I speak fucking English. I’m saying that because it’s almost always that I have to defend how American I am to every ignorant person I come across in airports or in packed supermarkets on July 4th when all the assholes get to decide how “American” you are. I was born in Southern California so I don’t have any memories of my native country Somalia all I know of it are stories my mother nostalgically tells as we sit at her feet on summer nights.
When my parents moved here after the civil war back home, they settled in an area packed with other immigrants from the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, Iraq, and other East African countries. I never felt like I was an oddity until we moved to a suburb where immigrants like us were far and few in between.
The first thing I learned about immigrant kids is that we have to choose new names. Something easy. Something your teacher won’t fuck up. It doesn’t matter if your name means something beautiful in your language all that matters is that you pick something that will be easy for lazy tongues. I picked Ko because it was the first two letters of my actual name and because it was a form of resistance since in Somali Ko is the number one. I was a coward for abandoning a name that meant river in heaven for two letters that don’t mean shit to me.
My cultural food was embarrassing to me for a long time. I remember the first time someone asked why we eat with our hands and why we didn’t have utensils in our poor country. His mom’s meatloaf tasted like ass, but at the time I settled for lunchables over my mom’s warm roti and sautéed chicken suqaar because of his comment.
I learned to translate at a pretty young age. My parents would worry that people wouldn’t understand them through their accent and had me speak on behalf of them. At the time I had this super stereotypical Valley Girl accent (worked on getting rid of it) and my dad was extremely proud of it. He would boast to his friends that I was very American and you couldn’t even tell that I spoke another language. My dad speaks Arabic and Somali — both more difficult and complex than English yet he used to cower at the thought of speaking English. I think I’ve seen hundreds of videos of assholes telling immigrants just like my dad to “Go back home,” or “In America we speak English.”
Back home I’m too “American” and here I’m not “American” enough. I wonder where this magical America where english is the only language is. I have seen streets filled with stores all written in Chinese or Vietnamese. Their language engulfs the entire street and I forget I’m in Southern California for a hot second. In America, we speak acceptance. Acceptance means being comfortable when someone doesn’t speak your language and it also means respectfully interacting with others. Acceptance means when you see a store sign written in another language it doesn’t mean, “GET OUT! WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE!” It means, “Come experience something different and new.”
Stop being a little bitch and expecting everyone to be like you and start opening your eyes. Maybe learn another language you’ll be surprised at how much it’ll change the way you look at others.