Thursday, December 18, 2014

Inside an Immigrant's Thought Process

It is really hard to get inside the head of someone functioning in a second language. I know this because it is my everyday reality, in contrast to the people around me!

I like to think of America as this place where anyone can settle down and lead a normal life, even someone arriving as an adult. But I realize that's a bit of an illusion. You never know what's happening behind someone's accent. And because receptive and expressive language acquisition can be different, you never know how intelligent someone is behind the accent...or how much of the conversation he/she is missing, while appearing to function as a native speaker.

Earlier today I was reading a novel about a Chinese student who came to the U.S. on exchange for grad school. She ends up being befriended by Christians and coming to faith...that's sort of the main plot, but I found myself thinking more about the logistics. The author did a good job of portraying some of the cultural nuances: tipping in restaurants, showing hospitality, etc. But I analyzed a lot of other aspects of what was going on. For example, how did the main character adjust to working in the university's dining hall? Did she know all the correct terminology related to washing dishes, etc.? Though the book is told from the heroine's point of view and we know her thoughts, I kept wondering what she sounded like when she spoke. Did she have a strong accent? Did she speak softly, or confidently? Did people respond to her differently than to a native speaker?

This fall marked 10 years since I moved to Russia! I am definitely "used to" living in a foreign country, but it is still a huge adjustment moving somewhere in adulthood. I'm sure my thought process is still so different from the average Russian' least in how I react to my environment. The other day I was checking out a few American news headlines and was struck by how I don't even read/watch the local news! Andrei does, and I wondered what different experiences we're having with processing what's going on in the world.

Meanwhile, there are certain areas where I still feel inept. Last week I was sick, and one night I lay awake knowing I needed to go to the doctor but being terrified of what was going to happen. I feel better now, but the site where I had blood drawn still has a huge, unsightly bruise. I don't know if it was a case of miscommunication or incompetence, but...ouch!

Anyway, part of the reason I'm bringing this up is that assessing my own perspective in turn makes me really curious about others. It is so commonplace to see migrant workers cleaning our stairwell, for instance. What's their story? We have some things in common and then some pretty big differences.

I'd better post this before it gets stuck in drafts purgatory...just wanted to share.


  1. I was just reading a book called "Murder in Amsterdam" and it relates to Muslims living in the Netherlands, and especially Turkish and Moroccans. These people groups are lowest in the eyes of Dutch people, especially immigrants.
    I'm curious how my thought process as an American immigrant is different from those who have come from other lands for reasons other than makes me want to continue Dutch lessons in my home city in order to encounter not-so-affluent expats (as in, not my colleagues at an int'l school)! What differences do you observe between yourself and other immigrants not from First World countries?

  2. At the Immigration Office we are all in the same boat except that many escaped worse conditions and depend on staying here for their livelihood. Obviously that is not the case with me. Prejudice certainly exists, and their coloring/clothing often gives them away, while I can blend in. I know there are ministries to help them, and people distribute Bibles in those languages. I've never delved into it very far.


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