My Grandfather Left Me This

For a long time after my parents and I, at the age of six, immigrated to the United States, I tried to hide the fact that I was poor and foreign. Then, for a long time after that, I tried to hide the fact that I had been poor and foreign.

First, I learned English.

I read the dead white guys. Then, the dead white females. Then, the living white folks. Finally – when they started appearing in the curricula – I knew it was okay to read some people of color.

Second, I learned to cultivate an appreciation of slow, beautiful Criterion Collection films. I couldn’t always make heads or tails of them, but I learned enough to start awake at the end of a Tarkovsky feature and admire its “dream-like quality.”

Third, I studied French in school. I studied French because I had heard that Spanish was practical. I studied French because – it, unlike the language of my parents which I had also pointedly neglected to study – was, by implication, impractical.

And “practical” was the last thing I wanted; I’d had quite enough of being “practical.”

~

“Practical” was owning one pair of overalls and learning to wear it several different ways (legs cuffed, legs uncuffed, torso visible, torso covered) to fool my primary school classmates into thinking I owned several pairs of jeans.

“Practical” was walking down the highway, bags of groceries in tow.

“Practical” was knowing that the first stuffed animal my parents bought me in the US cost $9.99 – not $19.99, the price they thought they’d heard before I clarified and translated for them – and naming that stuffed animal “poor little piggy” because it wasn’t worth more and we weren’t worth more.

“Practical” was subsequently directing my gaze away from any and all toy stores, so my parents wouldn’t realize that I liked toys.

~

What I didn’t realize as I watched and read and studied was that I was instinctively accumulating what philosopher Bourdieu termed “cultural capital.” Writing in 1986, Bourdieu explained that cultural capital was distinct from economic and social capital, but could nonetheless be converted into $$$ under the right conditions.

Those conditions essentially shaped my family’s immigration experience, though I wouldn’t realize that until much later. Instead, I would grow up with a hard faith in meritocracy, bolstered by the idea that my family ascended into the middle class after “starting with nothing.”

~

My grandparents, too, had “had nothing.”

A picture of me with my grandfather, taken during a visit to China. He passed away in 2014.

Me with my grandfather, taken during a visit to China.

For as long as I could remember, my grandparents lived in a bare-bones apartment provided by the Chinese college at which my grandfather taught. In it, worn and mismatched furniture rested directly on top of an unfinished, concrete floor. A cockroach or two was always running underfoot or along a wall. And, much to my chagrin during visits, the bathroom was not equipped with a Western-style flush toilet.

These observations – together with my grandmother’s unembarrassed boasts that their most prized possessions were a couple of Soviet Era spoons – led me to believe they were poor as well. My grandfather was supposedly a respected art history professor, but his position had not visibly elevated their or my parents’ lifestyles.

Thus, I would not think to credit him with my parents’ and my eventual success as immigrants to the US. At least, not for a very long while.

~

By 2008, I was a sophomore at an Ivy League university. My parents were not only financially comfortable but determined that I graduate with minimal loans. I was unbelievably fortunate, incredibly privileged, but still, I felt out of place. Whether it was the knowledge that I was receiving significant financial aid or the fact that I was encountering new Western foods for the first time in the dining halls — I somehow felt distanced from my even more privileged peers.

I could count on one hand (without using all five fingers) the number of friends I had made. My grades were mediocre, no professors knew my name, and I was not particularly active in any clubs. In short, I was convinced I did not belong. Sure, admissions had squeezed me in from the bottom of the wait-list, but I was clearly out of my depth.

Then, one day, my father came to visit me.

As I showed him around campus and we neared the main library, my father was suddenly struck with an idea. “Hey, why don’t we see if the library carries your grandfather’s books?”

My brow shot up as I immediately rejected his proposal. How could the work of my grandfather be housed so far way, in such a select institution? Still, my father persisted. (“Let’s just take a look, okay?”)

So I went to a computer, translated my grandfather’s name into the Roman alphabet, and hit “search by author.”

There it was.

My grandfather's book (at the right) on the shelf of my university library

My grandfather’s book at the right.

~

The revelation upended how I saw myself in relation to my university and my peers, as well as how I saw my family’s socioeconomic status in the US. Somehow, we had not coming “from nothing.” Somehow, my grandfather had made it to the Ivy League before I did.

Later, I would also learn that my grandfather had had a hand in my parents obtaining visas for the US. In order to be approved, they’d had to show that they possessed a requisite amount of money to support themselves. When they came up short, my grandfather borrowed from an American colleague in the art history department at Rutgers. Thus, he took the only thing he had of value – cultural capital – and converted it into economic capital for my parents.

~

My grandfather passed away in 2014.

