Talking Past Each Other

I am a woman, and I am a person of color. In short, I am a woman of color. More specifically, I am a Chinese American woman, living in New York, who lived in Michigan for four years for college, and who spent years during childhood living in Taiwan and Malaysia and Boston.

So, I’ve seen a lot of different cultures and lifestyles. I’ve seen many different people, and the nuances between them from region to region, even within one country. I’ve heard many different languages.

Of all the things I just listed, language is the most significant. It brings people together; it drives them apart. It is a hurdle to integration; it is the easiest way to blend in.

Language defines the human experience.

Indeed, my own history is marked by my experiences with language. Despite being born in New York, I learned Mandarin before English, since I lived in Taiwan. I then moved to Malaysia with my aunt to learn English, and then returned to New York to start school. (Fun fact: I came back with an English accent, having learned English in an international school. Sadly, I lost the accent as I grew older.)

One summer in middle school, I visited my grandparents in Taiwan. I heard about a model on TV, and found out that she also could speak English. I remarked that she must be smart, to which my aunt replied that knowledge of English by itself was no indicator of intelligence. I revised my statement to reflect my true meaning: that she must be smart to know more than one language. But it wasn’t until later that I realized the gravity of what I appeared to be saying.

The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I spent a week at a summer program learning (and arguing vehemently against), ahem, different political views. This program was held at Bryn Mawr, and during our free afternoon, some “camp friends” and I drove into Philadelphia, aching to try some of those famous cheesesteaks.

We settled on Geno’s. (Here’s the food part: the cheesesteaks were fine, but not worth the hype. And I reached this conclusion independent of any potential racism.)

Geno’s bore a famous sign that read: “This is AMERICA. When ordering, speak English!” Considering that the walls were covered — absolutely plastered — with pictures of the owner with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Glen Beck, that sign was not surprising in the slightest. But it nevertheless demonstrated a feeling of separating “those who belonged” from “the others.”

I speak fluent English, but I was still offended by the sign. Language defines the human experience, and language cannot be separated from race. There is a reason that when I walked into shops in London, the Chinese salesladies approached me first, and not the others. There is a reason people who look like me, without being asked about their backgrounds, are told that they speak “really good English.”

That reason is because people who look like me are still seen as “the other.” Our speaking English must not, cannot, be inherent. It must have been acquired. Because only the people who look like “traditional America” can be native English speakers.

And despite the fact that our language skills must have been acquired, there is still an expectation that those language skills be perfect. It is an odd paradox. If being non-white and speaking good English is shocking and worthy of praise, then one would assume that imperfect English would be the expected norm. And when that norm does play out — that people cannot speak English well and prefer their native tongue — that, too, is unacceptable.

This puzzling dichotomy ties together with the pervading attitude linking English fluency with superiority. This view is not limited to Americans or to Caucasians. A family friend in Malaysia went on a trip to Korea and were utterly dismayed and shocked and livid that shopkeepers and policemen and residents were not fluent in English and able to help her along.

But regardless of who shares these views and where they show up, they inevitably bring a lack of understanding as to how or why someone might not be fluent in English.

I sat across from a man at a Japanese restaurant who kept insisting on ordering something that the menu did not offer. When the server (who did not speak English fluently) kept explaining that his order was not possible, he finally told her that she was wrong and demanded, “Get me someone who can actually speak English.”

On one hand, it is understandably easier to converse or make requests from someone who understands you and who you understand. But convenience is no excuse for rudeness. Set aside for the moment that he was demanding a menu item revision that was not offered. Focus on just the end of their interaction.

A man fluent in English argues with a woman not fluent in English. She denies his request, and he insists that she cannot be correct. And then he tells her to bring him a server who can speak English. The implication is that the hypothetical server with better English would undoubtedly be able to give him the correct (read: satisfactory) information. Language alone acted as an indicator of competence and skill in the trade.

To say that this rude exchange was insulting to the waitress is an understatement. Those comments would be abhorrent no matter who  was the target. Any calls to “speak English” or “learn our language” are ugly sentiments. They betray the myopic view that there is only one proper way to function in our richly diverse nation. They betray the discriminatory notion that there is only one language at the zenith of the mountain that is civilization, and that all others ought to be relegated to second-class status.  They betray the completely erroneous and offensively inappropriate idea that there is some correlation between knowledge of English and knowledge in general.

I often complain about the difficulties of law school (the work! the cold calls! the exams!). But I have a major advantage: I am only dealing with law school.

International students must hone their English proficiency while wrestling with complex doctrine that confounds even native speakers and legal scholars.

My own mother came to New York to earn her MBA when she was not yet fluent in English. She adapted to a new and foreign land, practiced her English…and graduated at the top of her class.

My grandfather came to the United States as a young man with a young family, with only some English education. But he had to continue practicing and getting used to speaking English constantly, while he worked in private and public sectors and supported his family.

Waiters and waitresses in restaurants are already working long hours to make ends meet, perhaps working multiple jobs. And they are doing that while listening to customer after customer rattle off orders in a language they are still learning. Sometimes these customers ask for complicated substitutions or replacements. And the waiters and waitresses have no room for error in this trial-by-fire English environment, because they will face the wrath of their customers if the orders do not come out perfectly.

So next time you meet someone who is struggling with their English — or any other second language — do not mock them or laugh at them or be frustrated at them. Instead, be in awe of them.

Because they are doing someone so very few of us can ever dare ourselves to do.


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