In the summer of 2014, I made my last trip to New York City to visit yiayia before her house was sold. It was exciting, sure — I got to see not one, but two(!) musicals while I was there for a few days. As a child I saw Spider-man as well as the revival of Pippin (my all-time favorite), and on this particular trip my dad took me to see Rocky and an off-Broadway musical version of Heathers. Seriously, they’re all great and I know the soundtracks for all of them. I also got to try some new restaurants, most notably a rustic-chic little spot called The Marshal located in Hell’s Kitchen which served what I consider to be the only meatloaf worth eating in the world, because it was fantastic, and meatloaf is pretty gross in general.
But the trip had a sour note that was too tremendous to ignore. Yiayia was selling the house — the same house where I used to watch cooking shows with my yiayia, where I played hide-and-seek with my cousins as a kid, and where I went home to after my exciting adventures in the city and reminisced on the glittery lights as I fell asleep. The house had no furniture, and it was all cleaned up. Everything had been sent off to Georgia or sold cheap. The dining table, which was where we always ate family dinners at (including pastitsio nights) was gone. The pictures and memories were gone. All of papou’s books had been cleared from his personal office, the doctor’s office furnishings had vanished, and the only clue that the decades-old leather waiting room sofa had ever been there were the four round imprints of the legs in the carpet.
On the day of the closing, we woke up super early and headed to Chase Manhattan to sign the house over to Mr. and Mrs. Ho, the new owners of yiayia’s house at 35–06 162nd Street in Flushing. The closing took all day long because the papers weren’t all drawn up ahead of time, leaving us all stuck in a bare, gray office room for ten or so hours with a bunch of lawyers, who honestly were very dry company. It was miserable. When it was all done, papers signed and keys turned over, Mr. and Mrs. Ho invited us to dinner with them to celebrate. Apparently, my yiayia and Mrs. Ho had gotten quite friendly over the process of selling the house, because yiayia didn’t want to leave it in the hands of someone she didn’t know was a good person who would take care of it.
We walked a few blocks to a Korean restaurant and got seated, and that’s when things got interesting. See, my yiayia’s English is good, but not perfect. My dad and I really only speak English, of course. The Ho family moved here from Korea, and Mrs. Ho spoke English, but not very well, and her husband spoke absolutely no English at all. Everything Mr. Ho said had to be translated to us by his wife, and she had to translate everything we said to him. I had always taken ease of communication for granted, but at that dinner table, in that noisy Korean restaurant, I learned an important lesson.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to face language barriers in everyday life the way Mr. and Mrs. Ho do. As challenging as it was for me to try to get to know Mr. and Mrs. Ho, I know that I have the privilege of walking away from the table and going back to the comfort of easy communication with just about everyone I meet. For me, it’s not an ongoing struggle — just a brief incident in my past. For Mr. and Mrs. Ho, however, I’m sure it’s been an everyday thing to translate and repeat things. Lucky for them, they now live in the now Korean-dominated neighborhood of Flushing. But still, I know my yiayia and papou struggled with English for many years, too. Yiayia told me that language was the greatest obstacle in the United States. I can never fully understand the feeling, but after meeting Mr. and Mrs. Ho, I maybe know just a little bit about how enormous that obstacle surely must have been.