The Intolerance of Immigrants by Strangers

As an immigrant, I’ve somewhat experienced an ‘otherness’, due to my initial accent in English, while living here. It’s been pretty much eradicated over the years, but it never fails to remind me that I am straddled between two worlds — being an immigrant, and yet, being a sort-of-native all at the same time.

(Photograph I took while in Paris, having a hot chocolate)

The other day when I was buying TTC tokens, there was a Chinese lady in front of me. She asked the TTC operator a simple question in somewhat broken, but still understandable English:

I am going to go do X, will I be able to return and use my transfer to re-enter the station?

The answer to that is: No. TTC rides are one-way only.

(If you leave the station completely to do something personal, or you try and use your transfer to go back in the direction you came by using the buses or streetcars on the street, you have to pay a second time to take the trip back home. I have never heard of being able to get a free ride back into the station with a receipt from an office)

The operator, not understanding her question, told her to go upstairs and get a receipt (WTF?).

I was confused at the answer as well, because I knew that it was a one-way-one-ride rule for the transit.

The Chinese woman repeated her question again, obviously asking for clarification as she didn’t understand why she would need a receipt (??) to re-enter the station, and the operator repeated her same answer, but only louder in a more irritated tone.

Two ladies (well, I don’t really want to call one a ‘lady’, seeing as how she acted), came down and seeing the exchange, tried to physically push past me, to buy a tokens, saying to me:

LOOK, are you going to go through OR NOT?!!??

She was beyond rude.

Just that alone, made me want to turn and snap:

BACK OFF, and don’t you dare shove me again. *snarl* *hiss*

However, I was too involved in trying to make sure that Chinese lady knew where to go and what to do, even though I don’t speak a word of Chinese.

I tried to tell the lady that the answer to her question was ‘No’, and the operator started yelling at the Chinese lady again.

I almost wanted to tell the operator that speaking LOUDER was not going to help someone understand better (a common complaint amongst natives in other countries who don’t speak English).

(Photograph I took of a beach in Key West, Florida)

Then the rudest thing of all happened…..

The witch who was trying to push past me, said:

It’s so goddamn clear what she has to do. Why the hell can’t she just go and do it?

I turned to her and said:

I don’t think she spoke English very well.

Although to clarify, the Chinese lady understood what the operator was saying, but not the meaning of the words, because even I was confused, and English is my mother tongue.

Her friend behind her, repeated the same thing almost at the same time I did.

Then she snapped back:

Well she should go get a translator or someone who can goddamn speak English for her.

I turned and I wanted to basically give the witch a tongue lashing, but her friend stopped me with a glance saying:

I’ll take care of this.

Then her friend started to tell the witch off:

I would NEVER be so rude to someone like that, that is just INCREDIBLE.

We aren’t even late for anything, there’s not reason to be like that.

The witch had absolutely not remorse whatsoever, and kept saying:

WELL IT’S TRUE. If you come to this country, you should speak the language!

At this, I really wanted to say to her (and I regret I didn’t):

I’d like to see you go to any other country in the world [save for the obvious English-speaking countries] and be able to speak THEIR native language there perfectly.

Heck, just hop over to Quebec in Canada and see how you like it when you don’t know what is going on.

Oh, what? You don’t speak French? Or Spanish? Or Portuguese? Or Mandarin?

…and the natives of other countries should accomodate you by speaking English?

Then STFU!!!

KNOWING THE LANGUAGE IS ESSENTIAL, BUT DON’T BE AN ASS

I may say a lot of things, like how I feel English is the language of business and that everyone should learn it to compete globally, but as an immigrant I am sensitive to such rudeness and ignorance, even though English is my mother tongue.

Furthermore, as a tourist for whom almost every foreign country except the English-or-French speaking ones is a country where I don’t know the language, I know first-hand what it’s like to NOT speak the language and to feel totally rejected by one or two bad apples who get mad because you don’t speak their language.

I am still in shock over what happened. I can’t believe people like that exist. I’d love to throw them into someplace really shocking like China or Japan and make them realize how ridiculous they are.

It can even go further than that. This Montreal STM (metro) operator beat up a woman because she was speaking in English, not in French. She told her to: Go back to her country.

Mina Barak, 23, told CBC News that Monday’s incident at the De La Savane métro station began when an Opus machine took her money but did not provide transit tickets.

