This is the final posting for this academic year. This spring, we read David Sedaris’s essay Me Talk Pretty One Day and listened to episode 165 of This American Life. The essay discusses David Sedaris’s French classes in Paris, and the episode of This American Life discusses his experience living in Paris and his frustrations interacting in a culture where the language is not his first language or one he has completely mastered. The class reflected on their experience living in another culture and studying English. Here are some of their reflections.
Living as a Foreigner
Leaving my country, family, friends and job and living as a foreigner in another country gives you an opportunity to explore a bigger world and to look at life from a different angle. When I was in Korea, I did not have a chance to appreciate little things. I was busy working all day, attending wedding ceremonies and meeting friends. There was no time to think about life, and I just repeated a routine. Everything I did was just normal and everything I had was something I took for granted. As soon as I moved to the States, I found myself in a whole different position in the community. I did not speak the language. I had no job. There were no friends and family who would support me if I were in trouble. I became one of the social minorities whereas I was in the mainstream back home.
If there is a language barrier, it is pretty difficult making friends unless both sides are foreigners. Some people just would not bother to make foreign friends because they are not patient enough or because they think it is not worth it. Once, I attended a barbeque party to get acquainted with my husband’s classmates and their families. I remember I was always stuck to my husband like glue so that I would not feel left out. I had to mingle with people I met for the first time. Some people were very kind, and they asked questions about my husband and me. Some, however, did not say a word even though we were standing right next to them. I felt I became an unwelcome guest even though they did not mean it. Then I asked myself ‘If I had white skin, blond hair and blue eyes or if I were a native English speaker, would more people have talked to me?’ It also made me think how I treated people who are minorities in my country in the past and how I should treat them in the future.
On the other hand, little things around me started to be valuable in life. I started to hear the sound of birds and see the color of the sky and leaves of the trees. I never really had a chance to appreciate nature when my life was like a rat race. I was finally able to breathe and admire things around me. When I compare life here with my busy life back home, I realize that the purpose of life is quite different. The life I have here is definitely not money oriented. That is because I do not have to be competitive to make more money, or I do not spend most of the day in the office. Though the fact that I do not have a job here makes me helpless, it enables me to have time and energy to think about more important values that I have forgotten for a while.
Being away from my home country and living as a foreigner certainly makes me humble. Compared to life where I have a safe job, close family and friends that I can rely on, there is not much I can do here in a foreign country. Humble life experiences have changed my perspective on minorities in my country. I think I will be able to treat social minorities with respect after I go back to my country because I have been in their shoes. Besides, my experiences as a minority allowed me to appreciate small things around me. I am certain that life can be more valuable and fun if I value small things and do not take them for granted.
I quite understand David Sedaris saying that being a foreigner is the lowest life form and I partly agree with it. I have stayed in US for more than one year, and sometimes I cannot help thinking that way. As a foreigner who has little knowledge about American life, it is hard to avoid frustration and upset.
Language is one of my biggest problems. I was not aware that I needed to talk so often in daily life until I came to US. I used to chat with grocery workers, argue with bank clerks or complain to customer support at any time if necessary in Beijing. However, now I feel nervous before I open my mouth, and it becomes worse when I start to listen to someone speaking rapidly. Sometimes communication for me is both a task I have to finish and a test with score, and the results are never satisfying.
Coming from a developing country, I guessed that American life would be more comfortable, and at least no worse. It turns out it is not true if you don’t own a car, or have no idea about housework skills. Without a car, it means no shopping, no chance to take a look around the city and no ability to deal with any emergency. Once I had to go to get fingerprinted in Michigan City by public transportation, I took 4 hours one-way, whereas it would have been only 40 minutes by car. In China I used to take the subway or taxi to work and home, have dinner in a restaurant or at my parents’ house. Both ways were very easy, fast and affordable, while these are impossible here. I started to learn driving, cooking and crocheting. Gradually, I dared to try unknown vegetables in the market, cut trousers that are too long for me, and love driving with a GPS.
Culture was only a concept for me in the past, yet now I know it is not only about art, novels and history, but also the TV shows my classmates watched yesterday, the pop stars / presidential candidates people like, and even the jokes friends play with each other. I still get confused and feel like a caveman frequently when chatting. I feel more relaxed while watching news or movie in Chinese, but then I wonder “is it good for me?” It seems I lost confidence for everything- arguing, working, and now, even enjoying my leisure time.
