|The Making of a Cultural Translator
November 30, 2013
One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories occurred in 1978, when my grandmother decided that two turkeys would not suffice to feed her family. She tasked me with accompanying her to Gemco to purchase two more. There was no such thing as a short trip to Gemco with my grandmother. It was, as my friend Pua describes, one of those local hubs where you run into everyone you want to see and everyone you don’t.
After thirty minutes and four run-ins with her friends, we headed toward the checkout counter with our turkeys in hand. Then, we heard voices from five carts over; two young women calling “Auntie!” in Chinese. Despite the many other Chinese Aunties in the crowded aisle, we all knew that they were speaking to my grandmother.
The young women jostled their way over, pointed to the turkeys in our cart and said, “Auntie. What are these big chickens? How do you cook them?” Their family, we learned, had just immigrated to the U.S. a few weeks earlier. They had no idea what a turkey was, let alone Thanksgiving. My grandmother smiled, grabbed their cart, and said “Let’s go.”
We spent the next hour wandering through Gemco stocking their cart with everything they needed to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, Chinese style: turkey, hoisin sauce, sweet rice, shitake mushrooms, fresh ginger, lotus root, taro, bok choy, canned cranberry sauce, apple pie and vanilla ice cream. While we shopped, she shared in their native dialect, instructions on how to prepare the meal, along with her one-of-a-kind interpretation of the Thanksgiving story. As we checked out, my grandmother paid for their groceries and wished them good luck.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just received my first lesson on how to be a cultural translator – a skill that has come to define and guide my professional career. It began with my grandmother’s warm and accepting presence. Everyone knew you could ask anything of her. She followed this with a remarkable capacity to divine where people were, and meet them there. Then she got busy translating, substituting taro for sweet potatoes, hoisin sauce for brown gravy, bok choy for salad and sweet rice for bread crumbs. Throughout, she showed an unflinching generosity of spirit, even paying for their groceries. What struck me most was this: I felt her enveloping these newcomers with love.
I strive to bring these skills to my personal and professional life by engaging these practices that came naturally to my grandmother. For example, among the first questions I ask of new clients is, “Who are your cultural translators?” They are typically not the leaders in the limelight, but the unheralded folks who build bridges in our grocery aisles, classrooms, and workplaces. Let's honor and look to the everyday actions of our cultural translators who transform well-intended policies into real and lasting change.