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.

I’m (Not) Sorry

 

Brenda behind mug

Guest blogger Brenda van Dyck is no longer in a sorry state

I’ll admit it—I don’t generally set a lot of goals for myself. I live in Minnesota, after all, the land of the naturally above average. But I have set a big goal for myself: to stop saying “I’m sorry.” I blame my Minnesota roots.  It didn’t even occur to me that this was a thing until I saw a mug at the “I Like Me” store booth at—where else?—the Minnesota State Fair. It was a simple mug with the shape of Minnesota and the words “I’m Sorry” written across the front. It was a forehead-slapping moment.

Here in the North Star state, we have much to apologize for. We apologize for these harsh Minnesota winters. Who would willingly subject themselves to subzero weather and live in a climate that keeps us hidden from our neighbors for half of the year? And then there is the mosquito, the unofficial state bird, that attacks any exposed flesh for the three nice months of the year.

And we’re not even as nice as our moniker “Minnesota Nice” would suggest. I was shocked to hear that non-natives have trouble breaking into our tight web of social and familial connections. Of course, I felt bad about that.

We Minnesotans have perfected the art of passive-aggressiveness. We have trouble being direct and assertive, for fear of confronting people; we couch our behavior behind the cloak of “I’m sorry.” When someone budges in line at a store, we say, “I’m sorry, but I think I was next.” Or when the waiter gets our order wrong: “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I ordered.” We’re not sorry! We just don’t want to come off as too brash, too–might I say–East Coast.

But it’s more than just being from Minnesota, the land of perpetual guilt. Growing up Catholic adds to this sorry state. I remember preparing for my first confession as a child. While I was not perfect, I was stumped when it came to confession, something that I had to tell the priest I was truly sorry for. Without being able to come up with anything egregious, I may have said that I was mean to my brother. The memories are fuzzy now.  The truth was that if I was mean to my brother, he probably had it coming. He usually did.

We’ve all encountered people who fall over themselves unnecessarily apologizing for things. These are people who feel bad about everything. At least I’m not that bad. I think.

Over the years, I’ve perfected the art of the “apology.” I apologize when I have to ask for something and I’m afraid the person will say no.

I apologize when I think I’m bothering someone. “I’m sorry to call so late…” even when it’s not really that late.

I apologize in order to ingratiate myself to others. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier…” when I knowingly procrastinated.

I apologize sometimes to spare someone’s feelings, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

I say “I’m sorry” as an imprecise verbal filler, as in “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your skirt is tucked into your tights.”

I have said, “I’m sorry to have to ask… “ “I’m sorry you were caught in the middle of that… “ “I’m sorry to be a bother….”

I’ve had to stop myself from starting emails with “I’m sorry, but…” as a buffer to break bad news.

Maybe apologizing is an effort to be perfect. Often these words simply come out of my mouth because I don’t want to cause offense and I fear falling out of people’s favor.

Alternatively, we’ve all heard the “non-apology” apology. “I’m sorry IF you were offended…”

Then there are the insincere apologies of children, the sarcastic “I’m ssooorrrrryy,” we force them to make to classmates or siblings. But if I say I’m sorry and I’m really not, isn’t that the same thing?

Why have I been doing this all these years? Can it really be that I am afraid of offending people? That I’m afraid of what people may think of me if I offend them, even unintentionally? Yes. And yes. There it is. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I should be a little braver in my everyday life. That I should stand up for my true feelings instead of acting and reacting the way that I think people expect me to. Or in a way that risks putting me in disfavor.

I’m sorry that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” all these years without giving it a second thought. Now when I find myself composing an email and I have more time for reflection, I delete the words “I’m sorry” from the beginning of an email. And in speaking to people, I’ve stopped myself from saying, “I’m sorry” when it’s not appropriate.

If I only say I’m sorry for things that I am truly sorry for, doesn’t that make my apologies more sincere and meaningful?

I would like to try the tactic of replacing the words “thank you” for “sorry,” as the comic artist Yao Xiao illustrates in her comic strip Baopu #15. She suggests, for instance, instead of apologizing for being late, say “thank you for waiting for me” or when you feel like you’re rambling, not to apologize but to thank the person who is listening to you. It’s a subtle verbal shift in words, but a seismic mental one.

I am not sorry about not saying sorry any more.

 

Brenda van Dyck is an occasional guest blogger on WordSisters. To learn more about her or our other guest bloggers, click on Guests above.

Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

A few weeks ago while in Kauai, I was reminded of events that happened during two previous visits, episodes that made me aware that I may be freer to walk in the world, because I’m white and middle-class.

During my first trip, I had an afternoon free before I had to return the rental car and fly home. I wanted to spend my last few hours in paradise at the beach. However, checkout was 11:00 a.m. I had to turn in my keys and couldn’t use the chaise lounges at the resort condos where I’d been staying.

A nearby resort routinely put out a slew of chaises on their lawn overlooking the beach. Guests didn’t have to check out chairs. I figured I could blend in with actual guests and hang out there for a few hours. I looked the part of a paying customer—I was wearing clean clothes and had a backpack, towel, and an iPad. Not the profile for a homeless person.

It was a small gamble. Who would wonder about a middle-class white lady? Turns out, no one.

Another time in Kauai, I went for a long walk to Shipwreck Beach. Along the way I enjoyed the red and yellow hibiscus, hot pink bougainvillea, and orange bird of paradise blooming in the resort gardens I passed.

On my way back, I was in full broiling sun and the walk began to seem more oppressive than fun. I could feel myself getting seriously overheated. So I decided to take a break in the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby hotel. Again, I hoped to blend in. The desk clerk smiled and nodded to me. She probably thought I was waiting for someone. After 15 minutes or so, I had cooled down enough to leave the hotel and continue on my trek.

In each case, I wasn’t bothering anyone, but I was trespassing. Perhaps that’s why I started to speculate—would I have been treated as nicely if I were a black or Latina woman? Would somebody have asked, “Can I help you?” with the imperious tone that really means, “What are you doing here?”