What do you call a person speaking three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call one speaking two? Bilingual.
What do you call a person speaking one language? American.
I am often times surprised by people being surprised at my ability to speak English. Yes, my eyes look different than yours, but their slight slant in no way prohibits my language comprehension. I have been living in this country for, on December 11, 26 years. I have been speaking American English since my overzealous (I mean this in the most loving way) Montessori-school-teaching mother could make my vocal chords produce noise.
I am no historian, but people have been speaking English in this country since approximately the 17th century. While we (Americans) have no official national language, it’s pretty safe to say that, in a country where you can run for governor on the platform of being disgusted by the amount of languages (12) your state (Hi Alabama!) provides on driver’s license exams, you better learn FUCKING English. (Hello Tim James!) (I am in no way condoning this mentality; I’m just living in it. [sobs!] )
It would be nice if Americans were as multicultural as the ‘salad bowl’ we dreamed up. And yes, that can be the case on either coast, but as one adopted Korean girl in WEST MICHIGAN, my pot has been melted (nothing I am proud of, but that is life).
Much to my dismay, about a year or two ago, I met one of the biggest proponents of Michigan’s multiculturalism. I word it this way because I have no better explanation for what came out of her mouth.
I was in retail, and chatting working diligently with my friend/co-worker. A woman rushed into our store, looked at the both of us, and then looked at Sarah to ask, “Does SHE speak English?” The both of us froze in disbelief. Before either of us could respond with “Yes” or “No” she proclaimed, with her own sense of affirmation to her question, “You know, because I’m in a hurry. I don’t need a communication barrier.”
Now, at this point thoughts raced through my mind like, ‘This is West Michigan, not New York, there is little to no cultural diversity. NO major corporation would hire a non-English speaker in a customer service job where profits are solely based on precise execution of communication.’ AND BETTER YET, ‘If you were in such a hurry, why did you take the time to ask Sarah if I spoke English? Could you have just, you know, asked Sarah to help you? She, and I think she would agree with me, is as “American-looking” as they come. (I realize that kind of description can conjure up many negative images…. I mean, she is healthy, beautiful, will probably own a Golden Retriever someday, and most importantly, CAUCASIAN! ) And anyways, all Caucasians in America speak ENGLISH (sarcasm).
I didn’t know what else to do so I just said “Yes.” I helped her, and she thanked me (all in English) and she scurried off to whatever the fuck was so important that she had to make sure there was no communication barrier, but not important enough so that she could first take the time to clarify whether or not we, I mean, I, could speak English.
Later that day I internally harvested a million better scenarios and responses for that question, one being Sarah responding in perfect Mandarin. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, Sarah has never spoken Mandarin, but in my witty daydream SHE DOES. She does SO well that the lady apologizes for her narrow-mindedness on race and language. THEN, a 180 happens and she talks about multiculturalism for at least a half an hour. She explains to us why it is really important for other cultures to maintain their own individual culture while, at the same time, transforming American society into a truly multicultural mosaic. That is why she didn’t want to assume that I spoke English, because she didn’t want to assume that I had ever completely assimilated. I would cry, and confess to her that I had wished I would have paid more attention during Korean Culture Camp. And then SHE forgave ME, and would end up late regardless….