“You Said You Wanted A…What?”

This piece is reposted from http://dhall47.wordpress.com/

Growing up in a mixed race family has many challenges.  Like many interracial couples, my white, all-American father met my Korean mother while he was in the military.  She spoke minimal English at best and knew nothing about the American lifestyle.  Considering that I never learned how to speak or understand Korean and had a predominantly white upbringing, I understood remarkably little about her.  This would be the cause of the turmoil I faced throughout most of my life.

From an early age, I had to translate her terribly broken English to everyone she spoke to.  Whenever we pulled into a drive-thru restaurant, my mom would place the order and I would wait for the employee’s inevitable confusion.  “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” “Ma’am, I can’t understand you.” “You said you wanted a…what?” Back and forth until both parties started to get frustrated.  Finally, embarrassed, I would lean over my mother and shout out the order.  Never the one to be phased, my mother would go on as if nothing ever happened.  I, on the other hand, would press my palms to my face and hide.

As I got a bit older, I realized that it wasn’t the end of the world to have to translate for my mother.  The end of the world was actually the fact that I had to excuse her boorish manners or lack thereof.  My mom was a prime example of the post Korean War attitude: hurry, hurry, hurry.  She never had time to wait to hold doors open for other people.  There wasn’t enough time in a day to remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’? And who had the time to slowly and quietly chew their food?  Smack. Smack. Smack.  With each wet smack, my spine would crawl.  Fortunately for her, I, overflowing with good manners, was always right behind her to make up for her brutish ways.

In the end, however, I learned that the hardest thing about being my mother’s daughter is the language barrier between us. Our inability to properly communicate with each other lead to much discord.  We fought constantly; very few conversations ended civilly.  Neither one of us knew how to stop because neither one of us knew what the other person was actually saying.  The confusion lead to anger and that anger lead to resentment.  After I moved out, we rarely spoke.  Fortunately, the desire to bridge the gap that lay between us grew as I slowly matured.  I reached out to her, and she readily accepted the olive branch.  We continue to work on rebuilding our relationship today, ironing out the kinks left behind by the language barrier.

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18 thoughts on ““You Said You Wanted A…What?”

  1. I also came from a mixed-race family. My mother was born and raised in Germany but her whole family is Turkish. My father is African American and met my mother in Germany while he was in the military. I was born in Germany but raised in the United States. My mother had to learn a completely new language, culture, and country. English became my first language and I can understand and speak some German and I only know greetings in Turkish. My mother has a strong accent and we speak very fast so sometimes my friends will think we’re speaking another language when it’s really just a broken English mixed with my southern English. Even though my mom isn’t from America and has an accent and sometimes doesn’t fit in, I understand her the most because I have a close relationship with my mom. We understand each other because the more I grow up, the more I become my mother.

  2. First, I would like to say that it is really touching that you shared this story and that the both of you are rebuilding your relationship. I may not be able to relate to your story because I do not have a family member with a language barrier but I do understand that it can be very frustrating. Language barrier is definitely a heavy component that can tear families apart simply because both parties are unable to process each other’s way of communication on certain things. However, if I were in your shoes, I would love to find about the Korean language just to see what it is all about. I feel like the only way to possibly break the language barrier would be to teach something about each other’s language so you both can learn something together. This just might establish some better communication between the two of you.

    • Thank you very much. It was a frustrating ordeal for me when I was a child. This is because I always compared my situation to other children’s’. Of course, I know how ridiculous that is now. I am proud of my heritage, and I am currently learning the Korean language and about its culture.

  3. Although I didn’t grow up in a mixed race family, but I can understand the frustration when your mom is trying to communicate with other people. I don’t think I would be embarrassed or ashamed of translating for my mom. In my opinion I would have learned about the korean culture and learned the language, so there would be a understanding between each other.

  4. I also come from a mixed race family and the language barrier is a tad bit different. On my mother’s side of the family they are from the Dominican Republic but they have been in the states for a while. My great grandmother cannot speak english but I know some spanish so it is different. With me knowing spanish it is easier for me to communicate with that side of the family.

