From the category of “thoughts that won’t leave your mind until you write them down,” I’m taking a brief writing break from my thesis to get some thoughts out, and then… back to it.
When I was little, my grandparents were largely Phones To Shout Into. They lived in the Philippines (later, my mom’s parents moved to Seattle). I was growing up in Chicago. We called each other on special occasions — Christmas, New Year’s, maybe birthdays — and it was always short, because long distance calls were pricey.
There’s no way to lipread on a phone call, so my general impression of my grandparents came from my bewildered looks at nearby parents to explain the blurry audio and prompt me for the proper answer.
“Hello, merry Christmas! (Mom: “They’re asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too. Here’s mom! Bye!”
Not much in the way of conversation. More like hoping I could guess the right phrase to say into the phone, successfully enough and long enough that they would let me go. I knew they loved me, and they knew I loved them, but it’s hard to get to know someone like that.
Fast forward ten years later. It was my last semester of college, and it had been a good day. After spending hours volunteering at the tech nonprofit that would later become my first job after college, I had reluctantly logged out of an office flooded with rapid-fire English text conversations — computing discussions, made accessible to me for the first time by a distributed international group of contributors who happened to choose text chat as their collaboration medium. Warmed by the unfamiliar fuzzy feeling of full-throttle, large-scale communication, I was walking to the train on rain-slicked Boston cobblestones. It was a warm night.
My phone rang. I recognized my cousin’s name and was momentarily disgruntled at my family. “They know I don’t do phone calls, I can’t hear them.” And then: “Oh crap, I don’t do phone calls. Maybe something is wrong.”
My cousin said something on the other side. I knew he would be speaking English, but the words didn’t make…
“What did you say?”
He said something again. He sounded serious — his prosody was far slower and more somber than I was used to.
“I’m sorry, I don’t…”
This time, I thought he might have said our grandfather — our Chinese dialect’s word for grandfather. I wasn’t sure. I said the word, hoping I’d guessed correctly. He repeated… something that was also probably that word. I thought.
I don’t know how many times I made my cousin repeat it over and over: our grandfather was dead. (“What?”) Our grandfather had died. (“I didn’t catch that last…”) He had a massive heart attack. (“Something about our grandfather?”) It was sudden and unexpected. (“Can you repeat…”) There was nothing anyone could do even once the ambulance arrived. (“Hang on, can you back up? Are we talking about our grandfather?”)
We gave up, hung up, and I made the long transit trek back to my suburban college dorm, wondering if our grandfather was dead, hoping I’d parsed the phone audio incorrectly, deciding whether I wanted to email my parents and ask if he was alive and risk looking like an idiot.
Eventually, I found my parents over email. He had died. I was to fly home for his funeral and sit while people mourned around me in languages I didn’t understand. Sometimes it was in English, but it’s hard to lipread people when they’re crying.
Fast forward a decade later. My grandmothers both live in the Philippines again. This time, we have Skype. I’m sitting beside my youngest cousin, and she’s the one relaying phrases, prompting my answers.
“Hello! (Cousin: “She’s asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too.”
This time, I could be more eloquent about school; at the age of thirty, far more so than at the age of ten, I’ve learned to use my hyper-fluency in spoken English to cover for my inability to hear it. But our grandmother is not a native English speaker, and that language has grown harder for her over time — so I need to dial my language to a different setting than when I am sparring verbally in academia — and the awkward 10-year-old comes out.
I’m the canary in the coal mine for my family’s intergenerational communications, or at least that’s what it often feels like. When my grandmother’s English grammar started to slip due to the mental vagaries of age, I started straining more and more to understand her — without clear sentence structures to guess at, the clues I could glean from lipreading ceased to make sense, and at some point a wall slammed shut before me. In contrast, my cousins and my aunts and mother, brother, father, uncles… they get her words, unscramble them so slightly and so fast they barely noticed it at first. There are conversations I can’t be in anymore; there are thickets I cannot, with all my intellect and skill with language, force my way through.
They say she’s still quite clear in our Chinese dialect, her native language, and I believe them. But I can’t lipread that. I’m only oral deaf in English, and in German, and a little bit in Mandarin and Spanish… languages with books, languages with grammars and phonologies I can learn in clear text first, and the fuzzy, lossy mouths of speakers second. And my family is made of people, not of books.
Sometimes — often — I can’t speak to my grandparents. But I can write — and so I write. Not so much to them now, but sometimes for them.
Hello! School… school is hard now. Hard in ways I never thought it would be hard. ButI know how much it means to you that someone in the family will get a Ph.D. You might not understand the words I’m writing, but you do understand that part of why I’m writing them is in appreciation of the generations worth of sacrifice and planning that it took to get us here.
I wish that there was more that I could say to you directly. I wish there was more of your world that I could understand, and vice versa. I wish it didn’t cost so much for me to try with spoken language, but it does, so I will do it indirectly with a written one.
Uh, yeah! I love you too. So yeah, here’s… back to my dissertation.