Why You Should Vote for Vamos! for Pick of the Year

 

Vamos! Let’s Go Vote! (Lái lái lái!)

Cover of Vamos! Let's Go the MarketI don’t like to focus on regrets if I can help it. Regret is such a silly swamp of a feeling, and more often than not it stems from problems we can’t change without the aid of a uranium-guzzling Delorean hitting zero-to-eighty-eight in however long it takes to go back in time. That’s the whole nature of regret, right, getting bogged down by something that’s already done? Seems like a waste of time to me.

That said, one of my biggest regrets is easily related to language acquisition, and it’s a regret I have to stare down far too often. I grew up in China, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, because I think seeing the world is some of the best education we can get (outside of devouring as many books as we can!) and easily one of the best ways we can learn to understand those around us, particularly those who don’t look and think like us. But that sort of learning can really only go so far when you’re in a foreign country and your ears can’t hack it. I was a little kid in China, pretty much the prime age to be picking up a second language. I struggle with language acquisition now because English just doesn’t pair well with other languages; the parallels are misleading and I’m a bookseller with a math brain that wants everything to translate one-to-one.

But when you’re a kid it should all come easy, at least easier. Especially when you’re immersed in another culture that speaks the same language as a third of the world. How stupid is it that I should be able to talk to something like two in every three people across the globe and instead I find myself limited, forever with something on the tip of my tongue that ends up being a metaphorical cat burglar? See, when I was younger I had plenty of opportunity to learn Mandarin and I whiffed on it. Chinese school didn’t pan out for me and every person brought in to teach me Chinese simply saw me as an opportunity to practice their English, and I let them.

I regret that.

Every time someone finds out about my childhood the first question they ask is inevitably if I speak Chinese. Every single time I’m embarrassed by the answer. I’ve been back to China and after about a week of immersion stuff started to come back. I could get around, explore the city on my own, have some minor conversations, order food, and haggle at markets. But every time a local heard me, a laowai (essentially “foreigner”) speaking Chinese they got excited and started speaking double time. I’d have to tell them to slow down. “Sorry, I don’t understand.” “But you do, your pronunciation is so good!” they’d exclaim. To some extent they were right, but only on the words I knew. My vocabulary is constantly fleeting.

So what’s my point in all this? (See? Even in my native tongue I can struggle to communicate what I want to say.) My point is that I think language is important, and I wish I’d been even more immersed in it as a kid instead of retreating to what was comfortable. I look around today and I see too many people in the U.S. trying to be comfortable rather than trying to communicate. 

Comfort’s all well and good but if we don’t communicate with those who are different then we’re missing out and we’re just causing ourselves grief, both on a personal level and a cultural one. That’s the great thing about the so-called melting pot we live in: it’s an opportunity to have the world come to us! We’re surrounded by so much we could learn from, but oftentimes we fail to take the first step.

Vamos! is a first step, and it’s a beautifully illustrated one. It’s the kind of book that gets at the heart of language acquisition, showing how beautifully worthwhile and how accessible it is. When it puts English and Spanish side by side without any sort of explanation it presents that co-existence as normal, as something to be proud of. Child readers might not see it as such – they’ll no doubt simply pick it up because Raul’s characters are vibrant –  but it’s there anyways, and after what will surely be repeat readings the message will start to seep in, and so will the words. As a kid I would have been glad to have been tricked by something like this, and I would have come away better for it.

I hate focusing on regret because it implies looking backward. Vamos! is the opposite of that: it beckons us to take a step forward, to do so together, and to not waste any time.

Vamos! Let’s go!

-Caleb