Friday, January 26, 2007

The bravery of immigrants.

I was listening to Writer’s Almanac the other day and heard a piece about a Chinese writer, Anchee Min. Not familiar with her work, but here from her story:

She is the author of a memoir about growing up in communist China called Red Azalea (1994). The book was banned in China, but after its success here, she was invited back to her homeland to make some public appearances.

Min writes in English, even though she didn't speak it until she was 27 years old. She learned English when she came to the United States by watching Sesame Street and Oprah on television.

I’m always amazed at this kind of story. (Also that she was able to write a novel about communist China using phrases like “You go girl!” and “It’s not easy being green.”) But seriously folks, most Americans don’t learn english well enough to write a novel after 16 years of school here.

I had the privelege recently of tutoring a lovely Mexican woman named Rosa in english at the Cohn Adult Learning Center. At first she lacked the confidence to answer her cell phone when I called about our meetings—deferring to her young daughter, who spoke great english—the fear of not being understood...something we don’t often think about, i guess. At least people understand our words, if not our meanings.

After months, she began to confidently answer her phone and discuss things with me. A small good thing. I was very proud for her.

After meeting so many people in New York over the years who had positions of influence in their own countries and were driving cabs here. Doctors, physicists, professors. To think that they would give that up to come to a country where they would become invisible non-people, with most citizens not making even a token effort at helping or understanding. Amazing.

Most immigrants just want a better life, want to wave the flag with the rest of us as a matter of pride, not as a threat to all who aren’t “like us”—which is what it seems to have become. Wave the flag, wave the bible, put a ribbon on your giant SUV, mostly to deflect from addressing any real concerns. Blame immigrants for “taking our jobs” ways to feel less helpless...Most uneducated americans, without many opportunities, would consider it beneath their dignity to be a maid, or a convenience-store clerk, or a strawberry picker...

There have to be laws about immigration and many other things, but it would serve us well to remember that we were all once from immigrants hoping for better lives in a strange country. If we all of us had the determination and bravery of the average immigrant, this country would be a far better place.

Well, I see it’s time for me to kick away my soapbox,
and get back to work.