Because I Thought I Knew


My mom is an immigrant.

I didn't know that until I started school. To me, she was just my mom. Through the years I have often wondered what her experience in the United States has been like from her immigrant lens. My perception of her experience is created from the encounters I have had with her and because of her. As you might imagine, not all Americans are nice. (Huge understatement, I know.) I've had my share of times when I had to "prove" that she was my mother because she looks Asian and I, for the most part, do not. And of course there were the times when her accent was too challenging for average people to take the time to listen well but who would demand patience all around if their voices weren't heard. Naturally, I was always ready to stick-up for her - because she's my mom and because I love her. That affinity spilled over to my encounters with other Asian immigrants. I had patience and I tried to listen well.

I worked in the registrar's office of a local community college. This was during the time when students had to register for classes in person. There was never a madder house than the first week of school when lines traveled down the long hallway and outside to the courtyard. One night, two Asian women came to my window together. One of them told me in her best broken English that their English as a Second Language Instructor asked her to bring her classmate in to register. I smiled and thanked her and asked her to ask her classmate if she had ever been to the college before. She smiled back at me and nodded enthusiastically. Then she turned to her classmate and said, "Haaave...yooou...evvveer...beeeen...heeeere...beeefffooore?"

Wow! It never dawned on me that they didn't speak the same non-English language. What a lesson for me! All those years of being sensitive and compassionate made me too comfortable in what I thought I knew. We did laugh about it that night. I apologized for my error. And I obviously never forgot it.

What I thought I knew about the immigrant experience back then cannot fully educate me about today's immigrant experience. I often think of that night (smiling) to remind me not to assume that my own (limited) understanding is sufficient. What we think we know about someone else's experience will always pale in comparison to what their true experience is. Maybe we should take the time (be patient) and listen - be willing to have a conversation and to not be afraid to learn something.


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