March 25, 2005

So Who's the Enemy Anyway? (Part III)

After three minutes of my first meeting with the both Peter and Tessimira, I realized the blood, sweat and tears I had put into this particular lesson plan were for nil. Tessi was a short lady with long blonde hair, quite pretty, and extremely shy. Peter told me it was more important to him for his wife to learn some basic English than to improve his own, so he gave me the go-ahead to concentrate all my efforts on her for this first meeting. Of course, it took about 20 minutes for me to fully understand that this was his wish, but finally, I got the gist. Nothing is easy when there’s a language barrier.

I asked Tessi some simple questions, none of which she understood or could respond to. When I took out a pen to make notes to myself, she pointed to it, said something in Bulgarian and smiled very proudly. It was then that I realized I truly had my work cut out for me. I smiled back and said “pen?” She sat there. I repeated myself and waited … nothing. This woman was clearly to afraid to even attempt a three-letter word in English. She couldn’t even say “hello” in English, and I thought to myself “Level One my ass, they need to add a Level Zero.”

For the rest of that hour, I worked on teaching Tessi how to say my name. Peter was helpful as an interpreter, but this wasn’t going to get us very far. He and I planned a second meeting and wrapped up the session. I headed straight into the LVA office with my head hanging down.

“I can’t do this,” I told my supervisor.
“Sure you can – think about it,” she answered.
“This woman doesn’t know word one!” I said firmly.
“Yeah, and you can imagine how desperate she must feel,” she said, “Look, think about finding yourself in a foreign country with no clue how to speak their language – plan your lessons for Tessi around things that you might need to say sooner than later – prioritize.”
“Okay but how can I teach a person, in English, when they don’t understand English?” I asked.
“Think of it as a game, a challenge, get creative, start with concepts, you’ll be fine,” she said.

Driving home and feeling quite defeated, I went over our conversation several times in my head and decided the first order of business was to try to communicate in a way she would feel comfortable. I detoured straight to a local bookstore and for $3.95 I purchased the answer to all my Tessi-problems. A small paperback called, “English/Bulgarian Dictionary.”

In the first part of this gem of a book, there is a chart containing all the characters of the Cyrillic Alphabet, with their English counterparts in parentheses. In all of my American ignorance, I hadn’t even realized they used an entirely different alphabet; talk about feeling completely defeated! So now I had to teach myself this most unusual alphabet and try to learn simple words so that I could relate them to my lesson plans. In other words, I had to formulate lessons in both Bulgarian and English if I was going to get through to this woman at all. Christ.

My lessons with Tessi were so basic they seemed borderline ridiculous to me. I used picture books that were written for young toddlers, just for the sake of pointing out colors, numbers and emotions. I created index flash cards written in both English and Bulgarian so that she could SEE the words while she was learning to speak them. I also picked up a second copy of the book so that she could practice at home with basic pronunciation. Her mind was like a sponge soaking up every set of words we studied.

“…plan your lessons for Tessi around things that you might need to say sooner than later – prioritize.” This was my driving force. I brought coins and dollars with me and we studied money. I used my own body as well as one of my daughter’s dolls to teach her words like finger, toe, arm, stomach, head, etc. Of course, my thinking here was “what if this woman has pain and can’t express it?”

Tessi worked very hard, learned quickly, and was always eager to meet again. In fact, we were now meeting three mornings a week for two full hours. The first hour was dedicated to Tessi and the second to Peter, though I believe Peter got just as much out of the first half as Tessi did!

Once Tessi had a better grasp on colors, common foods, numbers and money, we went on a field trip to a restaurant – then a grocery store – then a local petting zoo. Everywhere we went, there were lessons waiting to be learned.

In no time at all, we began meeting at Peter and Tessi’s apartment. There was much more visual stimulation there than could be found at the library. Lots of stuff to point to!

One concept that is quite universal is humor. True, what I found comical might not have been the same as what they found funny, but some things are just in-your-face obvious. Laughing together was something we all did quite often ~ sometimes at our own selves. I believe it was the humor that really drew us together as friends more than just tutor/client.

Tessi was frightened to death of the telephone. It’s one thing to try to decipher what someone is trying to say when you have a visual (facial expression) and another thing entirely when you’re just hearing a voice at the other end of the phone. I’d make her practice by calling her at designated times just to make her more comfortable with the telephone. She hated this type of lesson. One of the first things I had explained to her was the concept of “emergency” because let’s face it, anything can happen any time – at least in MY life this has been the case! She needed to know how to call for help and to be understood! We had gone over her address and telephone number and various types of emergency situations. She got quite good at this.

