'This is America. We Speak American Here!' | Opinion

Xenophobia comes in many forms. As our country steps once again into a polarized debate about immigration policy and allowing more refugees to find safe haven in our country, the vitriol seems more toxic than it has ever been.

The exponential surge in anti-Asian hate has made what had been a distant problem all too personal. Language seems to be one of those triggers that set off the haters. All my life, I have heard or read about the opening sentiment expressed by people who were angry at hearing others speaking a language other than English in public, or were upset, for example, that local public schools implemented bilingual instruction into their curricula.

I have also been told that I speak English with no accent whatsoever, as if that were a compliment. With my Asian face, the assumption was that my "l's" would sound like "r's," even though I was born in the United States. Perhaps those who voiced the specious praise of my accent said so without malice, but ultimately, underlying it was a presumption of my otherness and an assessment of where I fit on the assimilation scale of the "norms" of American society and culture. At its worst, the logical conclusion is that for those who do not speak English, there is no place for them here—that they should go back to from whence they came.

There was a time in the foolishness of my youth when I made fun of my mother's accent and flawed English, until I soon learned through her tears how much that hurt her. Later, my uncle destroyed my hubris by pointing out the fact that when I tried to speak Korean, my accent and my grammar were vastly more deficient and laughable in comparison. That was an embarrassing and absolutely necessary lesson in humility for me. Now, I have come to realize that when we hear someone speak broken English with an accent, it means they communicate beautifully in another language, perhaps sounding like a poet or a preacher. When they dream, they dream with the mellifluous expressions of their own tongue.

Again, in my childish shortsightedness, I resisted almost all of my mother's efforts to teach me Korean, and I especially resented having to spend my Saturdays at hangul hakgyo, Korean school. Fortunately, in college I discovered the Korean part of my identity, and I struggled, but with determination, to relearn the language of my ancestors, as broken as it remains, with my accompanying atrocious accent. For a time, my Spanish was much better than my Korean. Growing up in southern California, I had come to realize the value of studying and knowing some Spanish, as it allowed me to communicate, even if in a rudimentary way, with people in my community. There is something almost spiritual that occurs when we greet a stranger in their language; it is a moment of shared humanity. It is also an act of neighborly love.

As a trained historian and classicist, I have had to learn several languages. Through my various life experiences, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking or working with almost a dozen languages, all with varying levels of expertise. First, Korean, English, Spanish, and in college I began my linguistic journeys in Latin, Ancient Greek, French and German. In graduate school, I added Italian and Syriac; and in my professional career, I delved into Hungarian, having lived with my family and 18 students for a semester in Budapest. At the moment, my passion is modern Greek, a language I first started to learn to prepare for a year living in Cyprus.

Asian hate
Demonstrators gather in the Chinatown-International District for a "We Are Not Silent" rally and march against anti-Asian hate and bias on March 13, 2021, in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder/Getty Images

Depending on the context and the length of time spent in another country or in a community of native speakers, my fluency in these languages fluctuates, waxing with the length and depth of immersion, and waning with less use and practice. But no matter what, when I communicate in any of these other languages, it is always broken and no matter how hard I try, with an accent. When the person with whom I am speaking listens to me and responds, we are engaging in a profound ritual of hospitality. I am making myself vulnerable, and in theory, subject to ridicule, and my conversation partner is listening, accepting me with grace. The same happens in reverse.

The Greeks, in antiquity and now, have as a core virtue the practice of philoxenia, love for the stranger, which is expressed in acts of hospitality. The working idea was that a god or gods in disguise might be at our doorstep, and we ought to welcome them into our homes, providing refreshment, comfort, a conversation about our lives' journeys, a place to stay and finally, parting gifts. The consequences for not doing so could be dire.

If we Americans could only receive someone who speaks a language other than our own, not with suspicion and disdain, but with warmth and humility, we just might become a better version of our fragile democratic society. When we hear others speak their languages in public, this should not be a source of anger but a cause for celebration, for we are welcoming the huddled masses to our great country. We are sharing in our common humanity.

Young Richard Kim teaches classics and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.