What Work Would I Do if I Were an Immigrant?

Olga*, 42, was an architect in the Ukraine and now she is a homemaker. Gina, 28, was a civil engineer in Venezuela and now she is a server. Deqa, 32, was an accountant in Somalia and now she works as an assembler. When I tutor these adult English Language Learners, I often consider what it would be like if the situation were reversed and I were the immigrant. What work could I do?

I’ve made my living as a writer and a teacher—work that requires a good command of the language, both written and spoken. As a marketing communication writer, understanding connotation (e.g., ‘cheap’ vs. ‘inexpensive’) and nuance (e.g., the perspective of suburban mothers vs. that of urban mothers) were key to being persuasive. Since project management was a big part of my work, I developed schedules and budgets and coordinated the efforts of several other team members.

As a teacher, I’ve needed to use clear, simple wording and examples that would help someone comprehend a word or concept. I’ve had to be quick with alternative explanations, too. When I tutor immigrants, I am also teaching American culture as well as English language so I must remember not to make assumptions about anybody’s worldview or beliefs.

If I lived in Ukraine, Venezuela, Somalia, Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam, or any of the other places my students come from, I wouldn’t know those languages and cultures well enough to make a living as a teacher or writer. My M.A. in English would be irrelevant, just as Olga’s, Gina’s, and Deqa’s degrees are.

When I review my non-language-based skills, my list is short and sounds like the work my students do: cooking, cleaning, factory work, or stocking merchandise in a store. With time and a bit more knowledge of language and culture, I could take care of children or infirm adults. As my language improved, perhaps I could be a sales clerk, wait tables, or drive a cab.

But professional work in which I use my communication, analytical, and organizational skills would be closed to me. What also would be lost to me is the respect that goes with having a professional career. If I were an immigrant with poor language skills, most people would assume I was stupid and uneducated—nothing more than the cleaner or babysitter I appeared to be.

If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t want to be pitied for the challenges of learning a new language and culture (and neither do my students). I would have chosen to emigrate. Or maybe I’d be a refugee who didn’t want to leave but needed a safe place to start over. Either way, before I moved, I would have been aware that it’s hard to learn a new language and work in a foreign country—the bare minimum needed to survive. If I missed my homeland, was lonely, felt disrespected, or experienced outright hostility, it would be mine to deal with. In time, I could hope that safety, security, and a better quality of life would come.

When I work with student immigrants, I keep in mind that it’s hard to do what they do, even though they chose it. I admire their grit, persistence, ability to work toward long term goals, and overall resilience. I wonder if I would have the same qualities if I were starting over in a new country?

*All names have been changed to protect student privacy.

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Are You My Mother?

In the classic children’s picture book Are You My Mother? a newly hatched bird falls from its nest and wanders about asking that question of a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a few inanimate objects. He is clueless about his own identity and terribly lost.

You may have been nurtured by a mother possessing all the perfection of Caroline Ingalls or struggled through childhood with a parent who took lessons from Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude. For most people growing up in Mom’s kitchen fell in a more safe and boring middle ground with measured opportunities to learn about yourself and the world. A place where Mom, trusted adults, books, television and other kids helped answer questions whether insignificant or intense.

The maker of peanut butter sandwiches, enforcer of daily tooth brushing, comforter of physical or emotional injuries, was just a woman who happened to be older than you. She wasn’t gifted by the gods with amazing knowledge, a graduate of a secret parenting program, or anywhere near perfect. She didn’t know why 9/11 happened, how to stop social injustice, who to call about global warming. Her job was to make sure you felt loved and protected, often difficult work in an imperfect world.

Discovering that your mother has a masters in labor economics, hides a bag of bodice busters in the closet, holds strong feelings about mutual funds versus annuities, was married before she met your father suggests a richness in this woman’s life that has nothing to do with your existence. This is the school where she learned the mirepoix that flavored every scold, joke or counsel.

Even when the person who mothered you becomes too old or fragile to cook a really good dinner or read a favorite author without help, there will still be unknowns to explore in the woman who taught you to fake burp, to connect cables on a sound system, to ask your boss for more responsibility, to speak in many voices so your child giggles as you read Are You My Mother?.

 

Reprinted from cynthiakraack.com May 9, 2015

The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

Recently, when I served dessert to women friends around my grandmother’s dining room table, we described our uneasy relationship with the objects the women of our families treasured.

Now when we have homemade cookies, we store them in Mimmie Shriner’s Depression glass instead of saving it for good.

Women of the Greatest Generation, like my mother, cared about “good” china, crystal, and real silverware. They hoped to get full sets of it as wedding presents, and they cherished their mother’s and grandmother’s things. For them, the hope chest tradition was alive and well. They collected china and linens before they married and instilled that value in my Baby Boom friends and me. But our Millennial kids don’t want to fuss with handwashing goblets or ironing tablecloths. Not that I blame them. I don’t either. Nonetheless, my friends and I are distressed about what to do with the tableware and linens we’ve inherited. Let alone the quilts, furniture, and photographs.

We were brought up to value them, but the tableware really doesn’t make much sense in our lives. Where do you keep it between holidays? Wouldn’t holiday meals be less work if all your dishes could go in the dishwasher? And yet, this stuff mattered so much to our mothers. How can we just donate it to charity? But people do—Goodwill is full of 12-piece place settings with dainty floral borders. I’ve seen Waterford crystal goblets there too.

Articles like,No One Wants Your Stuffhave taught me to rethink my assumptions. The popularity of books like The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaningand The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up make clear that either I can purge my stuff or my kids will.

