Breaking the Wall

FulfillmentAwesome Moments

I hate this wall between Grandpa and me. When Grandpa comes to the United States for the first time, I become hyper-aware of the wall, the language barrier between us.

I think about how tall it is, how I cannot see past it, its formidable length looming over the clouds, just as I do not have a bird’s eye view into the compartments of my grandpa’s brain. I think about how sturdy it is, how no matter how hard I try to communicate—facial expressions, hand gestures, translators, old Bollywood movies—the wall will persist. I think about how silenced, detached it makes us feel, how we can only hear white noise, a continuum of frequencies blanketing our conversations so that our words fall on deaf ears. It is almost like speaking into a void. I so badly want the wall to turn into a drawbridge that brings our two worlds together, rather than dividing us.

My grandfather and I live oceans apart, and this distance is not only evident in how we walk but also how we talk; it is rooted in the way in which we intonate and stress some syllables over others. You see, we speak very different languages, my Grandpa and I: he Hindi and I English, languages with little to no linguistic overlap, where we stumble when we try to have a conversation. This results in awkwardness, a deafening white noise that permeates every conversation we share.

I am met with a jarring noise from the living room. It is the white noise escaping the blankness of my TV created by my grandfather, who is frantically pressing buttons to change the channel back to CNN. I take the remote—to him, a foreign technology like any other black box—from his hand and stab the buttons in an attempt to get rid of the awful noise. Perhaps in the keys of the remote I hope there will be a solution to the wall.

My grandpa, noticing the frustration building up in my body, pats the spot next to him, indicating for me to sit by him. I stiffly sit down, the thoughts of the wall still lingering in my mind as the sound of the white noise reverberates in my skull. An awkward silence feeds off the silence in the room and settles into the couch we’re seated on, but neither of us makes a move. Instead, we listen to the horrible crackle of the white noise, both of us hyper-aware of how it mutes our voices and drones out the color in the room. We now exist in a vacuum of grey, and no sound or light can leave or enter.

But soon the awkwardness becomes too much to bear. The white noise becomes louder, almost roaring, beckoning me to say something to break the silence. Quickly, I ask, “Do you want to watch something else?” I point to him and then the TV while shrugging to fully get my point across.

Grandpa turns to me, his large brown eyes crinkling with confusion. "Kya aap kuchh aur dekhana chaahate hain?" he asks with some hesitation.

Gulping, I rigidly sit back on the couch and stare at the blank TV. Usually, I would understand the urgency in Grandpa’s words. Normally, the frantic hand gestures and facial expressions would compensate for our lack of words. But, in this moment, I struggle to really hear him. Guilt pools in my stomach for not understanding my native language, my mother tongue, and for not understanding my own grandfather, not understanding why I have to rely on this white noise to keep my insecurities hidden. Our relationship is defined by empty words, confused looks, and that ever-present white noise.

I look at my mother sitting only two feet away; she seems unaware of our current dilemma and the static. She is fluent in over five languages and did not uncomfortably live in a grey area outside the boundaries of oral communication. I silently plead with my eyes for her to translate.

My mother, sensing my distress, turns to me. Softly, in an all-knowing voice, she whispers to me in English, “Grandpa asked: Do you want to see something else?”

I sigh. We are both trying to say the same thing, yet we don’t know how to communicate with each other.

Until this moment, doubt and uncertainty made up a lot of our relationship. Hand gestures were common. Nods and facial expressions were the norm. I even asked my parents to constantly translate, but it wasn’t the same as a raw heart-to-heart conversation like the other kids fondly spoke of. I used to question the depth of our relationship because I couldn't communicate with Grandpa in the most basic ways; I could not inquire about his day, ask him for homework help, or even just vent to him about my crazy gym teacher. Our relationship was defined by what we couldn't say. Of course, some would say it strengthened our nonverbal communication, but it was not worth the sacrifice, the sacrifice of awkward silence and puzzled faces.

But the feelings of awkwardness turned into a wave of frustration. These feelings drove me to understand how important being bilingual is for intercultural communication, how badly I wanted to have heart-to-heart conversations with Grandpa. I begged my parents to sign me up for Hindi classes at my local temple, mesmerized by the smooth words coming out of my teacher’s mouths. My determination drove me to discover various language learning sites, and I became hooked on websites such as Duolingo and FluentU. I made Grandpa very aware of this as well, bringing up conversations in Hindi with him.

Learning a new language proved to have its own difficulties. I was under pressure, a time crunch to quickly adapt. Small mistakes resulted in insecurities surfacing, clouding my mind with many thoughts: Would I be able to hold a conversation? Would my grammar be sufficient? Would my American accent make me sound foolish? These insecurities discouraged me, but the proud looks Grandpa would give me as we conversed with my newfound knowledge brought a sense of hope, a foreign one, as I would usually walk around the eggshells of learning my native tongue. As my vocabulary grew, my communication with Grandpa grew, not having to rely on the frantic hand gestures and facial expressions that I used so often. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It didn't make up for the lost years and empty words, but it was a start.

I could feel the gritty old wall, the one that separated me from Grandpa, slowly break down. I was able to see my grandpa, not just the gesturing one, but the one that spoke to me about his thoughts and views. I was able to hear him, to feel a much stronger connection than before. No more white noise, no more awkwardness, no more silence. Only words, communication.

Being bilingual has taught me so much about communication, as well as maintaining healthy relationships. It is vital for building connections with real people, as nonverbal communication, even with someone as close as Grandpa, is tough. Only knowing one language can sometimes be restricting, trapping you in a bubble, away from another person’s culture, feelings, and thoughts, just like how I was with Grandpa. Learning Hindi, I was able to open a certain mindset, making me feel more connected, but most importantly, self-aware. During the time of learning Hindi and finding ways to communicate with Grandpa, I was able to find a part of my own self-image. My Hindi, even if it is broken, is the only key to a huge part of my identity — and towards my grandpa.

Samantha Singh is a seventh grader who attends Wayzata Central Middle School in Plymouth, Minnesota. She loves to write, read, and design and create STEM-related products to better her community.

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