One of the funniest things that happened to us was earlier on when for the first few weeks, I kept repeating things to her over and over again until she seemed frustrated with me. I couldn’t comprehend her frustration because I would ask her if she understood something, and she’d always shake her head “no.” Finally, Peter explained to me that in Bulgaria, the side-to-side head motion means “yes” and the up-and-down means “no.” It took me awhile to wrap my brain around this concept, but once it finally soaked in, we were far better off. I too was learning.

Peter, through some struggle and strain, told me one day that he needed to have his eyes checked. He had purchased a pair of store-bought reading glasses in hopes of avoiding a doctor visit, but they weren’t cutting it for him. I made an appointment for him and off we went. While Peter was inside having his examination, Tessi and I stepped outside to enjoy the summer warmth. Standing near a rosebush, I felt a sting on my ankle and looked down just in time to see a hornet fly away. This bastard got me good!

I stood for a moment rubbing my sore ankle, but couldn’t keep my composure any longer; my leg was on fire! I moved around wildly shaking my foot outward in one direction then another, swearing loudly and gasping from the burn. Suddenly, I looked over and Tessi is mimicking me. She started swaying to and fro and snapping her fingers. I had NO idea what her problem was, but figured she may have been stung too. Luckily Peter walked out of the office and asked her what she was doing. Tessi thought I was dancing, and also thought it a bit weird of me do so in a parking lot, but figured this was the thing to do so she joined in. Glad I wasn’t scratching my ass.

After many months of home visits and field trips, both Peter and Tessi were improving greatly and were even beginning to hold short conversations together in English, without my prompting or assistance. They had worked very hard and had been through so much just to come to America to escape the (then) Communistic rule of Bulgaria, and as I learned more and more about their lives back home, I realized how much they appreciated living here and being free of all that crap and heartache.

We remained friendly for a long, long time, and I watched as Tessi finally got a job at the same casino where Peter worked (they both cleaned bathrooms making minimum wage plus tips), and also went on to take her driving test and get a license! Peter was finally able to make his appointments with INS in Hartford without me being there to interpret for him, and he eventually attained citizenship.

I only continued with LVA for a little over a year and a half, but was thrilled to get a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to struggle with a new language, new laws, and new lifestyle, in a situation that commands it.

At least now when I bitch about people not learning our language, I can appreciate that it’s a time consuming, painstaking process, and that even though many would take advantage of learning opportunities like LVA, it can be terribly scary and awkward for them.

Someone commented on my last entry by suggesting that learning the language should be mandatory for all immigrants. I agree. It’s a free service, after all, and available in every large city in the United States. BUT, the thing we need to keep in perspective is that without volunteers, the job isn’t going to get done. I wonder how many of us would be willing and eager to give up a couple of hours a week to the cause if it were made mandatory on our end? Just a thought.


Blogger Grant said...

Great post. It's always good to try to see things from others' points of view.

On the flip side, one of my college professors (she taught Database Programming - poorly) confessed that, although she had been in the country for 25 years, she had deliberately avoided learning the language and kept her accent so others would work harder to accomodate her. I'm sure there's a special room in Hell just for people like that.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Swifty said...

A superb piece of inspiritational writing. At your best you're by far the most most positive and heart-warming blogger out there. Once agaisn you've surprised me.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a great - rest of the story, and very inspiring! It's so hard to not know the native language, signs, TV, radio, speaking, everything is in that language, and you don't know it! It's a huge handicap. Good for you to help people overcome it.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Wally said...


A truly fine and commendable three-part-post! It's always rewarding to help others in need, but it becomes more rewarding when teaching others to learn how to help theirselves. Also, your message at the end of the story, did not go un-noticed.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Lightning Bug's Butt said...

I forgot to tell you: I love the name of your blog.

Good post series. If anything I wrote had enough substance, I'd attempt a series myself.

12:20 AM  
Blogger CarpeDM said...

I really liked these posts. I liked your comment at the end and you're right, I bet people would not like it if we were forced to volunteer.

You amaze me with your patience, I would have probably given up long ago. I don't think I'm as nice of a person as you are, Carol!

As always, your writing shines.

8:07 AM  
Blogger NYCbeauty said...

Some parts of this were so funny, so "human." I love the part where yes meant no and no meant yes. Who'da thunk it? Also the dancing part...that was priceless. Excellent post. I loved reading your story.

10:46 AM  
Blogger happyandblue2 said...

I really liked this story.
Helping others is so worthwhile.
Way to go..

5:39 PM  
Blogger brooksba said...

Yea! I wanted to comment a couple of days ago, but Blogger, you know the story.

Carol, this was a great post. I really enjoyed the story you told about helping others learn the language. It's a great public service and both parties got to experience something fantastic.

As always, stunned with your writing.


3:36 AM  

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