There are times when living as an immigrant in a non-English speaking country makes you feel and act like a child:
You get lost. FREAK OUT! Where’s my mommy?
You can’t find what you need when you need it at the pharmacy. FREAK OUT! Where’s my mommy?
You don’t get what you need when you need it at the bank/post office/government agency. FREAK OUT! Where’s my mommy?
Kick. Scream. Pound fists on floor.
Run out of steam. Leave dejected.
Yes, being a new immigrant is exhausting.
A lot like childhood, but with less opportunities for naps.
But nothing makes you feel like a child more than the process of acquiring a new language while living in a foreign country.
In the beginning, you’re like a baby …you understand almost nothing. But people around you think you’re cute, so they speak slowly to you or patiently use hand signals.
After a while of living in the foreign country, you start to adjust and understand, but you’re still completely incapable of communicating.
Then, slowly slowly, you can communicate … in baby talk. Ah, sweet release as you realize you can get your point across … sorta.
Then, at some point you start noticing and comprehending words around you — on signs, on the front covers of magazines, on the sides of trucks.
And without realizing it, you’ve grown up.
You’ve become a big girl. You can read. You get things. You’re in on the joke.
I experienced one of these exhilarating awakenings yesterday when I was driving to work.
I saw a bus in front of me.
And I slowly read the sign.
I knew the first word was Nativ. It was a word I recognized. And I knew the second word didn’t look like a regular Hebrew word, but I didn’t know what it was. So I sounded the letters out.
Just as if I was a first grader again. Syllable by syllable.
Using the only method I knew how to attempt comprehension.
I wasn’t panicked or rushed. So I could be calm and just explore the letters and the sounds with my tongue.
I felt my head move side to side as my brain worked through the problem.
What is it?
I was inside myself and outside myself at the same time. Participant and observer.
I reminded myself of my 6 year old son.
I imagine, deep inside, I reminded myself of me.
6 year old me.
I figured it out!
I was alone in the car so there was no one to share my excitement with.
And yet, I could see my face.
I knew my face must have looked as accomplished as my son’s when he learns a new word. It’s a look I’m familiar with lately. It’s the look of success he beams after he reads by himself a Level 2 book in English.
He’s good with the 4- and 5-letter words. But struggles when the words have multiple syllables.
He stumbles, frustrated.
But then he stops. Breathes.
And slowly slowly, he tries to read the unrecognizable new word:
And this is what being an immigrant is like in a non-English speaking country when you’re not lost, not seeking a product in a pharmacy or in desperate need of a document from a government agent.
When you’re not feeling out-of-control, you can tap into that spirit — the good part about being a kid.