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On Tuesday, March 16, a white man killed eight people – among them six Asian American women – at a massage parlor in Georgia. Almost a week later, the 911 caller’s desperately hushed pleadings won’t leave my head.
When I replay the woman’s voice – turning hard, Korean corners on hanging consonants like “d” in the word “gold” – the image that comes to me is of my own mother, hiding under the garment conveyor in the dry cleaners where she worked when we first came to the U.S., or crouching in the bathroom of the Flushing-based immigration law office that she runs with my father now. Like the 911 caller, she is scared but too calloused by her American journey to cry. She is quietly alarmed that she isn’t able to catch everything that the 911 operator is saying, silently frustrated that she isn’t able to press out the urgency of her situation in fluent English. Even as an immigrant who remembers her own scarring fight with English, I can’t imagine the kind of linguistic claustrophobia that besets one in a situation like that.
Language – or more precisely, lack of full access to the hegemonic one – is central to the lived experiences of first-generation immigrants across the United States.
In Georgia, where the spa shootings took place, state representative Bee Nguyen introduced a bill requiring the Georgia Emergency Communications Authority to establish language translation services for 911 systems statewide. At a rally against anti-Asian hate in Manhattan Chinatown last month, New York state assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou said she wanted to see more investment in language access on emergency lines before we start talking about increasing funding for law enforcement. Such investment, as Ms. Niou said, is pivotal for creating a system “in our own image.”
While investment in language access on 911 lines would be an excellent start, we are overdue for a fully-fledged language access revolution, both in our governments and within the Asian American community (as we continue to firm up our understanding of that phrase).
First, a language access revolution in our governments. Failures of translation and interpretation services, when we are lucky to have some in the first place, systematically affect the way of first-generation immigrants engage with government at every level. In my past work as a voting rights organizer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, I saw lack of investment in interpretation and translated voting materials discourage Asian American voters across the country, even in jurisdictions that were mandated to provide such assistance under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
In New York, where we are starting to see translated signs about NYPD’s Asian Hate Crimes Task Force in subway stations, I have volunteered at City-organized community events where Chinese-speaking attendees waved away the translated pamphlets, saying that they had been fooled before. Surely there are many spaces that aren’t even within the ambit of my habitually restrained imagination – perhaps city council hearings, participatory budgeting meetings, the clerk’s window at the county family court, White House press briefings – as a venue for full participation by Asian Americans, U.S. citizens or not.
Meanwhile, first-generation immigrants have so much to say. Every time I visit my parents, I open up the New York area’s myriad Korean-language newspapers and find them bursting with pictures of life within the ethnic enclave and clamoring perspectives about the most significant national issues of the day. In their efforts to flourish, leaders in Asian American ethnic enclaves have spent many decades and dollars patiently nurturing political sway with local elected officials.
Rather than waiting for these immigrant communities to build power from the linguistic margins, our governments – city, state, and national – should affirmatively ensure that first-generation Asian-American immigrants are able to exercise a voice of their own. Legislators in those jurisdictions should pass laws to allocate resources for expanding language access to government services.
Equally as importantly, we need a language access revolution within the Asian American community.
As some in our community begin to think about the Georgia shootings in the broader context of sex-work criminalization, and others in terms of winning more police protection against anti-Asian hate crimes, how will we move forward in our conversations – conversations that must happen intergenerationally – about what to do next, what to ask for now?
Asian Americans have so far failed to thoughtfully and respectfully work out our intergenerational differences on issues as diverse as affirmative action, defunding the police, and workers’ rights in small-business settings. I saw these tensions rise above the surface in 2015, when a New York Times expose on the nail salon industry produced a cultural and political referendum on the relationship between the mostly Chinese- and Korean-American owners of nail salons and their mostly Latina employees. That summer, I worked with second-generation Asian American peers who had read Edward Said and Frantz Fanon in school, worked at community-based advocacy non-profits, and were indignant with their parent’s generation for its “insensitivity” to the intersection of race and class. At night after work, I conducted thesis interviews with first-generation small business owners who were bewildered by the sudden negative attention for a problem they did not completely understand; many of them felt betrayed by younger generation’s “socialist” defense of their employees.
Younger, linguistically assimilated Asian Americans must continue the organizing work of building intergenerational bridges as the Asian American community continues its productive struggle with a politically forged identity. We must not forget that those intergenerational conversations – if done successfully – would have included Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, and Yong Yue. For this work, Asian Americans need to forge a language access revolution from within, in our relationships with our parents and grandparents, in our gentrifying Chinatowns, and in our broader organizing work.
Perhaps due to my own conscious struggle with language as a young immigrant, I have long been transfixed by philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s conception of language as the substance that constitutes the relation between individuals and society, and the necessary condition of a genuine public sphere. In speaking to and with each other, we are able to struggle with our differences in the open, and stretch out our arms for help in the course of that struggle – even if that is to the 911 operator in the most tragic circumstances.
But to the extent that any one person or any group of people feels that their capacity to join this communal conversation is limited, we have resoundingly failed to collectively achieve a public sphere. Our democracy is flecked with so many imperfections. A language access revolution would be a small but mighty step to mending one of them.
Jenny Choi is a student at Yale Law School.