The thing about being a first-generation immigrant is that I’m a bit whitewashed. I’m aware of my Indian heritage, and I engage in cultural practices reasonably often, but when I go to India, I can’t connect with my relatives in the same way that my parents can. I assume that this is due to my broken Kannada (yes, it’s a shame I can’t fluently speak my mother’s tongue, I’m aware, thanks to the thousands of lectures from my dad).
Despite being widely spoken in Karnataka, the seventh-largest state in India, learning Kannada here in the Bay Area has presented itself as a challenging task. When I happen to mention the language at gatherings or to friends, I get the same ‘Kanna-what?’ reaction that makes me quickly sink under the sub-radar, forgetting it ever happened.
It’s not that I haven’t attempted to learn, but school, dance, books, and television all distract away from a third language. Similarly, my grandparents haven’t learned to speak English very well. And that, of course, is not their fault at all. It’s my responsibility to maintain a connection with my culture and family.
However, it does make the situation more complicated.
So, when my dad gets a call from India, I can’t help but feel afraid.
Afraid to talk to my grandparents.
Scared to have a simple conversation with the people that I love.
Afraid to speak!
A conversation with my grandparents over the phone entails a lot of “What?” “Huh?” and “Howdu,” one of the few words that I know in Kannada. I can understand what they say perfectly fine, but when I opened my mouth to respond, it feels like I’m an alien–unable to relate to them–because I can’t speak their language, my language.
As a resident of the Bay Area, a place with many first gen-immigrants, this is something that my friends deal with as well.
One of my best friends, a part Russian and part Japanese, has experienced the same issue when it comes to speaking with her Japanese relatives. She can’t speak Japanese well, and her grandparents do not speak English. When I asked her how she felt when communicating with her grandmother, she confessed this: “sometimes it felt frustrating because I don’t think I’ve ever had a full conversation with her without misinterpreting what she said:
” I felt this in my core, and it hurts to know that other people are unable to connect with those that they love due to such language barriers. My friend also revealed to me that she felt more
disconnected from her Japanese culture since she wasn’t able to communicate properly with such a large number of people.
On the other side of this barrier, my friend Jennifer Lee, or Sze Wai Lee, moved from Hong Kong to America in 2017. At the time, she was fluent in Cantonese but didn’t know much English and, as a result of this, felt afraid to speak.
Her cousins spoke English exclusively. When she first attempted to converse with them, she recalls feeling “scared and awkward, because they had a completely different culture and [she’s] never spoken to them before.”
It’s fascinating how on both sides of this language barrier, we feel the same way.
But somewhere in between the broken words and awkward pauses–hidden behind my smile that cracks impossible to pin-down-to-a-native region features–there is true love and pride for the culture and history of my ancestors. And I know that despite this mutual feeling of alienation, our efforts to connect means something: we will not lose touch. Sometimes language is not necessary to show a family member that you love them.
Sometimes, you can be understood without having to say anything.
High school junior at Adrian Wilcox High School, Santa Clara.
She is a regular blog contributor at VoicED. In her spare time Amitha writes short stories, fiction, and other prose.
You can reach Amitha for questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org