My friend’s accent is still just a little on the rough side. You can clearly hear where he has challenges, but most words pass by intact in a land between a Chinese upbringing and an American Dream. It’s always intriguing watching and hearing the seriousness with which he resounds an error—one, two, three, four times—and the way in which he watches tiger-like as I pronounce some meddlesome rule of pronunciation or vocabulary in my Midwestern way.
He pays such careful attention to how I emphasize the “TH” and, particularly, leave out the silent letters. Those are the hardest for him. Learning when not to say something—even though it cries out from the page. I have to smile about that. After all, so many of life’s most challenging moments are caused by things we should just leave silent, even though they are right there before us, calling or begging to be acknowledged.
But there are words worth saying. Many of them. The other day, trying to conduct a history and English lesson together, I handed my fellow student a copy of the Gettysburg Address. Hearing him recite that short speech three or four times—trying to get the words just right—I couldn’t help but think of the power of words; sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken. But here, in the verbal land between our two continents, it was quite apparent that even if some of the language was difficult—the idea was pretty easily understood.
As is often the case with teaching, you get more than you give. As he started to understand the speech he commented about how different Chinese culture was—that the ideas espoused by these two-hundred plus words would just not be understood by most Chinese People. “Government of the people; by the people; for the people?..” How does that work he asked?
Later that night as I watched more tea party rants about immigration and gun control—myths about hoards of free-loaders landing daily on our beaches, I thought about my friend and his English and his dream. We don’t drag people to these shores. They come here willingly—spending thousands of dollars—risking their lives to do what? To work in hot fields at harvest, hotter kitchens doing dishes, trying to build a life without raising suspicion.
I know that we need to reform immigration in this country. I know that illegal immigration is something we need to address. But I wonder, when I hear these people rant—the ones who always seem to rant about everything now-a-days, I wonder if they really know who they are ranting about? Take away the myth from the reality. They are ranting about the same kind of people their own ancestors were. People who came here, spurred by a dream, to build a better life. The dream is big enough for everyone. The opportunity is big enough for everyone. Just because Warren Buffet has billions does not mean I can’t. In fact, it means I can.
So let’s find some common sense solutions to bringing these people into a society that they risked their lives to become a part of. Let’s find ways to secure our borders, but also to increase opportunities for citizenship; student and worker visas; and immigration sponsorship for those who want to be here. After all, this is a nation of immigrants. The statue says she “lifts her lamp beside the golden door”—let’s start living up to what our mottos and our founding documents really say. Not using fake patriotism as a justification for all things intolerant and fearful—and turning away the same “tired, poor, and huddled masses” that have, at their best, helped reveal this country as a beacon on a hill.