Friday, May 18, 2007

A Very Long Rant-y Entry

I have a bug up my butt about something. (Shocker!!!)

As per usual, there are some random references and seeming non sequiturs due to the Rambling Train of Angie Thought. Hang in there with me for a few paragraphs or ten. Okay, here we go.

So obviously, I read a lot of blogs, right? Yes. And once you start reading blogs, if you pay attention to the comments, you start to realize that a lot of the people reading, commenting and blogging in their own right are the same general circle of readers and writers.

After a while, it starts to feel exactly like living in a small town. Everyone knows everyone else's business (though in this case it's because we're all posting our business on the Internet.) You get to know whose kid is whose, and you get to watch them all grow up. There's a tremendous sense of community, of tireless support, of cheering each other on. You mourn together, cry together, laugh together. Of course, you occasionally encounter bullies, judgmental people, jealousy, but mostly there's a validation, a relief, a feeling of comfort from the sense of "OMG, me too!"

And yet, also like a small town, every now and then someone busts out with something really close-minded, and you're like, wait, WHAT?!? The flip side of community and solidarity, I suppose, is a sense of insularity and self-selective isolation. (Here's where we finally get to the thing I have a bug up my butt about.)

Last week on one of the blogs I regularly read, the author was talking about how she's just not a big-city person, citing the usual urban complaints: traffic, graffiti, crime and (wait for it, wait for it) "bazillions of non-English speaking people."

She added the following:

"I know, that makes me sound incredibly prejudiced, but I like for the people around me; for the people who serve my food, and work in the dry cleaners and the grocery stores and the retail shops, to actually be able to speak the same language as their customers. Sue me for saying it out loud."

The commenters, of course, piped up in agreement. This is the "OMG, me too!" factor in action.

Commenter A: "I couldn't agree more! My daughter is acutally 1/2 Mexican/hispanic & so there is a very good chance that in time, I will learn some Spanish for HER so when she decides she wants to learn more about her ethnic heritage we can learn with her. But I will NOT learn Spanish for the hundreds of thousands of legal & illegal immigrants to this country. If you want to live & work in this country & receive benefits in this country, you should at least learn enough English to communicate during a normal day."

And Commenter B: "I love your comment about english speaking. If you are in America the least you can do is speak the language. I should not feel uncomfortable trying to understand someone while trying to do my daily errands."

And C: I completely agree that it is much nicer when those people who come to live in the US from other [sic] are able to speak the language. Of course, I probably would never publicly say this.

And D: "Lately, I've been feeling a little resentful over this whole political correctness thing; it's troubling to me that here in the USA, land of my birth, I am the one who can't voice my opinion because it may offend someone who may or may not be here legally? Who thought up political correctness and why did we buy into it? I am all for people--any people--wanting to LEGALLY create a better life for themselves and their family. The way to do that, however, is not to come here and try to turn it into the place you've just escaped. Speak the language and assimilate. The schools here are going broke trying to deal with those who don't."

There were others as well. Of course, being me, I hopped up on my soapbox and left a big 'ol comment. I left my email address and invited dialogue over email so the original author didn't have to moderate a flame war. No one responded to me, but that's most likely because the blogger put up a handful of short posts in a row and it got bumped off the main page.

Anyway, I still have a bug up my butt about this, and I spell-checked my big ol' comment and everything. So I'm reposting it below:

I know sometimes it's hard to decipher someone's tone by reading their words, so I will preface this by asking you to try to "hear" me speaking openly, evenly, calmly with a tone of respectful curiosity.

Why does it bother you to deal with people who struggle with English? Is it simply the inconvenience?

I hear C and a few other commenters say, in so many words, that they welcome people who come to America to try to achieve the, er, American dream. How do you know how long that the person who is struggling to speak to you in English has been in this country? Today I met a woman who spent an entire month WALKING, more or less, from Guatemala. She arrived on Saturday. It's Thursday. My God, the blisters on HER feet brought tears to MY eyes. How long does she have to learn English before native speakers dismiss her with impatience and irritation? Six weeks? Six months? How long does she have from last Saturday to "speak the language and assimilate"?

What is a "normal day," exactly? (remember what I said about tone now, please hear this in the calm, respectful way I'm typing it) I grew up in a small town in PA where high school football is king. Everyone knows everyone. We have a community pool, and a firemen's carnival (yes, fireMEN, we don't have women firefighters, politically correct, what now? :), and marching bands. Every church has a Christmas bazaar and a vacation Bible school. I learned Spanish in high school, starting with the basics. My love for language propelled to continue studies in college, and I'm bilingual.

