The first words I ever uttered were “utto kalo,” a garbled, babyfied rendition of the Marathi phrase translating to, “let me down.” This milestone came six months after my birth to parents who had recently emigrated to Texas from western India. Although my mother and father were quite fluent in English, they exclusively spoke their native Marathi at home.
I was a chatty, incoherent toddler whose botched-up Marathi was well beyond my parents’ comprehension. Yet those days were my parents’ most cherished memory of me – the days I was growing up as a reflection of them and their cultural identities, untainted by American assimilation.
On the ride to my first day of preschool – and first day of integration – my mother taught me exactly four English words: potty, hungry, thirsty, and in case of dire emergency, mommy. I figured that those words, plus the few others I had picked up while watching TV shows like Barney, were enough to communicate at school. That notion was almost immediately shot down as the few kids I attempted to befriend had no clue what to make of me babbling Marathi to them. Like many preschoolers, I was electrified with dread upon realizing my mother’s absence, but my dread was linguistically incomprehensible to everyone. I broke down in a catastrophic tantrum, wet my pants, and threw up, all while desperately screaming the only English word I could remember – mommy.
That day, my parents realized the urgency of our need to speak English at home. And I quickly caught on, learning to speak and read extensively in English, from The Berenstain Bears to Shel Silverstein to Nancy Drew to Magic Tree House. I became enraptured with writing, plastering my short stories all over the refrigerator until it looked like a giant block of scribbles. I was talking, thinking, and dreaming in English – and unconsciously beginning to place my Marathi on the bench.
As I yearned to fit in with my peers at school, I faced a dilemma undoubtedly familiar to so many first-generation kids: do I retain my cultural roots or immerse myself completely in my environment? This tends to be a mutually exclusive decision, since assimilation into Western culture seems to demand all or nothing. Marathi has no linguistic roots in common with English – in addition to using a totally different alphabet – so it was hard to invest time in the mastery of both languages. I began spending time in AOL chatrooms and on instant messaging services and MySpace, picking up the slang and adopting more American-isms. I was becoming less and less a reflection of my parents and the culture they’d attempted to preserve.
“Assimilation into Western culture seems to demand all or nothing.”
As I transitioned into my teenage years charged with fiery hormones, I had a hard time making friends and always thought it was because I looked different – something I envied white kids for never having to contemplate. I couldn’t get rid of my brown skin so I decided to get rid of everything else that set me apart–beginning with language. I stopped speaking Marathi altogether and began to despise my parents for their continued, dedicated use of it. I knew that by growing up in India surrounded by people who look and talk just like them, they wouldn’t understand the desperate need I felt to fit in. My father spoke English primarily at work and, in the context of his fast-paced job as an engineer, associated the language with high stress and arrogance. He and my mother increasingly interpreted what I said as impolite. When I used retorts like “whatever,” “so?” or “it doesn’t matter,” I’d get admonished to not speak to my parents the way I’d speak to my peers. We always understood each other linguistically, but almost never emotionally. I was 14 and didn’t know how else to speak to them. Our interactions became increasingly rare and formal.
Years passed and my relationship with my parents consisted mainly of empty hellos and arguments lost in translation. At 17, as the raging storm of my teenage insubordination began to calm, I started to feel ashamed of being so incompetent at speaking with my parents. I envied the type of mother and daughter friendship I saw portrayed on Gilmore Girls, more so because the two had so effortlessly caught on to each other’s colloquialisms. My daily happenings, stories, and jokes, on the other hand, didn’t translate so well to my parents, even though I badly needed that connection. Language had me pendulating between two identities – one as my own independent being and one as a daughter.
When we did speak in English, I felt guilty hearing their accented words and choppy retorts. I refused to talk on long distance calls to my grandparents and relatives out of embarrassment, which made my parents feel even worse. Yet it was so difficult to articulate that I was not ashamed of them, but rather, of myself and my muddled identity. My parents had moved to a country that ostracized them as minorities and their one safe space – at home amongst their own – was ruthlessly commandeered by a child consumed by the demands of integration.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that I finally began resurrecting the remnants of Marathi that lay scattered in the back of my mind. My grandfather had flown from India to stay with us for a few months, and he spoke primarily in Marathi. His arrival presented the perfect juncture of my desperation to reconnect with my family and my efforts to salvage the last of what I had of their language. I started by posing simple questions to my parents in Marathi so I could listen and interact. I would begin by asking “aaj kai kela?” – what did you do today? – followed by “kashala?” – why? The transition from my seamless English to fragmented Marathi was uncomfortable and laughably embarrassing at first, but I could see my parents becoming more and more at ease with me. More so, I began to feel comfortably myself.
Slowly and after a few months of consistency, I caught on to steady conversational fluency. Today, my Marathi isn’t as perfect as my parents’, nor is it even as smooth as when I was a child. Although my linguistic abilities have returned to that of an incoherent toddler, I can tell that once again seeing their daughter as a reflection of themselves will be my parents’ most cherished memory of me.