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The Spotlight

"The Spotlight is where we preserve our past, celebrate our present, and encourage our future contributors."

-CSUDH English Graduate Association

  • Writer's picturecsudhega

American Born

By Jennifer Henriquez |

A bland Sunday afternoon. Chinese music plays in my dad’s car stereo. It’s the same cd that he plays whenever I’m in the car with him. I think it’s some mix cd of sorts with different female Chinese singers. Well I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyways. I am not musically inclined, nor do I understand the language. So, I sit quietly as it plays in the background.

But then, I hear him. I hear him singing along with one of the songs. It startles me. But I hear him. He doesn’t sing the whole song. From what I can tell, he only picks up the chorus. But I hear him.

I’m pleasantly surprised that he wants to sing and can sing along to the tune. I don’t know Chinese, and in a way, now that he is older he is his Chinese language.

“She’s American, she should speak English”

That’s what my mom said my dad used to tell her when I asked her why I never learned Chinese.

I guess this makes sense? I mean, I am American, and I do use English to talk with people every day. Still. I still don’t get why he never had a huge urge to speak Chinese with me. Admittedly, I suck at learning languages. I learned Spanish (albeit a broken form of it), but I still learned to understand it.

My mom speaks Spanish at me. “Jennifer!!! Me lo termino todo?” she hollers at me from the living room as I type away on my laptop.

“Yeah!!! Si tu quieres” I answer back loudly from my bedroom.

I speak at her in English and broken informal Spanish.

I thought I spoke Spanish well until high school where I was surrounded by a predominantly Hispanic population. In both culture and in speech, I became aware of how deficient I was at being Hispanic. I have the last name, but not much else of my Salvadoran heritage. Hell—I didn’t have a pupusa until 10th grade. Now I have them too often.

Still—I heard well. Whenever, my mom spoke to me in Spanish I understood her. She didn’t have the English vocabulary to express her feelings, so she told me in Spanish.

“No entiendo que esta pensando. Esta loco o que?” She laments in response to what I tell her regarding when my dad plans to tell his sons about my existence. It turns out that a year wasn’t enough time to let them know. I’m twenty-six, and they’re in their mid-forties. They speak Chinese, and I don’t. She’s upset, and I’m contemplative.

I don’t think in Spanish and my “R’s” don’t always roll the way I need them to when I speak. I have English words. So, when it comes to sharing the profound depths of my emotions in Spanish, I always come up short.

When people speak in Spanish I understand them well. I can understand the nuances in their speech, but it takes me a minute (well, more than a minute) to craft my response in Spanish.

Yet, I understand Spanish. Unlike with Chinese, I haven’t been barred from a culture.

So, why was he so against me learning his native tongue?

As a child, I used to think he didn’t want to teach me Chinese because then I wouldn’t understand the conversations around us when we went to Chinese restaurants and markets.

Is that the maid, or his wife?

How dare he trot around his mistress in public? Does he have no shame?

Are they married?

Whenever we went out for Dim Sum, I was always acutely aware of how strange we looked as a family—a Chinese man, a Hispanic woman, and an Asian-looking daughter.

I felt my difference in contrast to the other Chinese children and families as older Chinese-speaking women with masks about their mouths circled around us pushing their carts of small Chinese breakfast foods.

Chinese conversations would abound all around us as I quietly waited for the food carts to pass by our table, so we could order. I felt deaf. Even though I could hear their conversations, I couldn’t understand them. Their voices blurred and buzzed. A series of Asian-sounding sounds that my English vocabulary couldn’t translate into any discernable speech.

I wanted to understand and to take part in their culture because wasn’t it mine too?

Of course, my mom made it worse, when inevitably, she’d push me to ask for a fork. Ugh.

Didn’t she know that I just wanted to fit in? Didn’t she know that I wanted to hide the fact that even though I look Asian in face, I lack the language?

“O quería preguntar por qué te gusta tanto


I tell her that he was my favorite superhero character when I was a child. She seems surprised, but I tell her that I learned English from television. Specifically, I learned how to speak como los gringos. She seems surprised, but I ask her if she has never noticed that the way I speak English is with a strong American intonation. Even though I grew up with two immigrants for parents, I don’t have a Spanish accent, let alone, a Chinese one.

Actually, I don’t sound like either of my parents. I watched a lot of television growing up. A lot. At first, I used to watch novellas with my mom, but at some point, Spanish news became too boring to watch, so I began to channel surf. I Love Lucy, Batman the Animated Series, Superman the Animated series, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Xena Warrior Princess, Hercules and the Simpsons became some of the many shows I watched religiously on the weekends. The actors and actresses on these shows became the voices I heard on a daily basis. Voices like, Lucille Ball, Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, Melissa Joan Hart, Lucy Lawless, Kevin Sorbro and Dan Castellaneta became the disembodied professors that taught me American colloquialisms, history, and sarcasm. Like a sponge, I soaked up and perpetuated the quirks of their English speaking into my own.

As immigrants, my parents carry the intonations of their native language into their English. Both will make mistakes with their subject-verb agreements. Although neither is an English native speaker, somehow my parents found a way to communicate with each other. In fact, whenever they did speak to one another, they always used the simplest and most clichéd forms of English.

“You…” he greets jokingly.

“You…” she copies in response.

“How are you?” shifting into tones used in formal pleasantries

“I good. You?” she answers shyly, yet confidently.

“Yeah? Yeah, same. Tired” he sheepishly answers.

“Yeah? You work to much man….” She chides.

“Aye, dale…” he humorously responds in Spanish.

When they speak to each other, it sounds crude and loud, but strangely, there’s a sense of comfort that radiates from their conversation. My dad speaks palabras. He picked up a few Spanish words here and there that he uses them to lighten or divert conversations. Like me, my mom never picked up any Chinese.

In fact, my half-brothers wouldn’t have picked up Chinese if it weren’t for their grandmother. According to my mom, my grandmother used to care for my dad’s sons when they were younger. As a result, his sons are a bit estranged from him and his wife.

I met my grandmother once. She seemed nice, but she didn’t speak a lick of English, and I didn’t speak lick of Chinese. I sat there looking dumbly at her as she and my dad shared a conversation. I knew who she was, and I like to think she put it together when she met me that I was her son’s daughter, but I guess, I’ll never know. We smiled at each other like two strangers in an awkward situation.

I’m 26 years old. Way too late to pick up a language and be proficient. I still feel ostracized at Dim Sum restaurants and other Chinese establishments. The buzzing is still there, but I don’t wonder if my Asian brethren notice my illegitimate status.

What I notice now are people my age or younger that are able to order and converse with the staff as the carts make their way through the rows. I notice my dependence on my dad whenever I want to order a specific food item.

I’m jealous. I want to be able to use and speak in my language too.

I have English.

I have some Spanish.

I have nothing from Chinese.


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