Growing up in Southern California, I had a good number of Jewish friends, and so my language was peppered with Yiddish: “Oy,” I might say, “I’m feeling verklempt,” if I’d just seen a P&G commercial celebrating moms. Or, “Gosh, I’m so schvitzy,” flapping the neck of my T-shirt to keep the sweat from pooling in my cleavage; and the day I got a return letter “from” Bryan Adams, the Canadian rock star, I nearly plotzed.
When I moved to New York, the Yiddish became even more useful. Men I dated were either mensches or hot messes. In fact, a good amount of my dating life was farkakteh in one way or another, but everything could be solved by a good friend patting my shoulder and murmuring, “Oh, bubbeleh, everything will be fine.”
In case we haven’t met, I’m not Jewish. My parents are Buddhist and Confucist with a little Taoism on my dad’s side, and I didn’t practice any religion growing up. But having Yiddish merged into my English from early on in my American schooling reminded me all the time that there was a world I didn’t know out there. Judaism was a different culture but one that still belonged in my life as much as the huge altar my parents set up in our living room to honor my ancestors.
I didn’t know it then, but what I was doing was code-meshing, the merging of a non-dominant’s culture or vernacular into standard English. And reading more books that use it is doing the same thing using Yiddish did for my worldview – it’s reminding me that there are so many more cultures for me to learn that comprise the body of our American literature, and it’s encouraging me to think more deeply about why I don’t embrace more code-meshing when it comes to my own Taiwanese-American identity.
Broader reading, broader mindset
In one of the MFA classes I’m teaching, we’re studying books by Kiese Laymon and Carmen Maria Machado, whose memoirs occupy worlds not frequented by the majority of my students, and so we sometimes step into wording that borrows from other cultures, or that doesn’t read like like what we’ve been taught is strictly grammatically correct English.
In these books, and in others I’ve read recently, like Natalia Sylvester’s Running, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, and Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable, the authors merge the vernacular used by their characters – or demanded by the book’s setting – into standard English, so that what we get is increased authenticity around the work and more robust world-building. Throughout the books, as the characters or the narrator use different phrases, we get a sense of the character’s history, what matters to them, how it shapes them, and maybe even how they see their place in the dominant culture.
Take, for instance, one recurring word in Sylvester’s Running, a YA novel about a Cuban girl whose father is running for president. That word is “Papi,” and it’s what she calls her father. Not “Dad,” not “Pops,” not “Father.” Papi. Her mother is “Mami,” and throughout the book, she and her parents and her friends drop in bits of Spanish: “Entro y salgo,” says a friend, by way of telling Mariana, our heroine, that she’ll be right back. “Por que no?” asks Papi, when Mariana pushes back in typical teenager fashion.
In Laymon’s Heavy, a memoir, a whole chapter is dedicated to code-switching, or what it’s like to move from language to language depending on who you’re talking to. In Laymon’s case, it’s from Black Vernacular English to standard English. “‘Meager’…was my favorite word at the end of seventh grade,” he writes. “We used different pronunciations of meager to describe people, places, things and shhhtyles that were at least eight levels less than nothing.”
But code-meshing instead of code-switching makes for a more casual reading experience, almost as if the writer is merely nodding to the dominance of standard English while still recognizing the very real place that other cultures occupy in our world.
Aside from enhancing the experience of sinking right into a novel or a memoir’s world, code-meshed works preserve a sense of verisimilitude: You’re not likely to encounter an immigrant family in the United States that doesn’t use at least a little of their home language, even if it’s just to name the food they’re eating. My family likes to have dim sum together, for instance, and a reader is likely to stall out in the narrative if the protagonist then has to launch into a full-on explanation of what dim sum is. But the reading experience is preserved when the writer just drops it in. (More on how to do this later.)
In fact, if you’re reading a contemporary work in which there is no code-meshing – not a single character who speaks non-standard English – I’d suggest that you’re reading work set in a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. Code-meshed works allow the reader to access worlds they may not be a part of immediately.
How to make it work
Don’t be overly heavy-handed.
You don’t have to explain everything. Readers of code-meshed texts might not immediately understand what’s meant by one phrase or another, but writers can help a reader along by writing around the unusual-to-the-reader word. For instance, in the above example where Papi asks, “Por que no?,” Sylvester might follow up with Mariana complaining, “Just because, OK?” From there, a reader can infer that Papi has said, “Why not?”
Let’s go back to food again. When my husband and I are feeling lazy, we have ba tsang for a meal. For the purposes of this column, I’ll tell you that they’re bundles of parboiled rice spiked with pieces of pork belly, mushrooms, and peanuts, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. But that would be clunky in a narrative that’s ticking right along, so I’m more likely to write something like:
Jim looked like he couldn’t manage lifting a finger over dinner, so I opened the freezer and grabbed a couple of ba tsang. Just thinking about poking my chopsticks into the savory rice and pork belly was already making my mouth water. We’d cook tomorrow.
Readers are smart. They can infer. You can trust them.
If you’re trying to write a culture that you’re not a part of, I encourage you to do your research. Don’t lean on stereotypes, or what you think you know. Not all Asians can’t pronounce Rs and Ls. (“Flied lice.”) Not all Mexicans call each other “Vato.” Ask your friends. It’s worth it to get it right.
An easy way to get this right is to read. Read books written by the people you want to depict. Watch movies and shows directed by them. And then do some more research.
Don’t be obvious.
Try not to shoehorn it in. Work in code-meshing if it makes sense for the narrative and character; don’t do it if it doesn’t make sense.
With that said, if you pay attention, I think you’ll find you’ve read or seen more examples of code-meshing than you’d expect. Ever read someone speaking in a southern twang, with some regional dialect thrown in? That’s a kind of code-meshing. In sci-fi works, do you find characters using once-familiar words in new ways? That’s a kind of code-meshing, too!
But when it comes to realistic fiction or nonfiction, this kind of technique can help writers to build strong worlds – and it will bring once-foreign cultures into a reader’s world.
—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com. Originally Published