This is the first in a series about immigration.
Until yesterday I believed that I’d thought through all the trials and tribulations that go with being an immigrant.
While attending a professional workshop, the speaker who was born in India, said the following to the audience: “I speak English, you speak!”, and then he continued and said: “I live in the U.S., you live!”
It took me just a second to understand what he meant, but I believe most of the audience pondered longer on the implication of these statements.
As a child, I never stopped to think that I spoke Hebrew. I simply spoke. I would imagine that for most everyone born in ‘their’ country, speaking is a natural process, one which does not need any definition. One simply speaks.
You write, but I write in English! As a child writing was writing, but writing in English was part of the skills one acquired (hopefully) in English class.
Despite speaking English for most of my life, it isn’t as natural to me as it is to you! Even though there was the day that I started dreaming in English rather than Hebrew, I’m still aware that my daily language is a foreign language.
First and foremost, I have an accent. Even though I speak very well, read and write fluently, and I give workshops in English – I’m always aware of this the first minute someone meets me.
I know there are people who are more anxious than others at first meetings. Some people are anxious about their appearance; some about their intelligence; and others may be concerned about their business or social status and so on.
I am not anxious, but I am aware.
There’s always the same tedious process when I meet someone for the first time. Some people were taught not to ask personal questions, but I can see the question in their face, “Where is she from?” (I don’t have the typical Israeli accent.) Others, more forthright, simply ask the question right away – and from their expression, I have to figure out whether they are for, or against Israel.
So an introduction is not an introduction of me, Rachel. It is an introduction of my foreignness; my accent that makes me different; my belonging to a country and religion; and sometimes to a pre-conceived notion about my understanding of things.
Have you ever noticed that some people (not very savvy), speak loudly to foreigners? Have you ever done that? For some reason, they assume that you don’t speak the language so well, so they “help” your comprehension by speaking loudly.
There are other people who tend to explain their words, without realizing that your level of proficiency is better than theirs. They come up with synonyms. In fact, one person I know tends to explain words with synonyms that are more difficult than the original conversation, as in: “This was very difficult, you see, difficult is like the word daunting“.
Yes, it can be quite exasperating.
So I speak English, and you just speak. I still make mistakes. I can still have problems understanding some idioms, and I lack in the part of being acculturated when people around me reminisce about childhood TV programs, or recite lines from their favorite childhood show; or the funny commercial that all of you used to sing together while eating your cereal. Me? I read a lot as a child, and most of the popular childhood books from here were translated to Hebrew.
And one more thing: Being from another culture and not speaking English from birth is a burden that I’m accustomed to, but most people don’t realize the additional cultural richness I, and other immigrants possess.
I can sing in a foreign language. I can read from right to left. I read the Bible in the original language. I know songs in French, Italian and Spanish, and as a child I used to watch movies from the above mentioned countries – and from India as well, way before there was Bollywood.
I know the history of the Jews and of the Middle East and of course that of Israel, and I can recite poetry in Hebrew. I can go on and on, but I think I’d leave it to another blog.
Right now, I have to ask Peter to read my blog and tell me if I made any linguistic faux pas.
Do you know that faux pas is French? Of course you do.