Our living room conversations could be intense.
There was discomfort.
That Sunday afternoon, I sat in the living room facing my West African parents. I stared at the floor and then past them, reaching for words to explain that I was dealing with anxiety and depression. All they noticed were the symptoms: a considerably reduced desire to speak, to eat or to engage in activities I didn’t find absolutely necessary. I went to work every day and went through the motions but they could tell something was different. They didn’t know how to ask and I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I always just answered “yes” to the question, “Are you ok?”
My family immigrated to the United States 15 years ago from Togo, a West African francophone country. I remember the surprise of my middle school peers when I told them that in a country the size of Rhode Island, there were approximately 80 different groups of people who all spoke their own language and had their own cultures. I grew up speaking Ewe, the lingua franca of the southern part of Togo. I also spoke French, the official Western language of the country. This means that my everyday conversations with family members are in Ewe peppered with French words.
It’s not that my parents didn’t understand English. We had lived in America long enough for all of us to reach an adequate level of comfort with navigating the necessities of daily life.
But English was just that for us – a language of necessity. A way to engage the outside world. It was reserved for “outside the house” and “outside the family”.
Occasionally, English came “inside” but only when someone from the outside was present. Still, as I sat there facing my parents, I felt a world apart from them even though we were only separated by a coffee table. I could not find the words to express myself. Mental health issues are rarely part of family conversations. It wasn’t until college that I learned about concepts such as self-care and emotional resilience and how they related to me. As I stuttered, mixing up my words and expressions, my parents listened patiently. I realized in that moment that it wasn’t the first time my vocabulary was found lacking.
There were the times I tried to explain introversion to my mother. She quickly translated to “Yes, yes, a closed person, a shut-in, yes?”
Not quite. I tried again.
“What do you mean there are people who enjoy being by themselves? Why would you want to be away from your family, away from people who love you?”
I realized that Sunday that my dictionary has holes.
I felt frustrated at my inability to find the words to bridge the gap between my experience and that of my parents. “So, you are sad? Why can’t you just be happy?”, they asked. I listened to them try desperately to respond and appease the worry I seem to always carry. They tried metaphor after metaphor to express to me that they understood. Or at least, that they were trying to. Despite my frustration, it eventually dawned on me that their dictionary had some holes, too.
I listened not just for their words but the intent behind them. I came away, not completely understood, yet immensely grateful for their willingness to listen to me patiently. Even when I often have trouble expressing what I’m feeling in a way that makes sense to them, they’re willing to let me do just that – talk.
I may have the same struggles with my future children, one day. We will most certainly have cultural or generational differences. At this point, I’ve spent more time in the US than in Togo and I feel like a hybrid of both cultures. I can relate to the values of both cultures pretty well and suspect my future children might be even more removed from Togolese culture than I am. In that season, I hope I will have my parent’s patience as I work towards our own common lexicon.