In Any Language
“Siéntete, por favor,” my mom said, patting her bedspread. Like other Saturday nights,
she knelt awkwardly on the mattress, a comb in one hand. A pile of pink foam curlers lay beside
I clambered up in my pale pink nightgown in front of her, my hair wet from my Saturday
bath, and stared into the large mirror over my parents’ dresser. I was five. My dad was in the
kitchen at the opposite end of the hall going over his sermon for the next morning, his face
pressed close to his large-print Bible, or his fingers wandering lightly over braille. He worked
part-time as an assistant pastor at a Baptist church and had inherited an eye disease that left him
blind in the dark. My younger brother played in the bathtub, his high-pitched squeals echoing
against the tile.
Since I could remember, I had spent Saturday nights perched on my mom’s side of the
bed, my legs hanging over the edge, while my mom rolled my hair onto curlers. I sat still and
clasped my hands on my lap like I was praying. I was supposed to be ladylike—compliant,
submissive, silent. The scent of strawberry shampoo filled the air. My mom pointed to my nose
with one finger and drew a straight line down the center of my head with the comb. She tossed
half of my hair forward over my shoulder; water dripped down the front of my nightgown.
“Cristo me ama, bien lo se,” my mom sang in her soprano voice. Jesus loves me, this I
know. She looked up, her reflection bumpy in the old mirror, and smiled.
I focused on the shape of her mouth with each word, sang along silently. At five, I
admired everything about her: the way she rubbed rouge into circles on her cheeks and blended it
into her olive skin, the effortless way she rolled her r’s, the Spanish that brightened her mood. It
was in Spanish that she loved me, in Spanish that I was beautiful and belonged to her. I hoped
one day she would ask me to share her special language and invite me into her special world.
I knew enough Spanish to be able to retrieve her llaves from her bolsa, her keys from her purse; to find the mantequilla, butter, in the refrigerator and spread it on our breakfast toast, pan tostada; get a platillo, a plate. When she said if I finished my jugo de naranja, my orange juice, I could have leche chocolate, chocolate milk, I understood. I did not speak. Under my dad’s authoritarian rule, I knew better than to speak unless asked to, in any language.
“Si, Cristo me ama, la biblia dice asi,” she sang. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so. She sang louder, wrapped my hair around a roller, snapped it closed, and let it dangle next to
the others. She recited fairy tales in Spanish and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She told
me stories of when she lived in Mexico City while she studied at the university there, how the
men she dated liked it when she didn’t shave her legs, and how safe she felt. Her face, usually
stoic, came alive. Her eyes glistened. She laughed, her voice floating above us like soap bubbles.
My mom’s energy was contagious. First, my feet bounced, then my hands and my head.
My mom glowered at me, her lips pinched together in a tight line. She put a hand firmly on the
top of my head and waited for me to stop. I twisted a nylon string from her bedspread around my
finger and ran it under my fingernails. In silence, she finished my hair.
Tears pooled in my eyes. I blinked hard. Why couldn’t I obey? Why couldn’t I tame my
will and behave? “Pobrecita,” she said, her voice like a bite. Pitiful little girl. “Go to bed.”
I don’t remember if my mom stopped speaking Spanish to me all at once or gradually. By
the time I entered kindergarten, my mom no longer sang or told stories while she curled my hair
on Saturday nights. Instead, she spoke Spanish to strangers—at the bank, in the grocery checkout
line, anywhere. Someone would say something about the weather or an item they forgot, and my
mom would jump into their conversation.
“Coffee? It’s on the same aisle as Kleenex, right over there. I’ll watch your cart if you
want to go get it.”
I pretended that I didn’t understand. We were white, with Irish and British ancestry, not
at all Hispanic. Spanish was my mom’s language to offer and withhold, not mine.
At six, I thought my parents had developed another language, another language I could
learn. I paid attention to their tone, the repeated sounds. I would learn later they were spelling
words so my brother and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. All around me people
spoke another language. Kids in my kindergarten class spoke Tagalog, Korean, Japanese, and
Spanish at home, or went to powwows with their families. With only English, I felt inferior to others, my world dramatically smaller.
