Language, Pronunciation and Feeling Uncomfortable
I was hosting a party at my apartment in Portland and we were at the point where I normally offer chai, after dinner and around the time for dessert. I started to ask each person if he or she wanted some and the third person I asked, who was immersed in a conversation, said, “do I want WHAT?”
“Do you want some chai?”
He still didn’t seem to understand. At this point he was feeling embarrassed and I was feeling frustrated. As I always do, I stretched myself to smooth things over and I said, “Do you want some tchay-tea?” with a hard “ch” sound and with the superfluous and redundant “tea” attached to it, like Americans say it.
“Ohhhhh,” his eyes lit up in recognition, relieved. “Yes, please.” And he went on talking with the person next to him.
In that moment I hated him for not understanding me and not making more of an effort to understand me and I hated myself for acquiescing and saying a word in my own language in the wrong way so this American wouldn’t have to stretch himself and feel uncomfortable. And it reminded me of the countless times I have done that and all the small little resentments that have built up inside me because of it.
The other day I went up to a taco truck in my neighborhood to order a burrito and the man who took my order started speaking to me in Spanish. This happens to me a lot because of my brownness and people mistake me for being Latina, which always makes me feel flattered.
After a long day at work and frankly probably because I was distracted by a good looking man at the next food truck, my mind went blank and I stuttered and for the life of me I could not recall the Spanish that I do know. I tried and sounded like an idiot so I said, “mi Español es muy malo”.
He smiled and realized that in fact I do not speak Spanish and just started to take my order in English. Once I got over the small mental shock of having to switch gears into another language, I began speaking a little Spanish to him and it started coming back slowly. But by this time it was just me practicing my Spanish with him, which I’m sure feels different to him than actually speaking with a fluent Latinx person with whom he shares a language and a heritage.
On the first half of my lunch hour at work I usually eat the lunch that I’ve cooked for myself at my desk, browse the internet and look out the window. For the second half, I often go to a nearby coffee shop to scribble, draw cartoons or sometimes just sit and think. The baristas at this coffee shop have come to know me because I go there so often. Sometimes they start my drink when they see me walk in and before I’ve ordered.
About half of the baristas there say my name the American way, like TAZ, the Disney character, even though I say it differently when I give them my name. But a handful take the time to pronounce it correctly. And when they call it out, my correct name, I feel endorphins rush over my body, that’s how good it feels. Once I even thanked the person who called out my name correctly as I went up to get my drink and he smiled and felt joyful about it too.
When I pick up the phone at work, I always have a 1-second brain fart just before I say, “This is Taz.” I vacillate between saying it completely right, the way it’s meant to be said, with a soft T, but the way that most Americans cannot understand or hear, and saying it with a hard T, which is not really my name, but is my best shot that someone will understand me.
So most of the time I pick “Tahz” with a hard T, because, well, it’s easier. But sometimes I go directly to “Tahz” with a soft T because I didn’t have the time to adjust. There are some glorious times when people still understand it and will say my name or try to say my name correctly. Other times they will just try to get through the conversation without saying my name at all because it confuses them.
I sometimes hear my American friends protest when I complain that hardly anyone says my name right that perhaps they just can’t say it right because they don’t have the right language skills. But that is not the point and lets people off the hook for being careless. The point is to try to say it right. Because when you try, it means you are self and other aware, respect the other person, respect that people have names that are different than yours and what you’re used to and you are of the opinion that not everything and every word and name has to be Americanized.
I actually love it when people try to say my name correctly but still might get it wrong and then we have a conversation about it more than when people pronounce my name correctly because it comes naturally to them (I’m appreciative of that too, don’t get me wrong).
But I love it most when a friend has taken so much effort as to practice and practice saying the soft T even though it doesn’t come naturally to them just so they can say my name right. The first person to ever do that for me told me he practiced saying my name right all day after we met. I was really moved and taken aback by this act of kindness and consideration and I knew I had met someone special. Incidentally, we got married 6-months later.
A spoken word poem by Laci Lester: