Category Archives: Ethnic Communities

Why Can’t Americans Learn Other Languages?

Around the world, its a well known fact that Americans are some of the worst language learners in the world. Is it nature? Is it nurture?

I have observed four things which I believe make us the way we are:

#1 Childhood and Education

Lets start by examining the typical American childhood. Our education system is focused on well-roundedness, which is a wonderful thing. However, there are some dangerous omissions in our education process which keep us blinded.

In K-12 education, World History is really more of a smattering of “what formed Western civilization.” We learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the World Wars, and then a few brief chapters on the Crusades, Buddha and vague paragraph or two on Chinese civilization.

Our education system encourage us to take a foreign language in school, but our overall culture espouses xenophobia. Language is best learned from people, not from books. If we demand that people of other cultures “assimilate” to American culture, we lose out. We have stopped giving them permission to be themselves and turn them into a prop of diversity, rather than a living, breathing person to learn from and exchange ideas with.

 

#2 Our Work Culture

We are career and success oriented, because we are addicted to productivity (not to mention dependent on our jobs for health insurance). This motivation makes us some of the most innovative people on the planet since we are always thinking of solutions to problems, but sometimes makes us poor empathizers and incapable of seeing gray in non-black and white situations.

Americans have a reputation to be communication bulldozers. If I say it louder, clearer and more directly, we expect the recipient to  understand us. The rest of the world doesn’t operate like this, and speaking is not how language is learned- listening is.

Learning a language is nuanced. And Americans generally suck at nuances.

We are amazing speech givers and “communicators” – as long as it is one sided. We are not known to be the best listeners in the world. In fact, we are kind of horrible at it.

 

#3 Media

We Americans are very good at thinking that we “fully understand” something if we have read an article about it on the internet or seen a documentary. We generally have a great deal of confidence and a low ability to read between the lines. If someone is taking too long to get to the point, we tune them out and make a mental note to Google it later. These kind of skills retard the ability to learn language.

We have boxes in which other cultures belong in our entertainment media. We have a dominant style of “white English” which is subtlety expected to be spoken and received on the news and in TV/movies. For the most part, other cultures are often portrayed in the media as being “cute” or “sidekicks” as the white Americans continue to be the heroes. I appreciate TV shows and movies which are crossing those barriers and breaking stereotypes and we need more of these in the future to set the stage for a truly multi-cultural media to take flight.

#4 Geography

Yes, its true we are a large country pretty much isolated from other language groups. This is the most common excuse for being a mostly monolingual country. The comparison is often drawn with Europe, where passing from country to country only takes a few hours. We use this as an excuse for why we can’t learn other languages. The size of our country is a factor, but not the only factor.

Geography isn’t a good enough excuse. We have people from every country in the world living inside our borders. Yet, we have an overall expectation for people to assimilate or self-isolate into their own ethnic communities.

Our neighbors to the South are our most likely influencers. We like their burritos, piñatas and Despacito, but the rest we leave for them to keep. A greater deal of cultural exchange needs to take place as we rub shoulders.

When we do attempt to learn Spanish, it is mostly to “use” it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “oh yeah, you should learn Spanish so you can use it in your job.” Its not a bad idea, but we need to go beyond “using” a language to get our point across, and learn to listen, to understand what is behind the words.

We see Spanish as a language to digest, to use, disconnected from a culture to embody, respect and appreciate.

 

I can almost hear some of you saying- but it isn’t my fault, I’m trying! We are simply not nurtured to be world citizens and our culture makes it difficult. Thats true, but I have great hope for our current and future generations. As we modify our educational systems, work culture and media, we can become more versatile, interconnected and as a result, more truly multi-lingual.

In the near future, our country will not be made up of a white majority. We will be majority minority! How do we want our country to look? Do we want to allow the best of people to come out including their linguistic backgrounds? Or do we continue to force ourselves into a monolingual box?

It won’t happen unless we are intentional. Lets do better together, America!

 

 

 

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Cross Cultural Book Review

Life of PiBeing a train commuter, I get the chance to read quite a bit. And being a member of the Chicago Public Library, I am able to check out the newest books of the season via my Kindle.

Parameters: I enjoy books which address human suffering, complicated relationships, or ones that enlighten us on life.

I’ve attempted to write a one sentence summary of my thoughts after reading the book, or what I felt the book was trying to accomplish.

 

 

BEST

  • The Life of Pi— a friend recommended this book to me, and I did expect a profound ending. This book is pure imagination, and only for those who let their minds go on an adventure. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I enjoyed the philosophical underpinnings of the story.
  • My thought? “Illusion helps cover pain.”
  • The Help– I had several “aha” moments when it came to topics discussed in this book: racial tensions, white guilt, and modern prejudices. I found this to be uplifting and lighthearted despite the heavy subject matter.
  • My thought? “I still have negative perceptions of Southern culture.”
  • The Jungle– understanding the patterns of immigration in Chicago, and the difficulties in the meat packing houses of early 1900s Chicago. Reinforced my decision to life a vegetarian lifestyle. This book left me with several strong emotions- just when this guy’s life started to get better, it got worse.
  • My thought? “Every criminal has a reason for the decisions they made. Whether they were wise or not, many people’s lack of choices lead them to crime.”
  • Marriage is for White People– I also had several aha moments while reading this book on the challenges that the African American community faces when it comes to family and marriage.
  • My thought? “A lack of marriable men in a society, causes a whole slew of  problems.”
  • The Mahabharat- Sons of Gods–typically a rusty, poorly translated epic, only this particular translation captured my attention, and expressed the real heart of the story in English. The author basically translated this in “thought for thought” method rather than “word for word.” Sort of like “The Message” versus “The King James.”
  • My thought? “Aahhh, now I get why Arjun is a big deal.”
  • Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism– one of the most challenging philosophical and comparative religious books I’ve read. He is deeply mechanical with his analysis, and uses many “behind the scenes” examples which are very anti-Abrahamic. This guy really hates Abrahamic religions and has obviously been wounded by Jews or Christians in the past. This book is a reaction to people thinking that Hinduism is merely animistic.
  • My thought? “This author’s agenda—dharmik philosophies are the only world through view to subscribe to, and if you disagree, you’re an idiot.”
  • Dreaming in Hindi -one of the best practical linguistic books I’ve read coupled with a woman’s personal journey of learning a new language in her middle age years. I could relate to some of her struggles, but certainly not all of the problems she brought on herself from bed hopping and flirting with random men.
  • My thought? “There is definitely a right and wrong way of learning a language within the subcontinent, and this woman did it right.”
  • When She Was White: Biography of Sandra Lange  This woman was born into a white Afrikaaner who was born with African black African features.  During the time of deep segregation, family people who were between the lines got trampled on. Sandra Lange is an inspiring character, but also has a sad story.
  • My thought? “Seeing deeply wounded people change their behaviors is almost impossible. A very uphill battle.”

WORST

  • Gora– I read the most horrific translation of this book ever known to mankind. But I muscled through it and finally got to the end since I heard it was such a great book. I couldn’t keep track of the characters. The only way I made it through is because I knew the ending. I was honestly just looking forward to the ending. It was awful.
  • My thought? “People are judgmental until it hits too close to home.”
  • At Home By Bill Bryson– this didn’t capture my attention until page 250. By that time it had taken me so long to get there, the book was due back and magically disappeared off my Kindle and back into the Chicago Public Library archives.
  • My thought? “Do I really care about the history of the armchair in England? No.”
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson– by far the most boring book I’ve ever attempted to read. He starts in the stars and the galaxies, and ends in the garbage dump. Basically I felt like this book was just propagating a particular worldview more than entertaining the reader.
  • My thought? “Wow, if you don’t prescribe to this worldview there is nothing for you in this book.”
  • The Invisible Man– This classic left me disappointed – I was expecting some philosophical ending, but was left underwhelmed.
  • “That’s it?”

OTHERS I READ, BUT DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON

  • Crazy Love by Francis Chan– since many were in a craze, I also jumped on the bandwagon. A straightforward, to the point, inspirational piece on rekindling a relationship with God.
  • 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra– you can’t teach yogic philosophy in a book. Had some good summaries, but I can’t imagine anyone would retain this without actually practicing yoga.
  • Multiplication is for White People– this book probably could have been 20 pages and made the same point it did in 200.
  • Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy– another foreign woman’s adventures in India. While part of it I could relate to, much of it I couldn’t, but still a well written memoir on her experience.
  • Ishmael– This classic left an impression on me for a couple weeks, and I was surprised at the philosophical conversation this turned into. It brought up some challenging thoughts on the environment, ethics, and supremacy of man.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson– another hilarious Bill Bryson memoir. Look out for bears.
  • Three Cups of Tea– I read this about 4 years too late., as the controversy about Greg Mortenson had already arisen. He did many things “the wrong way” when it comes to development and many things “the right way” when it came to building relationships and caring about people. I felt like this was a case of the headstrong American doing whatever he wanted, even if half of it was stupid. Very entertaining and imaginative story.

Why I’m OK Being White

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed that many caucasian people I’ve come in contact with are experiencing a growing discomfort with being white. Something within us feels a bit guilty, like we are the ones who have caused the world’s problems. We think of the Nazis, the British in India, slavery in the US, and remember all the times in history that white people have made non-white people’s lives miserable.

