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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A Fool’s Errand or a Worthy Risk?

I just submitted my memoir manuscript to a publisher. I sweated over every word of the query. I drafted the synopsis and revised it and revised it again so the narrator’s growth was woven into the plot. I fussed over the manuscript sample to make sure it was tight and engaging.

I believe in my book. If I didn’t think it was worthy, I wouldn’t have spent more than 10 years on it.

But as I read and reread my handiwork, doubt crept in. I thought, “Am I wasting my time? Will this book even appeal to the publisher?” I sent it off anyhow.

Next, I polished and fussed with my entry for a writing contest.

Once again, I was assailed by the same suspicion that this is a fool’s errand. I’ve entered that contest half a dozen times and haven’t won yet. Will this year be any different?

Some stubborn, optimistic part of me persists.

While working on these submissions, I countered my doubts with platitudes like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t try.”

Then I questioned the platitudes. It’s ingrained in the American psyche to believe that you’ll succeed if you try hard enough. That isn’t always true. Sometimes you fail anyhow. Then you have to live with the failure and wonder if it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough. Huh?!? What maddening logic.

Americans also love noble failure and tell ourselves, “At least you tried.” That is comforting. Like many Americans, I do believe that it’s better to risk failure than to attempt nothing. Risk is scary, but safety is stifling.

Finally, I come back to Margaret Atwood’s sensible advice: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

I’m going to stop whining. As for the entries? Stay tuned.