Sunday, May 1, 2016
I am One of "Those" People, an Immigrant Who Doesn't Speak the Language
I wanted to run away, far away.
I went to Spain for the first time on a high school exchange trip. I fell head over heels in love. I drank in the warmth of the place, like a magical healing tonic. I adored the way the sun glowed across the facades of centuries old buildings, the way people kissed my cheeks on first meeting, and every meeting after that, and I delighted in strolling arm in arm down the busy sidewalks with my new friends. I thrived on the person to person touch connection of the culture. I needed to be touched. It felt like my heart home, a place I had always belonged to and had finally found. From then on, I dreamt of moving there. I returned several times in the proceeding years. I majored in Spanish in college and attended one year of university there. I had built a bridge to cross over, to take my place where I believed my future happiness waited to welcome me.
It turns out I would get away eventually, but not to Spain, and not for many years. I write this sitting in my study in Taipei, Taiwan. I live here with my husband and three children. We have been married for more than twenty years and lived most of that time in the United States. I had planned to make my break for the land that first fed my heart, and instead found a venture into a new phase of life and happiness with the man I love.
Stephen is Australian and American, but despite an international upbringing, he did not speak Spanish at all, and so the best laid plans changed directions and I embraced new beginnings of a different kind.
We got married and started our life together in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I couldn't find a good job using my Spanish language skills, so I spent some time as a volunteer teaching English to people in a Latino neighborhood. It was clear to me that these were men and women who earnestly wanted to learn the language of their new country. They were enthusiastic and dedicated, and it was often very difficult for them. These were people struggling to get by, and trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. Sometimes they would not show up for awhile, they would get a job or move away and no longer be able to attend. I found it an honor to get to know them, to be of service for the time we had together. I always wished them well.
I grew up in a very white, middle class, suburban neighborhood. Diversity itself was the most foreign thing you might find there, and it offered little to no opportunity to interact with people of different backgrounds and cultures. My travels to Spain, the years of dedicated study I put in to gain fluency in the Spanish language, and my time volunteering with wonderful, bright individuals planting roots of a life without the benefit of the kind of language education I had received, filled my heart with respect and admiration for immigrants. I gained deep insight into being a foreigner in a foreign land, the courage and faith it requires. Immigrants are people just like you and me doing the best they can. I was lucky to have these experiences, at home and abroad, that strengthened my empathy muscle around language, and the challenge it is to master a foreign tongue.
It infuriates me when people denigrate immigrants who can't speak the language. I cringe at the very thought of the recrimination, "If you are in America speak English." America, a country founded and populated by immigrants from all over the world, whose first generation of any given family may not have been English speaking. Today people arrive here, in many, if not most cases, fleeing poverty, persecution, social or religious peril, many come with nothing but desperation and a flicker of hope, a dream. Isn't this our great story, our collective jewel, the American dream? Or do we really wish to stomp that dream into oblivion so we don't have to share it with others? When I hear someone say "speak English or go home", I want to shake them into memory of what this home means, what we are supposed to stand for. This nation was formed, a land of hope and possibility for those who wanted something more, something better, those who were thirsty for freedom. " Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." How can we forget, where we came from, who we are?
It hadn't occurred to me, that when I least expected it, I would become the person moving to a foreign land, and not the warm sunny Spain of my dreams. My husband got an amazing job opportunity and we packed up and moved to China with three of our four children (we have an older adopted daughter who is in The Untied States).
We have been living in Mandarin speaking countries for three years and counting. I have learned very little Mandarin, just enough to be polite and get by. I know other people who have not even bothered to get that level of skill. We live in our new country and we make connections with other people like us, we don't integrate. We are not called immigrants, we are called expats. The difference being that we generally are not planning to stay permanently, and the second being we have money and privilege. The vast majority of us are here because of a job, we are either working, or here as a "trailing spouse". The typical expat jobs are fairly high level and high paying. We are people who come to our new country with ample resources and advantages. Many of us have drivers and domestic helpers, what seems very upper crust at home is fairly common here.
The truth of the matter is I have status, privilege, and that allows me to easily ignore my deficit of language. I took lessons the first two years and gained enough skill to function, but I find Mandarin exceedingly difficult and when we moved to Taiwan I let my studies go. It had not occurred to me that this might be a problem. However, one day I was in the car listening to the English speaking radio morning show, and the host started talking about the local Taiwanese frustration and poor regard for expats. He said there is a sentiment among quite a few Taiwanese that "if you are in Taiwan, speak Chinese".
If you are in Taiwan speak Chinese.
It dawned on me that I am one of "those" people. I am one of those people seen by some as rude and ignorant, one of those who saunters in and takes what they need, but has not bothered to assimilate, doesn't care enough to learn to communicate. I felt bruised and a bit guilty as I thought about this. I felt sad that there are people in the place I currently call home, who see me as an intruder, or at least an annoyance, an unwanted presence. I wanted to defend myself, but who could I tell? I don't speak Chinese after all. And that left me in the uncomfortable territory of helplessness, powerless to change a condition of my life. People are probably judging me, assuming to know my character, thinking badly of me, and I have no present moment avenue to change that, or to demonstrate otherwise.
Sometimes I want to run home to America where it's safe and familiar. But I am here for the immediate future, and all I can do is learn, adapt, and do the best I can with what I know right now.
The reality is I am here because it provides for my family, we followed opportunity. We are here because we want the best for our kids. It is such an exciting journey, full of rich eye opening experience, travel, culture, fun and expanded horizons. It is also challenging, disorienting, and scary at times to be a stranger in a strange land. Even with the many resources we have available to us we are confronted with a loss of what is safe and familiar, there are so many unknowns to contend with. We have had to adapt and learn to function within this new environment. It is important to be aware of the perceptions of the community we are living in, and to understand how we are being seen. I don't know much Chinese but I can say hello, I can smile, I can make small gestures of kindness. Shouldn't we all commit to that on a daily basis wherever we are?
When we step out our front doors and into the world, it would make for a much better place if we did so with an attitude of inclusion and positivity. We make an active choice after all, to go out assuming the best of people we pass on the street or in the coffee shop, wherever we go, or to assume the worst. If we walk around in life and invest in suspicion, judgment and preemptive dislike for our fellow human beings then that is the environment we will manifest. We have the ability to choose kindness, compassion and generosity as our foundation of being, and we would do well to give of those qualities freely until a person gives us a reason not to. There are bad people in the world of course, people we have every right to defend ourselves against, or at the very least establish firm boundaries. Some immigrants will be bad people, some people in any given group, or in any community or on any particular street, may not have good intentions in their hearts, but all over the world the good people far outnumber the bad. I know this is true. I have traveled many places, walked down many streets and every place I go I find good, kind, generous people. They are there, you just have to be looking. What we look for is often what we find.
In the current charged climate around immigration and the divide that is evident, the anger that is bubbling up, the hostility and increasingly violent words and actions, it is essential that narratives that increase understanding and compassion get written, spoken, demonstrated and acted upon. My experiences are my own, but I believe they hold truth. I believe what I have learned is deeply relevant. My best gesture into that uncomfortable territory of powerlessness is to maintain an open mind and heart and to speak out in the name of unity and love. These are forces that bring us together no matter our native tongue, no matter where we may travel, or where we make our home.