Since Henry couldn't ask in Cantonese and his parents barely understood English, he dropped the matter, grabbed his lunch and book bag, and headed down the stairs and out into the salty, fishy air of Seattle's Chinatown. (3.8)
Forcing Henry to only speak English means that he and his parents rarely communicate anymore; they can't even have ordinary conversations about how their days went. They can only nod and smile at each other.
They asked—no, told—him to stop speaking their native Chinese. It was 1942, and they were desperate for him to learn English. Which only made Henry more confused when his father pinned a button to his school shirt that read, "I Am Chinese." (3.1)
How weird is it that Henry's parents don't want him to speak Chinese anymore… but insist that he wear an "I Am Chinese" button every time he leaves the house? Talk about conflicting messages.
Henry smiled and replied in his best English, "I'm going to open an umbrella in my pants." His father nodded a stern approval, as if Henry had quoted some profound Western philosophy. (4.3)
If Henry can't talk to his parents, he can at least have some fun with the language barrier. Because they don't understand a single thing he says, he can spout absolute nonsense and they'll still think that he's saying something meaningful.
Henry practiced the Japanese words, saying them over and over as he kept walking—until the faces on the street turned from black to white to Japanese. (7.35)
Henry isn't just repeating the Japanese words that Sheldon taught him because he wants to hit on Keiko with his smooth pick-up lines; he's doing so because he wants to show her that he's making an effort to connect with her Japanese culture.
"I. Don't. Speak. Japanese." Keiko burst out laughing. "They don't even teach it anymore at the Japanese school. They stopped last fall. My mom and dad speak it, but they wanted me to learn only English." (7.67)
Well, that certainly backfired. Henry delivers his flirtatious line in Japanese and Keiko doesn't even know what he's said—because she's only allowed to speak English, too.
There was so much to say and ask, but neither Henry nor Marty inched closer to the subject. They just waited for their server, who would soon be bringing more tea and orange slices. (9.25)
Henry loves his son Marty more than anyone, but he has a hard time communicating with him—especially now that Ethel isn't around to mediate the conversations. So they often just lapse into awkward silence.
After more mixed translation on Henry's part, they ended their bilingual discussion, agreeing to disagree, each warily eyeing the other. (20.30)
The language barrier between Henry and his parents actually does come in handy when Chaz's father comes in and wants to buy up Japantown for his own purposes. Henry "translates" his conversation with Henry's father so they are on opposite sides, ensuring that Chaz's father's mission is not accomplished.
"He talks to you every day. What do you mean, why won't he talk?"
"He talks, but he doesn't listen to me." (26.18-19)
Henry's father may talk to him—exchanging pleasantries and hellos—but they only skim the surface of communication. They don't actually talk about anything of substance or really understand each other.
Henry's eyes met his father's furious gaze. His father picked up a photo album, tore the spine in two, and threw it to the floor—yelling something in Cantonese. He seemed more angry at the photos themselves than at Henry. But his turn was coming. Henry knew it.
Well at least we're probably going to have a real conversation, Henry thought. And, Father, it's about time. (35.31-32)
Even though Henry's pretty freaked out by the fact that his parents discovered Keiko's photo albums, he's also relieved to finally talk about something real with his father. It's about time they were honest with one another.
This time he waited months for a reply, and when it came, Keiko seemed even more confused and busy than ever. He'd written her two more times while waiting and couldn't tell which letter she was responding to. Or had a letter been lost? (44.36)
As much as Henry and Keiko want to keep in touch, it's hard to communicate properly when they're relying only on postal correspondence—and their letters keep getting lost en route.