On Giving

Recently, I became acquainted with a young Afghan refugee who has been resettled in the US. She’d only been in the US a few days when I met her on a bitterly cold day in February. I had no idea what she might have or need, so I brought a scarf and warm mittens, some toiletries, tea and snacks. The resettlement agency had given her appropriate winter clothes. Within a few weeks they’d found an apartment for her and given her basic furnishings.

Despite our age difference (she’s 24 and I’m in my sixties), we got on well. She had worked with the US embassy and her English is good. I’ve tutored immigrants learning English for years and am aware of some common cultural disconnects. So much of teaching English involves explaining American history and culture as well as grammar and punctuation. My intention is to be a friend, someone she can trust with questions about confusing customs.

When I mentioned meeting her, a number of women I knew immediately asked what household items she might need. Like me, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and would be happy to give it to someone who can use it. We all have so much. We’d never miss an extra end table, coffeepot, or winter coat. I had the same impulse, but thought I’d wait to see what she wanted and needed. 

Her apartment’s furnishings seem sparse by American standards, but she was delighted by her things. She’s accustomed to sharing the kitchen with several families and told me she’s never had so many clothes. I recalibrated my instinct to offer her a bunch of stuff. Should I push my aesthetic on her? Maybe she prefers simplicity. Would the donations from my friends and me make her feel inadequate or signal that she seems poor by American standards? 

I’m aware I often overthink things. Maybe she’d love to have more for her apartment. The simple generous reaction friends have had—how can I help—is a good one. Why wouldn’t we help when we have so much? Shouldn’t we?

Yet I know the dynamic between givers and receivers can feel unbalanced. Uncomfortable for the recipient. I’ve already seen my new friend’s deep sense of hospitality. When I visited her and another Afghan family she’s friends with, they insisted on serving me a full meal. Although I wasn’t hungry, I knew it would be rude to refuse, so I ate with them. Similarly, when I gave her the handful of things culled from my closet and kitchen at our first meeting, she gave me a new pair of earrings she had, something I suspect she’d bought for herself.

I try to think how I’d feel if the roles were reversed. Would I simply be grateful, because I needed things and someone cared enough to help? Or would I feel awkward about the charity? In time would my pride be pricked so I became resentful? Trying to be sensitive, not stingy is confusing.

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.