Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
May 22nd, 2008


A smile and nod

The old joke goes: if you know three languages, you’re trilingual; if you know two languages, you’re bilingual; and if you know only one language, you’re an American.

Ohio has struggled with immigration from Hispanic countries more than the small number of immigrants would indicate. Late last year, four illegal immigrants from a poor village in central Mexico were found stabbed to death inside their home, vividly symbolizing the hostility that immigrants face in that part of the country.

The anti-immigrant sentiment has always focused around language, even though the real reason for the animosity has always been about jobs. First, the outcry was about policemen having to learn a second language; then, about schools having to create ESL classes. Although Ohio’s state and local governments have never conducted an appreciable amount of business in Spanish, the state legislature is attempting to ensure it will never happen in the future:

The Ohio House passed a bill Thursday requiring that government business, such as meetings and public records, be in English.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Bob Mecklenborg, R-Green Twp., passed by a vote of 54–42 over the objections of lawmakers who argued that the bill contradicted the country’s heritage as a land of immigrants. It still needs Senate approval.

“This bill is forward looking and will ultimately promote the similarities that unite us,” Mecklenborg said. “It will further promote economic success and result in more productive and involved citizens.”

The Hispanic community has generally been vocal in encouraging immigrants to learn English – it is, after all, a must for working in the area. The only Spanish-language newspaper and radio station in Cincinnati set aside generous space for English instruction. Nevertheless, the fact that Hispanics speak Spanish is often brought up as a reason that they don’t belong in Ohio, straw-man argument or not. So Spanish-language government publications would be prohibited, if the Ohio House gets its way. Next will surely be a measure to stem the rush of schools adding Spanish language courses. (One wonders if Rep. Mecklenborg realizes how many students from his alma mater learn and use a second language. Hint: all of them.)

It happened before. During World War I, Ohio passed the Ake Law, banning German-language instruction in elementary schools. Other evidence of the predominant German-American population was similarly suppressed: families changed their names to more Anglo-sounding ones, sauerkraut became “victory cabbage”, the few remaining German-language newspapers folded, and Cincinnati’s many German street names were quickly replaced. All because foreign cultures were equated with foreign loyalties.

Today, foreign languages are too often viewed a telltale sign of unpatriotism and a mark of disdain for the “native” culture – unpatriotism even on the part of legal citizens. That’s sad. If it is so American to be diverse, why are we suddenly shifting to the idea of one country, one language, while pretty much the rest of the world allows for multilingualism?

And yet, it isn’t just about language. Growing up in Cincinnati, English was my language, but that didn’t always make a difference. In school, I was initially placed in something of a remedial language program, until the teacher realized I knew what a “cow” was and my pronunciation of “tree” was just fine.

There will always be people certain I’m a foreigner due to my name and my face. It’s somewhat entertaining to see the look on others’s faces when I answer the question, “Where are you from?“ with “Here.” (The response was always, “Oh. No, really. Where’re you from?” The correct answer must’ve been China, but I always answered wrong.)

As a child, getting this question every day – and having to identify the cow on a flashcard – didn’t bother me too much. But looking back, it’s these little things, which come from even well-meaning people, that bother me the most. They show how insidious the concept of “not one of us” can become. For what is ostensibly a multicultural society, the characteristics of a monoculture shine through clearly. And what I experienced was really just the surface, because as a child, you never really see the discrimination and double standards that take place around you.

Of course, I really can’t fault well-meaning people for getting my country of birth wrong. But it’s a bit frustrating that – after mentioning my Vietnamese heritage and explaining that Vietnam is the country just to the south of China – all I could do was smile and nod. There was no convincing them that I am one of them.

I don’t know what the intent of the English-only legislation is. The issue in Ohio isn’t really about illegal immigration: the state sees far fewer undocumented workers than other states, and factory jobs are being lost to overseas workers, not immigrants. So if every Hispanic immigrant were to quickly learn English, would everyone be satisfied? Or would the Americans still not be American enough?