The The The The

In third grade, I was trilingual but could not pronounce “the” or “that” properly. No one corrected me—not my parents, my friends, or my teachers. They spared me like I had something stuck in my teeth. 

I found out when Mom came back from a parent-teacher conference and handed me Mrs. Johnsons feedback slip from a language arts assessment. Mom no longer read these notes—she expected me to summarize since my written English had eclipsed hers by then. We shared Vietnamese and Cantonese, so we had no shortage of words.  

The slip had all As in the margin, a note about my respectfulness, and one glaring comment at the footer: “He says ‘da’ instead of ‘the’ and ‘fool’ instead of ‘full.’ Just curious, was he born here? I went ahead and signed him up for an ESL test in case he needs extra help.” 

My gut twisted. It was not the first time someone assumed I was born outside of Texas. In the pecking order of my elementary school, ESL students were second-rate citizens. No one said so, but I saw how my peers treated the new Pakistani boy: politely but at arms length, like he had a transferrable rash. It was why I knew to bring sandwiches for lunch instead of what we ate at home.  

Mrs. Johnson didn’t clue us into what the ESL test entailed. Mom and I only gathered that if I scored below some unsaid benchmark, I would be diverted to a separate track at school. ESL classes occurred during recess and shared a space with Special Education. Students with dialect differences got lumped together with those who had speech impediments and learning disabilities, a contorted mass to be dealt with in one room.  

No one in my family had been through the American school system, but the message was clear: blend into the main group or be ostracized into the “other.”  

Without a semblance of opposition, our family converted to an English-only household. It didn’t matter that Vietnamese persisted more than a century in my family—even survived French occupation—or that Mom learned Cantonese to share another language with Dad. Cantonese became the language of food; Vietnamese became the language of arguments. We discarded all other uses for them. We shed our mother tongues like a snake leaving its molt. We hardly looked back. 

For me the transition was almost unnoticed. I spoke at home what I spoke at school, responding in English when spoken to in Vietnamese. My brother, with whom I socialized most with at home, was too young to care. In the face of assimilation, we never questioned the tradeoffs—this was but another critical tenet to get ahead in America. We prioritized the absorption of the suburban Texan dialect over the languages spoken over generations of our family. 

Ahead of my test, I found every opportunity to say “the.” My tongue tapped the bottom of my front teeth in constant preparation for a sound I now noticed everywhere. I studied my classmates’ pink mouths after they raised their hands. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” became “The The The The” in the shower. I passed the test, avoided ESL classes, and soon forgot the momentary danger of being othered.