The door slammed shut but your voice could still be heard. Sharp and loud when you cried, the harsh sound pierced through the school office to teachers’ lounge. Not your voice, but your scream, wild, terrified, full of pain and anguish.
You, two policemen, and the principal were behind that door.
You were not one of those kids who fought after school or carried weapons in their backpacks or smoked pot and then vandalized the handball court. You did not steal, cheat, or curse. You did not threaten anyone and you were way too young for sex.
You did not even know why you were arrested.
And you did not know anyone that could have prevented this. The school-community liaison? Perhaps, but she was too passive to protect you. Maybe your teacher could have, but she already had the impression that you were mean and defiant. Besides, she could not understand you, your fear, your past, your thinking, or your language. She needed a translator but the liaison whose job was to translate was unable to translate the hidden and complex story carried within you.
But you did not know that.
That she spoke Vietnamese and English did not guarantee anything. She could only translate the meaning, the most explicit, literal, univocal elements. But she could not translate the senses, the emotion, the layers of texts and sub-texts, the source from which the language sprang, or anything that implied, alluded to, and insinuated. That was too much for her. Translation was never easy. It was an art, not a science.
You should understand and forgive her. The liaison did her best. To make sure people understand you, to defend you, to claim justice for you. But your discomposure did not help you at all.
You looked mean. You had a bad temper. You sought attention. You disrupted the classroom. You were not one of those timid and reserved Asian kids. That was what they said. That was how they translated you. You touched people inappropriately. One teacher said you poked her in the ribs. Another teacher said you slapped his bottom. Miss Dickinson, your English Language Development teacher, thought you told vulgar and promiscuous jokes because you made other Vietnamese kids laughed real hard while she was teaching.
But you trusted the liaison. She was the only one in the office who spoke and understood your language. “Why did she speak Vietnamese to me?” The principal asked, upset. At first, the liaison thought it was funny and cute. But she could tell by his look that he was in outraged disbelief. No one had ever done such a thing to him. That fresh-off-the-boat little girl used her own language to communicate with the principal and to subvert the power dynamics.
No one questioned your lack of common sense. No one asked if you had a sound mental state. No one knew your family history and no one cared about what had happened in a small village all that time during and after the war.
The liaison wanted to tell the police that you had learning disability, that you had a developmental disorder, that sometimes you talked nonsense, that she suspected you were mentally handicapped, but no one asked her opinion. She was just an aid. She simply repeated, in another language, what others expressed. And what she said was not what she meant. Her position, a school-community liaison, a connection, a link, by and large, meant nothing.
You were different from other kids who came from Vietnam. The kids with basic level English and advanced Math. You could not do math, even simple arithmetic, like 2+1. You had no sense of numbers.
But the principal thought you were just a bad kid and that discipline would fix you right.
And Miss Dickinson considered you smart because you were verbal. She did not like you because she thought you were two-faced. It must have been your survival mechanism. “She’s so disrespectful in my class. But when you’re here, she’s a different person,” Miss Dickinson looked so upset. “She must know that she’s living in the U.S. She has to learn English and if she speaks Vietnamese no one understands her. Can you talk to her about this?” Miss Dickinson asked the liaison to do her a favor. A big favor, indeed, to prevent the teachers from being handicapped, deaf, and mute.
The liaison was so bitter that interpreters were considered helpers rather than professionals. Society had not yet recognized the importance of interpreters in educational settings. She had been doing this for almost ten years, and she still had the same problems she had encountered a decade ago.
The highest guiding principle in interpreting and translating was ethics. The liaison knew that. Being ethical and truthful to herself and to the people she worked with and served. She was far from that standard. Being bilingual was not good enough for her; biculturalism was better, and multiculturalism was best. But sometimes culture was just the smell of your food or the color of your skin.
You had kinky hair, dark skin, and rough hands. You smelled of tiger balm and you were not well-groomed at all. But you looked just fine. You were not like your brothers with enlarged heads and unformed limbs in the picture you showed to the liaison. What had happened to you lay beneath your skin. It inflicted your genes and soiled your blood.
You had worked in the field since you were seven years old. You toiled on the toxic land and you carried water from your village’s contaminated river. There were no child labor laws in these third-world countries. The people in the office liked to make jokes about the third world. When a severely handicapped student had an accident in his pants, when something unpleasant happened in the staff restroom, when the water overflowed, when the toilet bowl clogged up, they said “Oh, it’s so bad it’s like we were living in a third-world country.”
The liaison was shocked. When she came to complain, the principal shrugged it off. “Come on, they’re only joking!”
The liaison did not have a sense of humor. She could not translate jokes. Just like her father coming here as one of the boat people two decades ago. Just like half the school population now. When it came to jokes, she turned deaf and mute and retarded.
You were there and you heard their comment.
But good for you, you did not understand.
The principal noticed how often you came to the office to see the liaison.
He observed the way you talked to her. He listened to the rise and fall of the pitch in your voice. He seemed amused by the melodic sound from your mouth. It sounded like you were singing. In that moment you turned into an exotic bird. Because he did not understand, he could focus on the affection between you and the liaison. He knew you trusted her.
The liaison took too much time serving your people.
Instead of filing school reports or making copies, she was on the phone all the time, chitchatting the incomprehensible language.
“Are you sure you only talk to our parents about school business?” the principal asked.
The liaison wished she had called the district office. She wished the principal had allowed you to be tested. She wished her job did not depend on miscommunication between people. She wished she were somebody else, not a liaison.
The day that you were arrested the liaison felt like she was a left-handed person forced to write with her right hand or else she would be punished and have her hands cut off.
You were suspended for punching the principal in his stomach. You were not allowed to be near school campus. That morning you were sleeping late when the liaison called your mom and told her to bring you to the office.
She did not say that the principal had changed his mind. That to him, suspension was too lenient. She did not say that the police were there, waiting for you.
She was warned not to.
You gurgled horrible sounds, kicking, thrashing, and screeching. The policemen seized you by the neck and pounded you to the ground. It was tough. Not the handcuffing but in keeping you quiet. The policemen did not anticipate such resistance. You writhed in panic. You tried desperately to wrench free from their grip but they were much bigger and stronger and they dragged you to the car and they slammed the door and your voice was shut off from the rest of the world.
Not your voice, but the poison in your blood.
The liaison stood transfixed. She was not trained to translate that scene. She could not turn loathing and agony into words. So she visualized how people slaughtered pigs in your village. On that day, they tied a pig's legs across its chest and lugged it along. At that moment, the pig looked at those who had fed it all its life. The sleepy look reflected something ambiguous and melancholic, something of the past trying to connect with the present. She envisioned you on your first day at school in the U.S., curious, confused, but cheerful, when you heard strange voices and language. You were different. You were fearless.