“IT’S A MIRACLE I CAN SPEAK ENGLISH” was the title for my speech in the Toast Master’s Humorous Speech contest this Fall. I made it to the Division competition where the speakers were so impressive, I was a bit intimidated to be in their company, at their level. I used a little poetic license and here is my speech:
My husband often says to me that it’s a miracle that I can speak English. After visiting my hometown and meeting my family and friends, he is amazed that I can speak anything remotely resembling the English language.
I was born and raised on the sugar plantation of Paauhau on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was so small, you rarely found it on a map. Do you remember the C&H sugar commercial with the little girl running through the cane field? That could have been me as it was very much what life was like. My dad would cut a stalk of sugar cane, peel it and I would chew on it to get all the sugary sweetness out. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. The dentist wasn’t my best friend, but he loved my dad!
We spoke “Pigeon English” there, which is really a language all to itself. It was the common language used by the various ethnic populations to communicate with each other. On our plantation we had Filipinos, Portugese, Puerto Ricans, Japanese, Hawaiian, and Haoles (the white people). “Pigeon English” incorporates words from the languages of all of these groups with an adulteration of English, and I do mean an alteration.
My Dad spoke only Pigeon his entire life. His favorite phrase was, “Wea the nani?” or Where’s the what-you-ma-call-it? “Nani” came from “Nan desu ka?”, Japanese for “What is that?” Like most of the plantation folk, my dad couldn’t say his “TH’s”. My mom and I tried to teach him, “Dis, Dat, Dose, and Dese in our diction do not please, say This, That, Those, and These.” I would say, Daddy, put your tongue between your teeth and say “th-h-h”. (Here I said it like my Dad) I don’t even know how he did that!
On the plantation parents should have thought more about what to name their children. Arthur, for example, would be pronounced Atta. There was one kid in the neighborhood who was born during WWII whose name was Douglas Nakata. Can you guess who he was named after? Yes, you’re right, the famous General Douglas Makata. Or if you were white, your name was automatically, Haole Boy or Haole Girl, so your parents didn’t have to give you a name at all.
What about your favorite sandwich, the PBJ, the Peanut Butta and Jelly kine? Or you can’t just be dead. “Make’” is Hawaiian for death, so you would say, “She make’, die, dead”, reminiscent of the Munchins in The Wizard of Oz, where “she’s not only merely dead,
she’s really most sincerely dead.” (Sung holding my nose to sound like a Munchin)
My first language was Japanese as I grew up in a multigenerational household with my grandparents who immigrated from Japan. The kids in the neighborhood would say, “We no go play wit you if you no can talk English”, so I learned to speak their English. By the time I was in the 4th grade, my mother, who loved grammar, told me I could speak Pigeon to my friends, but not to adults. I was having blood drawn one day and the lab tech at the hospital asked me where I was from. I told him and he said, “You no can be from Paauhau. No one dea can talk good English”. This was the beginning of my journey on learning to speak English.
One of the favorite past times in Hawaii is to “talk story”. It just means to sit and visit and share stories about anything under the sun, but Pigeon English has evolved and now when I go home to Hawaii, I can barely understand some of the new Pigeon words and phrases. The word “choke” means a large amount. “Get choke mangoes dis yea!” would describe the bumper crop of mangoes this year. The phrase “catch cracks” means to get beaten up.
My family will tell you that I talk like a haole and that I have a haole accent. I grew up with the stereotype that “All Japs suppose to be smat.” My mother’s family took this very seriously and intermarried among first cousins for generations, breeding for intelligence. Can’t you tell?
This intelligent gene pool, a mother who insisted on correct grammar usage, and my parent’s belief that assimilation was the key to achieving the American Dream, are the reasons, I can speak English. No miracles here, but a journey down my own Yellow (pause) Brick Road.