Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Minji and the American Dream

Minji is in America now.

You don't know Minji, but I do. She's a Korean friend I made over here. She's kind and patient and did a lot these past two years to help me understand Korean culture and how to find my way in it. She's twenty-six. She's newly married. She's scared. She's seeking the American dream, but she's never been there before, so she has no idea what she's getting herself into.

Two months ago, she came to my office at school and told me the news. I didn't know whether to be overjoyed or terrified. She seemed to feel the same way. "Hayder," she says (because that's how she says my name), "how can I survive in America? I am just a small, Asian girl. Will they listen to me?"

We've met regularly for "American culture" lessons ever since. She has a lot of fears about not understanding and not being understood. She speaks good English, but it's not always perfect. Her fear is reasonable. She asked me things like, "What do I do if I see a gun?" and "What is the word 'deductible'?" and "Is Craigslist a safe place?"

Here are a few things we've covered:
-Americans are bigger.
-Americans are louder.
-Strangers may smile and make "small talk"
-Strangers may make eye contact even if they don't know you
-Americans prefer a large amount of personal space
-People may talk fast and get frustrated with your English ability
-Some will be patient
-Some will be rude and tell you "You're in America now..."
-American health insurance sucks, expect to pay triple what you're paying now
-Only go to the hospital if it's a serious emergency
-Do not go to the doctor for a cold
-Fear the "co-pay"...
-If you see someone carrying a gun, don't assume they want to do you harm
-But don't be too passive either
-If a police officer turns on his/her lights, you should slowly pull to the right side of the road
-Do not get out of your car and do not raise your voice or show frustration
-Servers at restaurants will expect a tip (15-20%), yes, that's in addition to the cost of food
-No one will judge you for wearing a tank top
-It's common and acceptable to buy things used
-Americans tend to be informal and it's okay to use a person's first name
-If you need something, it's okay to ask even if the person is your elder
-If don't get what you ordered at a restaurant, it's okay to mention it
-Men may talk to you or make comments about your body
-And there's absolutely nothing you can do about it
-It's okay to throw tissue paper in the toilet

I think we learn the most about our own culture, by seeing it in comparison to another. I wouldn't have known these specific tips to tell Mini before I lived in Korea. Because only now do I understand, how Koreans are really afraid of gun violence in America, how terrible our health insurance is, and how rarely get pulled over by cops (everything is done with cameras).

And I want to save her from fear and humiliation and misunderstandings and racism and swindlers and ignorance, but I can't. She will be taken advantage of. She will be misunderstood. She will be judged by the color of her skin and her English pronunciation and it absolutely breaks my heart.

Somewhere in America right now, there is a woman finding her way.
She's about 5 foot 5.
So keep an eye out for her, because she needs you.

But Minji's not the only one.
There are more people.
And they've come to our country with hope.
And they've come here legally (for whom that matters).
And they're lost.
And alone.
And just trying to find their way.
And they may not speak great English, but you don't know how long they've been in America.
Maybe it's their 1st day.
Maybe it's their 28th day.
So give 'em a break.

When you see an immigrant, please help them.
Be patient and kind.
Because I've been that "foreigner".
And maybe some day you will be that "foreigner" too.
When you're at the breaking point and you feel lost and misunderstood, the kindness of strangers in a foreign land is enough to give you a little more hope.

You'll never regret helping a fellow human being find their way "home."