Assimilation Successful: Sayed Kashua Now Embarrasses His Daughter

He hoped to give his kids a better life by moving to the U.S., and his reward is that his accent and cluelessness cause them endless discomfort.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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Illustration by Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

“Who am I doing all this for?” That’s a question I find myself asking ever more frequently when I speak with the children, especially with my daughter, the firstborn. “Tell me, for who?” I say this in a tone of voice that expects an answer, even though I myself don’t know exactly what this thing is that I’m supposed to be doing. And if I go ahead and do it anyway, I’m not at all sure it has anything to do with my children. “For who, eh?”

“So who are we doing all this for?” I heard my wife yelling at my daughter this week, and realized that she too has run out of ammunition in the face of an adolescent girl in a foreign land. I’m not saying that adolescents are more user-friendly in Israel, but here the work becomes a lot harder.

My wife and I are lost here, we still don’t know who’s against whom, and how this whole shebang known as the United States of America works, exactly. We’re two middle-aged migrants who don’t know the language and have a Third World-country accent that makes the children ashamed of us – the oldest especially, of course. We both avoid using English in her presence, and sometimes I ask my daughter to make phone calls for me to all kinds of American institutions, such as health insurance, drugstores, even to order pizza.

Sometimes the doorbell rings, out of the blue. I look through the peephole, and if I see it’s an American I wasn’t expecting I call my teenage daughter to open the door and see what the guy wants. “They’re asking for donations for the battle against breast cancer,” she might say after politely concluding the conversation with the stranger. Or maybe, “It’s something to do with the local elections. I told them you can’t vote.”

“What’s it to you?” I find myself shouting at my daughter. “Speak politely, who do you think I’m doing all this for?”

If we go to a restaurant, she does the ordering for us. Her mother and I look at the menu, understand what we understand and point to the dishes we want. “Are you sure?” our daughter asks sometimes.

“Why – is it with pork?” we ask sometimes.

“No,” she replies. “But it’s Cajun style, and I’m not sure it’s for you.”

I started to let our daughter speak to the waiters in restaurants after ordering salmon on one occasion. She said that the waiter smiled because Americans don’t pronounce the “l” in salmon. “They say 'sammun,'” she said, blushing with shame.

I told her she was wrong big-time – that salmon is salmon everywhere, with all due respect to her and to her English, and also that by the way, I’m working my butt off so she can learn the language, and everything we’re doing is to give her and her brothers a better chance than we had. And also it wouldn’t hurt if instead of sitting in front of the computer, she would read a few books and learn the English of academics and not of Nicki Minaj, because then she would understand that salmon is pronounced with the “l,” except maybe by her dumb friends from school who, judging by their appearance probably never opened a book in their life. They’re the only ones who say “sammun” and not “sal-mon,” and maybe the time really has come for her to find friends of a somewhat higher caliber than the group of rejects she’s hooked up with: kids who want to get into Harvard and not into some party over the weekend.

“Yes, sir,” the waiter said when I called him back to the table, to show my daughter her mistake in a first-rate act of education.

“No,” the waiter replied to my question. “You don’t say ‘sal-mon,’ you say ‘sammun’ – the ‘l’ isn’t pronounced.” From that moment I stopped talking to waiters.

“That’s it,” my wife said this past Monday when I got home from work. “That’s it, I’ve had it, we’re going home, and now." Then she handed me my daughter’s report card, which had come in the mail from school.

Total darkness. I looked at the grades and couldn’t believe what I saw. Her average grade was something like 3.7, her highest grade was 4. I sat down, totally crushed, and in my heart I thought, “Who are we doing all this for? For who?”

It took me time to come to my senses and recover my power of speech. You have to understand, my daughter really is a good kid – and I’m not one of those parents who only want 100s, I mean 90 is perfectly good, too, although not in mathematics, sciences or languages.

“But how did this happen?” I found myself mumbling when I realized I’d fallen asleep on the watch, had ruined my children’s future with my own hands, had moved them to a foreign country and had destroyed their souls. And like an idiot I thought they had it good here, that my daughter had made great strides and was blooming since we left Jerusalem.

“Where is she?” I asked in a choking voice.

“In her room,” my wife said. “I don’t want to see her. You should have heard the way she spoke to me.”

“What does she say about this?” I asked. “What’s her explanation?”

“Nothing, she lies, what else? The nervy kid said we don’t understand the first thing about America.”

“America?” I roared. “That’s it, we’re packing, no more America.”

“Wow!” my middle child said when he looked at his sister’s report card. “That’s really cool.”

“You too?” I yelled at him. “You’d better not start screwing up, I’m paying $12,500 for your cruddy school.”

“What happened to you, Daddy?” my son said. “She has 4 in almost everything, that’s the same as A.”

“What kind of A?” I asked. “Four is A?”

“No,” my son replied, “four is A+.”

“What?!” I exclaimed, when suddenly the doorbell rang. I looked through the peephole and saw an American in some kind of uniform. “Run fast and get your sister,” I said to my son.

“I’m not opening the door,” she shouted from her room. “Manage by yourselves.”

“Get down here fast,” I bellowed in what I hoped was a voice of authority. “Who are we doing all this for, eh?”