I teach English as a Second Language.
Well, that’s not actually true.
Yeah, that’s not entirely true. It is not just me. There are several of us who go every week: Raul who is 84 and might just be the Dos Equis “World’s Most Interesting Man” who has been part of English Conversation Hour for 17 years. There’s also my friend Mijin who volunteers alongside us. She’s a professional English teacher in her own country and she recently aced an English competency exam. There’s also Lisa, a housewife from Louisiana who is there most weeks.
I don’t teach it-it is a conversation hour so we sit in a circle and talk about different stuff from week to week. Sometimes one person dominates, sometimes we break up into small groups, sometimes we pair up and sometimes everybody takes a turn to talk.
It is not a second language. Most of the participants grew up speaking one language at home, another language in school and maybe even some additional ones before taking on English. My own grandma grew up speaking only German at home. She didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten. Eventually, everybody hated Germans so she squished the language far down & to this day does not remember a word of it. What about your grandparents? Or theirs? Who hated them when they first got to the U.S. If your ancestors are Catholic, that’s an easy one-I can give you a whole list of everyone who hated ’em.
This past week at English Conversation Hour, I looked around the room and there were people who once lived in Iran, Dominican Republic, Columbia, California and Saudi Arabia. Now, we all find ourselves in Charlotte, NC either by choice or circumstance. I did not choose to live here but my husband’s job has brought us here. I share that in common with several people in the room. We talked about our upcoming weekends, our families and methods we’ve found useful for taking on new languages (my personal fave is to use the free app DuoLingo. I learned Italian in 8 months last year, inspired by the progress I’ve seen in English learners).
Like a lot of my fellow Americans, certain images come to mind when I hear the word “Iran” or when I see a woman with a hijab (headscarf). Similar images come to mind when I heard the word “Beirut” or hear Arabic spoken. 9/11 scared the heck out of us. I’m going to say that plain and simple. I was a campus minster at the time and so grateful we had daily Mass that day on campus. It was packed. The priest read from the liturgy meant to be read “In times of national crisis.” He cried during it and the floodgates opened with lots of scared people crying our eyes out. I spent the night next door to my house, sleeping in the chapel of the Franciscan and SSJ sisters who lived next to me. I literally showed up with my sleeping bag and pillow, not wanting to sleep alone in my apartment that night. We’d never thought much about Islam at that point. But, since 9/11 scared all of us, it has been hard to separate 9/11 from Islam and Islam from 9/11-like the red and white components of a candy cane, they seem twinned in our minds.
Also twinned in our minds are images of Muslims and terrorists. The point of terrorism is to terrorize people and their hope is to have ramifications beyond the individual actions that they do. When the fear/terror of terrorism begins to be invoked by our own leaders to terrorize us, the bad guys have won. Their point has been made. Their branding has taken hold and now they sit back and relax while others continually scare us. I’ve read that more people are accidentally killed by toddlers than terrorists in the U.S. in a given year, yet we’re all paranoid now, aren’t we?
Just sitting around a room together in Charlotte, talking about simple things like family and travel and days off, we realize we have more in common than we have differences. We worry about the same categories of stuff, we like good food, music has a place in our lives, we want what is best for our loved ones. If you wonder where immigrants come from, sometimes it is as easy as looking at some recent history of the U.S. being involved in something in their home country. Do you know anyone who emigrated from Vietnam in the 70s, 80s or 90s? Or from Iraq in the 90s or 2000s? If so, guess what, they were most likely “on our side” during whatever was going on over there at the time. That’s why they have the preferential status of refugee.
I’m taking a basic filmmaking class at the local community college this semester. Our instructor was teaching us about lenses and filters, f stop settings, glare and reflections when he told us that the widest range of skin tone from the lightest to the darkest skin is really just a few shades apart in the grand scheme of the color wheel and its zillions of colors. I’ve seen photos on facebook of Franciscan friends holding a quote from Jesus, “I was a stranger…” I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to sit in a room of adults who all have a common goal of working on a new language together. I’ve also been able to experience being a stranger in many countries over the course of my travels (to 23 countries) where I was one of few Christians or few Catholics (heck, that’s the place I grew up in the NC mountains), few white people, few Americans, few English speakers, etc. I just ask you to remember that once upon a time, your grandparents or great grandparents were reviled. Businesses had signs up to warn Irish or Italians not to bother coming in. I’m going to continue going back to spend an hour a week with English conversation hour and I hope people continue to come, from all over the world to sit in a circle and talk about simple things. Sometimes we have little pot lucks and get to sample chocolate from Italy or a casserole from Columbia. Although I may have been inundated with negativity associated with the word “Iran” or with negativity about a woman who wears a headscarf, when I actually sit next to someone from Iran or someone with that head covering, we talk and listen, remembering that just like, in the grand scheme of the colorwheel, where our skin tones are not that different, neither are the things we hold dear: our husbands, our families, their well-being, our friendships and even stuff like whether the app called Mango really is better than the one called DuoLingo when it comes to learning another language. (I recommend DuoLing0.)
God bless America.