Immigrants and Introverts

Some years ago (maybe in the womb, who knows) I decided I was going to be fascinated with languages, and I decided I wanted to understand and communicate with people in their languages. So now I’m studying Spanish. While all the other classes I’ve taken have offered at least two sections–one for native speakers and one for non-natives, like myself–for the first time (since Wilton Place), I’m taking a class where a majority of the students are hispanohablantes. And once again I am la única coreana. la única asiatica.

español 310: análisis literario, dra. gasior
la2-200, martes 4-645

So there we were in class discussing el tema de literatura and I’m paralyzed with fear because I know that participación es esencial, but I can’t seem to find the right time to contribute because I can’t speak Spanish without bursting a vessel somewhere around my temples while groping for the right vocabulario and the right conjugaciones.

While all this is going on, my thoughts went off in a different direction.

I was suddenly struck with the idea that I’ve enjoyed many advantages by coming to America as a little girl. I’ve always been curious about the place where I first built roots. I had always wished I had been in Korea just a little while longer because I was always drowning in questions about my home, my country, my language. But oh my goodness. I thought about having to experience what I experienced today and I realized just how fortunate I was to have come to America at age of four and to have had a relatively seamless transition into American schools.

As immigrants, often times we are forced and even expected to keep our mouths shut. Many of us, my parents included, live everyday in a country that seems to corner us into silence, into the position of the perpetual listener and follower because, while there are some are sensitive to those still developing their skills, many are not. There are those who ridicule. There are those who belittle.

My sister was ten when we moved to the states which is an important age in the formation of your idiosyncrasies, your opinions, your person. You’re exercising your ability to think and speak for yourself. But growing up she felt that she could not say the things on her mind without provoking laughter around the classroom, so she chose to stay quiet.

People often mistake silence for the absence of thought, that you have nothing worth saying, or even that you’re slow. But they’re wrong. Silence is often a product of the absence of security. Many non-native speakers do not feel that they are in a safe space where they can afford to make mistakes. So alone in their minds millions of thoughts rage like a mad train, embers splintering from its tracks, but their lips form no words in the dominant language. 

My friend’s mom once told me a story about an incident that took place when she first immigrated to the states. (We’ll call her Lucy for the sake of convenience.) A stranger cut Lucy while she was waiting in line at the market. Lucy, who spoke minimal English, decided to tell this stranger that she had cut her place in line and thus treated Lucy unfairly. The stranger, however, refused Lucy of her rightful space. In her broken English, Lucy responded with indignation, saying something like “I wait here —  you go there” as she pointed behind her. Then the stranger looked at Lucy straight in the eyes feigning alarm and concern and asked, Are you okay? Then the stranger turned toward a worker and said, I think this lady needs an ambulance.

In the end, my friend’s mom did not get her place back.

From listening to my parents’ stories, my sister’s stories, my friend’s stories, what I gather to be one of the most painful, frustrating, and dangerous experiences (among the many challenges that comes with being perceived as a “foreigner”) is that of losing your voice and being drowned out by the white noise of the dominant tongue. You can neither see when it comes to strike you nor fight back when it does. You lose the ability to defend yourself. The world exhausts you through fear and frustration. You go about your day bumping into strange situations with your eyes closed. You muffle the many voices around you hoping to avoid confrontation that will only exploit your silence. It creates unnatural introverts out of the multitudes who feel they must choke back their words because it signifies and only amplifies their foreign existence.

Spanish for me es voluntario. I do it because I want to. I love the language. It’s hard work, but I’m rewarded with forthcoming success. But the intimidation I felt when the entire class grew clamorous with discussion in a language that I only barely follow forced me to confront the silent struggles that millions of non-native English speakers experience on a daily basis. Some of these people are my family, my friends. What a conviction. It made me reassess my commitment to teaching and serving the needs of those around me: what’s the point of aspiring to be an educator if I’m not sensitive to these things? if I’m not readily available to my own friends and family experiencing this?

Hats off to all my fellow immigrants struggling through this. If you lived through it, then bravo. I commend you for your accomplishments. And if you’re living through it now, if you’re still in the process of mastering your weapons of communication, I’m here to cheer you on. You’re doing a marvelous job and I admire your bravery. I know this is somewhat weird to say, but I’m always here to help you. My success goes only as far as the people I care for go. I hope never to stand alone in success. 

And mom. dad. I know you will never read this, but my heart is troubled as I think back to the times when I mocked you. I’m so sorry for all the times in my younger years when I wished you were anything other than what you are now. I wasn’t wise enough to understand that your language is not English and that your home is not here. I hadn’t learned about the burden of isolation and invalidation you were constantly up against. It took some time, but I’m finally grown. And I honor you.

Thank you for sacrificing your pride, your comfort, and your country to afford me the opportunity to claim English as my own.

I’m going to take it and make something good out of it. For you. 

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