I was really sick. I had a high fever, a painfully sore throat, and was quite congested. The male nurse asked my mom why she had brought me in to see the doctor. She explained the best she could given that English was not her first language. She couldn’t find a word to say, so she asked me to tell him how I felt. I drew a blank—I had just learned to speak English and did not have enough vocabulary to explain. So in her best attempt, she told him I was constipated. She meant congested. I was 5. I have never forgotten the look on his face as he laughed at my mom. For years, I fantasized about running into him so I could punch him. I promised myself that that would never happen again.
I share moments like this whenever I sit with a client who grew up with parents who spoke a different language. Most of us who come from bicultural homes have many stories of serving as a translator to our parents. While other kids and even younger siblings are playing, we are at the kitchen table or on a call translating for our caretakers. We lose something when we are 7, 6, or even 5 and have to serve as translators to our parents. We grow up a bit faster. We become over-responsible. We inadvertently become caretakers for our caretakers. The pressure of getting it right and the guilt when we don’t know what to say. I remembered being proud of helping when my brain remembered the right words, guilty when I couldn’t help, and resentful that I had no choice, I could not say no.
It’s a subtle shift.
I have always loved my role as the eldest in my family. I always loved being able to help my mother. She was my original Badass Mujer. Can you imagine coming to a country where you don’t know the language? She made the choice not to perfect her English so she could teach my sister and me Spanish. She deserves a parade, not being made fun of. Seeing what that man did to my mother changed me.
And it’s not all bad.
We now know that those that were translators tend to be more caring. More aware of those in their surroundings that need help. We are often the advocates, making sure that everyone is understood and serving as translators where we can. I know I offer my translation skills wherever I am.
Think of what your Translator story is.
Let’s celebrate this role together.