Monday, September 29, 2008

Lacking the Language

Halfway through yesterday’s canvassing took me to two large apartment buildings that house senior citizens. But these are not just any seniors. They are all of Asian descent.

As I signed in as a visitor, the Middle Eastern looking guy at the desk warned me that they didn’t speak English. He was quick to show me his Obama tee shirt under his white shirt.

I know lots of languages, but no Asian languages. Thinking that I’m pretty good at making myself understood, I told him I would take my chances and headed on up to the second floor of one of the buildings. My thought was their English must be at least minimal if they had registered to vote. (Remember that my list was of people who were registered but who remained undecided.)

Was I ever mistaken. After staring at multiple smiling totally-uncomprehending faces, I realized that it would be impossible to canvass these two buildings without the knowledge of Vietnamese and Korean.

I chatted with the desk guy on the way out and learned a little more. Apparently the residents who were citizens had been taken by bus to register to vote. I’m sure there were people accompanying them who spoke the necessary Asian languages. He also commented that many of them have children in the area who are still very involved in their parents’ lives.

I felt rather badly taking back virtually half my assignment uncanvassed, but I felt I had no other choice than to recommend that someone return with the necessary language skills.

The first half of my canvassing netted an equal number of Obama and McCain supporters. There were a couple of others who would gladly vote for Obama if they were citizens. Maybe in 2012.

Today’s experience was such a powerful reminder that there are still enclaves of people for whom English is a totally foreign and unknown language. Their vote in the November Presidential election will count just the same as mine.


Blogger Kristin said...

This whole thing sounds like an amazing experience. You're really getting to parts of the area and to meet people outside of your normal frame of reference.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Adrianne said...

It always amazes me that people who choose to live in this country can manage to get by without at least some rudimentary English skills. I think that if I were in their shoes I would feel isolated, but who knows -- maybe they feel protected, or perhaps even somehow empowered, by being able to converse only with their fellow countrymen yet still get by in a predominantly English-speaking society. It is an interesting phenomenon.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- What I'm finding is a whole new set of places to live I didn't realize existed! This was like an "Eden Center" condo.

Adrianne -- I too am amazed at how people can exist in this country with virtually no English skills. I once had a cleaning woman from Guatemala who had been here for 25 years and still could not even handle rudimentary English. It was a liability sometimes, like the time she tried to use ink remover to clean my husband's Pergo office floor. He then put photos on the front of each of the cleaning supplies.

But ethnic neighborhoods and foreign-language TV make it possible for them to exist quite well. The next generation always speaks English and is usually available to their parents when the need arises.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Mo said...

Wow, what a fascinating experience. Thanks for sharing this. Adrianne makes some very interesting points, too. I've always wondered how difficult it would be to live in a country without a familiarity of the predominant language...

10:16 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Mo -- I actually think it would be scary as hell. I am wondering how these people will actually fare at the polls. One guy obviously could not read my Obama button. How in the world will he be able to read the ballot?

10:20 AM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

Found a lot of McCain supporters, huh?
A real earmark to the credit of the stupidity of the American people.
Yeah, I think i've crossed over to the Obama side, and if McCain doesn't stop that blinkin' thing he does, I'll ...I'll ...start stumpin for Obama.

Oh, hey, i've started to tell the story of my first debate...I actually got a hold of the tapes, and will transcribe them soon!

Hi Barbara!

11:11 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Bulletholes -- Not a lot when you realize that about 90% of the doors I knocked on were not opened! But enough to make me realize this campaign's not over yet. Get out there and help get Obama elected, now that you've seen the light!

11:19 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

This really is a fascinating way to learn about your "neighbors"! (In the big sense.)

5:04 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- Yes, I'm finding big apartment buildings I didn't even know existed. And realizing just how international Northern Virginia is!

11:36 PM  

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