What I Learned: 5 Things I Learned from Immigrants Learning English

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Jody Fernando, sharing what she learns as she teaches English language students.


To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to teach English as a second language and even get paid to pass along my knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resilience, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.  “I teach you English,” I tell them in our serious moments.  “But you teach me life.” While I spend my days prepping for class, scouring the internet for engaging videos and activities to help them learn English and navigate a new culture, they spend their days attempting to learn a crazy-hard language, reconciling new realities with old traditions, and working hard to thrive in a new country.

We come together from every corner of the world, bringing so many experiences and stories. Together, we laugh, we dream, we hope.  Some carry sad tales of war-torn homes, others struggle to navigate life without the right documents or enough money. Nearly everyone is terrified of LA freeways and perplexed by American teenagers.  Each day as I walk them through the maze of the English language, they teach me how to walk through the maze of life.

Sometimes life is sad

Some days, a student enters my class with tears helplessly spilling out. The reasons for their tears vary, but often they’re due to violence in their homeland, separation from families, or overwhelmed feelings of living in a new culture. Most recently, my Syrian and Venezuelan students have been unable to hide their sorrow, and they speak of their grief with weary eyes, “I pray to my God to bring peace to my country,” a Syrian man told me with slight tears in his eyes.  “But I don’t know when it will come.”

An Egyptian asylee has been waiting for her husband and five year old son’s paperwork to come through so they can come to America for almost two years now, “I am so sad I cannot not see them, teacher,” she tells me. “My heart hurts very much.”

“My daughter has been in her house for 10 days,” a Venezuelan woman whispers to me in the hallway. “She’s safe, but her little children are driving her crazy because they cannot leave the house. She doesn’t even have toilet paper. I’m so worried for her, teacher.”

I pause quietly, remembering the heart-heavy years when my husband’s homeland of Sri Lanka dominated the headlines for ethnic violence. There were never any answers – it was always tense, always sad, always heart-breaking.

Sometimes life is happy

Even though it’s present, the sadness doesn’t always predominate.  One term, we had an end-of-term party which I interpreted as wear-jeans-and-a-t-shirt-casual-day.  My students arrived decked out in sequins, heels and perfume, ready to dance the morning away.  Many lack money, papers, family, jobs.  They’ve lost family members, careers, homes.  But these things slip away momentarily as they swing their hips, raise their arms, and kick up their heels to merengue or circle dance.

They bake cakes, share fruit, swap recipes. They tell stories of children, parents, beaches and Disneyland. They dream about the cars they want to buy, the homes they’re creating, and the opportunities for their children.  They exclaim with glee over the technological wonders of apps and websites that make learning English just a little easier; and we all laugh ourselves silly over a host of YouTube videos.

Their joy is as real as their sorrow, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

Kindness is important

It started with a package of paper cups, then a platter of sandwiches.  When another student walked in with a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Jodi”, I grew instantly grateful for the ‘secrets’ that Facebook tells. At the time, I had recently relocated to a new home 3000 miles away from my old one.  I’d given up a thriving career, proximity to my family, and cultural familiarity for the foreign land of palm trees, plastic surgery, and freeways and was still feeling a bit tender from my losses.

jody fernando birthday

Being new, I didn’t have many friends to celebrate with, so we were planning a small family affair.  I was ok with that, but what a grand surprise to have a party thrown for me when I thought I didn’t have enough ‘friends’ for that!

I watch their kindness toward each other as well. They translate for, give campus tours to, and excitedly share what they’ve learned living here with newer students. They throw wedding showers for each other, ooh-and-ahh over pictures of adorable children, and listen empathically to each other’s woes. Their kindness reminds me of our individuality, of our need to see others and to be seen, even in a city of 10 million people. I see it expressed in so many little ways, and it inspires me to return it to them.

I see you, I say in my mind each day as I stand before them.  You are not invisible here. You matter.  They’re the ones who taught me this first, I’m just sending it back to them.

It’s good to laugh at ourselves

After learning the word “migraine”, one of my students recounted a pronunciation mistake she made once, “I go to the doctor and tell him I have a ‘ma-ga-ri-na’ and he tell me, ‘Lady, you in the wrong place for a margarita.’”

As we all howled at her phonetic misfortune, she stopped us, “It gets worse!  I try to ask for a ‘fork’ at a restaurant but they no understand because I no say the ‘r’ sound good. Yes, teacher, I tell them ‘I have no ‘f&*#’ on the table.”

We lost track of all sense for at least 3 minutes. It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed that hard. Having spent six years in the serious and lofty world of academia, all this fun was proving very healing for my soul. I’d forgotten how life-giving laughter can be.

