“A traveler in a foreign land best learns names of people and places, how to express ideas, ways to carry on a conversation by moving around in the culture, participating as fully as he can, making mistakes, saying things half right, blushing, then being encouraged by a friendly native speaker to try again. He’ll pick up the details of grammar and usage as he goes along. What he must not do is hold back from the teeming flow of life, must not sit in his hotel room and drill himself on all possible gaffes before entering the streets. He’d never leave the room.” – Mike Rose from Lives on the Boundary
The first time I met Ring was in a classroom at Johnson and Wales University. Downtown Providence, within eyeshot of The Superman Building. Like pretty much everyplace downtown.
She’s tall, even sitting down, and maybe seems taller for being as slender as she is. She sat that day as she would so many others, displaying this unnerving way of avoiding eye contact, but still giving you the feeling she was even listening to the pauses.
Her voice made me think of porcelain. Fine. A little too thin. Breakable. She’d been in the US all of a couple of weeks by the time we met. It was a course in Oral Communication, and that delicate teacup of a voice was like a curtain between a beautifully curious mind and half or so of what she came here from China to accomplish. But she had that vibe you sense in people now and then – the kind that tells you no, you’re wrong…that the peaceful spirit really does prevail.
Around the same time, I met Xinhui, also from China, but somewhere in the Cantonese speaking region. She joined the evening class I teach at the Auburn Branch of The Cranston Library under the aegis of the Rhode Island Family Literacy Intiative, and she seemed so adrift I’m not sure how she managed to find her way to us. She’d been in the US for several months at least, yet still looked confused when anyone said hello. Usually, people catch on to a few basics after an hour or two of sitting in the first class listening to the same questions and answers pinging back and forth across the table.
Few people remember how language comes in at the ear, and Xinhui seemed to remain adrift for weeks. I can’t imagine how it must have been for her sitting in class night after night, feeling disconnected from everything and everyone around her. She had as tenuous a handle on the Roman alphabet as I’ve ever witnessed, so I put her together with a small group of Cambodian students working on alphabetics with one of Auburn’s long term stable of volunteers. This seemed to help her sense of belonging, but that’s not much better than a safe guess. Even asking other of her classmates from China to help us communicate with her didn’t help. They managed to speak with each other, but the feedback I got from the other students was in conflict. We couldn’t manage to find out which dialect she spoke, or to help her catch on to the way her classmates were learning how to listen.
One night, Xinhui’s husband showed up, and he stood behind her chair translating everything she was hearing and reading. Linguistically, she was much more in her comfort zone now, and learning nothing at a much faster pace. Anything anyone had to tell her in English was now much easier to understand, and to then dispose of. The quiet man speaking in hushed tones behind his wife was a surreal presence, and after the second time I asked him to leave.
It was hard not to think of Ring and Xinhui at the same time, coming from different parts of China to the same, seemingly unassuming city with wildly disparate ambitions. In China, Providence would be considered a village. Meanwhile, Ring is working to earn a master’s degree in business at JWU. Xinhui seems like so many people who come to America believing the tall dream-country tales that never quite came true. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, I tend to think Xinhui will work her way toward a low paying job, maybe somewhere enough of her coworkers will be Chinese that she can live as much of her life within that comfort zone as she can.
We are not a melting pot, and the overall force of human nature is against us becoming one. When I’ve lived outside the US, I’ve found myself avoiding other Americans, and the only domestic idioms I truly missed were musical. Ring came to America to build the foundation for a life she envisions with a sense of hope, while Xinhui came here to transform hers into something wholly different from whatever it was before. Most of the people I meet who come here to live astonish me for any number of reasons, not the least of which is a profound lack of curiosity about their adopted homeland. Then again, overwhelmingly, they don’t come from the traditions of conquerors, but of the conquered.
Ring plans to leave America with something she can touch, while Xinhui wanders through an ether of promise and heartbreak.
Which is exactly why I thought they needed to meet.
Oral Communication students at JWU are required to engage in conversational activities outside their classrooms. When I asked my group if anyone was interested in fulfilling this requirement as a volunteer at my Auburn class, two spoke up. Fortunately for both Xinhui and me, Ring was one of them. She and a classmate visited my evening class three times, and the moment I got her into the same room with Xinhui, I sat them down together and let Ring spend the entire two hours with her.
Later, Ring was able to give me much more information about Xinhui than anyone else. The difference between Ring and Xinhui’s classmates is that Ring was genuinely more curious about Chinese immigrants in America. I suppose when you are one, there’s not much you need to be curious about.
The next time Ring came to volunteer, she beelined for Xinhui, but I waved her back over to the main group, where she sat down and helped Syrians, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Haitians and Cambodians learn a little new vocabulary.
Now, when Xinhui arrives for class, she greets everyone with a bright smile and says hello, even though she still gets lost somewhere in the next few phrases. Xinhui could end up being part of my life for a few more weeks or a few more years. Life for adult ed ESL students is about as predictable as a frog race.
Ring was in my life for eleven weeks. A few days ago, I messaged her a phone picture I took one afternoon in a cafe when we escaped the classroom to work on a project in a more relaxed atmosphere. Got back: “Thank you, professor! I like it. And I still remember how I spilled the coffee.”
She sure had. Full cup. Everything stopped. We all had to pick up our books and papers while one of the cafe employees came out with a mop. We stood in a circle holding our things and waited. The whole class were looking at each other and trying to keep from laughing. It had been close quarters. It could’ve been any one of us, and Ring was painfully embarrassed. It was the only clumsy thing I ever saw her do.
I sent her back one of those little yellow smiley faces that make me cringe. I told her that sometimes…accidents can be the best part of the whole experience.