From Begrudging Family Translator to Literacy Volunteer

A first generation granddaughter unravels her family history, embraces her roots, and identifies with the struggles of immigrant families.

by Helen Chen

“我不要 (wǒ bù yào; I don’t want to)!”

I cried, twisting my arms and kicking my legs to release myself from Nai Nai’s firm grip as she pulled me over to the man sitting in the subway ticket booth. My 9-year-old self started jumping and screaming. I was yelling in Mandarin, the only language my grandmother could understand. I was tired of being my family translator.

Exhausted, Nai Nai gave in to my fit, her grip gentle as she released me. I sat on the scabrous subway station bench bathing in relief, forgetting Nai Nai’s urgency. I watched her walk toward the MTA officer, fruitlessly using hand gestures to find out how to reach her destination.
A half hour later, she dropped back into her seat next to me, defeated, her eyes glued to the ground.

Being a Translator

I grew up in Brooklyn, but the rest of my family comes from a rural Fuzhou village in southeastern China, where education was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Like many other Fuzhou residents, my family, specifically my grandparents, didn’t see a future for themselves in the farms where they’d worked for decades. This prompted my father, mother, and grandparents to move to the United States 20 years ago.

At first, all was well. My mother spoke enough English to help the rest of the family as they wrestled to adjust to a radically different culture and language. But three months after I was born, my mother disappeared. Thus, I inherited the role of translator for my grandparents almost as soon as I could talk.

Nai Nai was enthusiastic as she led me to all kinds of strangers: grocery clerks, social workers, bodega owners, and when we were lost, random people on the streets. I translated questions in Mandarin and the answers back to her. To Nai Nai, it was a way for her to “keep face,” but to me it was an unwanted obligation, a chore like cleaning my room. It often felt humiliating, especially when I didn’t know the Chinese counterpart to “pension” or when I had to translate “20% off” in English to “minus 80%” in Chinese.

I understand my grandmother needed my help, but I wished she didn’t have to rely solely on me. It felt like I was always on call. Sometimes, a homework session was interrupted by a sudden call or paperwork that I needed to translate immediately. I pushed on with reluctance until that day in the subway station, when I couldn’t anymore.

An Empty Victory

I can’t recall how long we sat there, in the penetrating darkness of the station, a faint smell of urine creeping up our noses. But at some point, Nai Nai took out two napkins from her handbag, the handle’s skin already peeling away, and murmured, “臭 (chòu; stinky).” I accepted the napkin almost as soon as Nai Nai placed one over her face. It immediately started soaking. Seeing her tears, my relief from earlier was replaced by a pang of emptiness.

Help eventually came from a young Asian woman willing to translate, but it was already too late. A week later, I learned that my temper tantrum and refusal to help made Nai Nai late to an interview for senior housing. Her application was then delayed, and I felt terribly guilty.

My grandma stopped asking me to translate for her after that day. Although we never talked about it, she seemed to understand I was tired of translating. She started calling friends from church, and after much difficulty, got them to drop whatever they were doing to assist her.

But wherever she went, she still brought me along. When I was 10 years old, I observed as one of my grandma’s translators, a graceful woman in her mid-40s, spoke with eloquence, weaving seamlessly between English and Mandarin. She seemed to be happy to help my grandma rather than resenting it like I did.

Seeing the translator’s demeanor and the support she gave my grandma made me feel remorseful about my reluctance to help—and the subway station outburst. I began to realize it must have been comforting for my grandma to have someone speak her language, as she grappled with a society she was still getting used to.

Between Two Worlds

I realize now that, unlike my grandparents, I was born into two worlds.

I appreciated my Chinese heritage, but was unaware of my grandparents’ plight, struggling with famine and upheaval in their youth, then discrimination here in the U.S.—being called “Ching-Chong” and facing anger for not speaking English. I, however, could seamlessly order items in Mandarin in our local Asian market, or respond back in English if someone yelled racial slurs to me on the street. I began to understand that every translator who helped Nai Nai had slowly given her the strength to face a new world, one that was often frightening.

“You know, when everything is foreign, it feels like darkness everywhere,” she told me when I resumed translating for her when I was 13 years old. “Those translators were my strand of hope.”
When she told me this, I felt like her shame was my shame.

In high school, with this new sense of understanding and compassion, I began organizing weekly grammar classes for Ye Ye (my grandpa) and Nai Nai over our kitchen table. Over the years, we three together grew to love the beauty of language, as they formed cohesive sentences from words they learned.

Common phrases and words like “have a nice day,” “apples,” and “Social Security” were easy to remember. Their favorite word was “kin.” Family was defined by kinship. There were large families and small ones, but it was never just about the nuclear family. In Chinese culture, kinships tangled you into a web with many layers and facets.

My grandparents are not fluent, but they can now have small conversations with friendly neighbors, which makes them feel less isolated here.

Although my grandma still needs translation help, I notice her smiling more often and being more confident in public. Now she is able to hold herself up—I no longer need to be that constant pillar. Still, I saw other immigrants struggle to communicate on a daily basis, and so I decided I wanted to find a way to help other people learn English.

Helen Chen

Helping Others Learn English

Starting in my sophomore year, I began helping at literary workshops at my local library that assisted immigrant families. They came from Mexico, China, India, and the Middle East. Working mainly with young children, I started out with simple sentences, highlighting words from books, and applying what they learned to create crafts. For example, we decorated cardboard boxes with objects and colors that represented our identity.

The parents and guardians learned on the side during read-alouds and craft sessions. Sometimes mothers asked their children to translate questions to me; other times mothers asked for another marker or an extra glue stick as they began wanting to learn more on their own. Here, children and adults learned together, just like sitting at my kitchen table with Nai Nai and Ye Ye.

I can now admit that my unwillingness to translate was in part because it felt like an intrusion into my childhood that I resented. But also, when I saw mothers and fathers who spoke English with poise, I was frustrated with my grandma’s inability and was embarrassed.

“I felt like a scum, not knowing any English,” she said quietly to me recently as she recalled her early years in America. As a young kid, my perception of the world was simple. I eagerly chased what I liked to do and frowned at what I didn’t. Responsibility and compassion were foreign ideas and my family’s story was yet unknown to me. But as my grandparents shared parts of their story, I gained a deeper understanding of it, and my position in it. I grew to appreciate the roles I’ve inherited and a culture that taught me the value of kinship.

“Not anymore,” was my response to my grandma, five years after my initial refusal in the subway station. I reminded Nai Nai about how she can now strike up friendly conversations in English and even help her friends who struggle with English.

Beyond my family, I am looking forward to continuing to help immigrants feel more confident, and for other children like me to understand the struggles our families go through to create a better life for us.

Through my experiences translating, I realize that I wasn’t just a tool, but a defender and advocate.

I realize now that, unlike my grandparents, I was born into two worlds.
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