Keeping Immigration in Perspective
A few weeks ago I was in my local post office, waiting in line. A bit ahead of me in the line there was a man speaking some not-very-good Spanish to the man behind him who, apparently, spoke even-less-good English. They were having a friendly conversation, and I was pleased to see someone reaching out to the Spanish-speaking man in this way.
As the line inched forward, the Spanish-speaking man was called to the counter. His apparent mission (it soon became clear to everyone in the post office) was to renew the lease on his post office box, which he thought was due for payment. The postal clerk tried to explain to him that he didn’t have to pay anything until October, it was all paid up already. But he didn’t understand her.
This is where things began to fall apart. The postal clerk, with understandable frustration, began to speak louder. (A natural, but entirely ineffective, response to someone who is having difficulty understanding a foreign language.) Less understandably, she began to also speak to our immigrant (let’s call him that) in a very condescending tone. “You need to listen to me…” she said more than once, in much the way a strict kindergarten teacher would speak to an out-of-line five-year-old. Then she repeated what she had already said, in exactly the same words, at the same pace, and in the same tone (which he hadn’t understood the first time, so…)
The man who had befriended our immigrant while waiting in line tried to assist, but as he attempted to find out from our immigrant (in Spanish) what the problem was, he began to be addressed in the same condescending tone by the postal clerk. “You need to listen to me” she said in that same condescending tone (at least twice), this time to the would-be translator.
Behind me in the line, someone grumbled, “And some of ’em vote!”
“Whether they’re legal or not,” another disdainful voice added.
It was at this point that I thought of my Swedish grandparents. I wish I had thought clearly enough at the moment to say, aloud, to the detractors behind me, that it was at moments like these that I do think of them, and maybe to add that I wondered how many people standing in the line did not have grandparents, or great-grandparents who had come to this country from far away, and gone through the same sort of frustrating humiliation before they learned to speak English.
I could also have asked the disdainful people if they had ever tried to speak a foreign language themselves, and if so, why they could not be a bit more understanding about what our immigrant (for he is “ours”) was going through. And that if they had not, had suggested to them that they really had no idea how difficult it could be.
The linguistic frustration that immigrants experience as they adjust to life in a new land is inevitable, but the humiliation is not.
My Swedish great-grandparents came to this country, like so many before and after them, out of desperation. I am sure they had many frustrating moments, and I imagine that they encountered both kind and understanding people and critical, unkind people as they made their lives in a new land.
As a matter of fact, so difficult was the adjustment that they, like many others who settled in Minnesota, basically re-created little Swedens (or Norways, or Finlands) on the prairie–speaking Swedish in the home, at church, and among their neighbors. They pretty much stuck to themselves for a couple of generations and concentrated on the hard work of carving out a new life. Consequently, though he was of the second generation born in this country, my father’s first language was Swedish, and it was not until he started school that he began to learn English. I suppose people criticized them for that too.
Immigration is not a new story in this country. Almost all of our families came from somewhere else (and the land we have taken over was not exactly ours to begin with, but that’s another story). My Swedish forbears, like so many American immigrants before and after them, came here to build a better life for themselves. My extended family now includes more recent immigrants from Greece, Mexico and China. Each of them has a different story, but all of them have made this nation of ours a better, richer place, adding their talents and skills, their cultural traditions and their languages to the mix.
One of the greatest strengths of this nation is that we have created a place where people can come bearing their hopes and dreams, and if they are willing to work hard, they have chance to actually achieve them. Generations of immigrants have come from all over the world and have created this wonderful nation of ours. When we see the newest immigrants among us struggling to understand, attempting to pay their dues (or their post-office box fees), I would hope that most of us will do what the kind gentleman in the line did, and reach out a helping hand.
All we have to do is realize that a few generations ago, that struggling new American was a member of our own family.
The American family.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for Queens College, CUNY, and she also teaches classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.