WHAT MY ESL STUDENT HAD TO SAY ABOUT HER NEW COUNTRY
I volunteer at a community centre, teaching English one-on-one to new immigrants. Julie (not her real name) came here from South America a few months ago. Her English is minimal, as is my Spanish, so we struggle to communicate. We often end up speaking broken Spanish until I remember that I'm supposed to be helping her learn English.
- •She was finding that people behaved differently here than in her home country. She would give examples, and then lower her forehead to the table and gently bang it, saying Sorry, sorry, sorry....I think she felt I would be insulted by her characterizations. I tried to tell her that they were pretty accurate.
- •One day we made a list (on a piece of paper): Canadian people are...... Unfortunately I don't have that paper, so, from memory:.... angry ....sad ...shy (my suggestion, to try to explain why it was hard to strike up conversations with strangers). After we drew up the list, she said it also applied to the people in her homeland, but I think this was again to avoid sounding too critical of people here.
- •All people here cared about was getting to their next destination, and making $$. Back home, they would stop and chat, dance, hug...or at least that's what I thought she was saying.
- •Her friend told her to not even try to engage someone in conversation, because there was little chance she would get a positive response.This made me very sad because I realized that there was some truth to this, especially if you came from and were used to a more open social environment. I for one loved listening to her - she was very expressive and funny. But I couldn't tell her that her friend was wrong. Why are we so afraid to engage with others unless we've had them investigated first by the secret service?
- •All people said here was, I don't know, and, WTF.I told her that WTF was one of those expressions that you might want to be careful about using in mixed company. She wasn't aware of this. One more aspect of a new language that needed to be learned.
- •Here, lunch was a tiny sandwich and a Coke (me: ick to the Coke). It would take four of these sandwiches to make a decent lunch.No, she wasn't overweight.
- •Food was so expensive here. So I showed her the online menu of a restaurant I knew of that served the food of her native country and that I thought was reasonably priced. She gushed over each menu item, describing how good these dishes were, and how a true meal would have all these menu items spread out on the table as a buffet.This was how it would be if you came for lunch at her house. And because it was all nutritious, no one got fat eating five main courses.
- •Talking about the food of her homeland may not have been the smartest thing to do. She had already said she wanted to go back there. I didn't know if she meant just for a visit, or permanently, so I drew a picture of the two countries, with an airplane between them. Would this be a return trip?Well, she couldn't leave Canada, I'm guessing due to immigration rules. And No, she was going to swim home, which was funny because we had talked about her non swimming the week before, not to mention that the countries are thousands of miles apart. Turns out (I think) this was about being homesick.
- •I figured that one out because she started to tear up. She was in a new country, really different than where she came from, English isn't the most intuitive language to learn (thanks, all you Angles, Saxons and Jutes), she wasn't sleeping well, and she had all these offices to go to (why? It was too complicated to explain). More apologies...... this time for the tears. I tried to comfort her with some pats on the back and soft words .But how personal can you get when you're working for a government-funded community services agency? Or is this just me adhering to the cultural norm?
- •Somehow we got on to the subject of music. What music did I like? I started scrolling through the music on my phone. A, B, B is for Bob Marley, and there was Three Little Birds! Kismet!Don't worry about a ting / 'Cause every little ting gonna be alright (my adaptation). Just what I wanted to say to her, and now Bob was going to help me say it.I played the opening of the song for her. No recognition. You don't know this song? OK, this really is a culture gap. So let's translate it into Spanish. Ah, OK. So these are my words of comfort to you.
- •That was our final session. She thanked me for teaching her, for my time; I said De nada, it was my pleasure, and we wished each other good futures.
- •If you ever get a chance to make the stranger in your midst feel welcome, please do. We were all once strangers.They may seem like they don't want to engage with you, but I bet they do.