Graphic by Snigdha Barua.
Culture shock is prominent among immigrant children.
Books with characters that are relatable to immigrant children can help them adjust.
Through the help of peers and teachers, first-generation students can overcome barriers.
“You don’t speak much, you’re very lajuk*, right?”
“Oh, she doesn’t understand you, she only nods.”
“Oh, I thought you said dead, did not hear dad.”
“The accent, where is that even from?”
When I first started school in the United States, I was in the second grade. In many ways I was ahead of everybody else: I had great handwriting, I could do long division, and I even read Bengali kobitas* for fun.
I had exceeded expectations at everything except the very thing that would help me showcase my great second-grader skills: English.
When I spoke English, my “A’s” were “Aaahs,” and my “Z’s” were “Zeds.” Because my Bangladeshi primary school taught introductory English phrases, when I spoke at school I only said “how are you” and “I am fine, thank you.”
In fourth grade, I was in a special English Language Arts (ELA) course because for a fourth-grader, I read like a second-grader. This class was designed specifically for those who struggled with “reading benchmarks.”
When my ELA teacher found out about my migration, he gave me the book Esperanza Rising because Esperanza too had been a victim of “second-grader reading skills.” She too had immigrated to the U.S. for an equal chance, she too had to begin anew.
While Esperanza faced responsibility, I faced loneliness, and we both faced a great ordeal — culture shock.
From attitudes to clothes, this was real and it was everywhere.
Differences and separation
“Sorry, I know you’re not used to being here
in Bangladesh. You’re a Bideshi* now.
Ha! You’ll definitely be someone,
especially with all that exoticness. Ha!”
No, I don’t speak much, I am not confident
with my words nor with my new sound.
No, You did not have to point that out.
I wasn’t aware of it, now I feel like I should keep quiet.
No, I don’t like it here because you keep
separating me. I feel Bangali* more than ever.
No, I look like every other Desi*, you should
expand your horizons more for I am only Desi.
One of the first things I noticed was how Americans expressed what is classified as good manners. “Thank you” and “please” are commonly used here, while in Bangladesh I never had to say “thank you” to show my appreciation. In Bangladesh, we never used these phrases with strangers and definitely not with family. Our appreciation did not need to be explicitly stated.
Another major factor that sort of confined me is clothing. The idea of “modest clothing” is so disparate between the cultures that I, even to this day, have arguments over my clothes with my ma.
As I dealt with these differences, I decided that I would become a fourth-grade reader by the end of the year because I wanted to relate to Esperanza. She adapted to her new impoverished and laborious life while holding onto her traditions from back in Mexico.
“Do not be afraid to start over,” Esperanza’s abuelita said.
I accomplished my goal and I even secured a place in the school’s only accelerated fifth-grade class. Of course, to achieve this, I engulfed myself in reading books such as “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Bud, Not Buddy,” “Hatchet,” and “Holes,” a personal favorite. I found myself determined to be as efficient in the English language as possible, and as a result, I found a passion for reading.
When I started sixth grade, I was in the best classes at middle school. I quickly became the smart one because this time I not only knew the slope-intercept formula, but I had great spelling skills!
I picked up new ways to say “how are you” and “I am fine, thank you”… though incorrect pronunciation still lingered. With this self-consciousness, I entered high school.
Poly High School’s PACE pathway made me self-aware of how foreign my accent was to my PACE peers, many of whom do not share experiences like my own. This feeling never really goes away because even in my senior year, I feel quite uncomfortable sharing my thoughts in class.
I fear that what I have to say is not going to be understood by my peers. I fear that my grammar and pronunciation will deter them from considering my insights.
This English language barrier that stands before me? I don’t think I will part ways with it.
In fact, I would like to keep it. It reminds me that I am both Bengali and American.
I look like every other Desi, maybe
with a new tone, but I am still Desi.
No! I understood that, please don’t
disregard. I just speak Benglish.
As schools are closed due to COVID-19, students struggle to keep up with the transition to online classes. The Long Beach Unified School District has made effective decisions regarding how to proceed with our education.
As a student in their senior year, I can say that it is not easy to stay positive during this time. The learning of students who are learning English as a second language, as I once was, will undoubtedly be interrupted by the disconnection from English speakers. Although I did not face this same issue while I was first learning, I hope that the tips below will be helpful to you, as they have been for me.
- If available, use the internet to learn new vocabulary with apps like Duolingo.
- Listen to music in English.
- Watch TV shows in English with subtitles in the language you are most comfortable with.
- Reach out to family and friends who are proficient English speakers.
- Read books in English, you can use Google Books or other online resources via the public library.
- Watch YouTube videos or listen to audiobooks in English.
*Translations from Bengali to English
Kobitas- Bengali poetry
Bangali– Bengali (ethnicity)
Desi– a person of Bangladeshi, Indian, or Pakistani birth