As a child, I never acknowledged my mom’s lack of developed English. In fact, I treated the anomaly as a game for my young self to decipher and put together, like pieces of a puzzle.
It wasn’t until one of my fourth grade classmates mocked her English did I realize that the discrepancies between our grammar and communication was not a code. It was embarrassing. I bowed my head in shame as classmates mocked her accent. I shushed her in public. I spoke for her to avoid any awkward miscommunications. I corrected her when she made simple mistakes. In short, I took her voice.
One summer, my mom brought me back to her hometown in Taiwan. The unsightly roads, the excruciatingly humid weather, and the bloodthirsty mosquitoes made the town seem inhospitable. But, I had never seen my mom happier. She was home.
I, on the other hand, was lost. I thought I was accustomed to speaking Chinese, but I didn’t realize that English had always been there / a crutch if I forgot a word or phrase. I assumed that my Chinese was flawless, but the little I learned in Chinese School proved to be painfully inadequate. Surrounded by frenetic relatives, I was submerged in an ocean of Chinese phrases and jokes. I was drowning in indecipherable cacophony.
Outside, the street was the ultimate shopping center; the place where, decades earlier, my mom bought groceries, school supplies, toiletries, and toys. Each household set up a stand and hawked myriad novelties. Stopping at a booth selling small statues, I wanted to a closer look at the palm-sized bike made of colored straws.
“Wo yao…bike.” Of course, I had slipped English into my Chinese. I apologized to the puzzled vendor. “Bike, bike…” I thought. The three Asian characters had escaped me. My mom came to my rescue, interrupted the conversation, and smoothly bought the small bike before ushering me to another booth.
At first, I was irritated my mom had spoken for me. And then it struck me: I was in her shoes. The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of how I reacted to her linguistic mistakes back home. An indelible sense of guilt remained with me. But rather than wallow in self-pity, I took the first step in atonement: I began to teach my mom basic English grammar within our everyday conversation. Today, we still practice one or two sentences first in Chinese, for me, and then in English, for her, so we can improve together.
With incredible patience, of which I am still in awe of today, my mom accepted my rude comments — for years — with nothing but a hurt blink. The colorful straw bike still sits on my desk as a reflection of what I have learned. As I spin its plastic wheels, it serves as a mirror reminding me to be patient and tolerant, to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and ultimately, to grow as a person.
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