Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Who is worth what?

When I was in my early twenties and an undergrad, I met a little Vietnamese girl whom I will call Cam.  I describe Cam as little, not only because she was tiny in stature (probably five feet tall, weighing 80 pounds), but because she was barely 18, and she spoke so quietly, I literally had to bend down to hear her.  Even then, I could barely understand her because she had such a thick accent and trouble pronouncing words in English. 
Cam struggled through all her classes, but English composition was understandably one of her worst subjects.  Since I worked part-time as a writing tutor at the university, I suggested she go to tutoring after school.  She said she didn't have time.

At first, I thought Cam's lack of time had more to do with her embarrassment of her English, which she always apologized for.  Cam could pronounce "sorry" quite clearly and said it often.  But as we got to know each other a little better (a difficult task because she would never speak unless spoken to), Cam said the reason she couldn't come for tutoring was that she had to go home right after her classes.  I asked her why, and she said because her parents told her she had to. 

In my perhaps ignorant American way, I said something like, "Well they should understand if you have to stay late to get extra help!"  She said no, that they were very strict, and besides, her brother picked her up and drove her home because she didn't have a license.  I offered to drive her home, but she said that wouldn't help, and she didn't want to cause trouble.  When I asked her how tutoring could get her in trouble, she told me the real issue: her father didn't want her to go to college.

On one level, I understood that.  Experience had taught me that many immigrant families, especially in the first through third generations, frowned upon college, emphasizing vocational work, which served  them well (and still does) in a country short on people willing to do manual and menial labor.  But I asked her to explain anyway.  Cam said her father worked all the time at the laundromat, that they had little money, but in  her family, women didn't work.  Women stayed in the house all the time.  This, too, didn't surprise me, as I was familiar with expectations more traditional families seem to have of women.  Within a month or two of my meeting her, Cam dropped out of college.

I met many Korean and Vietnamese students throughout my college career, many of whom attended with brothers and sisters.  They all worked after school, some in their family businesses, some in the home.  Most of the families were not as strict as Cam's, but the sense of a close-knit community was apparent even on campus.   

The immigrant experience in the city where I attended college was not so different from that in other cities.  Since the 1800's, when the mills drew thousands of immigrants, ethnic groups formed their own neighborhoods where they felt safe to continue their traditions.  And just like in those early years, first generation residents usually could not speak English.  Even if they could speak English, many didn't because, not only was it difficult and embarrassing, it just didn't feel natural.  Cam's family was the same way, which made it more difficult for Cam to practice her own English. 

But the Vietnamese neighborhood where Cam lived was filled with a cultural richness that only survives through immigrants.  Gas stations were owned and operated by Vietnamese neighbors.  Laundromats and variety stores were also locally owned and operated.  The food market carried the ingredients that made up the delicious food Cam brought for lunch.  Once, Cam offered me her lunch, a tiny portion of vegetable and noodle based food.  I told her that it smelled wonderful and I was sure I would like it, but she needed to eat.  "You're too skinny, and I'm too fat!" I joked with her. 

In every section of the city, in every ethnic neighborhood--Dominican, French, Irish, Korean and Vietnamese--there were commonalities: taxing labor, big families, poverty, pride, fresh meals, music, artistic handiwork, dancing, and emphasis on family. In later years, the city recognized the beauty of this diversity.  Annual cultural festivals now celebrate that beauty.  People fly in from all over the country to participate in the festival.  Thousands of locals and tourists attend.

Recently, I posted about an AP article that cast Hispanic immigrants in a negative light by (probably unintentionally) focusing on illegal immigration.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized I had more than one problem with that article, and that problem had more to do with socioeconomics than anything else. 

While it is great to have an influx of talent from every country and every sector, it is irresponsible and immoral to ignore immigrants who are already here and making tremendous contributions to our U.S. society, but who are struggling because of their particular cultural and language needs.  And, as I touched upon in my other post, I get upset when "skills" are defined in academic terms only, and worth is determined by college degrees. 

We all have worth that deserves recognition.  Unfortunately, the poor and working classes don't get it as much as they should.   

This post requires editing, but I am WAY out of time and will now be late for an appointment.

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