The Widdershins

Archive for May 12th, 2018

I stumbled across this interesting thread by a Korean American, and all I could think was, “No, not really, not my experience at all.”

T.K. of AAK! ‏ @AskAKorean May 11

As a formerly non-English speaking immigrant, here is a story I cherish.

It’s 1997. I just moved from Korea to Los Angeles area. I took regular English courses in Korea, and that was good enough to get me out of ESL classes and into the regular 10th grade classes.

It was my second day at the biology class. There was a quiz. My bio teacher, Ms. Gallagher, told me I didn’t have to worry about the quiz since I just got to the class, but gave me the quiz sheet anyway.

This is more than 20 years ago, but I still very clearly remember every detail of that quiz sheet. The quiz was about photosynthesis. It had a diagram of a leaf, and I was supposed to write what kind of gas comes to the leaf, what is expelled, etc.

I remember staring at it for about five minutes, slowly getting angry with frustration. I was mad because the quiz was easy. I learned about photosynthesis in Korea as a 7th grade. I knew all the answers. Just not in English.

The quiz was my new reality. I hope you all have a chance to experience this: the experience of suddenly becoming stupid, suddenly having all of your knowledge turning into dust, useless and inaccessible in a new environment with new language.

After five minutes, I just decided to write in the quiz in Korean. It didn’t matter that Ms. Gallagher told me the quiz wouldn’t count; I wasn’t going to turn in a blank quiz sheet. I just had to prove to myself that I didn’t suddenly become stupid.

Two days later, Ms. Gallagher handed out the graded quiz. Then she announced to the class: “[TK] has the highest grade. He had the perfect score.”

What – I looked at my quiz sheet. She graded my quiz in Korean, and gave me all the check marks.

I asked Ms. Gallagher (somehow) how she managed to grade my paper. Turned out Ms. Gallagher took my quiz to a Korean Am math teacher at my school. The math teacher’s Korean wasn’t great either, but she looked up the dictionary to help my bio teacher grade my quiz.

I get more emotional each time I think about this. Because the older I get, the more I realize what an extraordinary step Ms. Gallagher took for the sake of her student. She already told me the quiz wouldn’t count. She didn’t have to go through the trouble of grading my quiz.

But Ms. Gallagher graded my quiz. I truly believe that moment changed the trajectory of my immigrant life in the United States. Thanks to my teacher, I was able to prove to myself that I didn’t suddenly turn stupid. I just had to learn the new language.

So I did. I learned English, I studied hard, and graduated second of my class. My graduation speech was like a scene out of Napoleon Dynamite–it was so rambling and so terrible and so accented, my classmates were so confused. They were kind enough not to boo me off the stage.

I moved onto a good college, then a good law school. Now I’m a lawyer and writer who engages the world via my writing. I’ve had writing professors telling me they use my English writing as a model for their students. That blows my mind every time I hear it.

So. Every time a fuckshit like John Kelly talks about non-English speaking immigrants not assimilating to America, I think back to Ms. Gallagher. I remind myself that America has way more Ms. Gallaghers than John Kellys.

Remember: nearly all Americans came from somewhere else. More Americans are coming from abroad as we speak. So if you’re born and raised in America, I hope you would be kind and patient with the new arrivals. I hope you would be the Ms. Gallagher to someone else. /end

Now, when I say “not my experience” I don’t mean the part about kindly people helping me feel confident. There were enough of those, thank God, to keep me going.

What I mean is the part about suddenly feeling stupid. I learned English as a very small toddler, then a third language when I was about eight, another three as a young adult. I’m kind of absorbing bits of Spanish because of living in SoCal. And even when I landed in a foreign country going to school in a paramedical subject, I never actually had a feeling ignorance.

(But if you want to talk about learning calculus and that foreign language, God yes, deer in the headlights. Until I finally realized, years too late, that hey, that’s really just another language. I know how to do this.)

All this made me think that maybe the biggest benefit of bilingualism on the developing mind is that it makes ignorance feel familiar. It’s not frightening. You learn that all you need to do is learn your way out of it. Which is also the conclusion TK comes to: “I didn’t suddenly turn stupid. I just had to learn the new language.”

How do all of you feel about that? Is a background of getting plopped into new environments or new languages as a child helpful? Or maybe just isolating for some of us? How about learning to feel okay with ignorance? Which, I guess, phrased another way, is a question about whether learning is fun or whether it’s work.

Anyway. Have at it. It’s Saturday. We can do whatever we want!


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