Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Silence: All in the Family

Chandrea's picture

I would like to further explore how I understand silence as a first generation Cambodian-American within the Cambodian community as well as within my own family. In the previous web event paper I wrote about how stifling it was to live in a household dictated by my father. What I struggled to come to terms with was the unexpected guilt that I felt after I realized that my choice to speak out against him may have silenced him. But what I want to explore in this web event paper is how silence is exemplified when I am with my grandparents and any other Khmer speaking person who isn’t intent on purposefully silencing me.

My grandparents only speak Khmer. They immigrated as refugees to the United States in 1985 and were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge. I am a first generation Cambodian-American and my first language was Khmer, but as I got older I started losing my ability to speak it. I was placed into an ESL class in primary school, and so I started to speak more English at school and at home. To this day, I can understand most of the Khmer that is being said to me, but I can’t speak it. I think that this is an interesting roadblock and it brings me back to the question of why I thought conversations had to be a one-way street in my home. My one-way understanding of the Khmer language is almost like a metaphor for my communication with my dad: I hear it and can take it all in but I can’t respond. I absolutely love my grandparents and enjoy spending time with them but it does bother me that I don’t always feel comfortable sitting alone in the same room with them for fear that they might ask me a question that would require a response in Khmer. I find ways to manage by responding in mostly English and searching my mind for basic vocabulary words to get my message across to them. But it’s the awkward, inevitable moments of silence that make me feel self-conscious and incompetent.

It’s my fault that I can’t speak my own native language. I get that. But how do you make the most of your time being with your loved ones if you can’t even hold a simple conversation? This language barrier is quite literally putting a wall up between my grandparents and I. My inability to speak Khmer is my own form of silence. So the question I want answered is: Am I silencing myself? Who’s doing the silencing here? One time my siblings and I were sitting in the living room of my grandparents’ home and we were playfully reciting the Khmer alphabet. We weren’t taking ourselves seriously and my grandpa could see that. He ruefully remarked to my mom that it was a shame that her kids thought that this was a laughing matter and that we couldn’t even speak our own language. My mom defended us on the spot and said she only cared that we were doing well in school and were staying out of trouble.

My grandpa’s remark only upheld my insecurities. I don’t think he knew that I even understood what he was saying and that I was already feeling ashamed about it, but he made a valid point. This situation reminded me about Rigoberta Menchu’s statement in Chapter 6 of I, Rigoberta Menchu: “Anyone who doesn’t dress as our grandfathers, our ancestors, dressed, is on the road to ruin (42). I wonder if my grandpa would empathize with this belief. Maybe he would think anyone who doesn’t speak the same language as our ancestors is on the road to ruin. Am I already on that road?

What also caught my attention in this book was how the lorry drivers spoke Spanish to be the go-betweens and used it as a form of leverage. If I tried harder to learn the Khmer language, would I fit in with the Khmer community? I would think yes, but there are other ways I would be seen as an outsider. Say I could speak the language. I would probably have a horrible American accent that came along with my feeble attempts to speak it. I still don’t think I’d be accepted. I grew up outside of heavily populated Khmer-speaking communities and didn’t have as much of an opportunity to interact with other Cambodians except for my immediate family, meaning my mom (who was too busy working to make sure I was learning and speaking both Khmer and English), my dad (who was domineering and intent on silencing me regardless of what language I was speaking), and my younger siblings (who were already starting to learn English as their first language). A friend of mine sadly pointed out to me that I would never really fit in with either community. If I were to be dropped off in Cambodia, I would not only struggle immensely to communicate, but I would also be just another American to them. But in the United States, I could say I was born here, but that would only prompt the other person to ask me, “No, you know what I mean. Really, where are you from?”

The wall that stands in my way of communicating with my grandparents is silencing me. I, along with my parents, had to make a choice in deciding which language that would be most useful in successfully navigating this country. But as Rigoberta Menchu has demonstrated, knowing the languages of both cultures isn’t enough. You don’t really win either way. Although she can speak Spanish to fight back her people’s oppressors, she’s still not actually seen as one of the Quiche. If I tried to speak Khmer, I would just be another foreigner trying to learn the language. I still wouldn’t fit in.



Anne Dalke's picture

On finding a story that fits?

You have had a single theme in your written work for this course: your own silence in your family, which you have looked @ from a range of angles: first, you wrote about what you called choosing to be silent, but which was really about silence resulting obedience and fear. Then you wrote about the options of having one-way conversation or no conversation @ all--the absence of any dialogue @ home wherein you might bring yourself into voice.

This time you are focusing not on family members who are deliberately silencing you, but rather on the silencing that has resulted from your learning a second language, and so losing fluency in your first. You find this "metaphoric" for the fear-based silences you described in your earlier papers: "I hear it and can take it all in but I can’t respond," but this account seems much more poignant to me, because the silence was not intended, not willed, rather the result of schooling--"I was placed into an ESL class in primary school, and so I started to speak more English at school and at home"--and a desire to flourish--"I had to make a choice in deciding which language that would be most useful in successfully navigating this country."

So of course my first wish is that you would stop blaming yourself, stop saying "It’s my fault that I can’t speak my own native language. I get that." There is a much larger range of forces @ play here than your own will, structural reasons that have kept you from retaining a fluency in Khmer; the causes are neither all in you nor (as your title maintains) "all in the family." My second wish is that you could let go of the fear that not speaking Khmer means you are "already on the road to ruin."

My third is that you might find a way to tell this story that is less about the failure to "really fit in with either community," about "really not winning either way." Could you look towards a narrative that is less about silencing, and who's doing it, than about your being positioned in a powerful in-between space, refusing to be limited by an singular category of identity? I'm thinking here of Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands (which I recommended to Uninhibited, who writes about being in a similar place); that book sees being on a border as a powerful place, one that has a larger perspective, that  can see into two cultures, from the edge of each. In my response to Unihibited, I also described an eco-book I've just come across, which explores a similar understanding of migration, not as leaving one identity behind to pick up another, but rather as the core of cultural identity itself.  I'm hoping that you might find that such a story "fits"…?