I lived in Miami for a year, where I spoke Spanish more than I spoke English. I know the commenters here will think that the fact that I really HAD to use Spanish as a necessity in Miami proves their point. Like it or lump it, it's a fact of life that Miami is a tri-lingual city: English, Spanish and Haitian French creole.

I confess that I felt uncomfortable using Spanish when it came to car troubles and banking. I can't IMAGINE having to go to an emergency room, in pain, sick and afraid, and try to communicate in a second language while panicking.

Sure, I liked speaking Spanish on a NORMAL day. I LIKED explaining "trick or treating" in Spanish to my neighbors from Argentina because their bilingual children Miguel and Alejandra asked me to help their parents understand the completely foreign concept of dressing up like a ninja and a Disney princess and running around the apartment complex asking people for candy.

You know what I like best about being bilingual? When I realize that the person who serves my food, and works in the dry cleaners and the grocery stores and the retail shops is struggling with English, I reach out to them and I say, "Senora, prefiere Usted espanol? (That is, "Ma'am, do you prefer Spanish?")

Their eyes light up. We TALK. I usually need a few minutes to make the changeover to Spanish in my mind. I thank the person I'm speaking to for their patience, and you know what usually happens? They often try to switch to English. They tell me about the other mothers from their child's class at school who are trying to learn, about the "all English" playdates they have to practice with each other, the nun at the church that offers a Spanish mass who runs a workshop at 10 p.m. at night, when they finally leave their second job. They ask me how they sound, am I saying this right? We communicate, and it's wonderful.

I guess my question is this... How do you know that the people who wait on you as you run errands aren't spending their evenings in church basements with workbooks and language tapes, TRYING to learn, and the disdainful reactions they get from native speakers when they struggle only make them that much more afraid to try to speak English "during a normal day?"

And you know what? You're right. Some people don't try. Some people are too tired, too scared, too preoccupied with trying to give their children a better life, too homesick for everything they knew , too much in need of education to reach outside their own cultural comfort zone. But isn't that true of everyone at times? Don't we all have things, struggles, ISSUES where we need to be met where we are?

How can we love America, the country of my birthright, and Commenter B's and C's, and not LOVE the process of the melting pot? Sure, some of us have been "stewing" in the melting pot longer than others, but if everyone who ever immigrated to America assimilated and learned the native language... Well, then... Shouldn't we all be speaking Wampanoag, the language spoken by Squanto and the Patuxet band of indigenous people who greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock?

English has the largest vocabulary of any other language in the world, in part because every wave of immigrants has brought words from their native language that have been incorporated DIRECTLY into English. Words like democracy, metropolis, monsoon, iguana, bagel, opera, tobacco, pashmina, sushi and nugget; never mind "venti cappuccino."

Anyway. I don't know if anyone is even checking this thread anymore,
(they weren't) and I don't want to start a flame war. If anyone wants to continue this conversation, or answer the question I posed before- Why does it bother you to deal with people who struggle with English? Is it simply the inconvenience?- feel free to email me. Thanks for listening!

So that's what I wrote. If you made it all the way through this entry, thank YOU for listening. You should probably go get some work done or something. :)


karla said...

Sigh. That type of thinking is sad. And wrong.

I'm all about diversity. In fact, in Canada, our country could not sustain itself without immigration.

Toronto is the worlds most multicultural city and I love it and I love that my child will grow up appreciating other cultures and beliefs. My husband (who is white) works in an enviroment where he is a minority and here you just don't even think twice about it. It's a non issue. And it's fascinating meeting people from Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, India, Turkey...the list goes on and on and on because everyone has a story to tell, and sometimes, if you listen, you might just learn something.

Thanks so speaking up. It's racial tendencies like what you have addressed that make me embarrased and sad for humanity.

shannon said...

Ernie's dad speaks very little English. Not because he doesn't try, but because it's freaking hard to learn English when you've spoken Tagalog your entire life. Ernie's mother speaks English fairly fluently, but her English is accented and sometimes things get lost in the translation.
Hell, Ernie speaks fluent English, but he also speaks fluent Tagalog and something often gets lost in the translation.
I get so frustrated when people decide their way is the only way and there's no room for anything else. I understand wanting to be able to communicate in a language you understand in the country of your birth. But last time I checked, English hadn't been made the official language of the United States.
And most of these people who think we should all speak English or "get out" have ancestors who spoke something else when they arrived here.
Gaby, for her part, speaks a mixture of Spanish, English and Tagalog. I want her to know her father's heritage and mine (my dad is Mexican).

nemo said...

