Us vs. Them

I consider myself a fair person.  Full of justice and inclined towards benevolence.  I like rules, but I believe some can and should  be bent from time to time. I am open to change and willing to look at situations fairly, when my temper has cooled and my passion and sense of justice has loosened my heart and tightened up my tongue.  I make decisions fairly quickly and try to be diplomatic to all those involved.  This summer, however, as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the community college near my house, I was put in awkward position of establishing rules and then having the adults deliberately break them, and thus pushing me to my breaking point.

I got into the “biz” of teaching adult immigrants English a few years ago.  I wanted to put my Master’s degree to good use, and I thought it would be another avenue to explore down the line as a full-time job.  I even considered being a Fullbright Scholar and traveling the globe teaching English.  I believed that immigrants were entitled to learn the language freely and without consequences, and that they could pair their native tongue with English and enrich our country with bilingualism.  And I still believe we could benefit from learning a variety of languages for a variety of reasons.  Lately, however, my views are ebbing towards a more moderate sense of the use of English, and the point that learning the language is a choice, yes,  yet I see it more as a necessity if the “land of opportunity” is the golden apple everyone wants a bite of.  I still cringe when I hear people refer to immigrants in third person pronouns as “them” and “they” and feel angered when people use derogatory terms like “wetback,” “beaners,” “slant-eyes,” etc., and sentences such as “They should go back where they came from if they don’t want to assimilate,” because from my experience as an ESL teacher, most do want to be here and learn English.  Learning a language, however, is hard, and it takes a lot of time.  It doesn’t happen over night.  Plus, the old cliche “Birds of a feather flock together” is a cliche for a reason.  Of course humans are going to seek out their own kind so as to feel safe and protected and normal for awhile.  It’s the staying in one spot that gets us in trouble.

I learned this last piece of wisdom from my Ukranian volunteer and friend.  She said that being an American and living in America is a privilege, and that in order to get ahead, you have to fit yourself into the culture and make your peace with living out of your comfort zone.  Try to learn the language.  Meet more people different than yourself.  She’s right.  Yet, I’m torn when I see that the biggest “them” that people are afraid of are lower socio-economic Mexicans who are escaping drug wars, severe poverty, and corrupt government.  “They” don’t think like a college graduate who chose to come over here to improve her English and get a master’s degree.  When I watch the news and see the unmarked graves of those who risked their lives to come to a land to get  a job at a Burger King or as migrant workers, my heart aches. On the other hand, I am very upset for the American farmer on the ranch who feels like our country is getting invaded when he watches many people from another country jumping fences and running through his fields, and stealing his food that he has worked so hard at growing so he can make a profit to feed his own family. Yet the farmer is powerless to do anything because there is no easy solution to a problem that has layers of problems inside of it.

My sense of diplomacy has been shaken as well when my summer students abused the use of cell phones and constantly texted friends because they were bored of the lesson I was teaching.  It angered me because I spent hours putting together cohesive lesson plans with varied and interesting activities; and in truth it was my best teaching I have done in an ESL class to this point.  But I felt that it went unnoticed for the most part by most of my students because a handful of them were too busy speaking in their native language and having side conversations to notice.  Sometimes I think a free class, regardless of the content, is a bad idea because it lowers expectations.  My rules were presented, and they were broken.  And it pissed me off that I wasn’t the one bending the rules, they were.  I finally blew a gasket at one point and chastised them like children for their immature behavior.  Needless to say, my class numbers dropped as well as the state and federal funding for the free ESL program.

In the past, my experiences of teaching ESL have been thrilling.  I have met people from Madagascar to Japan, to Taiwan to Serbia, Cuba to Peru and a lot more countries in between.  In the same class I’ve had Muslims, Taoists, Christians, and Jehovah Witnesses.  I’ve taught a Bolivian Methodist preacher and his wife, and was taught compassion by a Colombian Franciscan priest who wore suits Monday – Thursday and his favorite soccer team’s jersey and jeans on Friday.  He also played the guitar and sang to us “Jesus Es La Luz de mi Vida” while smiling at us all.  And I was impressed by the intelligence and sharp wit of the Mexican nun who cursed like a sailor in both English and Spanish.  All I’m missing in my pious collection of revered reverends the world over is a Hassidic Rabbi, a Buddhist monk, and a Muslim Sikh.

Sun, from South Korea, was a spunky middle-aged woman who gratuitously used “shit” in every day conversation, and made me two dozen egg rolls that I wound up putting in the freezer.  I forgot about them until one spring thaw when I was in a cleaning frenzy and noticed them smashed under a box of freezer burned ice cream and an old Lean Cuisine meal.  Alan, a mentally-challenged 22 year old man with the heart and mind of a child, used to always make me repeat the same conversation with him day in and day out as a normal part of his routine.  “Hello, Megan.”  “Hello Alan.”  “Where’s your husband?”  “He’s at work, Alan.”  “Tell him, ‘hello’ and that I think you’re pretty.”  “Thanks, Alan.  I will.”  (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t married because the ruse had gone on for so long.)

