Why People Who Live in Cities, Like Honolulu, Never Speak a Word of English

Updated April 9, 2020

Sometimes, interactions are just or more amazing with strangers than with people one has known for a while as the best conversation in the world with a stranger in a bar in Los Angeles went like this:

Stranger at the bar:
“How do you compare Los Angeles, California to Raleigh, North Carolina?”

“You can’t. Los Angeles is 15 times bigger than Raleigh in every which way. One can live all their lives in Los Angeles and know only 10 percent of it. For example, some people live in or near East Los Angeles and never speak a word of English. That is their world. My husband and I were saying the other day, perhaps the third generation Chicano or Mexican American lose their Spanish language abilities.”

Stranger at the bar:

“Do you know some Chicanos born in this country who deliberately do not speak English because they don’t want to assimilate to American or Western culture?”

“I never thought about that.”

Then sometime later, when I was in Honolulu Chinatown, I saw on some written brochure that said, “only 30% of Chinatown-Kalihi residents speak English at home,” thus this brochure phrased this statistic as a liability.

Every liability can be seen as an asset somewhere. Viewed another way–it shows how multi-cultural Chinatown-Kalihi residents are and their unwillingness to speak English and thus unwillingness to assimilate into Western culture.

So to my father, who doesn’t speak much English, and thousands of people like him who are illiterate in English, the benefit of not assimilating into Western culture, even though he has lived in Hawaii for as long as I have been alive, at least 40 years, must outweigh the disadvantage of being illiterate in English.

It’s not because they can’t speak English, they don’t want to speak English! Because if they wanted to speak English, they would have learned it after 40 years of being in Hawaii.

Add to that, if he assimilated and spoke English, I wouldn’t be bi-lingual in Cantonese, and my life would be very different today if I weren’t bilingual. Growing up, I wouldn’t have experienced two starkly different worlds.

So this is a “shout out” to all the bi-linguals, multi-linguals or polyglots out there. There are people that would die to be fluent in another language, especially be a native, fluent speaker.

And I came to these realizations because I spoke to a stranger in a bar in downtown Los Angeles!


Emy Louie is a “kama’aina/haole” (native/non-native person) adventuring to people, places and things on Oahu, Hawai’i, where “kama’aina” don’t usually go to–that tourists GO to, and vice versa.  She lived in Honolulu in the 70’s and 80’s and visited Honolulu annually since then.

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