Bayou Diaries What an American City Sounds Like
It’s a space where language is manipulated and contorted and pulled and borrowed. It sounds like everywhere and anywhere else.
This is Bayou Diaries , a column by Bryan Washington on his life and history in diverse, expansive Houston.
Every few weeks, I’ll drive to a part of Houston where I can’t speak the predominant language. Nearly everyone in this city knows a dash of Spanish (although the minimum you can expect varies wildly). Houston’s an anomaly in that the third-most spoken tongue is Vietnamese, among the 145 or so languages that waft in and out of Harris County. The absence of clear social borders around town, and the allure of cheap rent among folks from all over the globe, mean that shop owners and patrons and strollers grow adept at recognizing idioms in languages they aren’t entirely fluent in. And while, in whole swathes of the States, this proximity to unfamiliarity might take a turn for the tragic, in Houston that menagerie is all but white noise. It’s not a perk or a detriment or a surprise. It just is. Without that indivisibility, this city wouldn’t make much sense at all.
So you have old white women sounding out vowels in Tagalog at the pharmacy on 20th Street. Or Mexican kids in the suburbs out west bopping along to Portuguese rock. A few weeks back, I found myself stopped at a light downtown, and this pickup truck settled just beside me with a hefty brown guy in the driver’s seat. This guy wore shades. He was heavily tattooed. My window was down. His window was down. And he was blasting music, loud enough that the bass rattled my own steering wheel, but the track wasn’t hard domineering or brimming with braggadocio: He was playing some lilting K-Pop, bopping along with the chorus. And this would’ve been incongruous, I think, nearly anywhere else in the country. This guy saw me staring, so I nodded, and then he nodded, and then the light in front of me turned and we went our separate ways.
A while back, I hit up a beef-patty spot with a Chinese American friend of mine. The restaurant sat in the middle of Alief, a mostly suburban part of town. It’s also a hub for the city’s Caribbean population, folks from Barbados and Jamaica and Trinidad and Haiti. The patrons were all black, as were the owners and the cooks and the staff, and—despite everything in my body telling me otherwise—I felt uncomfortable for my friend, because he was so clearly the odd man out here, the guy being subjected to all of the stares. We were just about to give our orders and I started to ask if he was alright, because we could always head somewhere else, when the lady behind the counter asked us what we wanted in a thick patois. My friend smiled, and nodded, and responded in a thicker patois, ordering for the two of us. The only one who looked lost was me. The lady taking the order said it’d be ten minutes, and my friend asked if she meant twenty. The two of them laughed.
When we finally sat in our booth, my friend saw my face. He asked me what my problem was. Then he shook his head at me, grinning, and called me a hypocrite. He told me he had an uncle who’d grown up in Kingston, and although he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the dialect, he could still get around.
It isn’t even that big of a deal, he said. Sometimes I forget all about it.
Depending on where you are in Houston—or, really, the further and further away you find yourself from the city’s inner loops—the locals’ tolerance for difference begins to wane. You see more and more of the same kinds of folks, until you’re acutely reminded that your proximity to diversity doesn’t necessarily equate to acceptance or equity. You find yourself reminded that Houston’s status as a refugee city (or, in our current mayor’s words , a “welcoming city”) doesn’t extend beyond the outer beltway, and that the moment you switch counties, those pleasantries are dimmed. You’re reminded that while Houston’s chief of police has been outspoken in his support for DACA and immigrants living in the city, that attitude doesn’t permeate or even casually extend toward the folks living on the opposite ends of the county.
But what’s really interesting about these hyper-white spaces, and the politics underlying them, and the disdain for otherness that, at the end of the day, serves as their only unifier, is their affection for and acceptance of their particular non-white, less-than-fluent-in-English neighbors. Thus, the panaderia by the garden and gun shop. The local dance company run by a family of former Chilangos, where every other family enrolls their kids to dance. You get the Korean-owned burger joint on a desolate strip of the Gulf Freeway, blaring Fox News on the television while crowds of white guys sit packed on stools, and the white guys are nothing but cordial and warm to the family that runs the place, asking for an extra patty on their bulgogi burgers, or a smattering of garlic on the house-baked buns.
