Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay on her difficulties with the English language while growing up hit a special cord with me. I can relate to several of the problems she encountered while struggling to learn English. My story is similar but not in the way you would think. I will explain.

I was not born in another country like Ms. Kingston. I did not come here as a small child forced to become accustomed to a new culture. I was born here. I grew up American. I was reared on apple pie, TV dinners and baseball. Obviously, I had no problem with English. It’s my first language. Growing up I never felt out of place, or practice silence for survival’s sake like Ms. Kingston. So, you may ask, then why choose this topic rather than one of the other’s offered to write this essay?

I had a very similar experience to Ms. Kingston’s. In fact I related to what she said in a very personal way. While reading her essay, several times I caught myself with a faint smile on my face as I was nodding in agreement remembering my own time of “silence.” Mine came not as a child but as an adult. Like Ms. Kingston however, it was due to the struggle of learning a second language, hating what I sounded like when I spoke, and frustrated I could not articulate in a fluent manner. I was a grown man with a business of my own and moving through life with a minimal amount of trouble.

Then, I married Adriana, a Mexican national. When we first met she preferred that we communicate in her tongue. I had no problem with that as I saw it as an opportunity to improve three years of high school Spanish, long since relegated to the unimportant file in my mind. If I did get stuck we could always use English. Or, as a last resort refer to the dictionary. In time, my proficiency improved but never to the level I would have liked. After we were married we naturally began to use more English than Spanish. That was inevitable because with time and some “English as a second language” classes her English surpassed my Spanish. The necessity of communication forced us to use more English. That was fine. I could live with all that. Even when we spoke Spanish, and at times we still do, I was never self-conscious about it. I knew if I needed help through a difficult word or phrase my wife would be there to lovingly correct me. But, what about the rest of the world? What about the country of Mexico? After all she was from there. All of her family was there.

I remember the first anxiety attack I had when I realized that by marrying a Mexican citizen I had inherited a huge Mexican family. I sometimes joke that I think she is related to half of Mexico. And, as it happens most of them do not speak English. My immediate in-laws, Swegros in Spanish, are great people. I love them. My mother-in-law comes to the United States every year during the summer to help us out with our children. My father-in-Law, is a stoically proud Mexican citizen whose highest concerns in life are his family. The last years of his invalid mother’s life he took care of her in his home rather than put her in an institution. An act of great love and devotion I thought. I have two first rate brother-in-laws. One who is a medical doctor and makes a lot of money. However, he is so unpretentious you would never know it. He possesses that rare quality of balancing pragmatism and compassion in his life. I feel fortunate to be in the same family with him. The other is a vibrant, intelligent personality who never lets the adversities of life bring him down. In the last two years he lost a baby in childbirth, had major business setbacks, cars stolen, and recently underwent serious back surgery. Yet, through it all, he maintains a beautiful outlook on life. His emotional strength, which I do not possess, I can only admire. With so many of these first rate qualities in one family, it was imperative that we communicate fully with one another. They didn’t speak a word of English and still don’t.

The first few times I went to Mexico, I experienced culture shock. The necessity of carrying on a conversation with my family, watching television, listening to the radio, or buying the newspaper from the vendor on the street corner were all part of my emersion into Mexican culture.  My proficiency level of Spanish was not all that bad. I knew enough to slowly make my way through  society. I could carry on a conversation with some of Adriana’s relatives and friends. However, once the conversation became too deep or technical I would get lost. I would grope in the dark for the right words. It is a highly frustrating experience to know what to say but not know how to say it.  I understood Ms. Kingston’s frustration and the meaning of her drawing everything in black when she was a child. For me the problem became more acute when I was tired. I needed to concentrate on the conversation if I was to keep up with it. How do you explain to people that fatigue is the reason why you cannot socialize, not because you find them boring or uninteresting? I think I would rather remain silent instead of having to deal with the pressure. I understand perfectly why Ms. Kingston chose just not to talk. It is safer; more secure; it prevents people from talking to you. It allows you the protection of not having to respond and not revealing the embarrassment of not understanding.  As long as I stayed behind that wall of black, I was safe.

The first night of my first trip to Mexico, the family invited some people for dinner, one of whom was an uncle who spoke English with only a very faint accent. It was obvious that they invited him only to make me feel a little more comfortable. It had the opposite effect. The feeling I had was more like humiliation. I did not enjoy speaking English in a home where no one else could understand what I was saying except Tio Jorge, or Uncle George, as he prefers me to call him today.  A comical moment in my life, if it hadn’t been so uncomfortable it might have been funny. George engaged me in conversation and acted as translator while we men sat in the living room sipping “high balls” and discussing the things men talk about; football, baseball, bullfighting and politics. There we were, the three of us, Senior Cuellar, my future father-in-law, Uncle George and me. The women, about fifteen of them all chatting in the kitchen preparing the meal. I know George was only trying to help but I could not get past it.  We would speak for a minute in English obviously leaving out Senior Cuellar. Then, Uncle George would translate to him.  I know, you are probably saying so what? It is good you had someone there who could make the conversation meaningful by letting him or me know exactly what was said. I didn’t think of it that way. I was in a Mexican home in a Spanish speaking country. I felt obligated to have enough respect for Adriana’s family, and for that matter all of the people of Mexico to speak their language when I was in their country. It was not as if I could not speak at all. I had three years of it in school. I was in love with a woman who spoke the language and preferred it as our method of communicating. Even if it was a “pigeon” Spanish I owed it to them to attempt it. I eventually gave up trying that night and resorted to Ms Kingston’s brand of silence for protection. I spent the whole rest of the evening behind a wall of black.