  5. My family is Haitian and sometimes its really hard to communicate with them. I dont speak french or creole but people constantly speak to me in that language. I’m always asking them to repeat what they said in English. I miss out on a lot of relationships with my family because of the language barrier. I think the best thing to do in situations like this, is to make an effort to try to understand and relate to them. It may not be easy, but relationships with family members, especially mothers, are very important and has a huge impact on your life.

    • Yes, I agree. I am currently in the process of learning Korean. I too feel as if I’ve missed out on a building stronger relationships with my family members. Luckily, everyone has been very supportive and are helping me with my studies.

  6. I partly understand your feeling. Several years ago (2002), I participated in exchange family program, so I lived with Japanese family for one month. Since I din’t know and couldn’t speak Japanese well at that time, it was hard to communicate directly. However, we showed the effort and kept to try communication, there was no big inconvenience. I know your case is complex but keep making communication with her. It will be better

  7. This is a very touching story really making you realize how communication plays a big role in a relationship and, if there is a lack thereof how it can have a bad effect on a relationship. Although I can’t relate I do understand why you felt the way you did.

  8. I didn’t grow up in a mixed race family, but I can understand the frustration when there is a language barrier. As you grew up, I’m sure it became a bit easier to deal with the translation and how it affected you.

  9. I also come from a mixed-race family. My father was born and raised in Puerto Rico and my mother is a mixed American. Though my father speaks well in English, my family such as my grandmother and great-grandmother have issues speaking English. When they speak to me or anyone else it is broken English. Having to translate for them is hard, but I do not get embarrassed. Ironically, I have a hard time communicating with my grandmother more than my great grandmother. Because I do not speak fluent in Spanish, it is hard to have a relationship with my family. They are fluent speakers and very cultural. It definitely is hard keeping a good/healthy relationship when neither parties can converse with one another. I can agree when people say communication is key.

  10. To clarify, I know that the way that I acted and viewed my mother’s inability to speak English was childish. I was a child. I wrote this blog post in the manner that I did to showcase that childish mindset and behavior. I have since come to understand that, and I am currently learning Korean. As I’ve matured and aged, I have come to appreciate my Korean lineage and am very proud of it. This post is a commentary on the struggle of communicating with people who do not speak your own language. It requires a lot of patience, but it is usually worth it.

  11. Very interesting story of issues between your mother and yourself. I feel like overcoming a language barrier is a very hard thing to do, especially when it is within your own family. Hopefully, you will be able to mend fences and repair your relationship with your mom

  12. When we were born, the first people that we saw was our heroes. They taught us how to feel, how to express ourselves, how to build ourselves. As a sage said before, “human are selfish”. We gradually grow up, when we know how to feel, we feel that they are old; when we know how to express ourselves, we argue with them; when we know how to improve ourselves, we are disappointed to them, because in our little heads, they should know everything.When our heroes are not our heroes anymore, we start to believe ourselves, whether it is right or not, we reject to listen to them, we prefer do the opposite of whatever they want us to do. Now we just feel sorry about we are so rude to them, but we know this is adolescence, our parents also know, the people that we think arbitrary are just the people who most understand us, because in some degree, we are their mirrors. And finally we will payback when we have children. This is really an awful circle!

  13. Being able to communicate with your family members through your natural language is very interesting to me because i have alway wanted to be able to speak a different language just to be able to talk with people who dont speak english

  14. Even though my dad and I speak the same language we have the same kind of problems you have with your mom. He grew up in Venezuela and I grew up in the United States so we have a lot of issues because our views on how to interact with others is very different. I also moved out as soon as I turned eighteen and at the time it was not my best decision but I just felt like I could not be living with him. He does not understand the definition of personal space due to how close Hispanic families are and this is something that we have fought about for years. I have tried to talk to him about it and get him to understand my point of view but it seems impossible. It is not just a matter of communication, it’s a matter of growing up in different cultures as well. Even though it is very difficult at times we just need to be more understanding of each other.

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