Tee hee.

Michelle said...

Thank you, Angie. The part I liked the most was about us all speaking Wampanoag. It's true. And, to boot, there is no official language in this country -- yet, let's pray that we get a Democrat in the oval office for the next 50 years (or so), so saying that those in the US should speak "our" language doesn't make sense. We have no national language. Thank God.

Carl said...

To end your frustration, you will have to stop being so evolved. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the diversity of life the way it is, you'll just have to learn to live with the primitive fearfulness of the masses.

Interestingly, English is a ridiculously non-homogeneous language. That's what makes it so great -- it's a mode of expression with fewer boundaries. Native English speakers don't have a pure language to fall back upon as their very own. But, of course, nothing prevents them from restricting their own vocabularies.

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie said...

Hey everyone! You know how I talked about the comments and the "OMG Me Too!" factor? I love when people weigh in, (hi karla, I don't know you were here! Welcome!) but I just want to say, this isn't my personal Amen corner. Disagree, debate, discuss... Or not. Whatever. :)

Stephen said...

Loving and Hating the Big O:
Why I'm in favor of and against an Official Language.

What makes America great is its diversity. Few on this board or elsewhere would argue otherwise. But diversity in and of itself yields nothing but chaos under normal circumstances. The popular concept of "diversity" is more than just "a wide variety of cultures and viewpoints," but additionally, "a wide variety of cultures and viewpoints joined together in mutual respect for mutual goals." In this country, the stated goals are Freedom, Democracy, all that good stuff. And I think we'd all agree that Italian-American, African-American, Anglo-American, Chinese-American, we're all equally American. For all our disparate cultures and histories, we all share the American culture and history. Baseball and Superman and Voting and all that. In what way is it detrimental to a person's ethnic culture to take part in their adopted country's culture?

The considerations are not only cultural but practical. Angie describes the terror of having to go to an ER and describe symptoms in a language you don't understand. Trying to deal with tax forms, your children's homework, even traffic signs when the language is incomprehensible.

But no one here is arguing against people learning English, if they have the desire. Far from it. The difficulty of "Official Language" is the default "otherness" it creates, the stigma of those who do not comply, the sense that it is an enforcable law. What's missed is that is SHOULD be enforcable law. But the citizens shouldn't be held accountable. The government should.

We should have a common language. One that would foster communication and understanding, and increased tolerance across ethnic an cultural lines. And if the government is going to require that everyone have the ability to speak it, they should provide the means for people to be educated. I believe in an official language, but until I see a government plan that tasks the government with education rather than the citizens with "assimilate or leave," I'll be voting against it.

Anonymous said...



jeneflower said...

Thanks for your post. Being a USA citizen and native English speaker who is moving to South Korea (no choice with the military) I expect to feel similiar discrimination because I don't know any Korean, and the little I will learn will have a horrible English accent I am sure. Hopefully there will be accepting Koreans who feel like you do.

Lo Lo said...

Angie, had no idea you were bilingual! You go girl! I'm dying to take as many Italian classes as possible while I'm in college.

That entry just goes to show how many close-minded people are in the world. Just because someone gets put into an uncomfortable situation where they can't understand the other person because English is not their first language, they're automatically ranting that everyone speak perfect English.

I bet they never took a moment to think about how the other person feels and how embarassing and frustrating it is to not be understood. Should we also be angry at those who are mute, or even deaf, because we can't understand them perfectly? It's pathetic.

Thanks for the post!

Tara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tara said...

Hi Angie,

I don't think you know me -- but I'm a friend of Shannon's and I've heard a lot about you.

I live in BC Canada, and the city where I live has become so full of Asian people that caucasians are the minority.

I was born and raised in this city, and this process has happened over the short period of my lifetime.

There are a lot of people that are resentful of this situation, citing the frustration of dealing with people who are not english-speaking, the cultural differences, all the chinese signage that has gone up etc.

My point is, why is it that what we don't understand is considered bad?

We have a choice, we can be angry and impatient with 'immigrants' (we were all immigrants once, weren't we?) or we can accept the evolution of our global village and learn what we can about other cultures.

I personally think it makes for a richer and more interesting life to learn about, accept and enjoy other cultures.

There's my 2 cents ;)

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie said...

Hi Tara! Thanks for weighing in, :) See you in NYC soon! (Cupcake!)