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. So funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Don’t know how you did it but really nice! Especially love the translating of emotion as a whole new angle on the translating for your parents thing that’s so true for 2nd generations.

  2. I love this story, I loved how this wasn’t simply a story about translating language this was translating your emotions to your father’s euphemistic ‘friend.’ Perhaps this was your intention or just my interpretation, either way it was short, but sweet 🙂

  3. This was a great read! I’ve read an article before about 2nd generation translators. It’s so hard on the children, having to discuss medical conditions, food items, banking matters, psychological problems, the whole shebang. I’m sure it just gets to be too much sometimes.

    I remember going for a PAP smear and the doctor asking me specific questions and as I lay there exposed, I wondered how women, new to Canada, get through the appointment. Maybe some of them have never even been to a doctor before, let alone for something as “indulgent” as cancer screening. Perhaps, they have a little angel beside them trying to translate “forceps” and “swabs” and “menstruation”..

    Though English is my first language, my own kidlet gets FED UP of correcting me when I tell his friends he plays football. With a roll of his eyes, he patiently says, “My mum means soccer. In Trinidad, they call soccer, football. ” I guess he doesn’t know how good he has it!

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. At one of my prenatal appointments last year, a woman in the waiting room had brought her son (I’m guessing 11 or 12 years old) with her as a translator. She was doing her best to speak English with the staff but had to keep asking her boy for help, and I can’t imagine how painfully awkward him translating for the doctor during the exam must have been for both of them. Definitely makes you think about the role 2nd generation immigrants’ kids play to help their parents get by!

  4. I loved reading your story! I can only imagine how complicated life is when you are your parents’ interpreter. I teach ESL, so I see it often with my students. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Oh god, I can relate so much to this. My grandmother has a very thick Japanese accent and I am forever always translating words for her so my boyfriend or friend can understand her. She is such a kind hear-ted woman too. I loved reading this.

    ~Erin

  6. So touching and sad, thinking of your poor mom adjusting to life in a foreign country without the man who had been her reason for leaving the life she’d known. She can be proud that you are such a good interpreter and writer. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  7. Beautiful in its entirety. It is really hard to go to a new country to live and speak a new language in a new accent. But you were there to support her though her communication problems. Heart-felt writing.

  8. Its when reading writing like this that I realise how much further I have to go. This was devastating and beautiful at the same time. When intelligent and thoughtful people are trapped within the walls of language, its heartbreaking. She obviously loves you very much and her strength and loves comes through in your writing. Well done and thank you.

  9. You had me at Engrish! This was a wonderfully written post. My neighbor’s wife is Korean and she has quickly become one of my favorite people in the world. She’s so sweet that it’s sickening. Here are my two cents. Your mom had a lot on her plate, and having to speak English was probably an obstacle that made an already difficult situation even worse. I dislike when Americans (I’m American) mistake the inability to speak “proper” English with stupidity. When one of my buddies says something about a young Spanish speaking ball player being interviewed on tv’s inability to speak English as well as him, my only thought is, “He speaks 10000 times better English than you do Spanish or any second language.” I envy bilingual people, even your mother.

    1. Well stated! I particularly hate when someone says they can’t understand someone and the only problem is a heavy accent. If we learned to hear vowels as pronounced in the rest of the world we would be miles ahead. English is the only language that mispronounces vowels compared to the rest of the world. Seriously.

  10. In college, I had a classmate who’s parents were native Korean-speakers. Her own English was flawless, so I’m sure she could identify with some aspects of this story very well!

  11. Hey, you’re an excellent storyteller. I could identify with some parts. I met many international students that had English as a second language. Totally get where you are coming from. 🙂

  12. What a beautiful post! I must say, I’ve got similar experiences as my mum doesn’t speak English that well (she came over from another country) and so I’m constantly being used as a dictionary/translator, especially for more technical vocabulary. (The “fat” thing happens too, especially with my gran, as my family are stereotypically Jewish.)

  13. What a painstakingly beautiful story. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for your mom, from an emotional point of view. The ‘English’ people dealing with your mom must have just been frustrated, from a ‘she’s wasting my time’ point of view, but your mom must have felt such emotional frustration because she wasn’t able to communicate what she wanted or needed properly.

    And as for Jane? Pffffffft.

  14. This is so touching in so many levels. Such an enjoyable write up. I know how difficult it is to pick up a language and its nuances that aren’t part of your growing up, yet I am in awe of your mother. She is brave, she made the attempt to talk in a language that isn’t hers, when most Native English Speakers would never make an attempt to pronounce Asian Names correctly, leave alone speak their language. My children correct me when I use terms like “Torch” instead of “flashlight” or “football” when I mean “soccer” or “Dicky” when I mean “Trunk”. This, in spite of me knowing English.

  15. Awesome story! This took me back to college, where I rowed on a Division I team stacked with Eastern European women whose wicked jokes I didn’t often get. But they were fabulous women. One–a Russian–made our team dinner at Hooter’s (a misadventure if ever there was one) a night to remember. I’ll say this: getting lost in translation might be terrifying, but it can also come in handy for threatening a gaggle of drunk idiots. Thanks for the read, Risa!!

  16. I had a retail sales job a few years ago and often had to use children to communicate with non-english speaking parents and I have never heard this perspective before; The child of those parents that is forever obligated to translate. I loved reading your story and felt your pain through the story. I am assuming your father was military from your story, I was in the army and have been stationed in South Korea where I saw many male soldier marry Korean girls. Your mother like all these girls must have been very brave to leave everything they know for a new life in a foreign country.

  17. I enjoyed your account of being a child translator, and found some of your words hilarious “terr, risa, etc”; why is it that most asians switch the L for an R & vice versa,”lice on libs”, for example?
    I was also a child of newly arrived immigrants and can certainly relate to “speaky”…my mom said to the teacher at a PTA meeting, “I speak ingles” when she actually meant that she didn’t speak english – we still laugh about it!
    I am very proud of you for having stood up to the woman who interfered in your family unity – good for you! I was always too chicken…

  18. Such a nice story, I have been there too, my parents divorce when I was four years old. I really admire you because you can talk about such a pain moment in your life and still laugh about it. I’m 24 years old and if I want to talk or even write about the things that happen to me. I have to cry, but in the last two years it got better, but it takes time to heal all the pain and move on.

  19. I am Korean as well, and though I was adopted, I can truly feel (through your writing) what you must have been going through. well written. Funny, but sad. I applaud you for having the bravery as a child to translate not just literally, but translate the truth to your father about the situation and translate your mothers humiliation and pain to him, even though she wouldn’t or couldn’t. Bravo.

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