Tongue Tied

By Katherine Perez

On my first day of kindergarten I peed my pants.

It was during recess right after lunch. The urge to pee took over quickly. Across the yard I spotted one of the lunch/recess monitors and ran over to them. It was only then I tapped their arm to get attention did I realize I hadn’t learned how ask “Can I go to the bathroom?”

I had only lived in the United States a total of 2 months and didn’t really know any useful phrases. I could sing the hell out of the Barney theme song but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere, definitely not to a bathroom.

I knew I couldn’t leave the yard without permission but I hadn’t figured out what the magic words were to unlock that particular privilege. I was too embarrassed to attempt a “pee pee” dance. It was hard enough making friends I didn’t really need that kind of attention.

So I did what any desperate kid would do I stood in front of the lunch monitor and peed on myself.

Now, 20 years later, I speak more English than I do Spanish.

My sister and I pulled our weight in the family by acting as translators with creditors, in emergency rooms, and at parent teacher conferences. We witnessed our guardians at their most vulnerable. We learned to withhold judgment because we knew how hard they had it. 

My ability to switch between languages served a necessary function. Because of that function I never fully developed a presence in the language I was born into.

As an adult with a lot of opinions and a love for conversation I struggle to communicate with the elders in my family. They want to know me and all I can offer is an attentive ear. I quietly listen to my dad talk about his day, trivia, or history (he basically knows everything). I patiently listen to my grandma tell me how she thinks I should live my life and with every pause in the conversation I make small gestures to indicate I’m listening and that I understand.

On my good days I can respond with a relevant story or clinically explain why I agree or disagree with what they’re saying. It does take a little time. Sometimes I attempt to bend English words, saying them with a Dominican accent and hoping whoever I’m talking to will catch my drift.

It’s in these moments I feel like I’m back at recess on the first day of kindergarten. I’m desperate for them to know the person my friends and coworkers get to know.

So while I do speak Spanish I still haven’t found a way to translate Katherine into Ka-te-rin-e.

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