Our discussion topics in these classes ranged from culture to shopping and banking to topics in the news.  These students were curious and wanted to know about grammar and were willing to communicate in their new language as much as possible.  This mentality was what I expected this summer; but I became quickly jaded by the few who ruined it by constantly texting and speaking over me, and trying to talk to me in Spanish while I was conducting class.  I lost it when two women began speaking in Spanish while two shy, nervous Mexican students were presenting their dialogue they wrote to the class.  I admonished them and let the whole class know that they were being rude and that they were making my job difficult.  It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t return back to class the rest of the session.  This time around, these women ruined my willingness to extend myself to Spanish speakers during breaks or before and after classes by talking to them and answering questions in Spanish.  If anyone asked me a question in Spanish or tried to strike up a conversation with me, I would respond back in English. Who knows?  Maybe it was a power play on my part.

As my annoyances grew, the class and teaching itself became a burden.  My summer was eaten up by the 8 week course, and I began to resent it.  I started noticing small abuses of the “free class” system that Adult Education Department offered, the biggest being a sense of entitlement and low expectations on the students’ part.  And it bothered me that one person was on welfare and yet her citizenship status was “shady”.  I wondered if some people wrote down false social security numbers on their registration forms.   I heard stories that a woman in years past was thought to be a victim of a sex slave trade, yet she was obnoxious and rude to the teachers, and walked around class and got on the computers and cursed at people.  A few years back, one man intimated to me that he only married his fat American wife so he could get citizenship status.

My politics and diplomacy and sense of justice vs. injustice went haywire.  What should I do?  I really enjoyed taking my master’s classes, and my past experiences were so positive.  I believe in the American dream, and really love the idea that anyone on this green earth can become an American.  I think, though, that I lost sight of the fact that it takes sacrifice and courage and a willingness to open yourself up to a new culture and new way of life to receive the benefits and privileges and freedoms that this wonderful country has to offer.    Because, even though America is a melting pot, America has a culture.  We’re kind and generous.  We’re patriotic.  We’re passionate.  We like our fast food restaurants.  We walk our dogs in a neighborhood with or without sidewalks.  We go to county fairs and eat corndogs and fried donuts with powdered sugar.  We have our own music and authors unique to our experiences.  We impulsively  join the gym and resolve to go at least once a week.  Six months later we run out of time and/ or energy and quit going, then show up 4 months later to discontinue our membership.  We attend parent-teacher conferences and have PTA fundraisers.  We like to our “do-it-yourself” home renovations.  We are obsessed with celebrities.  We pay for and thoroughly enjoy our DVR option on our TVs.  We have funny sitcoms that are popular the world over.  And we bitch about taxes, but the majority of us pay them.  We help people when they need it the most.  We’re charitable and give of our time and money.  We love to fight about politics and sports teams, but we will gladly sit down and have a beer with our friends even though we disagree on these topics.  We are bound together by many threads.  And one of the most important threads is our language.  English is just as American as apple pie.

On the flip-side, the immigrant story is the largest tie that binds us.  Other cultures have shaped us and enriched us, and made us who we are today.  And, I shouldn’t forget that all was not lost this summer.  I watched as Francisco and Susana showed up to class as much as possible even though they worked a 40+ work week; and Susana, scared near tears the first few classes to speak English, eventually put together her own broken sentences to share with us that her mother was a doctor and helped deliver babies in Mexico.  I watched as Kai, a woman from Thailand, broke out of her shell and eventually told jokes and showed her sense of humor and thanked me for my help to help her express herself better.  And, we were all heartbroken when we learned Sumitra, another woman from Thailand who was also well-versed in Japanese, shared with us that she misses her daughter who is still over in Thailand; but she is here to help make her life easier and eventually wants to bring her here and help her too become an American citizen as she is.

And then there is the queen grandmother, Saku – a widow from Tokyo, Japan.  She married her American husband and left all of her friends and family.  He died 8 years ago, and her daughter, who was the valedictorian in her graduating class from the University of Illinois -Champaign, lives in Ohio with her husband and two grown children.  Saku came into class everyday and said in her happy, Japanese accent “Goooood  Morniiiiiiinnnnnggggg!!!”  Immediately I smiled.  She walks 3 miles a day, and visits her friend weekly.  She wears patriotic shirts on the 4th of July, and gambles at the St. Louis casinos with her neighborhood friends.  She practices her English every day and reads and writes as much as she can because she wants to be better at it (no mind that she’s in her 70s).  When I tell her that her English is great and that she doesn’t need to improve it, she tells me “I need to work very, very hard at it.  I must be better, you know?”  These are the people, our fellow Americans, for whom I work and teach.

(Well, that and the money I make will go towards a flat screen TV and a new fall wardrobe.  Hey, I’m entitled to the American Dream as well).

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5 thoughts on “Us vs. Them”

  1. Very thought provoking. It just shows that bad manners and laziness know no borders. Some people are there for the right reasons, some think they are entitled, and some don’t care . . . . and that, unfortunately, is also a “slice of American life”.

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