Thursday, December 31, 2009

In Someone Else's Moccasins

For a long time, I have wanted to learn Hebrew. This fall I finally got started. It has been a very humbling experience. Everyday I argue with myself about the benefits of staying with it. Learning a new alphabet, learning to read and write from right to left, learning a new idiom and vocabulary should give my brain a healthy work-out that bodes well for my mental future. So there is method to my madness. But the letters seem to have a life of their own and the shift of one little vowel sign can change the meaning of a word. It will be a long time before I can communicate anything in this new language.

I meet with my tutor once a week. She is very patient and does not lose hope for me. Still, at my age, I am reduced to feeling like a 1st grade student learning everything for the first time. I feel self-conscious about not being able to remember all the amazing discoveries I have made during the preceding week. When I look at what I have written in modern Hebrew script, I can barely read it. I have to sound out words letter by letter. When I have to read out loud or attempt a dialogue with my tutor, I feel extremely tentative about finding the right word. Every other word needs some adjustment in pronunciation. Conjugating more than a dozen different classes of verbs is almost beyond me. My tutor is the soul of compassion. She has been there.

My island community is blessed with a fairly large Brazilian immigrant population. They bring beauty and color and a certain vibrancy of faith to our staid New England milieu. With them comes a strong work ethic and a healthy sense of family and community strength. As Brazilian cooking finds its way into the mainstream, new and strange items appear on the supermarket shelves, their labels unreadable to those of us who have only English. I hear attitudes voiced around me. “Why don’t they speak English?” “Why do they keep to themselves?” “Why are so many of them landscapers and house cleaners?”
Having the experience of learning a new and different language as an adult is giving me the experience of “walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins.” I have learned how uncomfortable it is not to be able to speak another language clearly and fluently. I have felt the almost child-like tentativeness that comes with uncertainty about saying a word correctly or putting the right verb form with the right pronoun. I know what it feels like to be unable to come up with the right Hebrew word and to have to revert to English.

My tutor assures me that by the time I have finished the workbook I am using, I will have enough Hebrew to be able to apply for a job if I live in Israel. The workbook is one that is used in the intensive language training given to new immigrants in Israel. But even with a master’s degree, I’m fairly certain I would be applying for a job in the service industry in order to be able to function at all, just as many well educated Brazilians find themselves doing when they come here.

This has been a humbling exercise in learning compassion for newcomers to our community. It helps to offset the arrogance that characterizes our American culture with regard to our immigrant populations and what we expect of them. Walking in a strange pair of moccasins is uncomfortable as best, but maybe that’s what needs to happen if we are to live together in greater harmony and compassion.

Vicki Hanjian

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