Speak English


The cashier stares me down, impatient, irritated, irked,
as my grandfather struggles to say a simple phrase.
Perfectly clear within his mind, yet somehow the words become
b r o k e n and s c a t t e r e d
all out of order, so warped that
Ms. Phillips, my reading teacher, would cry if she heard.
Exiting his mouth, a knot of tangled grammar and mixed-up consonants.
AGE 15
Another cashier, another face, the same expression.
She no longer bothers talking to my poor Wai-Gong; all at once,
I'm the one that she expects to speak.
When he whispers to me in Mandarin, someone mutters,
"Speak English."
Suddenly, he flinches like he's been shot.
AGE 20
That's how old Wai-Gong was when he sailed here from China,
Without a speck of English in his brain,
about to gain a lifelong accent.
An accent that invokes dirty thoughts and glances from others:
"Well, he's not from here."
"Why can't these immigrants learn proper English?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand you."
My grandfather, from a family where pride is paramount,
Swallows his everyday.

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