Barak said she asked for help, in English, from the STM ticket-booth employee. A dispute erupted. The agent told her to “go back to your country” and “in Quebec, we can only speak French,” Barak said. [Presumably, the operator said all of this in English]

She said she immediately called the STM and filed a complaint, returning to the booth to advise the employee, who was knitting. She said she told the agent: “I’m going to make sure you’re going to lose your job for what you said to me.”

At that point, Barak said, the employee “got out of the booth and she literally had me in a headlock and she was just punching me.”

Jamie Salomon, who happened to be leaving the station when the incident occurred, said the ticket agent “came out of the kiosk, slammed the door and started wailing on” Barak, repeatedly punching her. Salomon said he called 911 and started pounding on a turnstile and yelling in an attempt to stop the fight.

Another man intervened, managing to pull Barak out of the grips of the agent, who was “completely enraged and acting like an insane, violent maniac,” Salomon added.

It is one thing to not know the language, and to not be able to literally answer someone who is speaking a language you don’t understand, but it’s wholly another to be bilingual and to REFUSE to help and be completely out of line by beating them up.

Or to make a poor little boy cry over $0.10 by threatening to call the police on him.

The French-speaking ticket-taker, a woman in her 50s, seemed frustrated with the boy as he was speaking English, he said. 

He said she told him that “the next time you show up here with a bunch of coins, I’m going to call the police on you.” 

At that point, the boy got upset and started to cry. Security guards watching nearby approached him and asked him if he was okay.

As an Anglophone, I definitely experience some lukewarm form of this in Quebec, but I am hoping I will get better and better at French as I practice, although I must say I’m concerned I will offend people by not being able to understand their Quebecois accent.

Not all Quebecois folk are like that. Look at Vanessa! She’s a Quebecoise, and is not at all like that.

Update: She says I’m assuming she’s nice, but I told her she’s MY kind of nice :)

NATIVE SPEAKERS ARE NOT NECESSARILY ABLE TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE EITHER

Frankly, I am not even sure native speakers know their own language that well.

How many times have you read simple misspellings, or grammatical mistakes from people who are so-called college-educated?

Your. You’re.

There. Their. They’re.

Heal. Heel.

Where. Were.

Expected. Excepted. Accepted.

A lot. Not alot, it’s two words.

We’re all strangers who don’t know the language (perhaps even our own), somewhere in the world. A little tolerance would go a long way for immigrants who are trying.

26 Comments

  1. Posted December 21, 2012 at 2:16 am by Revanche | Permalink

    First, there’s “nice” and there’s “civilized”. I’m not nice (sweet and darling, unless professionalism calls for some vague version of that, or the elderly or whatever are involved) but I don’t act like a galled rampaging beast of a burden either.

    The latter is how many of these people act.

    Second, for some reason, treating other people AS people seems to be an unfathomable concept when it comes to language, ethnicity, and culture. So much so that the idea of causing them pain and instigating violence apparently seems to be the logical go-to. SMH. Honestly. The very idea that that could possibly be them in those shoes is also inconceivable. And I think that’s part of the problem. They must be incredibly small-minded, else couldn’t they for a second think forward to trying to travel somewhere and wanting to be (actually) HELPED by someone who may or may not speak their language but who is willing to empathize and try to communicate anyway?

    And as you say, not even these self righteous native speakers are uniformly any good at their native language – they’re usually poorly educated and their verbal language skills reflect this.

    So seriously, at the end of the day, no matter how hard or crappy your day or life feels, is it worth going out of your way, no matter how small a step it was to take, to make someone else’s day miserable too?

    People like that are kind of why I’m not a fan of people. There are too many of them. But it was surprisingly in NY where I discovered quite a lot of friendly people, on public transit even! But I speak perfectly fine English and that might have something to do with it. I didn’t always, when I was *most* bilingual (when my other language skills were best) my English was slightly accented or didn’t sound perfectly Americanized. Long story long: ugh. Agreed.

    • Posted December 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      Personally I think everyone should travel a little to a country where it all looks like gibberish to you and try to see it from another perspective.
      When I am here, I expect some semblance of the English or French language otherwise I can’t communicate, but just TRYING is enough for me to respond. I know just how it feels to not be understood.
      Frustration happens on both sides.

      That woman was really a pill.

  2. Posted December 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm by Nicole D | Permalink

    well said – a little tolerance and patience, such a simple courtesy – yet so lacking these days

    • Posted December 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      I may say and think a lot of things such as in regards to people who are rude for no reason (see Wed post), but there is a minimum I think some are all lacking.
      I can only believe in karma and justice that she will get (or is already getting) what is coming to her.
      You get back what you put out.

