Elizabeth Gomez: My Life as an Engrish to English Translator

EG GirlUnder my covers, I laid in my dark room listening. I could hear her yelling, but being only 9 years old, I wasn’t sure what I could do. We’d been here before, my mother and I. She was struggling, screaming. I pulled the covers over me tighter, “Riiiiiiiisa!!!! Riiiiiiiisa!!! You come here, Risa!”

My eyes widened as I left my sanctuary and I slumped into the kitchen. She stood there in her polyester bathrobe with a brown phone dangling in her hand. A sense of embarrassment flushed over me because I knew what I had to do, “Yes, Mom?”

“You! You speakie to him,” my mother said in her Korean accent.

“To who?”

“To this man! He no understanding me.”

Reluctantly, I took the phone from my mother’s hand, “Hello?”

“Hi, Ma’am, I’m trying to get the account number from your mother so we can help her. Can you get that for me?”

“Mom, can I have the account number?”

“You terr him, it sex-sex-jero-four-eighty-sex.”

“It’s 6-6-0-4-8-6.”

I could hear my mother complaining to herself about why Americans couldn’t understand her after being in this country for over a decade. Heat rose in my cheeks as I watched my mom pace in the kitchen becoming angrier and angrier. Her small Asian frame seem to blow up and round out like a monster from Where the Wild Things Are.

After completing the call, I hung up the phone and turned to the heaving lady demon who started to slowly morph back to my 4’ something mother, “He no understanding me? Why? I speakey good Engrish.”

I watched my mother’s eyes glaze over with worry and shame. Quietly, I held her hand and sat with her at our kitchen table. I could see her body filling up with self-doubt. At that moment, I was determined that I would never again hide from her and resigned to the fact that I would forever be her Engrish to English translator.

My parents met in Seoul, Korea. They married and had two children. My mother spent most of her years traveling the world and very little of it in the states by the time my father left us. When my father was out of town for training missions or other duty like things, my mother would have to figure out how to get along without him.

I’d find myself in situations where I would watch my mother talking to a salesperson. It was like watching an episode of Charlie Brown when the teacher was speaking. I could hear muffled voices and would stare intensely as my mother’s hands would move wildly. Eventually, my concentration would be broken when I heard, “RISA!!!!!!”

“You terr her I want buy fridgey.”

“She wants to buy a fridge.”

“RISA! You terr him, I rook for Browning street.”

“Can you tell us how to get to Brown Street?”

“RISA! Terr him too much expenses.”

“She says it’s too much money.”

I never understood why my mother named me Elizabeth since she never has been able to pronounce it. Eventually she started calling me Lisa, which she also could not pronounce.

School conferences were the worst. Watching my mother talk to my well-educated and articulate teachers was petrifying and humiliating. They didn’t understand her and we all knew it. I’d watch my teachers stare at my mother with plastered smiles, nodding their heads as she gesticulated what she was trying to say, which ultimately was, “Risa, she so razy.”

When my friends would come over, I would shrink under the table as my mother would pinch them and exclaim, “Why you so fat?!” Each friend would be more horrified than the other, leaving me wondering if I’d ever be able to maintain a friendship beyond the first visit to my house. So, I stopped inviting kids over and accepted life as the town recluse with the rude mother.

Late one night, I heard my mom arguing with someone. It was my father’s current girlfriend. I dropped my blankets and walked to the wall that separated my room from my mom’s. I could hear her sobbing and asking this woman to “Prease, go way. We have kids.”

My heart pounded in my chest and I listened to her begging this stranger to let my father go so he could come back home. I hated my father and, up until this point, I was sure I didn’t like my mother much either. I heard her hang up the phone. In the silence, the muffled sound of tears and heaving coming through the wall. I pressed my head harder against it hoping she could feel me with her. I wanted to run into the room and hold her, instead, I listened to her pain until I fell asleep.

A few weeks later, after months of not seeing my father, he picked up my brother and me to visit my grandmother in New York City. I was surprised to see him and even more surprised to be leaving with him.

“You takey care of Ab-e. You be good for you daddy, ok?” My mother said to me with water welling in her eyes.

