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Myth??? part 2; continued from above
'Language is power'|
Xinshu Zhao, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Journalism, took two years of intensive English language training before he come to the United States from China.
But when he landed at the airport in Minneapolis, that didn't help him much.
"My first conversation was with a telephone operator, and it didn't go very well," he said. "Somebody was supposed to meet me at the airport, but I couldn't find them, so I tried to call. I didn't know how the phone system worked here, and the phone ate all my coins. So I was really stuck. I finally figured out to dial 0 for the operator, but I couldn't get her to understand me. She got very frustrated with me. I kept saying 'add-RESS,' and she couldn't understand, and when she finally did she scolded me: 'You should say, 'ADD-ress!'
"When you can't communicate, the simplest things become very difficult."
Communicating in a world that operates almost exclusively in English -- and a little bit of Spanish -- is perhaps the most difficult obstacle many recently arrived Asian residents face.
"Language is power," said the Rev. David Park, pastor of the Korean Baptist Mission at North Chapel Hill Baptist Church. "It's how you connect with the people around you. The biggest challenge most people coming here face is learning English. Coming here in the first place is a very difficult adjustment, and not speaking the language makes it that much more difficult.
"Korean is a very different language. The word order is reversed. In Korean there's no subject -- the subject is assumed to be you -- and the verb comes last. When you learn English, you don't just learn the word; you also have to understand the way of thinking."
The language barrier is most difficult for people from nations that have small local populations, because they don't have a support network in place to help them.
"In that situation, people rely very heavily on anyone they can find who can communicate," Pham said. "If you're the only Vietnamese family in the area, and you find that one person who is a knowledgeable Vietnamese speaker and can also speak English, you hang on to them for dear life. If you've happened upon someone who's a good person, that's OK. But sometimes you find someone who is only too willing to exploit you."
Even those with some English training often find it difficult to communicate.
"No matter how much English you knew in India, when you first come here you won't understand," said Balwinder Bhupal, owner of Tandoor Indian Restaurant. "You can read, but the pronunciation is so different that understanding spoken English is hard. We learn English very grammatically, but most people in America don't speak grammatically."
"Professors in Korean universities might know some English, but it's academic English, and that's not much good in daily life," Park said. "You might be able to talk about nanotechnology, but that doesn't help if all you want is to go to McDonald's and say, 'I'd like a hamburger.'"
The flip side of learning English for some Asian residents, especially parents, is the desire to maintain the language and at least some of the cultural traditions of their country of origin.
"My daughter Connie speaks English exclusively at school and with her friends, but I want her to concentrate on Chinese at home," said Feng Ye, assistant academic director of the Chinese School of Chapel Hill. "She was born here. She's American. But I want her to know Chinese language and culture, too. I want her to consider herself first as an American, but I want to retain her Chinese heritage, too.
"It's a big challenge. She fought it at first. She rejected Chinese; the kids at school speak English, and she wanted to speak English, too. But her grandparents speak Chinese, and we speak Chinese, and eventually she came around. Now she loves it."
Families have various reasons for wanting to maintain the language and practices of their Asian heritage. For many, it's simply a conviction that those traditions are valuable in their own right. Others have more pragmatic reasons.
"Many people come here to study or work under arrangements with their companies or institutions, so they are only here for two or three years, and then they go back," said Yuki Aratake, a lecturer in Asian Studies at UNC. "They want to make sure their children don't lose their Japanese language while they are here."
"In the world today, it's quite helpful to have another language, other than Spanish or French," said Yu Lou, a member of the board of directors of the Chinese School of Chapel Hill. "It can be a great advantage when it comes time to find a job, especially an international or overseas job. If you're one of 100 candidates for a job, knowing how to speak Chinese could be a real benefit."
The struggle to keep cultural heritage alive amid the sound and fury of American culture can be a test.
"Kids grow up in the schools here, and yet parents want to keep some of their Chinese culture," said Da-Zhi Wang, an assistant professor in the Carolina Cardiovascular Biology Center at UNC. "Many Chinese parents get frustrated when their kids speak only English. That gets to be even more difficult when you have a third generation in the house, when grandparents come to visit.
"Many of us do hope they keep some of their Chinese heritage. We understand they grow up here, they attend school here, they are educated like American kids and their friends are American kids -- but we still hope they keep some of their Chinese heritage. It helps you stay connected with your family, and that's important."
Those ties with family, important though they are, can be difficult, too. Sunil Nagaraj, president of Sangam, the South Asian students organization at UNC, said one of the most difficult issues many of the students in the group face is negotiating the differences between the culture here and the one their elders embrace.
"How do you deal with arranged marriages, for example, when you're living in a culture that celebrates romantic marriage?" he said. "Most of our members were born here, but most of their parents were born in South Asia, mostly in India. So this group is the first to bridge that cultural gap. That can produce a lot of tension in some families.
"Arranged marriages are less prevalent than they used to be; maybe 25 percent of people want to continue to adhere to that, and the others don't. The best-case scenario is where you decide you're going to date, and your parents are fine with that. The worst-case scenario is where if you decide to date you have to keep it a secret at all costs, because your parents will disown you if they find out. It varies from person to person."
Adapting to a dramatically different culture can be jarring and traumatic, many Asian residents say -- especially for those who don't have friends or family already here. Many recently arrived residents may face isolation, loneliness and alienation -- feelings only exacerbated by language difficulties.
"The other big challenge to overcome is isolation," Park said. "That's a big problem for a lot of people. The language barrier can make it more difficult, but some people also use language as an excuse to stay isolated: 'I don't know the language, so I won't get involved in the community.' People coming to a new place tend to hide. They want to come here quietly and eventually leave quietly. And that's a shame, because so many of us have a such a rich, incredible culture, and it would be good for everyone to share that culture with the Chapel Hill community."
A residue of racism
It's more than a little ironic that residents of Asian descent have come to be seen as a model minority; for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Asians were considered so foreign and unassimilable that they were forbidden from settling in the United States in any significant numbers.
Many Asian residents will tell you that there remains, even in the 21st century, at least some residue of that sort of racism, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Three weeks ago, an Indian student wearing a turban was assaulted by three men on Franklin Street; the incident was reportedly sparked when one of the men called the victim "Osama bin Laden," and the suspects have been charged with ethnic intimidation.
Few incidents of racist or ethnic stereotyping go as far as physical assault. More commonly, residents of Asian origin find themselves subjected to subtler forms of racism.
"Occasionally you do face people with racial prejudice," said Judy Tseng, vice-president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Asian-American Professionals. "Often it's little things, done more out of ignorance than anything. My husband and I were at a function associated with his work, and one of his colleagues said, 'How did you learn to speak such fluent English?' And the thing is, my husband is fourth-generation Chinese American; his family has probably been in America longer than that guy's. Those kinds of things aren't really done with ill intent, but they come across as something of an affront. They make you feel like an outsider."