  3. Posted December 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

    Oooo comedy!!!!

    Well it is an interesting point you brought up because all of our ancestors were immigrants to the US and Canada unless we are Native North Americans!!!! :)
    It is also the other point I forgot to mention in the post but wish I had reminded her of that fact.

  4. Posted December 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm by Anne @ Unique Gifter | Permalink

    *twitch* I know the Metro experience, haha. Even when I’m attempting to speak French. Well done with the interjection, it’s often one of those situations where I wish I had spoken up later and then get mad at myself. Too bad the witch didn’t also hear the operator providing a confusing response.

    • Posted December 21, 2012 at 3:34 pm by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      Oh she did hear it, and COMPLIMENTED her on being clear even though it made no sense to me or the other lady.

  5. Posted December 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm by Budget & the Beach | Permalink

    I loathe people like that. I’m glad her friend stepped in though. Those in glass houses…I’m human and occasionally mess up and have typos and spellings errors, but I’m certainly not going to criticize anyone else for making a mistake. As a collective, we all need just a little more compassion to make this world a better place.

  6. Posted December 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm by Pauline | Permalink

    I thought you were from Canada and your BF was French, I had no idea you were an immigrant. I speak good Spanish with a South American accent and had a very rude flight attendant from Iberia correct me for not saying the proper Spanish name for a blanket in the plane. Had I asked in English she would have obliged without a word but they seem to hate Latin Americans for some reason. I should have replied in French (my mother tongue) instead but I was so shocked there were no words coming out of my mouth. I try to write English as well as I can and cringe at those spelling errors. Than and then is a frequent one too. But my English is not perfect either and I would never correct people in a rude way. I love when people point my mistakes and help me progress but assuming everyone should speak your language perfectly and making fun of you if you don’t? Pure hateful intolerance.

    • Posted December 22, 2012 at 1:10 am by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      I am an immigrant, and English is my mother tongue :) My kids will be first-generation Canadians.

      My BF *is* from France, born and raised there, and also an immigrant to Canada.

      I think it’s ridiculous to be corrected all the time, and that flight attendant should have let it go unless she didn’t understand the word itself.

      I’d take it as a compliment though… you spoke it so well, she didn’t realize you weren’t Spanish, perhaps?

      Although now that I speak French, I find a lot of French people can’t help themselves in correcting others…. It’s perhaps a cultural thing because it’s SO HARD to learn the French language, that they feel the need to help others who are making mistakes and struggling, even if it can be perceived as being a bit bossy by others.

      I personally like it when BF tells me: It’s Le, not La… then I have to write it down and memorize what it is. Otherwise, I’ll never learn, and I’ll keep calling something La instead of Le.

      English-speaking folk however, don’t seem to really correct others who make mistakes unless it’s a grave error and they should never repeat it again (something dirty, or insulting). We tend to let it slide because we’re just thrilled people speak English…

      • Posted December 22, 2012 at 10:35 pm by Pauline | Permalink

        The flight attendant thought I was Guatemalan, I do speak with no accent, but the attitude was like “in Spain, you don’t call it a quilt, you call it a blanket, how do you expect me to learn all Spanish speaking’s way to call a blanket”. The French are really bossy at correcting people, and the best at assuming that because you said “bonjour”, they don’t need to speak slowly or choose basic words for you to understand. I enjoy being corrected but in a friendly way.

  7. Posted December 21, 2012 at 4:36 pm by CorianneM | Permalink

    That sounds so horrible. I mean, even if you are for the long-term in a country, it doesn’t follow that people can speak the language that well. I have lots of classmates who are trying to learn Dutch, but the problem is, us Dutch people almost always immediately switch to English once they notice a person is not native. We’re a little too accommodating, according to some of my classmates… they think it’s incredibly frustrating Dutch people keep speaking English to them!

    But, yes, I’ve had my fair share of being in countries where I don’t understand a thing. And I speak several languages. I was in South-Korea, and that all looks like total gibberish. Lost my way to the hostel the first night there, but when I asked two Korean people on the street, they were so incredibly nice! They didn’t know the street I was talking about, but they found it on Google Maps on their phone and then they drew a map for me on a piece of paper :) or when in Riga, Latvia, tried to get some information on where to get off the bus. The lady selling tickets was over 50 (or so I’m guessing), and even though with younger people we could use German or English, she was unable to answer our question. But she was very nice and helpful and just asked a random young girl on the bus to translate and with the help of that girl we got our question answered where to get off the bus.

