The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
When people ask me what languages I know, of course English and Chinese come to mind. French was mandatory till Grade 10, but that doesn’t mean I’d retained any. I also studied German on the pretense that I wanted to get a degree in Comparative English/Chinese/German literature. Actually, I just liked the way German sounded, and speaking German incorrectly seemed like a good excuse to spit on people without repercussion.
But any new-world Chinese offspring raised by old-world Chinese parents will tell you that, besides English and Chinese, every Chinese family communicates in a secret language. A language that’s somewhere between Chinese and English – not quite Chinglish – and is common in every Chinese household.
Language has always been an important part of our family. While other kids grew up horsing around with their Dads, I was playing “The English Grammar Game” with mine. My Dad had a full University scholarship to study anything he wanted and instead of following the big city bright lights of Engineerhood or Mathdom like most Chinese, Dad chose to major in a subject that was even higher on the geek-o-meter: English Grammar.
My Dad loves English Grammar the way other Dads might love tinkering with junk car engines on the weekends. He would tirelessly construct and deconstruct sentences, then put them back together better than he found them. Dad believes that one English sentence could be the length of a Bible and still be grammatically correct, if we use the proper conjunctions, prepositional phrases, and punctuation marks to combine them.
Our “English Grammar Game” consisted of my Dad writing down a sentence, such as – Susan is a big girl now – and then I’d have to add another sentence – Susan is a big girl now and would like a raise in her allowance.
To which my Dad would triumphantly add, Susan is a big girl now and would like a raise in her allowance, but she did not take out the garbage last week, so Susan is not entitled to a raise in her allowance.
Our “English Grammar Game” abruptly ended one day when I was old enough to come up with -
Susan is a big girl now and would like a raise in her allowance, because $1.00 a week may have been enough when people had no electricity nor running water and were living like “Little House on the Prairie”, but $1.00 is now so little that Susan is thinking about hanging out on the streets downtown to earn some extra cash, as one could make as much as $50/hour in 30 minutes by just laying around in bed all day doing practically nothing.
My Mom isn’t so gifted in English and learns the language by memorizing vocabulary and phrases. Unfortunately, Mom has a terrible memory and becomes linguistically confused very easily, especially when stressed.
Mom’s challenges in the English language aren’t the same as other Chinese people’s. You’d expect the Chinese to stereotypically have problems pronouncing Rs and Ls: like Flied Lice instead of Fried Rice. Not my Mom. She pronounces Fried Rice perfectly, but often mispronounces the simplest words, like gum (gung). White Spot, a popular eatery, would somehow metamorphose into Salonpas – a Japanese medicinal hot patch for sprains and aches. A major street in Vancouver – Granville – would become GRRRangull - with such a throaty emphasis on the “R” that it sounded like she was hacking up the largest phlegm wad of her life.
We still talk about the time when Mom went into a drugstore asking for some Wrigley’s gung and then coming home with several types of toy guns, which had all been fired. Apparently, Mom thought the guns would shoot the gung out, like some sort of NRA-endorsed, second-generation Pez dispenser.
When the Jehovah’s Witnesses started making the rounds in our neighborhood, my Mom came up with the phrase – Buddha, YES! Jesus, NO! – as if it was a catchy campaign slogan, or the mantra for teenage sex. (Abstinence, Yes! Sex, No!)
Mom would answer the door with it, utter it every time the Jehovah’s Witnesses said something, and then use it as a farewell. As Mom always said the phrase with a pleasant smile, the Jehovah’s Witnesses never felt stonewalled. But I believe “The Watchtower” was translated into Chinese because of my Mom.
Adding to the confusion is my younger sister, Annie, who had invented a Hello Kitty language, which we still use today. For example, Mom doesn’t like us calling each other loser, so Annie uses the words lodar, boober, goony and gonad interchangeably – and they all mean loser.
Babaloo, mochi and bodi are terms of endearment, but babaloo may also refer to an object that you can’t remember the name of – kind of like a “thingamajig”.
Babar is another word for our Dad. Mom sometimes calls herself Old Mom or Old Mommy.
Lan huo, lan ho, or lannn is a direct translation of the Chinese term 爛貨, which means trashy or slutty whore. Annie uses it a lot on me when I make fun of her and I’m sure she’ll use it on me repeatedly when she finds out I’m telling you all about her happy Hello Kitty language.
Growing up in Vancouver, on the weekends we’d sometimes wake up to an empty house and a note written in Hello-Kitty-Chinese-English:
Susan & Annie – bodi bodi!
我和你babar去Salon bus吃早點,你們九點前可跟我們一起享受,我們在Grangull Salon bus,記得要穿多一點,外面天氣涼,不要lodar聽媽說的話!
Susan & Annie, my darlings!
Your Dad and I have gone to White Spot for breakfast. If you get up before 9am, you can come and join us. We’re at the Granville White Spot. Don’t forget to dress warmly; the weather outside is getting colder. Don’t be losers, listen to your Mom!
In the 80s, Mom became a Ziploc bag fanatic. At first, she thought that regular sandwich bags with the twist ties worked just as well. But after I explained to her the meaning behind the word Ziploc, with the zip, or zipper, and then the loc, which kept the contents inside tightly locked up, Mom became enamored with Ziploc bags and thought they were the best thing next to the sliced bread that the Ziploc bags held.
