Thursday, November 27, 2008
Lesson from a foreigner
Last week, Kristen invited me to a potluck dinner at the church where she teaches English to foreigners. As would any intelligent college student with no meal plan, I heartily accepted her offer, and spent Monday in an air of pleasant expectation for that evening. On Monday at around 6:30 P.M. I hopped on my bike and zoomed over to St. Andrew's Church, which is hardly a five minute ride from dear old Liberty dorm.
In just a few months, my friend Kristen worked her way up to teaching the advanced class! Her students come from far-off places, like Poland, Mexico, Peru, Germany, Brazil, and Russia. Kristen, given her age and minimal teaching experience, makes a great lil' English teacher; she is patient and able to explain most grammatical techniques. However, there are exceptions; at the dinner, Kristen comically pointed out her European pupil that so often manages to catch her in grammar slip-ups (there was some definite tension there, but I won't go into that). Once Kristen even invited two of her Spanish-speaking students (they are au pairs in Mount Pleasant) to come see Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist with us earlier this year. Sometimes she even talks about her students in casual conversation, which is not typical of college students.
As I went around to the back of the church and to the entrance of the "school," I helped a Hispanic family bring in its dishes. Even though I knew no one, the atmosphere was welcoming, casual, and friendly. There was food from all over (including pizza that was probably meant to represent Italy, but which was actually brought by an American volunteer at the church who was too lazy to cook)! It interested me to see which foods were the most popular: anyone surprised that there was a lot of pumpkin pie left over? Or that the gelatinous pudding was a favorite? To my surprise, Kristen's (homemade, of course) apple spice cookies were not that popular. Why did the immigrants have certain shared preferences, despite the fact that the students hailed from very different places?
I did not know anyone except Kristen; another friend of ours was meant to come, but did not. After I got my food, I sat down next to a young Polish woman with blond hair who quietly picked at her food. Her name was Anna, and she came to the United States to visit her fiancé, a med student at MUSC. Unfortunately, she does not have much to do during the day other than go to English class. In Charleston, the immigrant population seems spread out and disconnected, sharply contrasting with the united immigrant populations in Boston and New York City.
I was standing at the buffet, deciding which cake to try, when a tall, serious, and bald Russian man tried to give me the 4-1-1 on one of the cakes: "Zis one good...I can see." I asked him what kind of cake it was. "It has egg, maybe, eh...maybe also some shoo-gehr...I think it will bring much pleasure," he said. I decided to try a slice of each. This man was hilarious. Some people posed for photographs, and this gentleman he had a strong opinion about their huge smiles: "I sink they practice at home in front of mirror," he speculated, and then did an imitation. I told him that people smiled in photos so that they would look happy, but he still did not understand. I understand his perspective: if a photograph is supposed to capture a moment, why do people change their expression, and thus alter the truth of the moment? Some people might argue that smiling is not "altering the truth of the moment," merely expressing the truth in a physical way.
Anna, Kristen, and the Social Critic