I can remember another trip where once again people were bombarding me with questions. I’m sure their only motive was to get to know me better. We were once again having dinner at my in-laws. They do these dinners a lot. Especially when people are there from out of town. Relatives and family friends were firing questions at me a mile a minute. I was holding my own pretty good. However, I could not hold it indefinitely. I got flustered, lost my train of thought, and literally stopped talking. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I think I asked Adriana in English to finish my thought, so at least I didn’t leave them in mid sentence. I felt relieved. No one asked me anything else. I was in the clear, at least for the moment. I sat for the most part silently, in my own world, for the next two hours, protected by that wall of black, which no one could penetrate. It was not the friendliest way to go, but at least I was safe.

I had a lot of these moments when I would just stop talking. It was easier that way. Another time my own wife mimicked something I said and was immediately waved off by her mother. Every one sitting at the table knew I had not said the right thing. What I had said was funny. I was a clown. I could not stand to being thought of like that. Silence rolled over my being like a blanket, covering me like the early morning fog in Steinbeck’s valley. I would rather go the rest of the trip without saying anything important in Spanish than run the risk of that humiliation again.

The incidents I mentioned so far all happened with family and close friends. However, they were not all like that. One incident stands out in my mind. We were in Acapulco. My wife was living there while we were courting. We went to a restaurant for dinner. A beautiful place, located on the road to Las Brisas, built with large tree timbers and little else; No doors, no windows, no ceiling. The openness allows for a wonderful ambiance, the soft tropical breeze, the equatorial night sky with millions of stars and soft Latin jazz permeating the background. We were looking forward to spending a romantic evening and retiring early. I should have known better than to attempt my feeble Spanish with these waiters. This was not Mexico City. Acapulco caters to many Canadian, American, German and Japanese tourists. The main language spoken in restaurants and hotels in Acapulco is English.  Unless you are a native, of which the workers of Acapulco can tell right off, you had better not try your hand at Spanish. However, I was not thinking. My fiancée and I were speaking Spanish casually all day. This was how we conversed normally as I had mentioned earlier in this piece. Without thinking I began to order in Spanish and the waiter very smugly said to me with a big smile on his face, “ Sir, I t’ink it is goo-od for you to try to ‘peek ‘panish but I t’ink it is easier if you ‘peek English.” I was humiliated. It was enough for me to consider never speaking Spanish again. We had to leave the restaurant. If I had been a little less upset I would have told him why I was leaving. When a foreigner is trying the best he can to speak the language of your country the least you could do is to act like you appreciate it. But, I didn’t say anything. I was so upset I was afraid I might do something other than just tell him. I didn’t want to embarrass Adriana. I carried the bitterness of that scene with me at least for the rest of the trip.

Don’t get me wrong. Except for that unfortunate waiter in Acapulco, their poking fun at me was entirely playful. There was no maliciousness in it. I am sure if they knew how much it had embarrassed me, they wouldn’t have done it. However, when they did, it drove me into that cocoon of security, of silence, protected by that wall of black. Like Ms. Kingston I reveled in that place. I felt it was easier to keep quiet, than to risk saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or worse, say something that sounded funny so people would laugh at me. This brought down the wrath of my wife. She was livid that I would be so disrespectful as Mexican society places so much value on respect for one another. I was falling deeper and deeper into this quagmire. In subsequent trips I brought books to read so when the family was downstairs laughing and enjoying life, I was upstairs burying myself in my book so I could keep my silence.  It began to put a strain on my marriage.

That was six years ago. Now, after so many years of being part of this family I no longer feel inhibited to speak to my in-laws. Oh, I still make mistakes. Sometimes I do not understand my mother-in-law on the phone but it’s ok. She says the phrase several times until I get it. I am patient. So are they. We have all learned to be respectful of each other’s shortcomings. When they come to the U.S., they have the same problem that I have when I go to Mexico. Of course my Spanish has improved somewhat the last few years. My wife, who never compliments me on my speech, remarked the last time we were there how well I seem to be getting along with my Spanish.  I still wish I was more fluent than I am but I will live with the improvements I have made and strive to continue them in the future.

Jewish community examiner

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