Philippines, Panama, and ESL

“Of course that’s all I had to say, and I could go home and tell my parents about how clever and American I was.” – The Butterfly, by Joan Reginaldo

The thing about Immigration is that it’s an ongoing process. It’s not bookended by a “leaving” and “arriving.” Once arrived, the process of acclimation can be a huge undertaking. Some people either can’t or won’t undertake it and rely on their children or relatives or same-culture neighbors to insulate them from the culture of the new place. For children who immigrate when they are too young to understand what’s happening, the process of acclimation can be difficult and made more so by ignorance from every side. Immigration is a limbo for the culturally disowned, the culturally unclaimed.

But let me be specific so what I’m talking about isn’t statistics and numbers and some nebulous thing. You probably know me or you’re getting to know me through Twitter, my stories, or this blog. For this post, let me put a face on a politician’s “talking point”. Let me humanize a numbers issue.

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Parents can say they’re immigrating to America for a chance at A Better Life.

Usually, they don’t ask their kids. Sometimes the kids are too small to understand. Sometimes the method of immigration is questionable. There are many reasons, one outcome.

For most of the time in the Philippines, my brother and I were raised by nannies and our maternal grandparents. This is secondhand news told to me by my grandmother. Specifically, I have a vivid memory of her chasing me around the dining room table yelling, “Your mama is never coming back for you!”

She was right. My mother never came back for us. She sent for us. My brother and I were shipped to San Jose, California. I was…five, I think. My brother, eleven.

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I remember arriving at the airport and thinking, “Everyone is so pale.”

Then our parents picked us up. We would live in a new home. We would go to a new school. Nothing else memorable happened until about a year later. All of us kids were reading quietly and the teacher picked a few of us and had us line up a few feet away from her desk. A wooden desk with a white blotter, apple-knicknacks, and one of those pull-out shelves in case you needed extra writing space.

On this shelf, the teacher would lay a piece of paper down in front of a kid and something would happen. We were too far from her desk, I couldn’t hear anything except the murmur of the few kids around me and the whisper of fingers on pages.

Then it was my turn. The teacher exchanged the paper before me with a new one from her pile. It was just a list of random words. I don’t remember any of them except one near the last, for a reason I’ll reveal shortly.

The teacher said I just had to say the list of words as she moved a bookmark under them. I remember feeling that it was a strange task. I was uneasy because I couldn’t see why I had to do it, and she didn’t explain why, and it didn’t fit into any “learning” category I’d encountered before; this was not science or math or music.

The words were easy. I’d had some schooling in the Philippines, and my grandpa was the Principal of one of the area’s schools. Nightly, he would read to me from a book of fairy tales written in English.

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Then the teacher’s bookmark slid down and revealed a word I wasn’t familiar with. I remember staring at it, trying it out in my head, then in my mouth. I’d seen a very similar word on maps, and had heard that similar word pronounced a few times in discussions among adults of my household in the Philippines. Since the Philippines was once an American territory, and since some relatives had been “involved” with Americans, and since some cousins might have had American blood at that point, we were very interested in American issues. Including an issue with something called the Panama Canal.

The word wasn’t Panama.

It was pajama.

Which I proceeded to pronounce as PAH-ja-ma. The same rhythm and syllable emphasis as Panama.

Out of a list of at least 30 words (It took up the entire length of a normal sheet of paper), I got the pronunciation of one word wrong.

And rather than explain to me what the significance of that was, rather than ask me outright if I knew English, I was taken out of my class each day to spend a significant amount of time “learning English” with other ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

(I knew English. Since the Philippines had once been an American territory, English was practically our national language. Students in my hometown were taught in English. I also spoke and understood two dialects of Filipino languages.)

We ESL students were isolated from the rest of our classes. Yes, classes. There were multiple grades in that room. Older, bigger kids. We sat there not knowing what we had done wrong, only feeling that there was something inherently wrong with us. We were missing vital time in our respective classrooms. And I don’t remember much of our ESL sessions, only long moments, perhaps entire session times, of listlessly sitting at a desk watching a woman sit at her own desk while she read something on her table. If there was any actual teaching that happened, it was insignificant. The most significant thing I remember from that class was a deep and resounding silence which only reminded me of the loss of everything familiar: my old home, my old culture, and my grandfather.

In retrospect, the irony is that the ESL program is supposed to close the achievement gap between English language speakers and English Language Learners (ELL), but that’s impossible if the child must leave his or her primary classroom, leaving behind the benefit of learning with peers. It’s also impossible to learn a spoken language in silence.

I don’t know if my parents were asked or informed of this ESL chicanery, but I can imagine how difficult it must be for some immigrant parents to approach an American teacher, how difficult and maybe impossible it is to talk about immigration in the first place, seeing as how the wrong words could lead to shattered families.

Now I’m seeing it from a parent’s point of view. My 5yo son’s teacher has asked me a few times what language we speak at home (English), because Grimlock barely speaks in class (he’s shy). I’m glad for these questions, but how could I have answered them if I was in a different situation. What could I have said to get Grimlock the help he needs, or to get across that he doesn’t need that kind of help. What if I couldn’t say such things for fear of repercussions?

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Fortunately during these days, the schools seem to be more sensitive to different ESL needs, more inclusive of community, more transparent in techniques. In the right locations, being an immigrant child isn’t as isolating and fearful as it once was. The key phrase, though, is right location. I wish I could say my story is form a bygone and ignorant era but I fear it’s not. From the comments I see on social media, the focus of Immigration remains tight on the point of arrival. It’s easy to lose sight of the smallest details, the ones who absolutely need the most help.


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