What is an American?
When I was about 18 years old, I went to college full time and worked full time as a cleaning woman. It was a hectic schedule, but I knew it would pay off eventually and I was lucky enough to have been awarded a Regents Scholarship, which paid my full tuition. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to go to college at all.
I worked with a couple of Mexican-American people and one lady from Viet Nam. She saw me reading books on breaks and lunch (or supper, really--I did a lot of evening work). She eventually made herself understood to me. She had a son who was 11 years old and in school, who was having trouble reading.
I liked working with this lady a lot. She seemed so tiny to me--only 4' 10" or so; very quick, very light on her feet, very deft with her hands and very helpful. At 5'9", I loomed over her. I must've seemed like a giantess to her. She'd sometimes tug on my sleeve and point to get me to reach something she couldn't reach. I thought that was cute.
The confluence of circumstances was right--I had recently seen, at the back of an Agatha Chriistie novel, a blurb for Literacy Volunteers. It said one third of adult Americans couldn't read! Holy Smoke! sez I. I should join Literacy Volunteers and DO something to help out with that situation. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't read--my life would be so small. I was thinking I'd postpone this good intention until after I finished college, but her son was 11 and couldn't wait three or four years, he needed help now.
So I joined Literacy Volunteers and began tutoring my cleaning colleague's son.
Literacy Volunteers gave us study materials, a place to meet, and some orientation and training on how to use the primers and set up assignments and so forth. I really had no idea how to teach someone--my major was Accounting and Business.
My lady and her son never, never, missed a lesson. They showed up faithfully for our one-hour-per-week session.
Her son was a wonderful student. He really focused; he really concentrated. I was also relieved that he could speak English much better than his mother. His mother might have the word to say inside her head, but she had sooooo much trouble making the sounds to say the word so it could be understood by an American. Her son had much less difficulty making himself understood. He was 11, and had only been in this country about a year, and the powers that be dunked him into the 6th grade at school. He could not read nor write one word of English.
His native written language was very different than ours. I gathered it was ideograms--little pictures that had a traditional resonant meaning that could be strung together to express a thought. I met some Vietnamese business people later on in my life that were trilingual from the time they were kids--they learned Vietnamese, French and English in school. So I don't know what part of Vietnam my Vietnamese people were from.
It was very tough sledding and we didn't seem to make too much progress for the first couple of months. I couldn't have asked for a better student. He had so much patience. He tried and kept trying. His concentration was so intense.
I audited an ESL (English as a Second Language) class at college to try to improve matters. I explained things to the professor, and he was SO helpful! People can be so good, so kind. He even gave us some extra study materials, FOR FREE! He advised me to keep hammering on the alphabet.
So we did. And it worked! The light bulb went on in my student's head. He made that magical connection between the shape of the letter, the sound of the letter, the sound of the word once you put the letters together, and what the word meant. After we got past that first block, the alphabet, my student made amazingly fast progress. Within about a year he caught up with his class. Within two years, he was at the head of his class.
I don't think I was any great shakes as a teacher. I don't think teaching really comes within the scope of my gifts. He only spent that one hour per week with me; he must have spent hours upon hours at home, working on reading, working on catching up with the schoolwork, and studying. After that first milestone was reached, I believe he mostly taught himself.
If you think we've gone off the subject here, we haven't.
I saw my young friend change from being a Vietnamese person to being an American of Vietnamese descent.
I kept on with him for about three years. I liked giving him books to read. (I'd cruise the used bookstores where you could by a perfectly good used book for a dime! How lucky we are!) I liked letting him practice his English on me.
I saw him start wearing jeans and T-shirts. I saw him start drinking Pepsi. I heard him start peppering his language with American slang he picked up at school. I saw him start trying for "cool". His mother was totally mystified.
He started to think like an American kid. I know he wanted to fit in with his peer group at school, but it was more than that. He started thinking in English, American English, not Vietnamese. He adopted our music (good ole rock 'n roll, judging by the T-shirts). He became Americanized, and not only in outward forms. There was something else, some other change. A change in attitude. My student became more free. His smile was less forced; his gestures were larger. His posture expressed less humility and more confidence.
He became an American.
America is melting pot of people with ancestral roots from all over the world; Europe, Asia, South America, Africa...many of us are naturalized citizens and weren't born here.
But we blend together. Somehow it works. Something is lost (for many of us, we retain only snippets of the heritage of the countries of our origins), but something is gained, too. America is the land of hope, dreams, and opportunities. You can dream big dreams in this country and if you have the strength and power of will, you can make them come true.
America is freedom to worship as you please, to move around and live where you please, to speak or write what you please.
America is equality; all people are created equal. We go by the premise that every human mind, body, heart and soul has an equal value and is entitled to equal opportunities. It is illegal to discriminate against a person based on gender, age, race, religion, or national origin in this country.
We lose many of the traditions of our cultural and ethnic roots along the way, but we gain the power to invent our own lives as we go along. We are not proscribed by the circumstances of our births, because we are Americans.
That's why Europeans think the words "American Culture" are an oxymoron. American culture seems completely incoherent to someone from a country encased in centuries of homogenous tradition.
What we have, instead of fixed traditions, is the belief in our freedoms and powers as individuals to realize any goal, to achieve any success, given time and hard work and good hard thinking.
I wouldn't trade being an American for the world, myself.
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