“Do you speak Chinese?” I asked the police officer who drove up to the scene.
I was in the backyard doing my laundry for the week when I heard a loud crash. I thought it was merely a random ambient noise typical of San Francisco. However, as I walked back into the house, I could see from my window that the loud crash was not random but in fact came from the street in front of my house. From what I could gather, my neighbor had just gotten into a car accident.
I could tell because my neighbor’s car was stopped in front of the driveway, frozen in place the same way a child’s body does in a game of freeze tag. There were four people surrounding the car. -A man, two women, and my neighbor. From my window I could hear the man yelling at my neighbor and I could see that the man was White and my neighbor, an immigrant from China.
Part of me did not want to go outside. I did not want to get involved in an argument between two people when I had no clue what had just transpired. I was especially nervous about getting involved in an argument where a White man was yelling at a Chinese man. But in a flash before my eyes, I began to imagine what might happen if I did not go out.
White man yells and curses at the Chinese man, who speaks poor English. Chinese man does all he can to defend himself, but with his limited English vocabulary, can only shout back threats of simple third grade English. Chinese man looks even more like an imbecile. White man continues to taunt the Chinese man.
Those images in my mind effectively convinced me to go outside. I have witnessed all too many times when communication gets lost in translation. When Chinese diction ismisinterpreted as yelling and screaming. When silence translates into culpability. When stereotypes get the best of us.
I told myself I would be the neutral voice, the U.N Peacekeeper. I went outside and learned that it was the two women who were in the accident with my neighbor. The angry White man was the witness. At first it seemed relatively simple to be third-party neutral. The passenger of the other car asked my neighbor for his insurance. When he, in return, asked her for the same information, the woman told him that she was not the driver but the passenger. The driver did not have the insurance information with her and was walking back to her house to retrieve it. -All of which my neighbor misheard and replied in an angry agitated voice, “What, you don’t have insurance?!”
“No, that’s not what she said,” I quickly jumped in to explain in my basic Cantonese vocabulary. “She does have insurance. The information is just back at her house.”
I turned to the woman and said in English, “He doesn’t speak that much English, so I am translating for him in Chinese.” She seemed fine with that.
Being an interpreter was not as easy, however, when the witness interjected and insisted on being adamant in his anger. His emotions were even more intense than those of the women in the accident itself. The man kept inciting my neighbor by saying that he was at fault and that he hit the woman’s car. My neighbor tried to plead his case saying that the woman drove too fast down the street. It was to no avail. His English could not catch up nor cope.
The angry White man, unconvinced, took a low blow and asked if my neighbor had just arrived in the country. Continuing with an axe to grind, he proceeded by saying his wife was Chinese and he knew Cantonese. Showing off his talents, the witness began to throw a couple of Chinese slurs at my neighbor.
To say I was surprised at the witness’s behavior would be a lie. As an Asian American, I am used to people resorting to racial tactics when they have nothing else left to throw. -Especially towards those who don’t have mastery over the English language, those who are unskilled at throwing quick-witted verbal jabs back at one’s opponent in a second- or thirdly-learned language. In desperate times, people play the race card.
All of a sudden, I realized that I was quickly becoming involved in this scene whether I liked it or not. I was no longer just a third-party neutral, but was placed in the position of being a defender of Asian America. As the English-speaking Asian American, I felt compelled to stand my ground on what was acceptable and what was not acceptable to bring into this boxing ring. Racial slurs would not be one of them.
I looked at the White man and replied, “Hey that’s not fair! That [race] has nothing to do with this [the accident].”
I told him to calm down as the police officer was on his way. The witness, in his wisdom, decided to back down.
The way things were heating up, I decided to stay and wait for the police officer to arrive. As a community advocate for immigrants, I know that limited English speakers have a right to language interpretation. I knew that if my neighbor was going to get the same treatment as his English-speaking counterparts, he would need this language support. Otherwise, things would happen without him knowing and next thing you know, my neighbor could end up in jail.