It’s important to show gratefulness

Just because I’m their teacher, I’ve received Chinese candies, Venezuelan chocolates, Egyptian plates, Ecuadorian necklaces, Salvadorian coin purses, Thai lunches and Peruvian sweets. Class ends each day with choruses of Thank you, teacher, expressions of gratitude for the time we spend together and the work I put into teaching them.

While I’m not the most emotionally demonstrative person, they’re starting to rub off on me.  We throw ourselves a party for our hard work on the last day of each semester where we eat and laugh and listen to music and sometimes even dance the class away. As the party wound down, I gave them their completion certificates and told them how proud I was of all their hard work. They responded with the ever-flowing and grateful expressions of thank you, teacher. My tears arrived suddenly, without any advance notice, “Thank you,” I said, my voice breaking. “You teach me, too.”

We all embraced our good-byes, and one student met my eyes on her way out, “This is not only job for you,” she said to me. “It is your passion.  It comes from deep in your heart. I see it, teacher. You do more than teach. You love us.”

What could I do but nod in agreement with her? These immigrants – I love them. I teach them. They teach me. Together, we laugh and learn about so many things on top of all the  verbs and vocabulary. They are, indeed, one of the greatest gifts of my life.

jody fernandoJody Fernando (@jodylouise) does a lot of living between worlds.  A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean.  Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents.  She writes about intercultural life on her blog Between Worlds, teaches amazingly resilient immigrants to speak English, travels the world with her soul mate and sweet kids, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry.

What I Learned: Friendships with Cambodians Come with Asterisks

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Allison Jane Smith, writing about the early struggles and joys in developing cross-cultural relationships with Cambodians.


I’ve lived in Cambodia for over eight months, in a small city called Battambang. It feels even smaller than it is when you’re limited to interacting with other expats and the Cambodians who speak English.

That’s one of the appealing things about Battambang; its small size makes it easy to get to know everyone else.

Yet that doesn’t mean it’s easy to establish a diverse group of friends that includes Cambodians.

About a month ago I had a housewarming party in my new apartment, which overlooks a soccer pitch. We opened beers, ordered pizza and watched the game.

There were people from around the world: Australia, England, France, New Zealand, Ecuador, America, and yes, Cambodia.

The foreigners came and stayed till eleven, twelve, two. The Cambodians stayed until nine or ten. One had promised his uncle he would be home by nine, another had to get up early for university the next day, and another didn’t want to be locked out of the pagoda where he lives.

They were gone before many of the foreigners, blessed with the carefree schedules that accompany lives free of responsibilities, had even arrived.

It’s hard to even get us at a party together, much less to navigate the language and cultural barriers that exist when we’re in the same room.

Being a single, twenty-something Canadian woman means my life is drastically different from the lives of Cambodians, and these differences get in the way of genuine friendships, the kind that come easily with Australians or Americans.


Over time, I’ve learned friendships with Cambodians come with asterisks.

I’ve got friends* where:

*we only interact during the day, usually at their place of work, because they are women. Women my age are usually married and have families, but regardless of marital status are expected to be home by 8pm.

*I don’t feel I can share the problems in my life, as they are dealing with serious issues. A while ago, a friend was considering taking on a second job that pays 75 cents an hour so he could find another $30 to pay a bill; another friend is now responsible for his younger siblings, essentially becoming a father; another cares for her children while her husband is away working for three weeks every month.

*I have to be careful about how friendly I am and what I say, so as not to give men the impression I am interested when I am not. (To be fair to Cambodians, this can be an issue with men regardless of nationality.)

*certain subjects are off-topic because the cultural gap is so wide. We are not necessarily coming from the same perspective on core political concepts, like democracy, nor on social issues like prostitution or gender equality.

*we can only engage on a superficial level because their English isn’t great and neither is my Khmer. However, a Cambodian friend recently commented I know many of the bad words, so I do know how to insult people.

Yet while friendships with Cambodians are different from friendships with other foreigners, and can have limitations, they are still deeply gratifying.

Cambodian friends have taken me to their home villages, where I’ve met their families and high school friends. They’ve explained political and social undercurrents I didn’t understand. When I was in a moto accident last year, Cambodian friends delivered meals and first aid supplies.

Last week, I grabbed a coffee at my regular cafe before leaving Battambang for a week. Some Cambodian friends were there. They complimented my new clothes, asked about my plans for the week, and teased my poor Khmer.

Before I left, a suitcase in one hand and coffee in the other, a friend gave me a hug. Our conversations are inevitably exercises in jumbled miscommunication, but I always enjoy them. “I will miss you,” she said.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said, and it was true.

Though my friendships with Cambodians are accompanied by asterisks, my life would be emptier without them.

