Language: A Retrospective
In a world rich in tongues, I am fluent in none. I have known English my entire life, but I still feel like we are meeting for the first time over and over again, like the distant relative at family dinners whose name I am constantly forgetting. And then I consider Burmese and Mandarin with their familiar cadences, the wordless tune of a childhood lullaby that I recognize without knowing how. I hear, but I cannot listen.
If I could have any superpower, I would like to be the ultimate polyglot. No language unspoken, no language unheard – only pure understanding. It might sound mundane and achievable as a superpower, and you might not even consider it a superpower at all. But just think: having the ability to help every person asking for directions on the MTA, learning about a culture through a medium integral to its heritage, sympathizing with all the people of the world through direct communication – that’s the kind of stuff that ends wars. Name a superpower more heroic than that.
After a moment of static, the screen buzzes into focus with home video graininess and a dated time stamp in the corner. My older brother runs across the screen, laughing in a yellow and blue raincoat, and you can hear my mom laughing back from behind the camera. I waddle into frame a second later, wearing a matching jacket in pink. My cheeks are rosy with exertion, and grin at the camera, striking a pose. I was a wild-child diva before I melted into adolescent shyness, always following my brother and trying to do everything he did. I turn around just in time to see him nearly trip over a rock, gasping.
Me from a decade later also gasps, but for a different reason. I point at the TV in astonishment, turning to my mom.
“Did you hear what I just said?”
My mom affirms, “You were talking to Thomas in Chinese!”
“It sounded really good!”
“You used to speak Chinese and Burmese all the time when you were little, but then your father and I started speaking to you in English more. We were afraid you might be held back in school if you didn’t speak English well.”
“And now Thomas and I can only speak English,” I say, a little wistful as I watch young me twirl around in the playground.
“Yeah,” my mom muses. “You guys became too American.”
It’s seventh grade. I’m scrutinizing the lyrics of a K-pop song and painstakingly copying out the characters, categorizing the consonants and vowels in my head as I write. The square character makes an “m” sound, the circle character with the two lines makes an “h” sound, the vertical line makes an “i” sound…
My mom looks over my shoulder at what I’m doing and rolls her eyes at me. Or at least I think she does, from the exasperation in her voice.
“Thamee, if you like learning languages, you should learn Chinese! Listen to some C-pop!”
In my defense, I do try. Well, a little. I listen to Teresa Teng and Jay Chou on my shitty Internet connection. It means little to me that I understand some of the phrases, more to me that the beats are a little too old-school and the melody too tacky for my tastes. I return to my K-pop jam, nodding my head as I repeat the half-formed Korean lyrics under my breath. Keo-jit-mal,거짓말. beginning with the character that makes a hard “k” sound…
My grandpa’s funeral falls on finals week, the day of my Death and Bereavement final. It’s ironic in a morbid kind of way – an ultimate, real-life capstone presentation to conclude a term discussing death and dying, a term rushing between Elmhurst Hospital and NYHQ on the weekends. I take the train to the funeral home half an hour after bubbling in the final multiple choice answer, and I get lost no fewer than three times while trying to navigate Chinatown in the middle of the frigid midwinter night. It’s an intimately lonely experience, surrounded by the urban bustle. Everyone headed to some loved one or another. Me, headed to a loved one lost.
When I arrive, all my aunts are there, dressed in matching black outfits with tissues brimming from their purses. My grandma pats my back as I sit down, the unspoken body language filling the space of the silence that separates us. Her eyes are dry, and she pats my leg in a familiar gesture that brings me back to childhood Saturdays at family dinners. I feel oddly numb, like I’m not as sad as I should be and not as unaffected as I worried I might be.
My brother is here, looking unruffled, and my dad also. Even my cousin from Nebraska is here, a quasi-black sheep of the family out of his refusal to take the trodden career path or the conventional marriage. He was always one of my favorite cousins – charismatic, unstoppable, and impossibly cool. He used to stay in our basement during his summer breaks from Tufts, and I remember hazy summers with him filled with video games and rollerblading. His long hair is tied back neatly, and his eyes crinkle when he sees me, mouthing, Little Monica! I smile. No matter how old I get, I’ll always be little to him.
His mother – my eldest aunt – goes up to speak, her voice hoarse.
