The beginnings of a storyteller

How I was raised telling my parents’ stories

wanly
The Spectrum

I remember when I was in elementary school and performed in yearly school plays. I would hand my mom the pamphlets and she would mark down the dates and times. I didn’t expect her to come because the plays were in English, but I always saw her in the back row supporting me.

When I was in high school, my dad was studying to become a U.S. citizen. We gave him our old notebooks and pens and helped him practice his writing and speaking. He memorized the answers, and he passed. But to this day, it’s the only English he knows.

My high school teacher scolded me for having parents who didn’t know English. I remember feeling embarrassed by it. My parents have been here for over 30 years, I thought they should be fluent in English by now.

But growing up, I barely saw my father because he would work twelve-hour days, and my mom stayed home taking care of my autistic brother and raising four other children, including myself.

They just didn’t have the time to learn English.

When we were old enough, my sisters and I took turns going to parent-teacher conferences to translate for my mom. To my mother’s surprise, the teachers never said anything bad about my siblings’ or my behavior; I guess some things do get lost in translation.

We read the train maps and brought our parents from Queens to Brooklyn to get registered for healthcare and schools. My parents would smile embarrassingly as they watched their 11-year-old daughter try to understand and translate complicated policies.

I was raised not to cause any trouble to avoid bringing attention to my family. I was the shy and quiet girl in every classroom and was put into the English as a second language class until second grade because the school administration thought I didn’t know English.

But I did - I was taught English since I was one. What I learned was mainly by listening.

My parents were underpaid, underestimated and harassed as immigrants in America. I grew up hearing insults and slurs thrown at them. I didn’t understand what the words meant, but I recognized the animosity in their voices.

When my brother came home one day with bruises and cuts on his arms, my mother didn’t know what to do because she just didn’t know who to call for help. How could she express her anger when she would only be mocked for speaking in her language?

That day, I knew my role in the family wasn’t just the daughter but the educator and communicator.

The ability to understand and speak English is powerful in my house because it allows us children to protect our parents. We translated what my parents said in Chinese to English for the reports we filed against the school.

For me, English is not my first language: it’s my third. But the stories I write are in English because it’s the only language I know how to write in.

I remember writing the article of the new Asian market in Buffalo for The Spectrum. But before I went to cover the opening, I looked at all the articles written on it by other news sources. The owner’s broken English was prevalent in the coverage I read, but I knew I could tell this story properly with my background in Chinese.

The story’s coverage resonates with me because I finally understood the importance of being multilingual. In America, we pride ourselves on speaking English and people who don’t are shamed and seen as less intelligent. I interviewed the owner in Chinese, to give him the opportunity to fluently say what he wanted.

It’s why my next step is to continue my education in China upon graduation – to continue bridging the gap between the Chinese community and American media. For four years, I will be learning how to read and write in my native language, while learning how to speak Mandarin.

The missing stories of my community are lost because of our communities’ inability to understand one another. The stories are out there, but the voices are not.

My parents will come watch me walk for graduation on the 20th and they will only understand my name. They won’t be able to read this piece, but I want them to know their struggles were not forgotten.

I’m honored to be able to translate and share the stories of the Chinese community wherever I go. I want to help be their storyteller and teach others that their silence doesn’t mean they are invisible.

It’s the role I’ve played since I was a child, and it’s a role that I feel responsible to continue in.

Wanly Chen is an assistant features editor and can be reached at wanly.chen@ubspectrum.com and @Wanly_Chen.