Thursday, July 3, 2008

rhina espaillat



One of my Asian students today reminded me of how the struggle with adjusting to a new culture, a new region, a new language is, for some, quite challenging and for others a true battle. I learned from my Vietnamese students that there is a level of snobbery from the young who speak perfect Vietnamese as opposed to those who have nearly assimilated. I remember reading Maxine Hong Kingston's story and others'. In my house we speak both English and Spanish and sometimes we get things crossed up but always seem to know what the other means. I have had to push my way to the fronts of re-learning and learning Spanish. When I am in a setting with Gera's family, I have to either dive in or sit like un mudo. Gera has had to learn the southern--rather heavy--dialect (in between the myriad 'cuss' words) that my Auntie sounds out. It's a challenge but we're not afraid. Nope. We do it and when we make mistakes: he sounds out the 'w' in 'answer' and I call my sister 'my sister in half' instead of 'my half sister'--we laugh at each other, remember, and move on. Sometimes our mistakes are hilarious, but we are too consumed to laugh and just want desperately to get it right. I still can't remember how to say "water hose" and he has told me the Spanish word more than enough times. I failed to put it on the dry erase which is like a security blanket for both of us. He continues to forget words like 'teenagers' or doesn't know when a person is saying fifteen v. fifty (which I understand how the latter can be a problem, just say the two; they almost sound identical). When I go into the panaderia (bakery) for teleras or bolios (bread), I get antsy because I need to know how much to pay. They tell me in Spanish. When Gera drives up to the Sonic Burger (50s style, you order outside and they bring the food to you--outside), he says, "give me two burrrgrs" and looks at me hoping they don't say "can you repeat that". Ahh, but the beauty in the struggle to learn, speak, read and write another language not your own is an amazing ride.

"Bilingual/Bilingüe"
by Rhina Espaillat

My father liked them separate, one there
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter's heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was--his memory, his name
(su nombre)--with a key he could not claim.

"English outside this door, Spanish inside,"
he said, "y basta." But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daugher's pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

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