Maria Holland

If You Want Me to Shut Up . . .

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2010 at 11:14 pm

. . . just speak to me in Spanish.  It works every damn time. 

I’m now in El Paso, TX, staying at my abuelos’ house.  Everything about this place – from the location mere miles from the Mexican border, to my relatives whose first language is Spanglish – makes it the perfect place to work on my first second language.

But things have changed.  I haven’t studied Spanish in about five years, haven’t really used it in three, and in the past two I started working on a different second language.  It’s certainly sad, but if I ranked my languages in order of fluency, Spanish is definitely no longer second.

It would have been cool to be able to speak to my Spanish, Mexican, and Columbian friends in Xiamen, so I was a little bummed at the atrocious state of my language abilities last year.  It wasn’t until I got here, though, that I felt full-blown guilt.  For all that I joke about forgetting I’m Mexican . . . I am.  Spanish isn’t really my language, but it is the language of the Garibay and Velasquez families, and I DON’T SPEAK IT ANYMORE.  It’s beautiful, it’s my heritage, and it’s almost gone. 

Not 100% gone, thankfully.  I understand as well as I ever did (which is good, because Abuelo is giving me free Spanish lessons by telling his stories using chunks of English and Spanish).  I just can’t respond.  When he asks me a question, I have to catch myself before responding automatically in Chinese, then I freeze as I try to move past that into the deeper layer of Spanish that I’m sure is lying around in there somewhere.  Between my shame and the simple lack of words in the right language, I’m literally rendered speechless.  It’s horrifying. 


I think I am stupider right now than at any point in my life – well, at least the last 5 or 6 years.  The only math I’ve done in a good 16 months is converting RMB to USD and dividing dinner bills between large groups of people; the only scientific concept I’ve thought about was heat capacity when explaining to Carlos why tomatoes stay so hot in malatang soup.  I lost my Spanish due to an intense year of Chinese study, but when I video chatted with XuLei two days after getting home, she said my Chinese was already slower.  What’s left for me to lose??


I’m spent yesterday afternoon working on a letter in Spanish to my Spanish friend, Carlos.  I promised I would but I immediately regretted it.  Everything about it is difficult!  I’m getting used to a new keyboard (because, ironically, at this point I find Chinese infinitely easier to type than proper español with the tildes and everything) where even the punctuation is different!  The sentence structure is unnatural to me because it’s so similar to English with only a few exceptions.  The vocabulary is just a matter of pushing through the brambles of Chinese to find the old Spanish stuff that has gotten buried, but the conjugations are downright painful.  Subject, tense, endings – what’s up with that?  Compared to Chinese, Spanish feels like this delicate language that must be used very carefully or everything will fall apart.  Chinese, on the other hand, is a brick wall that you can just throw up any old way; it’ll be fine.

It ended up much better than I expected.  I swallowed my pride and gave it to Abuelo to proofread, and he only found a few mistakes.  I was pleased, considering I just went with what I felt on most of the conjugations. 


I’ve confided in Abuelo how sad I am at losing my Spanish, so he let me in on a secret.  “To speak like a Mexican,” he said, “you only need two words: pendejo and chingar.”  He offered a few examples to round out the lesson, and I left the table feeling a little bit better.

So later he was bothering me about getting ready to go.  In my  best Mexican accent (the one thing I never really lost), I said, “Ay, pendejo!  No me chinges!!” and he about died laughing.  These words aren’t exactly suited to a polite conversation, if you know what I mean!  He told me that anyone else would probably be offended, but he was just proud that I’d learned the lesson.  (And he bragged about it later, too!)

I’m pretty pleased with myself, too.  This is the man who has introduced me all my life as “my UGLIEST granddaughter” and often simply addresses me as “Ugly” (not to be confused with “Idiot”, my brother).  He once taught my cousin Sofia that her name was Sofea (or “so ugly”).  It’s about time he got what was comin’ to him!


We had a party at the house today, a big get-together of the Garibay, Velazquez, Zuñiga, Zubiate, Martinez, et. al.  My mother only has three siblings but my grandparents both have a whole slew, so my extended family on her side is possibly even more crazy than on my dad’s, with his 9 siblings.  It’s hard to keep them all straight, but made slightly easier when we decide to just call most everyone ‘cousin’, regardless of actual geneological ties. 

As I snacked on Abuela’s amazing guacamole, I found myself sitting next to Velia, one of the relatives who falls into the category of ‘aunt’.  She was talking to a ‘cousin’, inquiring about her parents.  “No tienen health problems?” she asked.  Her Spanglish is the best; cracks me up every time.  I’m much more adept at understanding it now (because that’s how I spoke Chinese when I was lazy), but I remember times when the sentence “Fui al tienda para comprar un shirt” would set me off racking my brain for the meaning of this word, “shirt”.  Understanding such a combination of multiple languages is an acquired skill (and, as I came to discover in China, being able to speak that way – and be understood – is a downright luxury). 


After the party died down, Abuelo and I went out dancing.  It was hosted by the Golden Bears, an organization consisting of alumni of El Paso’s Bowie High School over the age of 50.  I go to meetings whenever I’m in El Paso, but this time I lucked out and happened to be in town during a social event.  Considering my main areas of study this last year were Chinese, soccer, and dancing (specializing in dancing with old people), this was right up my alley.

It reminded me so much of my Wednesday and Saturday nights in Xiamen.  I stood out among the crowd here, too, – although this time it was because I was the youngest person in attendance by approximately three decades, not because I was the only foreigner or the tallest person, like ever. 

Another thing I noticed is how people liked me for what I am, not as much who I am.  In China, I was the foreigner and could do no wrong; in El Paso I’m Gaby’s granddaughter and their affection for him is instantly shared by me.  It’s kind of nice because while some people were probably interested to know that I had just returned from China, they would have been just as pleased to meet me no matter what I was up to. 

I got my old-man dancing in; I’m ready to leave El Paso now. 

  1. cute blog!
    (where’s Colorado??!!)
    and I know those 2 naughty words too! Unc Steve and the guys use them all the time!

    • Well I’m still trying to figure out what exactly to do with this journal now that I’m back. I wrote about Colorado in my private journal but there wasn’t anything China-related so I didn’t post it here. We’ll see how I work it out.

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