Languages

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Languages

i'm torn/rejecting outfits offered me/regretting things i've worn

-Ani Difranco, "Pale Purple"

Bilingual people make me feel guilty. I read somewhere that in Sweden as well as many Asian countries schoolchildren are required to learn two languages at the very least, one of them English. I feel proud as a speaker of excellent English. This is in part because the United States is such a powerful entity (the "dominating world power"), but I don't want to think about that. However, when I spent time in Brazil with my Portuguese-speaking native mother, I was a gringa; my English forming gravel in the mouth, harsh and jarring against the smooth samba-based rhythms of Portuguese. I was the colonialist, the military colossus, the politicians and baby-kisser. I was the United States.

This feels deja vu. I have written this essay before. It got me into New York University. Then it was about finding a cultural niche during a four-week tourist vacation in Rio, Sao Paulo, and Bahia one summer. I postulated, "Up until the summer of 1998, the culture limb of my body sculpture was not yet carved. Rio took up the chisel, and Bahia the hammer. . . I . . .danced the samba. . .and gained a cultural identity." The power of the mind is overwhelming: I cannot distinguish whether I truly believed that I became Brazilian on that trip to my motherland or if I just thought such a "poignant" essay-where I come to the realization that I do not need to speak the language to be Brazilian-would get me into college.

My mother is trilingual; she speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and English fluently. She has this uncanny ability to recognize the rhythms of foreign languages (foreign. . . what an alienating word that is). "What language are they speaking, mommy?" became a common question whispered when walking down the street. At one point, she worked for the New York City court system as a translator. And I, I speak but English. Only English. Beautifully, but still. As I wrote in that fateful essay, "When I was two I knew more Portuguese than I know now." I picked up a few basic phrases when I visited-"where's the bathroom?" and "I like chicken"-but the only thing I've retained is how to introduce myself. Eu me chamo Lila. I blame most of this on my father. His line was "speak English to her.
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