Authors Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp have so appropriately named this comfort “Great White Guilt” in their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World. This feeling makes us feel like somehow our ancestors were responsible for suffering in the world and that we today are responsible. We hear the voices from the from the outside world, and the more powerful feeling from within. Something that tells us that being white is not OK.

In my community, I spend time with a lot of non-white people, and the white people I do spend time with behave with some level of “brownness.” There are some people who I meet who it is so obvious they are trying to fit into a brown culture that they’ve totally lost themselves. And I don’t blame them, because it is very easy to. I lived in India for a number of years and there was a lot to pressure to “be Indian”. To dress Indian, to eat Indian, to walk Indian, to talk Indian. There was simply no other right way, and when nearly everyone in society corrects your “white behavior”, the pressures wear on you. Finally, you start to think less of yourself and question if being white is really OK. Then you feel that being who you are is wrong or shameful. Being white becomes not OK.

I’ve been told many times that I am a “white Indian.” I used to take this as a compliment as I had worked very hard to learn the Hindi language and adopt certain lifestyle changes in order to survive in India. They eventually became a part of me. Now when someone says that, it bothers me. Why?

There is a theory called the “Coconut Generation” where it has been said that some Indian American kids are “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. I find a growing trend of white people who somehow are striving for the opposite “white on the outside and brown on the inside.” Personally, I think it is a short-sighted and an awfully one dimensional way to look at a person or to view oneself.

Cross cultural change is good and important. We need to learn about each other’s lives. Adopt behaviors which come to us naturally, enjoy each other’s cultures and be comfortable in our own skin.

As we think about atrocities like slavery in the US, the British occupying India, and the holocaust, we have to consider that these atrocities were caused by white people who oppressed others out of fear because they were insecure in their own racial identity.

I’m writing this because I think that white people need to move past “Great White Guilt” and move into healthy reconciliation. There are lots of reminders and pressures in this world to make us feel guilty for bad things that white people have done in the past. We don’t have to deny this and disassociate completely. Realize that you can do your part in creating positive change in society, but don’t try to be someone else while doing it. Be yourself. Be white.

The New America at the Laundromat

There are a few places where I like to go to people watch and reconnect myself with the ever changing population of my urban neighborhood. There are some places that are thriving with life, freshness, and diversity. The Laundromat is one of these places where one can keep their finger on the pulse of “the New America”.

Few places in this country allow you to see the real grit and hardship of people. The fights they choose to pick in public, the dirty laundry they bring in, the things they keep themselves busy with while waiting for their laundry to spin…

A tragic but telling story unfolded before my eyes a few months ago. Dozens gravitated to the laundromat on a Friday night, slowly trudging in with huge bags of dirty laundry. A Pakistani mother in law/ daughter in law dragged a week’s worth of clothing, bedsheets and cloth diapers. A single African American mom fed her kids Cheetos and Mountain Dew for dinner while her hands worked almost disconnected folding clothes while keeping her eyes glued to the TV monitor above. Some brought in carts, while others dragged cotton bags across the busy streets. Around 10:00pm, two gang members rushed in chasing a teenage boy of a different color. The boy had no shirt and was running at full speed. He came for refuge, but what he got was a beating. Dozens of us stood in shock as the two boys beat this boy to the ground. Blood gushed from his nose and after about 30 seconds some other men stepped in and starting yelling. The two gang members sprinted off, banging the glass doors on the way out, and the rest of us stood in shock, some trying to mind their own business, while others looking wide eyed trying to memorize the culprits’ features so that we could report them to the police.

The Somalian woman across from me paused her phone conversation, as she stood motionaless in a purple polyester burkha with her phone tucked into the side of her hijaab next to her right ear. The Latino twins that were previously enamored with the telenovela playing at maximum volume on the TV mounted on the wall, stared at the bloody teen while their popcicles dripped on the floor, mouths hung open in shock. After about 20 minutes, the cops showed up, took the boy’s story, and took him off to a safe place. We all breathed a little easier.

Some call my community in Chicago a melting pot. I’d call it more of a stew pot. Everyone is thrown together, but people often keep separated. Indians over here, the Orthodox Jews over there, The West African Muslims over there. Living in a community where many people are FOBs (fresh-off-the-boat), sometime the FOB mentality never goes away. People recreate a community where their ethnic group is safe, protected, and free. When outbursts like this occur, you can almost feel the stereotypes of other ethnic groups being reinforced and prejudices forming. I almost wonder if our little ethnic communities are more harmful than helpful. Are they breeding grounds for prejudice, fear and stereotypes? I think about that boy and realize the impression he made on all of us at the laundromat. Will we harbor fear and anxiety about ethnic groups that we are afraid of? Or will we let it go?