Like a three-year-old with a shiny new toy, Mom went around dropping the word Ziploc in every conversation:
Gloria, I’m using Ziploc now! They are wonderful, the Ziploc. It’s like a bag with a zipper that you lock! Nothing will fall out, nothing can get inside. Do you want some Ziploc? I have plenty of Ziploc! There’s a two for one sale at the Safeway for Ziploc!
One day after school Mom and I drove to the Safeway to purchase some groceries, including more Ziploc bags.
After observing my Mother and other Chinese ESL drivers for decades, I’ve developed a theory about ESL speakers and their inability to properly operate a vehicle. It’s not so much that the ESL speakers can’t read the street signs, which are usually pictures or symbols, anyways – but that the anticipation of misunderstanding a road sign, and the possibility of getting into an accident or ending up in a place where people rarely see a Chinese and think that “Egg Fu Young” is a Jackie Chan-type body slam – lead some Chinese to become so anxious that they are oblivious to their surroundings and, therefore, unable to drive.
When my Mom drives, my sister and I are not allowed to talk to her nor to each other, although Mom can talk as much and as loudly as she needs to relieve her anxiety. We are not allowed to play our music in her car, as Mom can only tolerate soothing elevator music.
As a joke, I had preset all of the radio stations in Mom’s car – a sad ’76 Chevy Nova Hatchback (later to be my first car) – to one that played super-fast Mariachi music interspersed with an announcer jabbering away in excited Spanish. However, after I set the station the radio knobs broke, so we were stuck listening to the Hispanic station at ear-deafening levels. I guess you can call it some kind of karmic payback.
On this particular day, Mom was cursing at the radio and fiddling with the knobs while waiting to make a left turn onto a street, when a car suddenly hit us from behind. Actually, I wasn’t even quite sure we were hit, till Mom asked,
“Susan! How are the groceries? Did the eggs break?”
But then I noticed that Mom was moving slowly, as if she had hurt something.
“Mom, are you OK?”
“I’m OK, but my chest hurts a little, because I was leaning against the steering wheel…and my neck…feels…stiff.”
“Ohhh…you have whiplash.”
“What? What do you say I have?”
“Whiplash. Whip. Lash. Like, when something suddenly jolts you and puts something out in your body, like your neck…or your shoulders. Can you move your head OK?”
As we were going over Mom’s whiplash, I noticed the occupants of the other car – a family of East Indians – a Mother and Father and a son about the same age as I – had gotten out of their car and were surveying the damage and talking quickly amongst themselves in their native language. Then, a police car showed up.
When our accident occurred, Vancouver didn’t have the multitude of Chinese and other ethnicities that it does today. Vancouver back then was still like a sleepy town, where nice men – not the ones who drove without wearing any pants – would offer you a ride during a snowstorm. In fact, we were the token Chinese on our block.
So, when the Caucasian Constable got out of his car to find a family of East Indians and two Chinese people, who had the Hispanic radio station on full blast in the car, he probably thought we were a United Colors of Benetton ad gone horribly wrong.
By this time, Mom, who was never very good in stressful situations, such as giving birth to me and my sister and raising us, was mumbling something under her breath and asking me how her hair looked and whether her breath smelled OK. She also told me to stop chewing gum and to turn out my toes, as if I was going to get my school picture taken, or be part of a police lineup.
The East Indian family, represented by the Father, told their story first: they were in their car waiting behind our car, about to make a left turn up the same street we were, when that crazy Chinese lady backed her car into theirs, scratching up their front fender. But they’re willing to overlook the damage, because it is very minor and barely noticeable.
Mom was furious. She probably didn’t understand most of what was said, but had been referred to as that crazy Chinese lady enough times to know what that meant.
“How you say I hit you? You give me ziprash…ZIPRRRASH! Look, how I hurt…my neck…back….”
The Constable looked confused – and a little concerned – probably because, to a guy who didn’t have much experience around the Chinese and their colorful interpretation of the English language, Ziprash sounded like an aggressive Asian venereal disease that rots your brains before your balls…as Mom clearly demonstrated.
“Officer, my Mom means whiplash. And WE were hit from behind, not the other way around.”
“No, that is not what happened.” The East Indian son spoke up; his English was perfect. “You hit us.”
“How could we hit you, if we were in front of you?”
“You hit us, because you backed into us by mistake.”
“We could not back into you, because we were moving forward to turn left!“
“You may have been trying to turn left, but you were not moving forward.”
“We were trying to turn left AND we were moving forward, because my Mom was leaning towards the steering wheel at the time, and not only did the impact of the crash from behind hurt the front of her chest, as well as her neck and shoulders, but all of our groceries fell forward onto the ground, thereby breaking the eggs that we bought.“
Despite my massacring the East Indian in our “English Grammar Game”, we felt the kind of kinship only new-world caregiver offspring of old-world, English-impaired Asian parents could feel. It was good to know that others also suffer the embarrassment of having parents go bat-shit crazy over discounted cotton puffs at “Shopper’s Drug Mart”, or extra-thick gym socks at “Zellers”.
This post is dedicated to all of us long-suffering caregivers, who realize that English isn’t treated as a language in their homes, but just as a vague possibility. Looking after the English-impaired is sometimes interesting, infrequently fun, but always exasperating.
So, good luck.