Truong: Lost Lingo

Blindly viewing education as the path to the American Dream has irrevocable consequences.

by Valerie Truong | 9/27/18 2:20am

 I was home for a month this summer after a long eight months, so of course I had my calendar full of dentist and optometry appointments, lunch dates with old and new friends and outings with extended family members. As the weeks went by, my parents reminded me that my grandparents on each side wanted to share a meal with me before I left for school again. I, of my own moxie, half-facetiously questioned why that would be necessary, as I had seen them fairly recently during a family gathering. Plus, I added, I wouldn’t be able to have any meaningful conservation with them due to the language barrier between us. Nevertheless, two lunches were scheduled, one for each set of grandparents.

Over dim sum and “Vege Paradise” (which is essentially your standard Chinese fare, vegetarianized), similar events played out. While waiting for a table, I sat down next to my grandma. She asked me about school: when I was going back, how long I would be gone, whether it was cold here. These were all simple and straightforward questions, but with my parents nowhere in sight at the crowded venue, my feeble attempts at providing her with answers were a Herculean effort. I never thought I’d have to use Cantonese as a lingua franca, but neither she nor I spoke each other’s language. It was depressing that I felt more comfortable and familiar with the phone in my hand than with speaking to my own grandmother.

And at the table, it took no less than five different languages — English, Vietnamese, and three dialects of Chinese — to communicate to wait staff what we all wanted to order. My parents by default commanded much of the conversation; they bridged the wide language and generation gap. I didn’t say much at either of these meals, and what little was said was conveyed to or through my parents in English.

Like many parents in this country, my parents hold the view that education is the surest path to achieving the American Dream of financial success, or at least, stability. After all, it worked for them. I think many of their parenting decisions can be attributed to this notion: I rarely had to do chores, never had to get a part time job, and never had to pay for gas for my car. I had freedom as long as my grades were maintained.

But to focus entirely on one’s children attaining a good education as a tenet of parenting requires many sacrifices. Many are financial and time-consuming: paying for SAT classes, driving kids to practice or the 10th volunteering event they’ve signed up for that month, having food to eat or reheated by the time they’re home. Yet perhaps one of the greatest sacrifices was my relationship with my grandparents, which became increasingly apparent to me as I got older. Was it worth it?

My parents chose not to speak to my brother and me in Vietnamese or Chinese growing up because they didn’t want us to be behind when we started school. They didn’t want us to struggle with learning English as a second language, as they did. I don’t blame them. There were attempts — I attended Chinese school for a few summers, but even if I had learned Mandarin well, it is none of my grandparents’ most comfortable language. As a kid, I despised my required after school activities — Chinese school, piano lessons, and swimming lessons. In adhering to their ideology, my parents pushed the piano and swimming, but relented on the Chinese school.

Education as the first priority is valuable and not necessarily wrong, but for me and perhaps many other first generation Americans, it comes at the cost of not really knowing my grandparents. I’ve missed out on hearing their stories on what life was like in Vietnam and their harrowing journey to the United States. I’ve missed out on their opinions about their favorite television shows to watch. I’ve missed out on what they had for dinner last night. Most of what I do know has been filtered through my parents. I am, essentially, on the fringe of their lives. So if you know another language, speak it to your kids. I guarantee that the benefits are worth it.

To follow this ideology so affirmatively is dangerous. I’m not saying that people should dim the headlights on the goal of higher education, but if possible, they should widen the scope and be cognizant of what they are sacrificing. And to those who can or could truly communicate with their grandparents, treasure that. Not everyone can.