February 8, 2023
I was in a local bookstore’s business section and hoping to find a book on stock investment by Warren Buffett. I was pacing up and down the aisle countless times because I couldn’t locate Buffett’s book. So I decided to ask for help.
“Excuse me, can you help me find a book on investment? My son is learning about stock investment in his econ class. He just finished reading his first investment book, and he’d like to learn more, in particular by Warren Buffet.” Because I had been sick with a bad cold and a cough, I had thick nasal congestion and a hoarse voice on top of an accent.
The clerk kept blinking her eyes at me. She probably had a difficult time understanding me. “Whose book are you looking for?” She asked. “Warren Buffet,” I responded. I thought I was clear, but she still blinked at me. “Warren Buffet,” I repeated as best as I could. Finally, she said, “Ohhhh, Warren Buuuuuuffet!”
We walked back to the aisle. No, she also couldn’t find any investment books by Warren Buffett. “I can order them for you. Do you have any titles?” She offered as we walked to her desk. I shook my head in response. She typed in some keywords and a few books popped up. The clerk clicked on one description and asked: “Can you read English?”
I froze for a second, recovered quickly, and nodded “yes.” My mind was chattering inside frantically. I thought to myself: “Jeez, I haven’t seen this one for ages!” Being Asian equals “otherness.” Speaking with an accent (plus being sick) meant that I was viewed as unintelligent. But illiterate, really? A few minutes later, I found a book I wanted and thanked the clerk for her help as I left the bookstore.
This story became really interesting after I posted my experience on Facebook. I received responses that ranged from outpourings of empathy, like “Unacceptable! I love your beautiful accent;” dead hilarious,“ like “You should have said: No, I just enjoy looking at the art on the cover!”, borderline confrontational, like “You should have answered: Yes, I can. Can you read Chinese?”, to eager justification, like “It’s ethnocentric to assume everyone I meet speaks English, reads English, or is looking for English resources. I keep an open mind and let the person clarify what they want, speak, or need…Maybe that person was trying not to assume…”
The whole Facebook encounter brought back a bad memory. It happened during the first week of my arrival in this country. I mastered reading English well in China, but speaking? Not much. Many Chinese immigrants used the phrase “Mute English” to describe our deficiency: We earned high scores on standardized tests (GRE & TOEFL) but were barely able to communicate well in English.
In my eagerness to improve my English-speaking skills, I found a free ESL class offered through a nonprofit. I was very nervous and answered the first question wrong. The ESL tutor asked me whether I like doing homework, which I mistook for “housework” and answered: “I hate doing housework.” She shook her head, walked to a shelf, found an alphabet book, and asked me to trace the letters from “A” to “Z.” I was so humiliated: my hand was shaking, and my body was shivering. I fled at the end of the class and never went back.
While I don’t think it’s productive to guess another’s motive or intention, I see problems in my own discomfort with direct confrontation. I also see problems with others’ efforts in explaining “my experience” through their lenses. What would be truly supportive in this situation is to reflect on our own blind spots and check our implicit biases. As long as there are people who assume an accent is a sign of “lack of intelligence” or “illiteracy,” this immigrant country will always operate in a divided manner rather than in harmony.
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One thought on “Little Things Matter, Part 12: Can You Read English? | Haiyun Lu | 3 Min Read”
When my sons were newborn, I was stopped in a supermarket and earnestly asked where I’d gotten them from. It was a completely flummoxing question–I “got” them the regular way–and revealed more about the speaker than my situation–and still filled me with an embarrassed sense of shame and frustration. I have no idea how I replied in the moment–in the intervening 20 years, I’ve come up with a bunch of zingers as I relive that encounter. I think we’re much better at the abstraction of diversity than in the day-to-day encounters which are a natural byproduct of actual diversity.