Thinking I had begun to master the new language, I taught my brother what I knew. I
labeled toys, made up words, added to them, and put them together. Green truck. Red car. Want
candy. My brother caught on quickly. “Baaag pawl. Moosh goo.” Gradually, he spoke the new
language more often than English.
I didn’t know my parents had considered taking my brother to specialists. One day my
mom overheard me giving my brother a language lesson.
“Moosh goo. Gurl lup.”
She marched toward us. “What are you doing?”
I pointed to the race car in my brother’s hand.
“Gurl lup,” he said, beaming. “Gurl lup.”
“Teaching him.” I beamed, proud of myself. I believed I had created a world no one
could take away.
“Young lady!” My mom put her hands on her hips, pulled herself taller. “What has gotten
into you?” She glared over her nose, her eyes gleaming with rage. “Go to your room! You can
wait there until your dad gets home. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
I looked down at my feet, shaking. Whatever I had done, it was serious enough to warrant
a spanking. My dad took spankings seriously as the head of the house. Spankings were a chance to reclaim my soul, to beat sin out of me. Each time, I lay naked over his lap and forced myself not to move or cry, both signs he hadn’t conquered my will. Often unable to go to dinner “cheery,” I went to bed alone, hungry.
In the next weeks and months, my mom invested every minute she had to undo the
damage. She read to my brother, asked him to repeat words, their heads together. Her cheeks
rose with pride; she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close.
When I was thirteen, a young woman named Annabelle came into our lives. She had
come to Colorado from Guatemala to work as a maid for a wealthy family. One day while the
family was out, she escaped from the bedroom where she had been locked and ran to a church,
my family’s church. Petite, her clothes torn, and bruised, she yelled, “Habla Español!” My mom
came running. She took Annabelle’s hand and ushered her into a quiet room.
My mom helped Annabelle find a safe place to live and get asylum. Many afternoons
after school I’d come home and find my mom and Annabelle deep in conversation in the kitchen
or the living room, Annabelle’s eyes red.
While I didn’t spend much time with her, I adored Annabelle. She was enough older than
me that I fantasized she was my older sister. She would decide to live with us and teach me about
makeup, fashion, boys, how to prevent acne, I thought. I was jealous of her thick, black hair with
a hint of wave and her copper skin. She seemed comfortable in her body, like puberty had been
but a blip in her life rather than the all-encompassing horror I thought might never end.
It had been a long time since I had felt my mom’s fingers in my hair, since I had sat on
her bed longing to be just like her. As my dad’s temper increased from yelling to hitting and
smashing furniture and dishes, my mom withered until there was nothing left.
“Go!” I’d shout to her when my dad’s skin turned bright pink, his eyes flashing with rage.
My mom froze, her eyes vacant. “Go to your room; lock the door,” I urged. “Go.”
She took my brother’s hand and shuffled down the hall. If she or my brother heard my
body thud against the walls or floor, if they heard my cries, I don’t know. My mom never left her
room to check on me. After what felt like hours, my mom and brother would emerge, their
voices light. They walked past my room, past me, to get a snack in the kitchen near my room.
Neither of them said anything to me until the next day, when we all pretended nothing had
One afternoon, I got home from school and Annabelle and my mom were in the living
room. They looked calmer than usual, happy. Annabelle had gotten engaged to an American
citizen. She would not have to return to Guatemala. She and my mom sat at opposite ends of the
couch, a large beveled mirror behind them. They both looked up as I passed.
Annabelle waved me in. She gestured to the floor in front of her. “Siéntete, por favor.”
I sat and clasped my hands. Was I in trouble? Had my mom told her about all the things I
did wrong, the emotions I couldn’t control, that I teased my brother, how I sometimes forgot to
pick up my toys when I knew my dad might trip over them?
Annabelle ran her fingers through my hair. When she reached a tangle, she stopped and
gently worked at it with her other hand. She and my mom talked in the background. Their words
drifted over me, their voices soft, the rhythm of their conversation like a lullaby. I missed
Spanish, the fairy tales and nursery rhymes, my mom’s voice. I missed my mom’s touch.
Annabelle’s fingers combed down my back. Her fingernails were light, her touch gentle. She
smelled like fresh tortillas.
