For a greater part of the thirteen years that my family has lived in the U.S., I have acted as my parents' interpreter or, as they are fond of calling me, "our family lawyer." Beginning in seventh grade, I became accustomed to interceding on my parents' behalf whenever conflicts arose with the landlord. It was thus that I became privy to the world of conflict that lay behind the pretty displays of fruit and flowers. Letters and phone calls about overdue repairs, real estate taxes, and lease terms threaded through my adolescence as prominently as trips to the mall or weekend parties did for others. Challenging a person in power is always a daunting task, and it was one that I accepted, but never without considerable dread.
Among the countless tense phone conversations and contentious exchanges, one scene stands out in my mind: I am standing facing the landlord's irritated expression. A fourteen year old, with hair pulled back in a ponytail, I make our case, doing my best to appear poised and confident. But I am neither formidable nor seasoned enough to match landlord, and soon, struck with an unexpected lash of words, my armor buckles. Before I even realize it, my frustrations flood into angry tears over the utter unfairness of the situation. Details blur, but I do remember that it was pouring mercilessly outside. My mother followed the landlord into the rain, yelled out a chain of infuriated words in broken English, and practically shoved the woman into her sleek BMW. It was a burst of unrestrained rage that I have not witnessed in my mother ever since.
Looking back now, I realize that those years were ones of privilege, a period of in-the-trenches training at its finest. The many frustrations that colored those years for my family were also priceless opportunities for me to hone my ability to assess situations quickly, to construct arguments, and to hold my own in the face of opposition. Even more than the acquisition of these skills, my experiences have given me a visceral understanding of the vulnerability that defines relationships of unequal power. In my interactions with lawyers and landlords, I came to see how individuals with power and/or expertise often speak and act as if the simple fact of their position renders them unaccountable to others' experience of vulnerability, or worse yet, to their own behavior.
For first-generation working-class immigrants like my parents with limited English skills and minimal resources, access to powerful representation for business or legal matters is usually prohibited by cost. The frustrations my parents have endured serve as raw reminders that a person's value is too often defined by his or her background and connections. The gap between the "expert" attorney and the "lay" client becomes a wide chasm when the client does not speak English. This summer, with support from the Harvard Law School's Mark D. Howe Civil Rights Legal Research Fund, I was able to study the provision of interpreting services for litigants not fluent in English. In my case observations at the criminal and housing courts in New York City, I saw how the language barrier placed the Korean-speaking client in a virtually separate world from her often non-Korean speaking attorney.
Even when interpretation was adequate, a boundary existed between the client's own voice and the voice of everyone else in the courtroom. On one occasion, I watched in Housing Court as an attorney all but ignored his client's belabored attempts to ask him questions in her halting English. Not realizing at the time that court regulations prohibit non-court appointed interpreters from interceding, I approached the woman in the hallway and asked if she would like me to interpret her questions. When the attorney returned, I became a "family friend" and began to interpret the woman's concerns about the case, as well as her angry grievances about her attorney's careless and condescending behavior. In a matter of half an hour, the attorney's attitude progressed from an irritated carelessness, to an angry defensiveness, and then eventually, upon learning that I attend Harvard College, to a respectful attentiveness to his client. The woman and I clearly put the proud attorney on the spot. I wonder if it was the first time that he had been confronted in English or in any other language about his negligent and insensitive style of lawyerly language.
My "obstruction of justice" took place during a pre-conference recess and so did not constitute a violation of court regulations per se. However, I am acutely aware that what I did constituted a brief disruption of one attorney's routine interaction with his immigrant clients. At times, especially in such formalized worlds as that of law, moments of compassion can translate into acts of subversion or unconventionality. It is precisely because these moments break through the armors and assumptions of expert language and professional routine that they have the power to touch lives - to transform both the attorney and the client so that they might speak openly about their relationship to each other. Beyond the professional relationship of attorney and client, in which the client's heartfelt experience is gauged as a puzzle piece in the case to be won, there exists the human relationship between a vulnerable person and the expert representative upon whom she depends to tell her story.
The law itself has been described as an act of constant interpretation. As this idea is applied to the real lives of ordinary people that the law touches every day, I would measure a lawyer's strength not by the mere power of her language or persona, but rather, by the power of her whole being to communicate, by the legal word, the soul of her client's experience of injustice. This lies at the heart of a good interpreter's work: to capture and convey the nuances of a particular language in its true character. At the heart of a good lawyer's calling, too, lies the work - and it is work - of preserving the spirit of a person's story, so that it is told just as she has lived it, unmuted by the din of the voice of professionalism, undistorted by the myopia of legal detachment. Guided by the memories of my childhood defending my parents at the store and the experiences along the way of defending working class immigrants like my parents, I hope to become a lawyer who takes neither the power of the law nor the power of people's experiences for granted. This hope defines and illuminates the path that I have chosen. In my office, the chairs will be like the milk crates at my parents' store: resting places for the tired, a place where one's story begins.