A letter to a refugee child ‘afraid of speaking the new language’
I was concerned that the Hmong in my heart would leak through my lips and coat the words I spoke in this new language.
Dear refugee child,
There is an American flag flying on a tall metal pole by the doors into the brown building. The building itself is made of bricks, concrete, and other hard materials. The only openings into the building are uniformed rectangles standing in glass. Some of them have paper flowers in different colours taped to them, basking in the warmth of the early morning sun.
I knew this day was coming: the adults have been whispering about what happens at the end of summer. A child of only two seasons, the dry heat and the wet monsoons of Thailand, I am limited in my understanding of such changes. My mother counts on her fingers the things we’ll need soon: jackets, boots, scarves, hats, and then she says to our father, “The children will need books, pencils, backpacks, and other things to go to school.”
My only taste of school was bitter. In the refugee camp, I couldn’t go. The schools were crowded and although I turned six, I was unable to fulfil the simple requirement: I couldn’t touch my hands to either side of my ears over the curve of my head.
In the practice school of the transition camp to America, I couldn’t help but fall asleep every time the teacher started to talk, the things she wrote on the board were meaningless to me. She made lines and curves that connected to form words. She lined them up like fire ants along a log. I awoke each time to the jarring sound of the teacher’s thin bamboo rod hitting the wood of the long table we refugee children shared, feeling that I was perhaps stupid.
On this day, I walk beside my cousin. Although he is a young man, he is already a father of three. We live with him and his beautiful wife in their two-bedroom townhouse. They are kind to us. They make rice for the meals we share. They find meat and fry chicken wings or beef stir-fry. Together, we sit and look at their black and white television. When one of the kids drops a bottle or falls, his wife says in English, “Shiat!”
‘The words slide together, stick, and grow’
My cousin speaks English, too. He is taking my older sister and me to register for our first American school. My sister is braver than I am. She is looking everywhere, her eyes dark beneath the straight line of her bangs. I want to look at my feet but I’m startled by the voices of the people around me, the words they throw so casually at each other.
There’s a small line. Ahead of us, there is a man with brown skin and his daughter. They are whispering to each other in a language that is neither English nor Hmong. I know it is not English because they are not out of breath. The words slide together, stick, and grow.
English falls into a room. I’ve heard enough of it on television to hear how it feels like hands clapping in the quiet. It isn’t Hmong because I can speak Hmong very well and I’ve heard it all my life. Hmong is a language carried by wind, it flies high and low, crawls along the ground, but also floats for long moments in empty space.
The daughter catches me listening and clears her throat so I look up at her face. She smiles. Her two front teeth are missing. Instinctively, my right hand folds up at my wrist and my fingers move in a small line: a greeting I’ve learned is sufficient for people to know I see them and I mean no harm. My sister greets the girl for me, she says, “Hello” and nods her head once, flattens the line of her lips into what she thinks is a smile.
When it is our turn, we go up and listen to our cousin speak in English. His voice is soft. When he tells the woman behind the counter our birth dates, he reinforces the numbers with his hands. I’m proud of him. He’s found a way in this country. He has been here for five years already. I look up at him and he looks very tall to me although he is not as tall as the woman behind the desk.
‘Everything I know will not be enough in English’
The woman points us toward a brown door. We follow our cousin down the hallway toward the door. Inside, it is a big room. There’s a chalkboard. There are lines of letters on top of the chalkboard. There’s a teacher waiting to test us and see if we qualify to go to American schools or not.
I go first because my sister has nudged me forward. I stand and I look up at the teacher. She says, “Say your ABCs.” I bite my bottom lip. My cousin interprets, “Hais ABC.”
My throat is awfully dry but I swallow and I whisper, “A, B, C.”
I can see I’m doing it wrong because the teacher is shaking her head. She repeats her earlier words, “Say your ABCs.”
I do it again, “A, B, C.” It is all I know but it is not enough because she shakes her head once more.
Everything I know in Hmong will not be enough in English. This will be the case for many years. Even when I have learned the language, I will get worried about my use of it and make simple, easy mistakes. I will say, “There are many chicken” without the requisite “s” to signify plurality. I will say, “I don’t know”, and shrug my shoulders even when I know because I’m scared. I’m scared the other person won’t hear me because my voice is small or will misunderstand me because I don’t look or feel like an American. I’m afraid of how I will sound in English to the people who were born speaking the language, concerned that the Hmong in my heart will leak through my lips and coat the words I speak in this new language.
My cousin gestures for me to return to his side. We both stand as my sister steps forward. She knows more than I do. She sounds better than I do. I am in awe of her here in America. In Thailand, she was just Dawb. Now, they say she is Der and she answers, “Yes.”
After the tests, we are told that we have been accepted at Battle Creek Elementary School. I will be in first grade. My sister will be in second. We are not going to be at the school for long but we don’t know this yet.
‘I knew the language of wishing’
The school has no programmes to help new English language learners like us. Plus, we’ll get into a fight on the playground because a big boy wants a ball I will be playing with, except I won’t understand him so I won’t give it to him. He’ll push me and I’ll topple over my own feet. The ball will fall from my hands and hit the ground and it will roll far from us both. In the space of that rolling ball, I’ll hear the voice of my sister shouting in English, “No, don’t hit her.” I will see my sister, one of her legs slightly shorter than the other because of polio in the camp, race close and jump between me and the big boy. He will push her and she will push back and when the teacher comes the boys will say all kinds of things very loudly and fast and we will be sent away.
But as we walk from the brown school on that summer’s day, I can’t help but look at the American flag flying high beneath the bright sun, and say to my cousin, “Everyone in this place is so smart.”
In the car, returning to the cousin’s house where my mother, father, my cousin’s beautiful wife and their three little children wait, without anyone looking, without language, I wave to the school with my right hand, press it to the cool glass of the window, and make a wish, “Maybe I can get smart, too, inside your building.”
Without knowing English or speaking Hmong, I knew even then the language of wishing. It is the wishing that will transcend all the languages and grow you into yourself, Refugee Child.
A refugee woman who met the world in one language and then another