My parents didn’t have a voice, but they helped me find mine.

Featured Illustration: Maxine Vee

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Growing up, I was an avid reader who spent most summers sprawled out on the carpet, legs crossed, rolling sideways to avoid the path of my mother’s vacuuming rather than choosing to momentarily take my eyes off the page. Most of the books I was reading at the time were from my school’s library: Junie B. Jones. Pippi Longstocking. The Boxcar Children. I pored over anything sitting on the shelves of my school’s library, but I might have been the only child with a dislike for fantasy. 

I wanted to read about characters in the real world — specifically American characters, who lived in worlds I could not relate to. I read about Junie B. Jones eating mashed potatoes for dinner and celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was the seemingly small details that always stuck with me: how she had a room of her own with a bed full of stuffed animals, how her mother would pick her up from school and take her out for ice cream. At the time, I shared a bunk bed with my sister in my family’s apartment, and my mom didn’t know how to drive yet. As I read, I subconsciously watched her world with a sense of amusement and curiosity, aware that I couldn’t relate to any of it. These books may have done more harm than good: my childhood innocence soaked in every bit of these worlds I was reading, and I began to feel like there was something wrong with mine because it didn’t look the same. 

Although my parents encouraged my love for reading, we never had a bookshelf at home, filled to the brim with tattered and glossy bindings as one would expect. Most of my books were from the school and the city’s library. Every year, my mother would give me a dollar or two for the Scholastic book fairs at school: the only thing that got me was a bag of popcorn and lemonade. Still, I grazed the shelves, looking for a bright cover or title that I could flip through for the time being. 

Meanwhile, I don’t remember ever seeing my mother or father with a book in hand. My father was an avid reader of online Indian newspaper articles, but besides that and a stack of self-help books from a library book sale that I would eventually read in my early teenage years, my parents had never had the opportunity to read for pleasure. 

Reading was never a priority or a pastime for them — it was a luxury. In my dad’s two-room house in a small village in India, he hardly had the money for slippers, let alone books. My mother, who hardly knew English when she moved here from India with two kids under her belt, couldn’t interpret the books I was reading. At the time, she was still picking up fragments of English from PBS Kids TV shows, sitting next to me as I watched Cailou and Arthur. Although thirty years apart, we were learning together. 

Perhaps it was my parents’ desire to acquire the language that made them proud to see me using it. Perhaps they were glad my life would look different. Their struggles with English made life difficult for them. I would often watch with embarrassment as they ordered at coffee shops or restaurants, and in my latter years of elementary school, I tried to convince them to avoid attending parent-teacher conferences. This was a life they had never envisioned they would be living, but what’s remarkable is that they remained unphased through it all: the rude comments and microaggressions that became part of their everyday routines. 

In continuing their lives in America, they had to put aside their pride. They continued moving forward: fixing tenses and stuttering through broken sentences. So when it came to my love for writing and reading, their support was a selfless act. 

On calls with my grandparents living in India, they would rave about my love for reading, beaming with pride. They would listen to the stories I read out loud as a child, although there was little they could truly understand. As I grew older, my love for reading naturally translated into writing. I would spend hours working on unfinished novels and stories, some of which are probably still hidden somewhere deep in my Google Drive. 

They celebrated any recognition I received for my writing — however small. Still, to this day, I don’t think my parents have finished reading a piece of my work: a journalism article or a short story. It’s not that they choose not to — it’s simply difficult for them, a hassle that wouldn’t end successfully. They’ve expressed how they don’t understand the words on the page, although they’ve tried. When I insist there’s a piece I’ve written that they will understand, I can still sense the uncertainty that plagues them when they’re done. Sometimes, I can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy as I watch my friend’s parents subscribe to our school newspapers and send them comments raving about their articles, or leave feedback on their English essays. There’s an ounce of me that wishes my parents could do the same. 

Despite their struggles, though, my parents have been relentless supporters of my writing. My dad keeps a collection of newspaper issues with my bylines inside his desk, bringing them out to show to guests whenever they visit. My mom encourages me to keep submitting to literary magazines and contests. They’ve embraced what was once a barrier in their lives — finding a way around it to continue supporting my work. Now that I’m older, I understand the extent of their support and am grateful to have it. I try to pay it forward. I check over my dad’s work emails and help my mom correct her slip-ups in English. I try to encourage their pursuit of the language in the same way they encourage mine. 

Now, I understand why their support is extraordinary. My parents are encouraging my voice before they’ve found theirs in the language I call home: English.