ask.

The antonym of sweet, on my tongue, is bitter.

In third grade, I had heard a phrase on TV but didn’t know what it meant, only that it was hurtful. So when blonde-haired Justin, who was not always kind to me, asked to borrow colored pencils, I looked him straight in his blue eyes and said, “Go to hell.” He told on me, of course. I cried, plead ignorance, and had to sit in class during recess contemplating what hell was. My parents raised us Buddhist, they didn’t teach us heaven nor hell. We prayed to our ancestors to keep us safe because life-life was hard enough to not worry about afterlife while we were still trying to do this thing up here. Without a concept of hell, how could I have known it was a bad place to tell another third grader to go?

I needed to learn English better and more. I wanted to tell people to go to hell and know exactly where that was. Even if they never appeared on spelling tests, I knew about “payment due dates” and “dependants.” I called bored-sounding adults, always beginning with the caveat that I was a child representative on behalf of my parents, to ask about unfamiliar charges on utility bills. When I was incapable of parsing out the legalese of my parents official-looking mail from the health insurance company, they would ask me in Cantonese, what are you even going to school for? I was a good girl and didn’t talk back. It was a rhetorical question that made me feel smaller and more helpless than the requisite smallness and helplessness of being in a child’s body who both wanted to please and also knew the paperwork of grown-up life wasn’t her responsibility.

In middle school, I purposefully talked like a Valley Girl because, like, this was what American girls sounded like. I was too successful because two decades later the podcast I cohost received a review that said, “I enjoy the show the stories are interesting and fun. It is so hard to listen to this show because you use the word LIKE every two seconds. Not sure how much more I can take of it!! Please try to fix it I really want to continue to listen to your podcast.” Another listener wrote in, annoyed that I had been pronouncing white supremacist incorrectly. Apparently, I had been clipping the “a” in supremacist, saying “supremist.” I’ve been accused of having a Southern Californian accent and don’t take it as an insult. I don’t remember the Cantonese word for persimmon but I have a full and complete verbal tic in English that made someone say, “Not sure how much more I can take of it!!” I know what hell is and cuss easily and often in English but couldn’t tell you the last time I said a Cantonese curse word. I still don’t really talk back to my father but I want the ability to be fluent in disobedient daughter with my own words to go along with my behavior.

TThe United States of America has no designated official language but more than half of its states have declared English as its one and only. I went to public schools in California during its infamous English-only curriculum policy that lasted two decades, forcing children of immigrants and immigrant kids to clip a part of our tongues, from the ring of the first school bell to the last. I had been sent to speech therapy, not because I had a diagnosed speech impediment but I suspect because they confused my English deficiency with an inability to speak at all. Nativist fears fueled anti-bilingual feelings and it was so effective that bilingual children like myself began to see English as our very own one and only. I know the names of American presidents but not my own grandparents. We were supposed to be English only at school and Cantonese only at home. My home lost.

I know the names of American presidents but not my own grandparents.

  • the act of rubbing together, the act of wearing or grinding down by friction
  • the act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse, or attack
  • a reduction in numbers usually as a result of resignation, retirement, or death

A scholar of language attrition, Monika Schmid, has written extensively about this specific kind of language loss. Schmid’s research shows how one feels about their native language can greatly influence the attrition. Schmid studied German Jewish refugees who had moved to English-speaking countries, some of whom completely attrited their native German because of the trauma linked to their birthplaces. My own parents speak so little Vietnamese that my mother was unable to ask for the restroom on our flight back to Saigon 27 years after they had fled the country. I had once thought of Cantonese as sounding ugly, a mouthful of hard consonants and droning vowells. Not even the official language of China, where Mandarin Chinese is the national language. Our father had threatened to send us to China during summers when we kept speaking English at home, an empty threat since we could barely afford to vacation in the US. My parents did, however, pay for the Chinese school I resented attending on Saturday mornings, missing the best cartoons of the week. Cantonese, or my lack thereof, felt like a punishment when I was awarded for my English.

In English, I rewrote The Christmas Carol and recasted my sixth grade classmates as the characters in a reimagined version of the Dickens novel. My teacher was so impressed by this feat of creative plagiarism, she sent me to the sixth grade class next door to perform another recitation of my holiday masterpiece. I wrote stories in English because it let me invent whole worlds where I didn’t have to act as a de facto interpreter. Now I write stories in English because I’m incapable of anything else. I earn a living in English, in putting these words together in order to make you feel something. I am a writer and so much of what I am given and so much of what I give is in this language. It is not so much a reclamation as it is a surrender. This language has been used to define me but could I possibly own it?

I had long thought of my learning English as a displacement of Cantonese. For every new thing I learn in English, I lose in Cantonese. A problem of finite mind space and brains having a limited capacity to store a single language. This is incorrect, obviously, since bilingual speakers and polyglots have full and fine lives with no discernable issues with storing other information in their brains. I had thought Cantonese was something I lost, the way children carelessly lose beloved stuffed animals, but that’s inaccurate too. In my case, I had not completely acquired Cantonese — a linguistic arrested development — without a formal education in the language. Could I have forgotten something I never truly had?

Language attrition in immigrant communities is so common and expected that it’s become part of a metric by which we measure our lives in the new country. It is an ordinary fate so saturated in complicated feelings that I was overcome with a kind of equal dispair and hope while speaking with a linguistics professor. Khadij Gharibi explained the latest linguistics development in calling one’s mother tongue a “heritage language” and how many of us are much more proficient in our heritage language than we give ourselves credit. The reframing in calling it one’s heritage language is a way to say that language is more than just vocabulary and grammar, that communication is also based on the culture and customs of that language. She reiterated that it is never too late to learn a new language and that, in fact, I have a head start in learning my abandoned Cantonese. But if our heritage languages are comprised of more than simply words and sentences, that they are made up of who we are as a people, how can I rebuild a culture that has been attrited upon?

The heartbreak and frustration of no longer inhabiting one’s heritage language is not only compounded by the realization that one has succumbed to the empire of American English but made more devastating because, in my story, I have traced my own attrition to feeling as though I never had a real home in my heritage language. I could never be my whole self in Cantonese because I am not my whole self in my parents’ home. Part of the hurt and shame of not embodying one’s heritage language lies in a separate hurt and shame imparted by that very tongue. The absence of Cantonese is not a symptom of the fracture but a consequence of it. There is a yearning, a misplaced nostalgia and sentimentality in thinking that if only I could retrieve this dormant Cantonese then I could mend myself to be a more full version of me. This is the tension of what I want language to do versus what it is actually doing. This is me negotiating what language must do when I have nothing to barter with.

If Cantonese is my heritage language then English is my survival language. If losing one’s heritage language is a death then I am speaking grief in place of Cantonese. If it is a haunting then ghosts are trapped at the back of my throat. This particular mourning is not so much profound as it is seemingly typical and cliche: the child of refugees trapped in a liminal space, seared by a silence. There are infinite words I know in English that I cannot say in Cantonese like tender, forgiveness, devotion. English is an island I was delivered to. English is an island I am stranded on, the ocean around it is Cantonese and I’m unable to swim.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Amy Lam

Written by

Amy Lam

Writer & editor based in Portland, Oregon // byamylam.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Amy Lam

Written by

Amy Lam

Writer & editor based in Portland, Oregon // byamylam.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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