In a family of different tongues

This week I am doing one of the writing prompts at Mama Kat’s Writing Workshop over at Mama’s Losin’ It! 

Mama's Losin' It

I was born to Chinese immigrants, am married to a Japanese man. I have been working with international students for the past 10 years. My whole life has been a lesson in cross-cultural communication, of which I am still a woeful student.

Differences in language can bring alot of chuckles and misunderstandings.

My brother and I will never forget the time my mother left a note for us on the kitchen table, reminding us there was some zhong – sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves – in the pot in case we got hungry. Except she mispelled zhong, and wrote the following: “If you get hungry, there is dung in the pot. Put some water in the pot and steam until the dung is soft and hot and ready to eat.” My brother and I literally fell to the floor laughing until our insides nearly came out.

In my own work with international students I have read about pubic policy, regular intercourse with supervisors, the investment bank Goldman Sucks. One student, in filling out a school application form, inquired about how to respond to the question of “Sex.” M and F were not indicated, and he proceeded to average out the number of times he had intercourse per week (but not with his supervisor).

Spelling as a secret code to discuss “inappropriate” or “confidential” topics before a child also does not work well in a household where the husband and wife don’t speak the same language. Sure, my husband Max could handle words like S-E-X or B-B-Q with no problem, but if I needed to communicate something like, “Hey, should we get the B-A-K-U-G-A-N or the P-O-K-E-M-O-N-C-A-K-E for Fred’s B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y?” Max would need to reach for that finger pencil of his and begin taking dictation in the air. By the time he’s figured out what I’d spelled, I’d made up my mind and ordered the cake.

But sometimes language foibles and difficulties are not so funny, like when they happen to me. I can still remember the time I decided to try my Chinese to order at a Chinese restaurant. The waiter started laughing and couldn’t stop. In fact, he could barely write my order down. I smiled awkwardly, semi-playing along, but dreading the whole time that perhaps he was mocking my Chinese. As someone who has done her fair share of laughing, I know there is usually no harm meant. But how differently it feels when the tables are turned.

At no point was language a more traumatic experience than when I lived in Japan. I had only planned on living in Japan for a year and thus never invested in studying the language. Little did I know that I would stay for nearly a decade, and by then a 70 hour/week job and, later, a baby and our own business left me with little energy or motivation to tackle a language as impossible as Japanese. I worked in an American department and I had a Japanese husband to rely on. The Japanese are gracious – unbelievably gracious – to Americans who don’t speak their language. Everyone from restaurant wait staff to medical doctors will apologize to you because they don’t speak your language. So it wasn’t humiliating to not speak the language well, but over time it began to weaken me, and one day I realized that I could relate to people who need wheelchairs, who can’t see, or who have lost use of an arm. For me it was not enough to simply be able to order take-out or even talk about our babies’ feeding habits; I wanted to relate with others intimately, to have the capacity to manipulate whichever word and thought I needed to fully express myself. I learned to appreciate the many immigrants and others who live life with only half their voices.

And this gap in communication worried me most in my relationship with my child. I knew enough Japanese to understand my toddler/preschooler well. I spoke to Fred in English while he responded in Japanese. Things are okay now, I had thought, but what if we stay in Japan permanently? What will happen when Fred gets older? His English words were very few and far between, and every time he uttered anything in English I would lap his words up like drops of water in the desert. It would be nearly 5 years (when we moved to the U.S.) before I had my first 2-way conversation with my son in my own tongue.

 As someone whose life revolves around words and expression, I have sometimes wondered if it is not ironic that my closest loved ones do not share my native tongue. I speak in my moderately good but imperfect Chinese with my parents and my husband and I continue to stumble over cultural miscommunications. But at the same time, despite the barriers, despite the occasional frustrations at not being heard completely, they are my closest loved ones. They know me thoroughly and they love me. Somehow, words have not been an impediment. Or, perhaps because of the barriers, we have simply worked harder in other ways to understand each other.

13 thoughts on “In a family of different tongues

  1. Visiting from Mama Kats …

    I have to say, when I first read the post title I briefly considered skipping over this. I mean … dung … steamed … in a pot? But I’m so glad I read this … it was wonderfully done and says so much about how love is truly the international language! Well done.

  2. I love how the first part of your post is about the funny mis-communications that can occur as a result of language, like the dung in the pot and “pubic policy, regular intercourse with supervisors”, but then you take it to a more serious level and how it’s effected your life in a very real way.


  3. My aunt and uncle spent two decades in Brazil, both learning Portugese. The hard part for my aunt in particular, who is a very very verbal person, has been coming ‘home’ to English. Which no longer fits her tongue the same way.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

  4. I can’t imagine needing to concentrate so hard on my words and who I’m speaking too! But what great thing to have a handle on so many languages…even if at times it has caused some pretty funny situations!!

  5. You know Cecilia sometimes not fully understanding people can get in the way of building a relationship it is true. But I think the opposite can also be said sometimes too, meaning that I think sometimes language gets in the way – we spend too much time over thinking and analyzing what someone says or is trying to say when a look or gesture can say it all. So I don’t think there can ever be any real language barriers between you and the ones you most love.

  6. Oh, I am loving seeing your humor come out.

    Ceci, you are innocently funny, which is the best kind of laughter.


    I should do this, too…I really enjoyed this one!!!!

  7. I loved reading your post! Miscommunication can be so funny at times. Brings to mind a story my professor told during a sign language class this week about how his partner (who was just learning to sign) confused the signs for “hungry” and “sexually excited” during an evening with some friends who were deaf. 🙂

    My favorite part of your post, though, is the last line when you point out that the barriers in language have just made you and your loved ones make more of an effort to understand each other. In that case, your differences can actually make your relationships stronger.

    Look forward to reading more from you–and thanks for visiting my blog!

  8. This is a great piece, Cecilia – one with which I can relate. While English comes easily to me, it’s till my fourth language and My Guy would make fun of me because after all these years, I still mix up hand/arm and foot/leg – yes, from someone who can use words like dichotomy and juxtaposition with no problem. 🙂

    I speak Cantonese as well and taught my ex how to tell the server in Chinatown to wrap up our food to go, “ta pau” except instead of saying “to go” he mispronounced and the words came out sounding like he said “broken”. Of course the server was patient with us – I was the only one laughing. I’m so mean…

    Anyway – it’s intriguing how your son spoke mostly Japanese for the first part of his life. Growing up I spoke Tamil with my mom, Cantonese with my dad, and English to the both of them. I would love for my daughter to pick up another language but with me losing touch with my own, I doubt I’ll be a very good teacher. And that makes me sad.

    p.s. I do enjoy a good dung… 🙂

  9. PLEASE go to

    It couldn’t be any worse than the fact that I got all males. And go to Jenner’s, too, they told her she looks like Stephen KIng…!!

    Let me know!

  10. Cecilia, I know this post was about miscommunication, but I am SO impressed by the number of languages you and your family can speak (even though not fluently).

    We recently went to Germany, and our family speaks very little German. Everyone was so patient with us, even though they may have chuckled – it created a great sense of camaraderie. We would try out our little bit of German and the Germans would try to use their little bit of English, to meet somewhere in the middle.

    I agree with Aging Mommy that, between loved ones, there are so many more important elements than just spoken words. Miscommunications happen between family members all the time that are not a result of language.

    Very interesting post!

  11. When my husband and I were in France, he cut his finger open and needed stitches. I ran through our hotel yelling in French, “He’s cutting my finger! He’s cutting my finger!” In the panic of the moment, I couldn’t keep my pronouns and tenses straight. Cultural miscommunication indeed. =>

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