By Gena Sysavath
Web Content Contributor
My parents are not from America, but my sister and I are.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Laos. The very first language I ever learned was not English, therefore when I got into school, I was forced into ESL (English as a Second Language) despite being better at it than most kids my age.
The reason? Since my parents could not speak English clearly, the same people who judged them would assume the same from me. I was shy, but I definitely could understand and speak more eloquently if I wanted.
I only spoke to my parents’ mother-tongue, Lao, for most of the first three years of my life. However, since I was born in Texas, they knew that I needed to know English in order to live in America. So, the earliest memories I have of speaking English were from my dad answering all my little curious questions in broken English. I also had the TV on consistently and definitely learned to speak by watching cartoons and the news.
I think the milestone of learning English was when my parents started having me interact with their newly made white friend, who I now claim as an uncle. He was the catalyst for the rest of my early years.
He was the only one I would speak English to. He was the one who got me into books and taught me history. The first person that I can remember telling me that my parents have a hard life and that they are trying to give me a better one.
So, it is sad to say that I no longer feel like I know my culture. I screwed up.
When I was young, my parents had tried to cultivate me and made sure that I knew all the traditions and history that I have rooted in me. I happily would go along with them to all the prayers and temples in order to celebrate things I did not understand. I love almost every “weird” dish my mom and grandmother made.
Yet, as I grew older, I lost touch with my parents. I do not mean that we are no longer speaking, I mean that I lost ways to communicate with them.
I was the one who had to translate everything to my parents and whoever they were speaking to. I was the one who had to sign and read over all the important documents and try to explain everything with limited knowledge. My role was like many other immigrants’ children: to help my parents survive in a country where they do not understand anything.
I can not imagine coming to another country with little to no knowledge of what it is like and much less not knowing the basic etiquette of the language. Everything is put on the line in hopes of creating a better life.
Do you want to know how hard it is to watch your parents struggle because they do not speak the same language? How it is to see adults roll their eyes and speak to them as if they are stupid? What it is like to watch them sigh in relief because they do not have to talk to anyone anymore?
They already left their country because they wanted something better, it is basic decency to try to at least be polite to them when they are obviously trying. I am tired of intolerant people muttering “learn English” or being passive-aggressive because they do not have the brainpower to be patient and nice.
My parents and many others are trying their best to learn English so that they can be accepted in a country where they are not appreciated for the effort. I have been to Laos one time. I was young but it was still fun and exciting. How am I going to talk to my relative back there now?
I am upset. I am upset because during my youth, I refused my parents’ culture. I refused my culture. Why? It did not fit into my life as an American, I was “weird.”
I started to talk back in English and purposely say things that I knew my parents could not understand. I stoped going to all the traditional events my parents wanted me to go to. I forgot words that should have been drilled into me. I do not understand basic Laos etiquettes anymore, I always forget until I see someone else do it.
I let myself forget who I am at the core, both an American and a Laotian. I am not able to speak to my parents correctly anymore. I speak broken Lao. For what? My subpar level of English. I cannot articulate my thoughts in any language.
I would love to pass down the language and culture to my future children and so on, but how am I going to do that if I can’t even remember.
Featured Image by Gena Sysavath