In these spaces within the city, people of color and their cultures are just fine, but only within a context outlined and dictated by the dominant culture surrounding them. Your language is acceptable if it’s heard on the radio, en masse, preceded by a feature from a well-known white artist, but any deeper form of transmission becomes entirely inappropriate, or abrasive, or dirty, irrespective of what’s being said. Your food is delicious, in small doses, once a week, in a location reviewed and approved by hundreds of other white locals, but only if there are no brown faces visible beyond the kitchen—and if they are there, because they have to be, then they’re working, and the surname on their name tag is something easily pronounced by anglophones.
In these spaces, if you are the lone person of color on the block, or the first person of color on the block, then your presence is okay, maybe, or at least bearable, as long as no more of you show up; or if, when they do, you aren’t sympathetic to their plight (because you’re one of the good ones! Just like us! ).
And this may appear to be, on the surface, a softer form of oppression, but it is oppression nonetheless. You’re viewed less as a person than a kind of pet. And the thing about pets is that they’re lovely when they’re trained—they sit when their told, step where they’re told to—but when they stop doing these things, whenever they’re told to do them, all of a sudden they’re animals again. Bodies to be fenced in, if not out and away.
One of the few fights I’ve gotten into in Houston was over language, a few years back. I was playing pick-up soccer with some friends across town. We were packing up to leave when I asked one of the guys we’d played against for the ball we’d brought, apologizing all the while. But he gave me a look when I reached for it. He juggled it over my head. So I said something in Spanish, because I knew that he was more comfortable in this language, and then he said something in Spanish, but in a dialect I couldn’t grasp, and then I said something else, and then he said something else, and then we were shoving, and it looked like no good would come of that evening.
But that’s when another guy, someone neither of us knew, intervened. He separated the two of us. He asked me what was wrong. And of course it turned out that we’d made the mistake of mistranslation: While I’d thought I was simply retrieving what was mine, this guy had known the ball belonged to someone, but not who, and thought that I was taking it away from them. You’re both right, said our interloper, and then he made a face, because how couldn’t he have been embarrassed.
All of us blushed. We kicked at the grass like children. I told the guy I didn’t mean it. He told me he didn’t mean it. We shared an awkward pat on the back, which turned into an even less graceful hug, and it felt like a metaphor for something else.
Lately, unsurprisingly, there’s all manner of talk about what makes an American city, as the boundaries of that phrase are contorted and trimmed, or maybe they’re only being shown for what they’ve been all along. And there’s no telling what an American city looks like. The whole fucking point is that it can’t possibly look one certain way.
But we can certainly quantify what one might sound like, because it’s hard to think of anything other than a space where language is manipulated and contorted and pulled and borrowed and split in two. It would sound like nothing else you’ve heard, which is to say that it would sound like everywhere and anywhere else, simultaneously, and you can spend every last one of your days in Houston stumbling from one language to the next, grasping with a little bit of one, or figuring out just the right words for another.
So: There’s the woman I see at the take-out spot up the road from my place, who grumbles at me in Thai, with feeling, but always gives me an extra egg roll. There are the Salvadoran car mechanics who consistently under-charge me, while simultaneously encouraging me to get a new car, because why am I driving a piece of trash. There’s the Greek guy at the diner up the road who has to teach me, every other week, the correct pronunciation of tzatziki. There were the kids I used to work with at my old job, all of them speaking any number of languages, but all understanding each other, getting along and finding a way.
And about two weeks ago, at this coffee shop, I watched an older woman tutoring two young black boys in Mandarin. The boys were young. They looked like twins. And they also seemed terribly bored. The lady began the lesson with the usual preamble—how had they been since they’d last seen her? Had they been practicing?—while the kids held their cheeks in their palms. But then the tutor suddenly switched languages, and the boys lit up, and they switched, too. They couldn’t have been more engaged. As if this was exactly what they’d come for.