“But, I don’t want to go.”

“You go”

During our drive up there, my father pulled over at a rest station. He was talking to someone on the phone. I watched suspiciously as he came toward our car and asked me to get out because he wanted me to talk to this someone.

I hesitated before I stepped into the phone booth, “Hello?”

“Hi, Elizabeth, this is Jane. Your father’s friend. How are you?”

The anguish that I had been carrying for my mother and the loss of my father came rushing at me. My heart started beating rapidly. My palms began to sweat. I grabbed the phone with both hands and my ears started burning, “You’re not his friend, you’re his girlfriend. You broke up our family. You hurt my mother. You better not call my house again. I hate you.”

I ran to the car and slammed the door shut while my father fumbled with the phone spewing apologies. When he returned, he smacked my face and gave me a long speech about something or another, I didn’t pay much attention. In my mind, I knew I had communicated the words my mother so strongly wanted to say to Jane and in some small way, I scored a point for her.

When we returned from the trip, I heard my parents arguing about what had occurred and what the kids did or didn’t know. I expected that when my mother came in that I would be spanked because I had been disrespectful to my father. Instead, I watched her as she walked into the kitchen. Her eyes were bloodshot and mascara tears were dried on her cheeks. She made me a bowl of ramen noodle soup, gave me a soft smile, and moved quietly into her room.

As an adult, I still translate for my mom, especially when my own family goes to visit her. While, we still can’t get use to the idea that “You’re so fat” means “Let me make you something to eat?”, we have found a way to communicate through laughter, hand gestures, and knowing glances. So, when she asks why my husband and I haven’t bought a condom, we know she means condo.

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92 Comments

  1. Been married over twenty to an Asian whose English is still free form and daring. Combine this with my hearing loss suffered in a long ago war and her tendency to talk to me from other rooms and communication here is always an adventure. I must add that our poor daughter is often caught in between shuttling the word from one end of the house to the other. I’m rarely bored. Also we forget that those from other cultures rarely share our frame of reference. I once tried to tell my first wife (also Asian) a Polish joke as an example of casual racism, but she didn’t get it because she didn’t know that Poles are supposed to be stupid.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I had one of those dads too, and it’s heartbreaking to watch mothers suffer through it.

  3. As a teacher of ESL, this story is inspiring. My students are mostly grandmothers who want to be able to “talk good” with the rest of the family. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Bittersweet post. I especially understand your mother since I am also a non native speaker who embarrassed her kids, too. And yet, like you, they also knew that my accent made me who I am and for strange reasons now that they are starting college they appreciate my singularity and the fact that my funny English opened their minds to human differences. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Absolutely beautiful; thank you for this piece. I’ve found that one of the most painful experiences is when someone you love and respect for their strength and courage is dismissed or condescended to because they can’t express themselves well in another language. It’s a damn shame but I’m happy to hear that you’ve found a healthy and loving way to relate to your mother.

    -Valentine
    Flux: Encountering Adulthood
    http://www.fluxforum.com

  6. Oh how things get lost or mixed up in translation! Like in Mexico when I said, “Estoy llena” which what I wanted to say was , ” I am full” after eating, but instead i said i was pregnant! ooops

  7. Oh my goodness this was so funny and I can relate to you and many ways! My father in law is French and it is so hard to understand him despite him having lived in the US for over 30 years! At the same time English is my second language and although I speak it really well and with very little accent, I’ve had kids correct me before lol 🙂 It was refreshing to read ths post!

  8. Funny and sad story at that same time but you reminded me the time I had taken my husband, Canadian man speaking English only, to visit my family in Greece. I had to translate back and forth until I got tired of it. After that the way my husband and my sister were communicating was with gestures and smile too! 🙂

  9. This is a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing! I just moved to Seoul a few months ago to teach and am just beginning to be able to picture what this would have been like. Love your writing style and thanks again for sharing.

  10. I’m an immigrant myself so I can relate to the story though luckily my son doesn’t have to translate for me as you did for your mom, but I’ve seen how it has been for others. I love the way you write, ps. share more stories!

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