“Habla Español?” She patted my shoulder. She was talking to me.
“Si,” I said before I could stop, my voice sleepy. Annabelle lifted my hair up into one
large bunch, then let it fall gently on my back. I sighed.
My mom laughed like she had just heard the punch line of a joke.
“She’s never wanted to learn,” my mom said in Spanish. “I tried to teach her. She didn’t
want to learn. No comprendo.”
“Por que no?”
I did want to learn, had wanted to learn. I stared at my hands, said nothing.
Annabelle’s fingers moved smoothly and with authority as she braided my hair. I could
tell it would look good, the two sides even, not lumpy, not too tight. I imagined letting her braid
my hair every day, listening to her stories, asking how to say things like cute boy and crush and
When she finished, she helped me up and smiled. I gasped at my reflection. I was
“Gracias,” I muttered.
“De nada.” Annabelle beamed.
My mom laughed and stood to leave the room. Annabelle followed my mom into the
kitchen. They slid the pocket door closed. I had tried to speak their language, tried to step into
their world, the world where women were beautiful and confident, and had been rejected. I
turned and went into my room, vowed never to attempt Spanish again. I couldn’t bear to lose it
“Look! Another car. What color is it?” Years later I sat in the front yard with my three-year-old son.
Andrew signed green. Traffic from a school nearby passed us. Go see trucks? I started
teaching him to sign when he was one and a half, about six months after he joined our family
through adoption. He wasn’t learning words like other toddlers were. I attributed his delay to
grieving his birth language, Korean, not knowing that he didn’t have enough strength in his lips
and tongue to form words. Without language, I worried he’d get lost in a world I couldn’t access.
Tomorrow, I signed.
Andrew raised his eyebrows. Please?
Tomorrow, I signed again. Okay? “Daddy will be home soon, and we’ll have dinner. We can go tomorrow.”
One of Andrew’s favorite excursions was to visit construction sites. He would sit in his
stroller while I sat on a blanket outside the fence and told him about the various trucks.
Yellow, truck, big, wow, what is that? he signed. I answered the best I could. Bulldozer.
Excavator. Backhoe. Skid steer.
At home, he quickly absorbed signs and repeated them. Milk. No. Water. Yes. Cat. Walk. Go. Green. Cup. Hungry. Blue. Mom. Dad. Book. He pointed at objects—a chair, a door, his
shoes—and I looked up signs. He burst into a grin each time he could label something. Bird.
Bug. Playground. Andrew reminded me of my brother when I thought I was teaching my brother
a new language. Both boys were so excited to learn a new word, to repeat it, to use it to tell me
In time, Andrew began to put words together. Go store? Go park? Shoes no. Play
outside? We hired a speech therapist, who brought games and made milkshakes for him to drink
through large straws, then smaller straws as he grew stronger.
On the front lawn, I rested my finger on his top lip. “Can you say brown dog?”
“Good job.” I was both proud of him and resisted his growth. Each sound he made
brought him closer to not needing sign language, not needing me.
When Andrew turned eleven, we decided to plan a trip to Korea. We wanted to see the
country where Andrew and his younger sister, also adopted from Korea, were born. Andrew and
Grace have been enrolled in Korean classes each Saturday since Andrew was six. Having joined
our family when she was beginning to speak Korean, Grace was in the class for native speakers.
Andrew, diagnosed with autism and learning disabilities, was placed in the class for kids with
English-speaking parents. With a trip coming up, I enrolled in beginning classes. I wanted to honor
my kids’ birth and foster families, the country as a whole.
Korean school had been my husband’s responsibility, something I was glad to pass off
after taking on the bulk of communication with Andrew’s team of special education teachers and
therapists at the elementary school. After five years of my husband driving to a suburb across
Denver each Saturday, I offered to take the kids to Korean school. I was going anyway, I
“No. I’m not going. No!” Andrew’s voice echoed in the hallway outside his Korean class.