One of my favorite pictures of him, in his later years.

One of my favorite pictures of him.

Here is a list of what he left me.

First, a love of art and scholarship, beautiful and difficult things.

Second, an understanding of my significant class privilege and a resolve to be kinder, more generous, more human.

Third, a book in a library, penned in a language that I can’t read. Nonetheless, I immediately saw within it the words “You belong.”

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Why I took my French husband’s last name

March being Women’s History Month and Women’s Day having just passed, I thought I’d respond to a question I’ve been asked a few times since my marriage.

If I didn’t live in New York City, epicenter of heathens, my decision to take my husband’s last name may well have gone unnoticed. As it is, my location and my female peer group – many of whom married and kept their last names – both rendered my choice more visible and my motivation less obvious.

The truth is, for a feminist who condemned the obstacles facing French men who want to take their wives’ last names, I didn’t hesitate for a second to go down the path of “tradition.” That isn’t to say I didn’t understand arguments against the practice; rather, my personal reasons for changing my name just seemed more compelling.

Normally, I'm all for disrupting gender roles though.

Normally, I’m all for disrupting gender roles though.

~

Reason #1: Not my circus, not my monkeys

Funnily enough, my so-called traditional choice had nothing to do with either my or Z’s cultural traditions. Chinese women don’t take their husband’s last names upon marriage, and – legally – French women always keep their maiden names (though they may use their husband’s last name socially, if they want to).

This is an important point, because it means I actually broke tradition with my choice. So while some feminists argue a name change signifies the surrender of personal identity — I felt the decision only magnified my individual agency.

~

Reason #2: The center *can* hold

However, my heritage did play a role in the decision-making process. I considered that, unlike many Chinese-Americans, I have a Chinese middle name aside from an English first name. This stroke of luck freed me to make my choice without completely erasing my heritage. Had that not been the case, the calculus would have been different.

~

Reason #3: A psychic vision from childhood

This is probably the creepiest and least comprehensible reason for my name change. As a fifth grader, I was given a school project to design a heraldic coat of arms reflecting my interests and ethnicity.

Unsurprisingly, I drew books and horses to represent my hobbies (yeah, I’m basically Tina Belcher).

Very surprisingly, I drew a Chinese flag and a French flag to represent my ethnicity.

The project was completed before I ever stepped foot inside a French class or even formally learned about the country. So imagine my shock when I unearthed it after Z and I had already been together a number of years….

*Cue X-Files music*

~

Reason #4: Say my name, say my name

In the Bible, there’s this riveting story about how one tribe tested if others were from the same tribe by forcing them to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.”As a result, “shibboleth” came to mean any word used to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

When I was a kid, I wanted a totally easy, “American” name. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see my (now English-Chinese-French) name as a sort of shibboleth — one that only those closest to me would know how to pronounce.

(Sorry for the self-indulgence. I’m not even a special snowflake, just an average one).

~

Reason #5: Kick ass, take names

What can be more feminist than kicking ass and taking names? Literally taking names?!

I just take and take and take -- YAAAARGH!

I just take and take and take — YAAAARGH!

~

So maybe my decision-making process was a little more overwrought than I first suggested. Ultimately, though, people choose to take a spouse’s last name (or to hyphenate, or to create a new family name) for completely personal, inscrutable reasons. While I would encourage anyone approaching the altar to give it some thought, in my book, there is no single, “feminist” answer.

 

Being Careful

The day after the election, my dad called. First he asked my plans for my birthday, then he confirmed that I’d seen the results.

“Be careful,” he warned in heavily accented English (a freelancer who works in near-isolation, he likes to conduct our conversations exclusively in his second tongue) — “Don’t walk home alone after dark.”

I grunted assent without telling him that my classes frequently ended around 9PM, and I usually got home after 10. I also didn’t tell him that two weeks earlier, a car had pulled up next to me during my walk home; the men inside had shouted “Don’t worry miss, we won’t run you over!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Because of my omission, I wouldn’t have had to reassure him that I knew how to walk home alone after dark. I wouldn’t have had to list my defensive measures: thumb on the pepper spray, keys spiked between my knuckles, safety app open on my phone.

I wouldn’t have had to wonder if the incident recalled to him another incident, a car that slowed near us one night when I was six and we had just immigrated to the United States. That time, the men had shouted repeatedly “Go back to China!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Then, I wouldn’t have had to speculate if that reminded him of the civic association in the same town, where he had taken ESL classes for a year. After we moved away, a gunman had stormed the building during citizenship classes, killing 13 and wounding 4.

(It later turned out that the gunman was a Vietnamese immigrant himself. The shooting was – for a while – the nation’s deadliest since Seung-Hui Cho’s spree at Virginia Tech.)