So when the officer arrived, I knew exactly what I was going to ask him. I looked at his badge and saw he was of Chinese descent. I, myself, being an Asian who grew up in the U.S. speaking mostly English knew that just because the officer was of Chinese descent didn’t mean he spoke Chinese. I looked at him and asked, “Do you speak Chinese?”
The officer stared right back at me and replied, “Why? You look like you speak pretty good English to me!”
I was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that a fellow Asian American would take offense at what I said. Clearly, he had been picked on one too many times for being Asian.
I looked back at the officer feeling like a young girl arguing with a cousin over who was going to lose the bet and have to reluctantly translate for our relative. “I do speak English, but he [the driver] does not. He needs someone to interpret for him. I need to know if you will do that for him or if I need to.”
A momentary pause later, the officer realized I was not questioning his authenticity as an English-speaker, but had a genuine concern for my neighbor. He looked at my neighbor and began speaking to him in Cantonese. While I felt a little better, I chose to stick around and make sure that my neighbor was getting the support he needed.
For several years I worked at Street Level Health Project, an organization that helps provide health access to uninsured immigrant workers. One of our jobs is to help limited English speaking patients navigate the health care system. We empower them to ask for interpreters and to speak up when something doesn’t make sense to them. We tell them that this is their right, rather than an act of kindness from a stranger for which they should feel guilty.
I wanted my neighbor to know that he, too, had this right. When he didn’t understand what was going on I said, “Ask the officer to explain it to you in Chinese. Tell him you don’t understand.”
And as I said those words, it finally dawned on me the power of privilege we have in these United States of America. We are privileged to live in this country, a place that was built on a foundation where people who live here have certain rights. This country has evolved over two hundred years, and with the hard work of many activists, the boundaries that define which people have ownership to these rights have gradually expanded. In today’s society, the winners are the people who know their rights and walk around with the certainty and confidence that they are due these rights.
The losers are those who have been disempowered. Those who have grown up in othercountries where individuals have very few rights. Those who have lived in this country long enough to experience that these rights are often stripped for people who speak English with an accent, whose skin is darker, who dress and look differently, who love someone of the same gender, who don’t have college degrees, or whose jobs are meant to be seen and not heard. Many of those disempowered have experienced walking with their heads bowed down and eyes gazed towards the ground, hoping not to be seen, hoping not to disturb, and hoping to keep peace at all costs. There is a power in keeping people ignorant.
At the same time, I also recognized that privilege and responsibility go hand in hand. As the verse in the Bible says, “To whom much has been given, from him much will be required”. And although I was initially reluctant to go outside and get involved in the car accident scene outside my house, I slowly began to recognize and remember my own privilege and power as an English-speaker, a Ph.D., and as a U.S. citizen in being able to help my fellow neighbor.
I am glad I left my house this morning. I was reminded of my social responsibility in ensuring that the more marginalized members of our community do not remain voiceless. That if I want social change, I must be willing to confront people on their own prejudices, and that I can empower myself and others to ask for exactly that which is needed. And though I myself, or those in my community may have been silenced in the past because of our race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, or citizenship status, once we know the truth about our worth and our power as individuals and collectively as a community, we do not ever have to go back to being voiceless. I walked away from this morning’s accident realizing that no one can ever take that kind of confidence away. – That this is the amazing privilege of power we can all hold and embrace.
Amy Grace Lam is a writer, mother, psychologist, and lover of nature. Her writing has appeared in AsianWeek and Feministing.com as well as scientific journals including AIDS Education and Prevention, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Her poetry and mixed-media art work has been exhibited with Asian American Women Artists Association. Amy holds a Ph.D. in social/cultural psychology and is dedicated to giving voice to underserved and disenfranchised communities including people of color, women, youth, LGBT communities, and recent immigrants and refugees. To read more writing and poetry visit her website at amygracelam.com