Allison Jane Smith is a Canadian writer and communications professional. She is the Editor-in-Chief of whydev.org and a contributor to Beacon. Her work has been published in Killing the Buddha, Matador, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia, where she drinks a lot of coconut water and even more iced coffee. For more Allison, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.

What I Learned: Time is Relational in Turkey

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Rhett in Turkey where he has learned that time is quite unlike time in his native America.


Last Saturday my wife, son and I were enjoying lunch atop an old castle that overlooks our city when a friend called. The day before we had cancelled a planned overnight trip to a village with he, his wife and some other friends. Lousy weather was to blame. Apparently, nobody wants to pick oranges in the cold rain. But Saturday was as clear as the sea was blue, remarkable since the sea in question is the Black Sea.

My wife and I had planned to run some errands, grab lunch and head back to our apartment for some home improvement projects. We had just ordered menemen, a weekend breakfast dish made from eggs, tomatoes and peppers when my friend called and suggested that we go to the village that day. When?, I asked. Now, he replied.

Sure, why not?” were the next words out of my mouth. My wife gave me the look. The look that says our two-year old son’s nap time is in one hour. The look that says he only has one diaper in his diaper bag. The look that says we had other plans. The look that says there’s no telling what time we’ll get home tonight. But then she also gave the look that says yeah let’s do this.

Friendship is worth it, we thought.

rize kale turkey

Since moving to Turkey in 2010 we have learned the value of relational time. We have learned a new way to be friends, one that is more spur-of-the-moment and less in-bed-on-time. Below are five principles I’ve learned for making friends in Turkey.

  1. The last minute is the best minute for making plans. We recently spent a few months back in the U.S., where it sometimes took three months to schedule dinner with friends. I sit in a library typing right now with plans on settling in with a G.K. Chesterton book tonight after tucking my son into bed. But I could just as easily end up in the mountains shooting fireworks and a Glock pistol with a buddy or crossing into nearby Georgia by dinnertime. Anything is just a phone call away and that phone call is never about next week. It’s about ten minutes from now.
  2. Any minute is a good time for a visit. While it is certainly a nicety to announce that you want to visit someone, it is not necessary. Just knock on the door and take your shoes off. But, remember, it works both ways.
  3. Don’t leave until you’ve eaten the fruit. Turks have a liturgy for night visits—first dinner then nuts then tea then dessert then fruit. Once you eat the fruit you are free to leave. But it may take a while to get to the fruit, which leads to a classic chicken-or-the-egg question: Which came first, the late night visits or the copious consumption of tea? The answer really doesn’t matter, just the reality that we have chickens and eggs and groggy-eyed Americans sloshed up on tea, tired enough to comically butcher all attempts at speaking Turkish and caffeinated enough to lie in bed unable to fall asleep. The point is that while I normally prefer to get home early and wind down with reading or a television show before falling asleep at the ripe time of 11:30 p.m., I am often going to be out late with friends.
  4. Slumber parties are for adults, too. OK, they are not really slumber parties, but it is perfectly normal to stay the night if it will take you a while to get home. One friend invited us—baby included—over to watch movies one night with the assurance that we could just stay the night. And we lived in the same city. Also, when traveling it is not uncommon for someone to offer you a bed to sleep in to save you from hotel expenses. We once had a friend offer his uncle’s house—who was conveniently out of town—to our group of ten Americans, an offer that included a breakfast and hawk hunting excursion to the mountains the next morning. Some of my best friends are those with whom I’ve spent a night in their home.
  5. Constant contact is not just an e-marketing firm with annoying radio advertisements. It’s also the way to be a friend. I sometimes jokingly say that my Turkish friends hover. In the U.S. I talk to my friends on the phone when one of us has something to say that needs to be said right then. Otherwise we are perfectly content to wait until we see each other, whenever that is. A friend told me the other day that he has talked to a high school buddy on the phone almost everyday for the better part of the last decade. If you go somewhere, you make sure to invite your friends or else you communicate that you are not all that friendly. Nothing is to be done alone. Checking in and saying hi—by phone, text, Facebook—should be often, even daily.

What have I learned from living in a different culture the last four years? My time is not my own. It never really has been. Time is a gift from the One who numbers our days. Like all good gifts, it is meant to be shared with others for their good. I’ve learned that time is a currency to be valued, invested and spent.

Rhett Burns is a teacher, coach and writer living in Turkey since 2010. He is the author of Run Like a Stallion: How American Football Explains Turkey  (Amazon, Noise Trade) and is a contributor to the emerging project Neighbor Love:Turkey. Prior to moving to Turkey, Rhett coached high school football and basketball, worked in intercollegiate athletic administration and freelanced for local newspaper and magazine publications in Greenville, SC. He and his wife, Shannon, have a toddler son and a daughter on the way. Follow him on Twitter or his blog

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