Perhaps my dad understood at a more visceral level than I did the precariousness of being an immigrant in America. As I was growing up, he frequently recounted interactions he’d had with strangers, prompting me to answer the desperate question, “Do you think they were racist?”

And – in fear and frustration, wanting to believe that this country belonged to us too, wanting to protect my dad with my adolescent levity, not knowing about microaggressions, not knowing about otherness, not wanting him to be provoked, not wanting him to be bodily harmed, not wanting him to be sad or mad, not wanting us to be Chinese or at least visibly Chinese – I’d always said, “no.”

~

Old habits die hard.

Last night, my dad called me with an “English question.”

He had driven to his storage unit, he said, in a gated area that requires a pin number for entry. As he pulled up, the gate had opened and another car had pulled out. When my dad drove through – without punching the number – the men in the other vehicle had cried, “Hey! You’re sneaking in.”

His first question was: “How do you spell ‘sneak’?”

His second question was: “Do you think they were bad men?”

My heart sank. I fumed that his English was so poor after all this time. I fumed at his crudely phrased question. I fumed that he hadn’t known how to respond. I fumed that I didn’t know how to respond.

So I told him they were joking. I insisted that it was harmless. I chided him for reading too much into a meaningless situation …

Then I texted him:

“S-N-E-A-K.

Be careful.”

Statue of Liberty in Gray

Photo credit: Z

The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.

~

I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.

~

I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.

 

The perfect is the enemy of the good. (But why can’t we all be friends?)

When I stepped into the elevator, the floors lit up, seemingly at random.

Ten. Three. Six.

The elevator rose, then fell. Rose, then fell.

Fourteen. Two. Five.

What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to get off?

~

I recently finished the first semester of a Masters program in Higher Education Administration. Although my grades were irreproachable, I was plagued by the stress dreams typical of all my years of schooling. Obvious metaphors of flailing and failing unfolded nightly in my mind’s eye. Why? I wondered. Why was I still so concerned about achieving impeccable grades when – as an adult and a professional – I should have been content with simply acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for my career?

My first instinct was to hold my upbringing responsible. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed reams of articles connecting Asian cultures with perfectionist tendencies. I also thought back to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book which describes the author’s brutal tactics to mold her daughters into star students and master musicians.

When I compare what I have read with my own experiences, certain themes do ring true. For instance, the notion that parents should ensure their children’s excellence in academics and extracurriculars is simply a given for most Chinese-American families. Even my slightly unconventional parents could not escape this larger cultural imperative. Although they allowed me a positively slothful childhood compared to Amy Chua’s daughters, it did take me a while to realize most moms and dads did not grade their kindergartener’s drawings.

Yueyue Drawing 2-2

At least I got a 95 on this one.

But frankly, something about that narrative of the hawkish, Asian parents has always felt off to me. I rarely believed that my parents were truly cracking the whip. There was something perfunctory about the way they acknowledged my grades (celebrated or scolded my performance) which suggested that, deep down, they knew none of it mattered.

Still.

It mattered to me.

A-sians not B-sians

This fantastic meme describes my inner voice more than my actual parents. Source

Grades represented a tried and true avenue of approval. And approval was important for a morose child who recoiled in suspicion from the greetings of friendly classmates.

Grades were a comforting, top-down source of order. And I found order welcome after having moved homes every few years for as long as I could remember.

At my core, I must have craved the rigidity of neat categorizations. I must have clung to the idea that one’s identity could be defined through them. You could be a certain letter grade student, or you could be sorted into one of four houses at Hogwarts. Nowadays, I suppose you could also belong to one of five factions in the world of Divergent or one of thirteen districts in The Hunger Games.

~

The issue has always been that a part of me resents this rigidity of spirit.

That’s the part responsible for my ongoing appreciation of Young Adult fiction, in which authoritarian categorizers are consistently overthrown.

bow and arrow

I would definitely offer up my archery skills for the revolution. Now, how do you aim this thing?

These days, I’m convinced that perfectionism holds me back both professionally and as a student. The anxiety I feel over routine challenges burns me out too easily.

Meanwhile, I admire those who by nature or nurture are free of this maddening trait. I stand in awe of “big picture” types and people who simply get things done without fuss (or stress dreams).

… How do they – or you – do it?

… Do you believe perfectionism is cultural?

… Is “the perfect the enemy of the good” as they say?

And if so, why can’t we all be friends? (Tell me.)

