You pay a price growing up in the states. Word by word, it rolls off of your tongue and is replaced by unfamiliar English vocabulary. You don’t really care at first because your ignorant six year old brain is mesmerized by the foreign country, people, school, friends, and language. And then, people begin to ask, what makes you who you are. So you start asking yourself this very question. By now, you have begun to observe your surroundings and inquire what influences your identity. The first things that pop into your head are the most obvious: where you were born, the language your family speaks, the food you eat, and the traditions or rituals your family has. This all connects back to your roots and culture.
I was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I currently reside halfway across the world in Philadelphia. I immigrated to America when I was six years old. Coming here, I only knew how to speak Khmer, my native language. I enrolled into first grade at a school with a great English as a Second Language (ESL) program. There were many others like me who were still learning to speak English, so I don’t remember ever being called out for it. The teachers were wonderful and patient. It wasn’t long before my English improved drastically. Within roughly one year, I was already fluent in the language. I remember receiving the most medals in the second grade. You probably would think that I still carry a Southeast-Asian accent, but since I was taught English at such an early age, the distinct accent never stuck with me like it did to my parents. Even now, they are only able to speak broken English.
It was at this time that I started bringing the language home. I started using it more and more often with my two older siblings because it grew awkward to speak to each other in our own language. I think the reason for this was because many of the words are more polite and respectful in our language. For example, in English, I can address myself as I and I can address someone else as you. However, that would not be the same in Khmer because we would have to address someone based on their age to show respect to the elders and other factors like their relationship to you or if they have married. Before I knew it, I was communicating with my parents in English. Surely, they did not understand what I said most of the time.
“[Why are you home so late?]” my mom questioned as I shut the door behind me. “I volunteered to help with decorating for the Valentine’s Dance,” I replied completely in English. “[Where did you go?]” my mom inquired. I let out a brief sigh and mumbled, “Nevermind.” She clearly didn’t understand what I had just said. Obviously, I was at school decorating. Then, for the billionth time, I fled upstairs to my room.
I used to wish for my parents to know how to speak English like all the other parents. Having to repeat myself in Khmer, fill out paperwork, make phone calls, translate, spell out words, and read mail for them on a daily basis is such a pain. I would always scowl when being asked to complete one of those tasks. Noticing my facial expression, my dad would usually say, “[If I knew how to do it, I would do it myself, I wouldn’t be asking you to do it for me.]”
Inevitably, I grew up since then and have matured. My school takes pride in students’ cultures which explains their name: Folk Arts Cuktural Treasures Charter School. We had many electives and ensembles that teaches dance and music from all over the world which made me gradually realize how important my language and culture is to me.
“It is embarrassing that I don’t know how to speak English. Other people look down on that, but what can I do. It’s too late for me to go to school and I have to go to work to take care of you kids. I choose to speak Khmer at home, so that you kids won’t forget our language. All of these other kids come to this country and they forget where they come from. They don’t see until its too late that being able to speak another language or follow different traditions makes them special. “