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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Celebrating the Gift of American Citizenship

Sometimes I get discouraged about trends in American culture and politics. But recently, I was privileged to be a part of a U.S. citizenship celebration that pierced my cynical armor and helped me remember that it is good to be an American.

Arwa, a middle-aged Jordanian immigrant, brought a feast to the adult English language learners’ (ELL) class where I tutor. She had just passed her American citizenship test, and she wanted to celebrate with her classmates and teachers.Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 10.53.18 AM

Learning English is hard. Every time students open their mouths, they’re likely to mispronounce a word, mix up the tense of a verb (I has a cold), mangle an idiomatic expression (We make party for my son), or be misunderstood because their accents are so heavy. They’re subject to constant corrections. To succeed, students have to be thick-skinned and persistent.

Steve, who teaches the class where I volunteer, sets a supportive tone. He leads the students in cheering and clapping for each other. They understand each other’s embarrassment, so they are encouraging and kind—no mocking.

We are teaching American culture as well as language, so we try to foster acceptance of other people’s customs, too. Steve sets up teams so African, Central American, Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European students must interact with each other and take part in playful competitions.

So when Arwa passed her citizenship test, it was natural for her to celebrate with her classmates. The other students know how hard it is to persist. Everyone is far from home and misses their family, their food and customs from home, and the ready access to people who understand their worldview. They understand what it means to let go of allegiance to a homeland and embrace a new country.

Sharing food is the language we all understand, so Arwa brought chicken shawarma, homemade hummus, lemon yogurt from scratch, little buns with a Middle Eastern version of pesto, salad, brown bread, and banana chocolate chip bread. She also had chunks of ham, salami and bologna as well corn chips, snack crackers, flour tortillas and soda.

I worried briefly about how her classmates would respond to the food. Some eat meat, some don’t. Some eat pork, some don’t. The only hiccup was that we didn’t have forks. I watched Arwa spoon yogurt onto the bread so I put a dollop of yogurt onto a piece of tortilla. Soon the other students caught on and did the same. The North Africans (from Liberia, Somalia, Kenya, Egypt) recognized and relished the food. The Thai and Hmong students sampled more carefully, but were complimentary. The Hispanic students (from Mexico, Cuba, and Ecuador) spooned food into the tortillas and rolled them up. Everyone complimented Arwa on the food and thanked her. We all clapped and cheered for her because she is a citizen now.

Throughout the spontaneous party, Arwa beamed. She is so proud to be an American citizen. I don’t know whether economic opportunity, war, love, or religious freedom (Islam is the majority religion in Jordan and she wears a necklace with a silver cross) brought her here with her husband and two children. It’s not the sort of thing we ask about in class.

One time I helped her study for the citizenship test. I’m sure many native-born Americans would struggle with the test, and at times, I wasn’t always sure of the answers. She told me that she’d been studying for three years—that’s almost enough for a college degree. How many native-born Americans would work that hard to belong here?

Arwa is so pleased and grateful to be an American. Perhaps she values it more because she worked to hard to achieve it. In the face of her accomplishment and pride, my cynicism about America’s shortcomings fell away, and my faith in the American dream was renewed.