Mimmie Shriner’s table where she served her out-of-work relatives on Sundays during the Depression

I’m becoming reconciled to the half-life of memories. When my siblings, first cousins, and I—the last people to remember Mimmie Shriner or Grandma Pleitz—are gone, my grandmothers will become “ancestors” instead of the vivid people they are in my head. Mimmie’s dining room table will just be an antique table, and Grandma Pleitz’s crystal goblets will just be wine glasses. Their significance is in my memories; my sons and any future daughters-in-law don’t have those associations—they never knew my grandmothers.

Many evenings, I sip wine from one of Grandma Pleitz’s eight goblets.

Yet the objects are a visible reminder of past generations—hardworking, loving women who wanted pretty things in their lives. How can I honor the memory of these women without feeling burdened by their stuff? One way I’ve chosen is to use the good crystal and china even if it isn’t a holiday. When it chips or breaks, I throw it out. That way my grandmothers come to mind and are more present in my life. If their tablecloths get shrunk or stained—so be it. At least they got used and enjoyed. Likewise, I honor my grandmothers by keeping a few things I really like so I can look at them often. Finally, I remind myself that heritage doesn’t reside in the objects alone. It’s also passed down through our family’s recipes, traditions, stories, and values.

Mimmie put hairpins in this small handpainted dish. I never put salt Grandma Pletiz’s salt cellars, but I still like them.

I accept that my sons and future daughters-in-law may not care about my stuff—whether inherited or chosen during 30+ years of marriage. If they do, they will have different memories than mine. I hope they only keep what they care about.

One Person Can Make a Difference

One person can make a difference.

Aunt Kate did.

My Aunt died 30 years ago but it is her that comforts me. I imagine me sitting next to her, wrapping myself around her ham of an arm and never letting go. She loved me. That I know. I could see it in her worried eyes. I could feel it in her nervous energy. She wasn’t perfect, neither was I in our relationship. In my early twenties she had asked me to meet her at a wake for a dear friend of hers. I told her that I would but then I didn’t show. I had my excuses. I was too tired. I had worked long hours on the night shift into the morning. I was exhausted and needed sleep. I couldn’t summon the energy to dress into nice clothes, navigate through the cold wintry weather, and step into the funeral home. She asked me later that day where I was. I could hear her disappointment. I held the phone to my ear, imagined her waiting for me. My aunt who didn’t ask anything of me but this one time, who counted on me to be there for her.

Aunt Kate was a caretaker of her siblings throughout her life, before her service in the army and after. She never married.

It was her boyfriend from days gone by that had passed away and I didn’t show. My one unforgiveable regret.

She must have forgiven me because as she lay dying at age 83, she visited me though we were miles apart. Her white shadowy spirit passed through the room. I was kneeling at my bedside, sobbing because I knew that I would never make it to her in time.

At that moment, my mother called. “Aunt Kate died,” she said.

“I know.” I felt oddly comforted by Aunt Kate’s presence. By her choice to see me before she departed this life. She recognized my love for her. “I know,” she was saying to me. “I know.”

It’s because of Aunt Kate that I live my life differently. I show up for people that I care about though I may be too tired, too exhausted, too busy, and the drive too far.

I went to Aunt Kate’s gravesite on the anniversary of her death. She would have liked that I thought of her and put flowers at her headstone. She would have liked that I pulled two of the flowers from the bouquet and put one on each side of her at her neighbor’s graves though neither of us knew them. She would have liked that I showed up though it was impossibly hard to find her grave at Fort Snelling even though I had been there before. It was cold. It was windy. I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t give up. She didn’t give up on me.

It’s her that comforts me even now.

Reduced Focus

For the past four years my eye prescription remained relatively unchanged. Unfortunately, my glasses haven’t remained unscarred through an infant’s grabbing hands, a puppy’s curiosity, and life in general.

I took advantage of a coupon to buy an emergency pair of bifocals for $250. During a recent week of travel I wore that pair. My eyes never adjusted to the left lens, the one the optical tech said was stronger than my old prescription. Each afternoon I found it difficult to zip through messages on my phone, enjoy a book, or read small print on a menu. Headaches started early in the day. I panicked about fulfilling writing obligations and tried to not think that maybe my eyes were in trouble.

This is the kind of bad decision I made because of a high deductible health insurance policy. The $175 eye exam would be out of pocket so spending $400 for the security of back up glasses felt prohibitive. I shopped around and spent less. Fortunately, my discomfort ended when I returned home and put on the old glasses. Scratches and all, my vision cleared, and the headaches stopped.

Others are making more difficult decisions—taking the gamble of not purchasing an asthma inhaler for themselves to make it possible to pay for a partner’s insulin, cancelling necessary lab work or tests to pay for their child’s asthma inhaler, not following a physician’s directions in using an expensive medication to stretch its use, staying in a hated job to hold on to health insurance, not replacing bald tires on the family car because of a health emergency.

Most of my adult experience was in a health maintenance organization. We groused about wait times for appointments, lack of choice in the optical area, going to a hospital across town, but we never faced decisions like today. If we hesitated about taking a child to clinic for a possible ear infection, it was about traffic or workload and not about the $125 bill.

These decisions are made in all zip codes throughout our wide metropolitan area. Only the very wealthy or very fortunate are exempt. We don’t comment on a good friend’s darkened tooth, push a neighbor to join in a night out, or question why a kid’s wheezy cough doesn’t improve. We’re all too polite to talk about the healthcare monkey choking America’s sense of comfort and scared about what’s coming next.

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