I’m in Houston right now, here to spend a couple of months with my kids over the holidays, and I’m noticing something I never noticed before.
I hear it everywhere I go.
The store clerk with the Korean accent.
The woman in front of me at the check out line with her Eastern European accent.
The guy working on my house who struggles to speak English.
The camera repair guy who is not fluent.
It makes me feel like a jerk. Like a big ignorant American.
Because for forty years of my life I have heard these broken accents and communications struggles and never given the people behind them a second thought.
I never realized the depth of their stories. I never mentally gave them credit for struggling through a common and seemingly easy social transaction in a language they don’t know well. I didn’t consider how scary and alienating it really is to be in a new culture, surrounded by unfamiliar customs, bombarded with a hundred clues you may or may not understand, and how hard it is to take it all in and try to process what you need to say in a language that is not the one you grew up with.
I find myself intensely curious about every single one of them.
My next door neighbors on both sides are from Mexico. One has been here for nearly thirty years, the other came her less than two years ago. I know people from Scotland, from Poland, from Canada, from south America, from Korea, from Viet Nam, from Jamaica.
Now that I’ve walked a few blocks in their shoes I see them so much more clearly.
I realize how much courage it must have taken them to leave all they knew. How hard it must have been when they left friends and loved ones behind. How isolating and confusing it can be to do simple things when you don’t speak the local language well. How much anxiety it can bring to just leave the house some days. How valuable it is to have a friend to help you through the difficult parts in the beginning.
The language barrier is such a hard one to get over, and such a bigger accomplishment than we monolingual people can ever really appreciate. Next time you’re talking to someone who speaks English with a foreign accent, give them a high five and a pat on the back. If they learned to speak our language as an adult, they have moved mountains and most of us don’t have any idea how hard it was. Even if you don’t say anything to them, remind yourself that they did something amazing. Also try to remember that even if their English isn’t perfect, they speak at least one more language than you probably do.
It’s not just the language either. People move to the US from other English speaking countries but that doesn’t make it easy. We tend to think that we are “normal” and that “every day life” is a no brainer. This is SO not true. We do so many things in such odd ways and don’t even realize it.
For many, we drive on the wrong side of the road. Do you know how terrifying that is? Driving in Scotland, or on St. John freaked me right out. I was sweating bullets just going a few miles down the road! There is no such thing as just running a few errands in the car. Just picking up your kids from school, or dropping off your clothes at the cleaners means you have to risk your life in a two thousand pound vehicle careening down the street when everyone else out there is going the wrong way. It is mental work to just stay in the right turn lane and remember which side the turn signal is on.
Also, our money is weird. It’s all the same color, and all the same size. It’s all got faces of old dudes in the middle of it. We have no real dollar coins, and we still use pennies. It’s also kind of ugly. Next time you see the foreigner in front of you in line struggling to count out his change to pay for something, cut him a break. Wouldn’t you struggle if you had to figure out the odd markings and faces on money you’d never seen before? Did you know that our ten cent coins are smaller than our five cent coins, and they don’t say anywhere on them how much they’re worth? Take a look, they’re marked with “one dime”. How the hell is someone supposed to know what a “dime” is?
Same with a quarter.
We are a nation of immigrants, some more recent than others. I have no intention of getting into a debate about what kind of immigration should and shouldn’t be legal, all I want to do is pay attention and be a little nicer.
I want to speak more clearly to someone who is not fluent in my language.
I want to be more friendly to someone who is a long way from home.
I want to listen to the stories of the person who is building a new life in a new place.
I want to hear about the things they loved that they left behind. I want to hear about what they find surprising in the US.
I want to be more patient with someone who is obviously learning the ropes.
I want to smile and give a high five to someone who just successfully navigated a whole conversation in a language they’re just learning.
I want to tell someone who is taking a class from a teacher who speaks a language they don’t fully understand that I admire them, and that I’ll help them if they want me to.
I want to learn how to cook their favorite foods.
Because people in Brazil have done these things for me.
I have been the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner. I’ve held up the grocery line because I couldn’t remember the difference between forty and fourteen. I bottle-necked the line at the butcher counter because I didn’t understand when they asked me if I needed anything else. I had to bring a friend to translate for me at the library to sign up for a library card, and be told what to write in the boxes on the form. I had to be gently nudged in my yoga class because I got confused between “chin” and “hip” while I was already upside down. I stared blankly at the census worker who came to my door because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she wanted.
There are so many things going on around us that we just don’t see.
Maybe now that I see a little better I can also be a little bit more helpful. I can smile a little more and be a better friend.
Note — I originally posted this on my old blog “The Tao of Me” on December 13th, 2011. I wanted to make sure to share it with all of you here.