A wave of sadness passes over me, and a familiar heat builds up behind my eyeballs. Oh no. I try to keep from blinking, eyes wide as I let the tears blur my vision and tilt my head back slightly to keep them from falling. For some reason, I feel embarrassed to cry even though that’s exactly what funerals are for, betrayed by this emotion that has overcome me without warning.
Then, all of a sudden, I hear a noisy sniffle beside me. It’s my cousin.
I flashback to my grandpa offering my cousin beer over the dinner table, reaching out with his self-taught English and vibrant personality. My grandpa watched my cousin grow up through girlfriends and universities and workplaces, and welcomed his step-granddaughter with orange juice and red bean ice-cream in the freezer. He probably shared moments with my cousin that I couldn’t even imagine, probably engaged him in his infamously long conversations over chess matches and hot tea. Not much for chess, I only sat through one of these hour-long conversations with my grandpa, and I remember snippets of it then – him explaining Japanese participles, calling out to my mom exasperatedly in Burmese, speaking to me in English despite my grandma’s protests. He really was a brilliant man, a lot world-wise from all the revolutions he lived through and a little too stubborn for his own good.
I let my tears spill over, little droplets impacting on the indistinct linoleum. I meet my cousin’s red-rimmed eyes and we both quirk our lips at our combined outburst, laughing quietly.
My brother turns to me incredulously, and I shrug. I don’t get it either. But in Death and Bereavement, we learned that laughing at a funeral is a good sign. It means that we’re set for recovery past our initial grief, and it means that we’ll get through this difficulty just fine.
Deaf West Spring Awakening on Broadway blows my mind. The cast consists of deaf performers who sign alongside hearing singers, orchestrated with impeccable timing and careful teamwork. Even without hearing, the deaf actors seem larger than life with large gestures and expressive movements. Austin Mckenzie, one of the lead actors, sings like an angel and signs like it’s a natural extension of his body. I feel ashamed, thinking about the ASL alphabet I selfishly learned in middle school just to sign to my friends behind my teacher’s back, spelling out letters one by one and thinking “real” sign language was too hard. I pick up sign language again in my extensive hours procrastinating on homework.
That summer, I find myself volunteering at the pharmacy of a speciality hospital focused on elderly patients with special needs. A group of volunteers there keeps to themselves, and I realize why when I see the words Gallaudet University printed on one of their hoodies. My brain fills in the blanks; Gallaudet University for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, something I recall from binge-watching America’s Next Top Model as Nyle DiMarco‘s alma mater. They sign to each other, hands a flurry of movement and expressions fluid on their faces. I try to read their signing from the corner of my eye, not wanting to be seen as a creep or a jerk.
Later, one of the deaf volunteers takes my ID photo for the hospital. After I get my picture taken, before I can second-guess myself, I make eye contact and bring my palm down from my mouth: Thank you. The boy smiles back and nods.
“Just a word of advice? If you have access to a language other than English, learn it.”
The cardiology fellow smiles at me as we make our way down the back staircase to the ER.
“As people from immigrant families, one of the advantages we get over the more privileged medical students who come from prestigious universities is speaking a language other than English. I’m from Pakistan – I speak Urdu. Sure, we have all these fancy translation services sponsored by the hospital, but there’s nothing like face-to-face communication and old-fashioned eye contact. And trust me, when you get to be a medical student, you won’t have time to pick up a new language.”
“I can kinda speak Burmese,” I say contemplatively. “Would that even be useful?”
The fellow grins, “If you’re planning to stay in New York City, especially here in Queens? Definitely. I’m just saying, don’t take your background for granted. There’s no downside to knowing another language in health care.”
I think about the awkward wait while dialing the telephone translator, the pinched expression on patients’ faces as they repeat their complaints into the phone and wait to hear an accurate retelling of their words in a familiar language. I think about the daughter of an elderly Burmese patient in the ICU, surprise flitting over her features when I extend a friendly, Nay kaung lar?
I think about the time I spent in pediatrics, listening to the doctor speak to the Colombian girl who came in for vaccinations. The pediatrician had asked, Cómo se siente hoy, bonita? She nodded her head to the rapid-fire answer with ease, typing in electronic medical notes. The mother turned to me for a second, a question in her eyes.
“Entiendo más que puedo hablar,” I admitted sheepishly.
Her eyes sparkled in delight.
“Ya es un buen comienzo!”