This letter is for you; you who have a bumper sticker that reads, “Welcome to America, now either speak English or leave.”, or you who makes prejudice remarks to your coworkers after talking to a foreigner on the phone. Or maybe you just want to keep all immigrants out in order to keep American culture “pure”. Well, let me tell you a couple things about being American and living as an immigrant in another country.
For starters, to state it simply, it isn’t easy, even if you’re well off in whatever country you go to. It took me at least two months to find my way around a grocery store without taking twice as long to do groceries as I would have normally. For the first few months, I would ask my friends to make important phone calls for me because people often get annoyed when I ask them to repeat what they say when I have trouble understanding them. When Thanksgiving came around, I still had to go to class and after going to 5 different stores to try and find a turkey I still had no luck.
Even now after months, my friends playfully make fun of my accent. Although innocent, it can be frustrating since it’s something I work at daily to get rid of. In certain classes, there are still moments when I don’t understand what the teacher says and miss out on important information.
Those are just a few of many examples I encounter daily. I know those aren’t significant difficulties to overcome but even so, those small things put me behind all of my friends who were born in this country.
I took 7 years of the language before coming here and was fluent before coming, so I can’t even imagine what it’s like for those who move to a foreign country without having the proficiency that I did upon arrival. And it’s even worse for those who stand out visually from the majority demographic or who have financial insecurity.
Although I am not planning on living abroad forever, leaving my family, friends, culture and everything that was familiar to me was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. The majority of my friends aren’t American but I was lucky enough to meet a few. We probably see each other about once a week maximum. As a result, I speak English only about 5% of the time; when I skype people back home or when I see my American friends. And you know what? Being with Americans is something I crave sometimes. It’s the few short hours a week when I can hear or make Anchorman references or not be asked if the only food I eat is hamburgers. Above all, it’s the only time I don’t have to focus on how I structure every sentence, trying not to sound stupid or make any mistakes in the process.
When I speak English with my American friends, it’s a truly relieving feeling, a moment I can relate to people who have the same cultural roots as I do. I don’t speak English with them to piss anyone off or so that they can’t understand what I say or because I refuse to integrate myself. In fact, the rest of the time, I constantly try to learn as much as possible about my host country and speak as correctly as possible.
As an immigrant, I am positive you would do the same. Even if you were completely fluent in the language, if your mom called, you would speak to her in English. And if you were with other Americans, not only would you speak English with them, but you would love their company because it would remind you of home.
So, next time you are on the phone with someone who didn’t understand you because of a language barrier, or a foreigner asks you for help when they’re lost, or you hear a group of people speaking another language other than English, have a little tolerance, patience and respect because if it were you, you would hope for the same in return.
If you really can’t imagine what it’s like and have absolutely no sympathy because you’ve never been foreign nor ever plan to, remember that your ancestors were immigrants and you wouldn’t be an American citizen if they hadn’t gone through the same struggle.
An American Abroad