Picking from the Fig Tree: A Look at Choosing Majors in 3 Countries

In Aziz Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He shares this cautionary Sylvia Plath quote:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree . . . . From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether choosing a college major or a career path, or deciding where to live, the array of life choices can be overwhelming. Now teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to my class as well.

leaning against a barren tree

No figs here, sadly. Just a melancholy undergrad and a barren tree.

In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. In fact, only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before, and – even after we thoroughly discussed it – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different are the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?

After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where the students are coming from, both literally and figuratively.

~

I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: declaring a major. I had applied to college as an undecided student, after having gone through the brochure a hundred times. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding  journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.

Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.

~

When I contrast my experience to the experience the  Chinese students might have had, had they gone to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities (the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao, China’s national higher education entrance exam) — but considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass.

As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.

This is akin to speculating about which figs taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.

Infant academoiselle reading a book

My parents chose to raise me in the US, but what if they’d stayed in China? Who knows if I would’ve even made it to university, never mind what I would’ve studied.

~

At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.

In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.

Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their specializations, without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.

It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?

~

Diderot monument

Let’s turn to France, one of the centers of the Enlightenment.

Before I’m accused of viewing the French system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.

Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they’d like to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. It determines which version of the bac they will take (another national higher education qualification exam), but the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.

When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.

And if it doesn’t work out? Students can change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically, they can also decide to retake their first year.

In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year (including those who fail as well as those who want to change majors). Since annual tuition is only a couple hundred Euros, many can afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years, a common degree duration worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want — even if they can’t take a bite out of every fig.

~

Outside of the formal education system, what I really admire about France is the deep-seated culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table, and being a financial analyst doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.

Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.

Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.

cassis chocolat macaron

Or  we can turn the figs into giant macarons. That might also work.

My Father’s ESL Teacher

During one of my breaks in college, while rummaging through boxes in my parents’ home, I made a surprising discovery. On the back of what looked to be a scrap piece of paper, I found a short text written by my father. It had been written for an ESL class he took in the ’90s, shortly after we moved to the US.

I could only guess what the writing prompt had been. Perhaps, “Write about regret.”

In the text, my father narrated the story of how child-me had asked my parents for piano lessons. Apparently, many of my Chinese-American peers at the time were already learning piano. Given our family’s precarious finances, however, he’d had to say “no.” He wrote about how deeply sad he’d felt denying his child.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the text contradicted my own vague recollections. I’d always had the idea that it was my parents who had pushed me to take lessons, and that it was who had stubbornly refused. What I remember for sure is my dad’s proud statement on the topic. “You’re different from the other immigrant children.”

Had his pride been a guise? — I wondered, after reading the text. Like flocking birds, other incidents suddenly converged in my memory.

What about the time I was 6 and expressed admiration for my classmate’s white, patent leather shoes? My dad had sniffed derisively, “You can hardly move around in those things.” My admiration had then turned to the girl’s smooth, unmarked skin. At the time, to my great embarrassment, my own limbs were covered in raw scrapes and old scabs.

My dad had simply shrugged. “Who wants a perfect looking daughter?”

Scabbed and wearing frills

Don’t let the frills fool you. See if you can spot the scab.

~

The name of my father’s ESL teacher was Robert. I remember this because my dad frequently talked about him after class.

Robert, frankly, seemed like a saint to me. How could he deal with my father’s halting English and endless questions about vocabulary and grammar? Eventually, my family moved and my father stopped taking ESL. I became his de facto authority on English, even though – as I got older – I resented the never-ending task of editing my dad’s every email, his every cover letter as he applied for job after job.

Teenage me sulked, sighed, and outright shouted at my dad for his errors. He never seemed to get it right. To all the abuse, my dad simply responded, “Your English is so good.” The more impatient I was, the more convinced he was of my competence.

The prouder he grew.

I was nothing like Robert. From time to time, my dad wondered aloud what his former ESL teacher was up to.

~

I’m now in training to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages. My course (called the CELTA) finishes at the end of May. As part of my training, I teach an adult class once a week, and – while the pressure can be intense since I am observed and graded – I have to say it is a whole new kind of pleasure.

The students hail from Venezuela, Turkey, Japan, Tajikistan, and every corner of the world. They range in age from college students to retirees. Their motivations for studying English are just as varied. From a professor in sports economics wanting to bolster his research skills, to a girl learning to sing pop songs … I am frankly amazed at all the reasons folks give up 2 1/2 hours on a weeknight to better their English.

I try to picture my dad’s ESL class. His classmates. Robert.

My eyes follow the arc of desks and rest on my dad himself. And I finally see him through Robert’s eyes: a young man (unemployed, terrified) … with a kid and a wife trying to make it in a whole new world.

It is then I realize — there is no language on Earth that can carry my gratitude.