There are many aspects that can describe my status, and it is definitely not the sweetest time in my life. However, I am indeed excited when I try something new, venture to a strange place, and learn the lifestyle I never expected. Although it is as if I suddenly lost some common knowledge I mastered before I was 15-years-old, I take some pleasure in learning it again to survive. I would like to say that living in the US is another kind of life, a process where I realize my ignorance and then become more educated, a journey where I lose my confidence suddenly and hopefully pick it up again one day.
What ESL Classes Taught Me
Writer David Sedaris said that being a foreigner is “the lowest life form” while he was discussing on NPR his humiliating experiences of learning French in Paris. The statement might be extreme, but it does hold some truth. I worked as a translator back in Korea, and helped many English-speaking business people and professionals communicate with their Korean counterparts in mutual interactions. My best efforts to change one language into another failed me sometimes because as foreigners, English speakers could not fully understand what was going on without a basic awareness of Korea’s cultural and social contexts. In this situation, they first floundered in a deluge of words, then abandoned themselves in a pool of loss, and finally had this I-have-no-idea look on their faces. This made them look not very smart, at best. However, the tables were turned when I came to America with my husband, who had been accepted as a business graduate student at Notre Dame.
I started to learn English at the age of 13 in school, majored in English education at college, and was trained and worked as a professional English translator. I often watched CNN and PBS, read Time Magazine and the New York Times, and loved Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and Iron Man. But as soon as I landed in the middle of Midwestern corn fields, I immediately became a “foreigner” who had no idea about America and American life.
My journey with ESL classes was actually the process of getting some “ideas” about American culture and history. One of the insightful topics during the classes was tall tales which extoll courage, resourcefulness as well as physical and mental strength of the grassroots heroes and heroines who pioneered this country long before Hollywood, New York fashion, Michael Jackson or Coca Cola. I could see the painful struggle of those people who crossed treacherous waters from around the world, endured hard labor to survive poverty or slavery, or took one tough step after another to build a better life in the New World behind these funny or exaggerated stories. I believe that this heroism, unsung outside America, has served as a basis for this country’s entrepreneurship, country music, hard-to-pronounce street names and beautiful national parks. Those tales gave me one of the moments where I was able to scratch a little bit deeper under the surface of this country.
The ESL program was an eye-opener, not just for America, but also for the world. In celebration of Valentine’s Day every year and in the middle of busy presidential primaries this year, two different classes under the program had joint sessions to discuss love and wedding customs as well as presidential election systems in the students’ home countries. Almost the entire world was represented in those sessions: China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan from East Asia; India, Iran, Israel and Sri Lanka from South Asia and the Middle East; Armenia, Russia and Spain from Asia and Europe; the Dominican Republic and Mexico from Central America; Brazil, Chile and Uruguay from South America; and Cameroon and Mali from Africa. I was sometimes, shocked and at other times, amused by the stories. For example, Islamic Chinese hold a family-oriented long-hour wedding ceremony, which seems to be the combination of the Islamic faith and Confucian values. Iran surprised me with its great status of women and high divorce rates. Africa and Asia have similarities in putting communities and families before individuals. I never expected to meet a passionate Iranian feminist or modest silent Chinese career woman (Chinese people are considered assertive and outspoken to many Koreans). I also learned what roles religion plays in American and Iranian politics, why the Chinese do not bother to vote, and how mysteriously totally different countries have so much in common.
These experiences reminded me that I had a mold to break, which required more sincere effort and commitment than expected. It is true that I have learned things from CNN World Reports, BBC World Service, and The Economist, but they often cannot beat five minutes of small talk with real people from the regions that those news media touch upon. The ESL student body is a microcosm that provides many chances for such interactions as it represents a big world across diverse countries, regions, skin colors, ethnic groups, cultures and religions in a small classroom. This English-learning program encouraged me to break down the walls of preconceptions and misunderstandings and to see the world beyond the endless corn fields of the Midwest.
Some might say it is an exaggeration, but I believe these eye-opening moments help build trust, harmony and peace in the world in their small ways because the absence of or the lack of understanding often has produced and still produces prejudice and discrimination. This was neither what I could have learned living a comfortable life as a non-foreigner in Korea, nor what I expected to learn when I first signed up for the program. Nor is it what I could learn from any other part of American life, but rather it is only what this unique and precious program can deliver. This is what the ESL program for international spouses taught me, and how it helped me grow out of “the lowest life form” in America.