Rosa is a stout little eight year old with olive skin and black shoulder length hair. When she smiles, tiny dimples appear in her chubby cheeks. “I’m coming from Cleveland,” she exclaims, “I am on my way to visit my grandparents who live in Brooklyn,” her feet pressed into white plastic sandals dangling above the dirty subway floor. “Cleveland the street, not the state!” she adds with a smug grin, as if she knows some big secret.
“That would be ridiculous, if I came all the way from Cleveland all by myself!”
The subway car is making a rattling sound as it enters a tunnel. “My parents don’t speak English. I have to translate everything they say to people!” she says lost in thought, blowing a loose strand of hair from her face.
“Guess what? I am from three countries!” she goes on full of confidence, “Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and New York City!”
Rosa is only one example of thousands of immigrant children who end up becoming translators for their first-generation parents who speak little English. These children end up interpreting not only the language but also the culture, customs, and much more of the world that surrounds them. They play a vital and at times nerve-wracking role, navigating the complex and intimidating world of hospitals, law offices, and officialdom—today and in yesteryear. “I see it all the time,” says Carola Grundman, 50, a teacher at Pusteblume, a private Spanish-German elementary school in New York City. “There is a reversal of roles going on. The parent suddenly acting like a child, and the child assuming a responsibility far greater than their age. A heavy burden to carry,” Grundman adds with a serious look, while sitting behind her desk and sifting through a stack of papers.
The problem becomes even more evident in some of New York’s public schools. In one example 36 different languages are spoken and 77 of the 100 children in kindergarten come from homes in which the parents speak a foreign language. “I was once tutoring math classes to this little Spanish girl at PS 130,” says Ana Garcia, 34, a New York City resident from Malaga, Spain, “The little girl was only ten years old and she was falling behind in school because of the workload at home, translating for her parents. There are just so many immigrants. It is difficult to keep up with all the different languages and cultures in our schools… Even here in Manhattan.”
Many of children of immigrants who have now grown into adults are still grappling with the emotional aftermath of this particular experience.
Francesca Zhou, a 34-year-old Chinese woman now living in Soho and working in business development for an online advertising agency, has a round freckled face, a skinny figure, and black shoulder length hair. She sits on the couch of her spacious loft wearing a beige tank top and purple pants. The space is quiet and clean, a coffee table topped with a bottle of Fiji water and piles of books lined on the floor. Francesca’s parents left her with her grandmother in China when she was only one year old. They moved to Florence, Italy to open up what turned out to be the first Chinese restaurant in the area. Francesca, whose original Chinese name was Jahe, joined them when she was five years old. “I don’t remember much from China,” she says, her voice slowly gaining confidence as she continues speaking “Just that suddenly my mother was there with a suitcase, and I was like… who is this stranger? And then she took me with her to Italy.” The first week in Italy also marked the date that Jahe’s name was forever changed into Francesca. “My name was just too difficult to pronounce, so giving me an entirely new name was easier!” she says, her smile never leaving her face, protecting more than revealing what she feels. “They never learned Italian. At the restaurant it’s about the food, not the talking. That’s what my mom would say. And work was all they did,” Zhou recalls with slight hesitation and a thick Italian accent, her smile deepening into something more complex as she keeps talking. “Before I came to Italy, my parents relied on their Chinese friends who spoke the language, but then when I learned Italian in school it was easier for them to ask me. I was right there at hand, whenever they needed me. I remember translating school documents, bank statements or medical bills.” She removes an invisible piece of lint from her pants and hesitates before continuing, “It was an obligation I felt. I would often see them stress out over little things and it felt like I was the one responsible for them. Not the other way around.”
However, the experience of being a translator can also be affirming for a small child, as it was for Louis Kim, 38, a real estate investor living in Washington DC. Louis had a very different experience with translating for his non English speaking parents, who had moved to Redding Pennsylvania from Korea before he was born. “With all the political turmoil, it felt as if another war was eminent and my mother didn’t want my brother to join the military, so we left Korea” Kim says in a measured, intelligent sounding voice. “Here in the US they started out working in factories and then they went on to operate different retail businesses throughout their lives: Dry Cleaners, Liquor Stores, Motels, Car Washers. They were basically the stereotype of Korean Americans.” Kim never recalls feeling embarrassed by his parents never learning English and he would certainly never call it a burden. “I mean let’s say it this way. You know how there is three ways: The right way, the wrong way, or just the way. You help your family cause you are a unit. It was just the way! You always did what you had to do to help each other out.” Louis remembers one particular incident, when he joined an important meeting between his parents and the developer of a brand-new shopping center when he was only eight years old. It was the first adult meeting where he remembers feeling fully involved and not just the interpreter that tagged along. “I remember that the developer was so impressed by my translation, that he ended up wanting my parents to open up a shop in his center.” He continues “It was a unique experience that I don’t think many children that age get to have. It made me realize the importance of words!”
Yet the sense of responsibility that was so formative for Louis manifested quite differently for Nicole Liu (20), who has a slim figure and black thin hair tied up in a ponytail. For Liu the process of adapting to the North American culture from her home in Hong Kong, came much later on in life. She is wearing a green plaid shirt, her ears pierced with small black earrings, as she speaks with an introspective tone which makes her sound a lot older than her age. Liu’s relationship with the English language is strictly tied to her mother’s traumatic experience as a child. Having experienced bullying herself for not speaking the language, Liu’s mother made sure her daughter never had to experience the same. “When my mother moved to Hong Kong from mainland China, she went into a secondary school and they would laugh at her for not speaking English. That’s why she wanted me to speak the language perfectly. I grew up being the kid who could speak like I was British,” she recalls with a sad smile. Speaking perfect English was what distinguished Liu from her other peers while growing up in Hong Kong, and ironically not speaking English was also what distinguished her mother from everyone else, when they moved to the US. “I never wanted to host sleepovers”, Liu says. Now she pauses for a moment excusing herself. “I thought I was over this but there is still a lot of residue emotions going on inside of me right now…” she admits. “It’s just the expression of my mother when she sees someone who doesn’t speak Chinese… I see it in front of me. She wants to welcome them and greet them but then stops herself cause there is such an obvious fear in her. Fear of saying something wrong.” Liu remembers her first years of high school being the worst. She remembers feeling constantly ashamed. There is a moment of silence as she is trying to find the right words. “When I was in Junior high I realized it’s not her fault if her English isn’t good enough. And I was like… Not speaking English doesn’t mean that you are less valuable as a person. Or any less intelligent. As an adult, I think I should have helped my mother. I feel bad now,” Liu says with a sigh, as if trying to shake off unwanted feelings and reorganize thoughts that have inadvertently escaped her. “So much of my mother’s self worth has been tied with the English language because of her childhood and adolescence. It’s been a process. But she is a lot more relaxed now.”
At Pusteblume in Chelsea, New York City, Carola Grundman finishes packing up her bag. Thin bars of light are streaming through the partially open blinds casting a pool of light onto her desk. “What these immigrant children need the most is a sense of belonging”, she says, while arranging a stack of papers, ready to leave school for the day. “Every child has a different way of dealing with this particular role – the one of being a medium between languages… A medium between worlds. But precisely because their brains are still developing, their need to belong will never be as strong as it is now.”