    Long story short, there are enough nice people in the world. Don’t despair!

    (I have a suspicion it’s people at information desks at public transport that can be totally incompetent.

    Example: I just moved to a new city and I was going to take the metro. Next train was in 7 minutes or so, and I didn’t know when the last metro left from the central train station. There was a guy sitting at the information desk, and so I thought: hey, I can just ask him quickly, instead of trying to find it on my smartphone. He gave me an answer of 4 minutes, and still I had no clue when the last metro left the CENTRAL TRAIN STATION of the city. I ended up looking it up myself on my phone. That is a person who works at the information desk! Am I totally stupid for thinking they can *actually* give me information? I guess I am.)

    • Posted December 22, 2012 at 1:12 am by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      We don’t really need to know language when we travel. I noticed that in China. I don’t speak a WORD of Chinese, and we just gestured our way through everything, using fingers for numbers and miming out actions. We did just fine.

      Oh I know there are plenty of lovely people in the world. The majority of folks are REALLY nice in general, but there’s always a rotten apple lurking about to spoil the batch.

      I find it is also the case in Quebec when I was learning French. I was struggling hard to try and remember the words, and the girl just switched to English to accomodate me, as she was perfectly bilingual :)

  8. Posted December 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm by Caitlin | Permalink

    I love this post! I have experienced many similar racism. I would like to say this is due to ignorance, but I have seen it even in folks who are highly educated. In B-school I commented that an event that relied on the international students the most happened to be right before finals, when we had classes that required heavy reading, etc. I said that I thought the timing of the event should have considered that and the response I received was “if they can’t keep up because English is their second language, then they shouldn’t be here.” Seriously?!?

    Too bad English isn’t even the national language in the United States. We officially don’t have one and the only time we *almost* had one, it was for German, not English.

    • Posted December 22, 2012 at 1:16 am by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      That is harsh!!! They should have taken that into account.

      I will admit that it does irk me a little when international students come to learn in a country, and to speak the language (English) perfectly by the time they leave, but they refuse to socialize with English-speaking classmates! And we generally only speak one language, so it’s easy to pick it up with us, to learn slang and so on, unlike the
      very accommodating Dutch (see reader response above by Corianne) :)

      These international kids stick to their own countryfolk, which I understand to an extent — familiarity, easy-to-communicate, same cultural knowledge and so on — but the whole point of their parents paying double tuition for them to be in Canada for instance, is to learn English so when they go back to work in their own country, they have a head start.

  9. Posted December 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm by PK | Permalink

    “NATIVE SPEAKERS ARE NOT NECESSARILY ABLE TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE EITHER”

    Ha, you added too many caveats. The vast majority of native English speakers have some issues with translating that speaking to writing – and the average vocabulary isn’t that huge. Still, English is a weird language when you get down to it, with lots of tense changes and weird conjugations – not to mention we stole our words from all the languages before us. Not the easiest one to learn!

    • Posted December 22, 2012 at 1:16 am by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      True :) BF always tells me that things don’t make sense to him.

      “In a bus” versus “On the bus”… because in French, to be “on the bus”, is to LITERALLY be on top of the bus …

  10. Posted December 21, 2012 at 9:46 pm by Bridget | Permalink

    I try to be sympathetic because I understand how painful language barriers can be (travelling in Germany was extremely challenging and I was making a SINCERE effort but my German is horrendous). It’s exhausting and people dismiss you so rapidly. I have to interact with a lot of people for whom English is not their first language. I pay attention to see if they’re understanding, and if they’re not, I try to sub in different words or explain as I’m going along but not in a rude way that’s patronizing (ie. “I’m going to review this, that means I will read it again for you”). When you’re learning a new language you start off with the most basic terms, so sometimes in simple conversation it’s difficult to figure out how big their vocabulary is. There is absolutely no justification to be rude to someone when they are working so hard to accommodate you and speak to you in your language.

    • Posted December 22, 2012 at 1:20 am by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      Good point — one thing to correct others, another to be patronizing. People need to travel to understand that.

      Anyway, what did that metro lady have to do other than help people? It’s her DAMN JOB!!!!! I would think it would break up the monotony of sitting in a booth and staring at people from behind a glass.