My son grabbed my elbow and pulled me away from his class into a hallway. He leaned hard
into a locker, then recoiled at the loud thunk. The days when Andrew couldn’t speak felt like a lifetime ago. Since starting school and having speech therapy several times a week, he had made enough progress that it was rare for me to need to translate when someone couldn’t understand
him. In contrast to those long, silent years, now I found myself asking Andrew to turn his volume
“You’re okay,” I said automatically, something I said each time he was overwhelmed. At
eleven, he stood nearly as tall as me. I tried to make eye contact, knowing it would help him feel
safe, that if he could make eye contact, he would let me take care of him rather than fighting me.
He pulled hard on my hand, twisting my fingers until they popped. I winced. “Andrew, can you
look at me? Can you tell me what’s going on, what you feel?”
“I’m not going.” He looked at the floor, his jaw set.
“Is it the classroom? A kid? A teacher? Is it snack time? Is the work too hard? Too easy?”
I rambled, my words spilling over each other. “Do you want to hold your teacher’s hand, sit by
her? Do you want to help your teacher with something? I’m sure she could use your help.” I
rested my hands on my son’s shoulders and waited for him to look up like I did when we were
“I want to be with you.” He laced his fingers through mine and looked up slowly. “I want
to stay with you.”
Behind us, other parents signed their kids into class and called, “Have a good day.”
“You need to be with me today?” Unable to lie, I knew he would be honest if he was
trying to avoid an assignment.
“I’m afraid.” He pulled at dry skin on his bottom lip, then rubbed his lips together to push
a flap of skin forward and back.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. You can come with me today, but I want you to do your best. Can
you do that?”
Holding my gaze, he nodded.
Two weeks later, we dress up to attend Chuseok, the Korean harvest holiday at the
Korean school. We can wear hanboks, the formal cultural attire for special events and holidays,
or dress in nice American clothes. Each class has prepared a traditional Korean dish; everyone
takes turns buying and selling food using fake money.
“Hola,” my daughter’s friend says when the two girls meet in the hallway. The girls hug
each other and giggle. Their bright pink and turquoise hanbok skirts flare out as they embrace.
My daughter wears a gray T-shirt under her hanbok, the front open, two slightly wrinkled strands
of satin dangling near her belly. Her friend’s hanbok had been pressed, the bow precisely tied by
her Korean mother.
“Hola,” my daughter says.
“Can I tie your bow for you?” I reach for her ties.
“I’d better have someone Korean do it, Mom.” She steps back. “No offense, but you
aren’t exactly Korean.” She smiles, her black eyes sparkling under the fluorescent lights.
“You noticed?” I laugh.
Her teacher comes from behind me, kneels, and ties the one-sided pink bow in one quick
movement, then pats my daughter on the head. “Go on in,” she says to my daughter and gestures
to the cafeteria where the festivities are.
My daughter bows and says thank you. “Kahm sahm ee da.”
I go to the table where my class is selling mandu, or dumplings filled with meat and
vegetables. I practice saying the few words I know: Three pieces for 5,000 won. “Sae gay eh oh
chun won. Sae gay eh oh chun won.” I hope no one asks me any questions.
Andrew stands next to me; he refused to go to his class. He presses himself against the
tile wall, slides back and forth, and twirls my hair around his fingers. The cafeteria is loud; his
eyes are glassy.
“Sae gay eh,” I start as a group of kids comes to the table. They chuckle, hand me money,
and point to the plate of the type of dumpling they’d like. I fill their plates.
I realize that, starting at 45, I will always have an American accent, no matter how many
Korean classes I take. I wonder if I would have an accent if I took Spanish, if any of what I heard
would come out, if I would sound like an authentic Spanish speaker. I doubt it. The days when I
could have been fluent, could have belonged to my mom through Spanish, are gone. I hope by
learning Korean that I am strengthening my kids’ bond with their heritage and language, with the
parts of them that exist only in Korean.
My daughter and her friend stop by my table. “Sae gay eh oh chun won,” I say proudly.
She rolls her eyes playfully. “Kahm sahm ee da.” Thank you. “Good try, Mom.”
The girls walk away, elbow in elbow, their plates held in front of them. I hear snippets of
a conversation in Korean, English words tossed in here and there. At another table, the girls
order effortlessly, barely stopping long enough to pause their conversation. They walk away,
giggling, nine-year-old girls at home in any language.