      The good thing about being in Europe, is they tend to all speak a second, third, and/or fourth language so it’s a bit easier than let’s say in North America where it’s mostly English, then Spanish or French in some parts.
      In the grandes ecoles in France, they have to speak French perfectly (no mistakes allowed, not even a teensy error), learn English for a mandatory second language, AND pick up a third language (usually German).

      No. Joke.

      I wish we had more of a culture here to promote that, although I think the stats have been rising for those who are bilingual households now. Without a doubt, my kids will learn French and English perfectly, if it kills me….

  11. Posted December 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm by MelD | Permalink

    Childish and ignorant behaviour.
    I frequently find myself aghast that North Americans should consider themselves “free” or to have expectations like this in language when they a) nearly all came from somewhere else b) appear to have neither concept of or respect for foreign languages and c) so many incredibly stupid, restrictive and backward laws and attitides…
    Europe is not perfect but it’s one helluva lot more sensible!

  12. Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:53 am by Allison @InsomniacLabRat | Permalink

    I haven’t had much experience traveling to a country where I didn’t speak the language, but I have had a lot of practice trying to help people who don’t speak English fluently! In elementary and middle school I was usually “assigned” to a Japanese student in my class to help out once I finished my class work (since I was always done quickly). They all learned really quickly, but it was still a lot of practice. In college I had an international student as a roommate, and although her English was really good, there were still things she needed help understanding.

    Now, in grad school, I have a ton of international classmates (and labmates) so I still constantly find myself helping people with grammar and word selection. Our city has a large population of non-English speakers as well, so from time to time I help people with directions on busses and stuff.

    It makes me SO mad when i hear exchanges like what you described. Fortunately, I don’t hear it a lot, but it isn’t hard to be a decent human being and TRY to help.

    To turn it around, though, it also makes me really mad when international students criticize me rudely for not being able to speak THEIR language. English is the only language I’m fluent in, but I’m also conversational in Spanish. I used to know a little French and a little Japanese, but those have mostly been lost by years of non-use. I know that’s not as much as what many international students speak, but much as I would like to learn another language, it’s not a priority, and frankly, there isn’t much reason for me to take the time to do so right now. I have no immediate plans to travel to, nor work in China (for example), so while I make a strong effort to learn the correct pronunciation of peoples’ names…sometimes I don’t remember quite right. I can count 4 different times when an international student has made fun of my poor pronunciation (and not in a joking way- one called me a stupid, ignorant American), when I’ve helped the same student with English at least once.

  13. Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm by Vanessa | Permalink

    ARGH! I hate when this happens! I have always had a soft spot for immigrants and seriously go out of my way to help them (this was before I worked in immigration actually… it’s intensified since). Most immigrants are seriously AWESOME and brave in ways that we can’t imagine and for people to act so rudely and obnoxiously towards them really gets my goat.

    Re the QC thing: We have an organization that fights for English minority rights because it’s getting so bad…

  14. Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:03 am by Ispasiyo | Permalink

    I so agree with you! I immigrated to the states in 2008, then to Canada early 2012 so I know what it’s like to be an immigrant (although English has always been my 2nd language) and see how less fluent immigrants are being treated.
    Funny thing is, in 2008 I moved to the part of Texas that was right next to the Mexican boarder. So more than speaking in English, I had to learn conversational Spanish to work anywhere! I remember the first few weeks I worked for a doctor’s office, patients or the patients’ relatives would often get frustrated with me whenever I couldn’t properly express myself in Spanish (I’d imagine my Spanish grammar was just horrible). But I felt like it was an unfair expectation because I had done my part by learning English AND Spanish, knowing that I was going to live in a border town. And these are immigrants that have been living in the States for years BUT refuse to learn English.
    While I understand why tourists and new immigrants aren’t fluent in English (or whatever language is being spoken in the country they’ve immigrated to), I think there’s something wrong with totally refusing to learn the language.

    • Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm by Mochi & Macarons | Permalink

      There is a minimum expectation for the language in my opinion.

      If I live in QC, I should learn French (it is the official language here), but many Anglos never even bother.
      In your case, you learned English!! It is generally spoken all across the U.S. but you ended up in a very Spanish area. I think you should have been given some credit for trying, although maybe the patients assumed you were just another Anglo rather than realizing you had just immigrated with English as your second. They probably also got annoyed that they couldn’t speak English well enough to communicate with you either. :)

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