He’s an immigrant from Burma, born the same year as my mother. He and his wife have lived in Worthington for several years. Their children are grown and scattered across the states. He probably has the most dignified smile I’ve ever seen.
We meet in a citizenship class at West Learning Center, where I volunteer once a week to tutor immigrants preparing to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Students practice reading and writing in English and learn answers to basic American history questions like, “Who is the father of our country?” and “What are two rights of anyone in the United States?”
He has completed the first stage of the exam when I meet him.
“He passed everything except the small talk portion,” the teacher says, guiding me over to his table. “He answered all the history questions, and he can read and write perfectly, but just — conversations — it’s difficult. Can you two maybe just talk?”
He inclines his head, grants me one of his dignified smiles. He doesn’t speak unless spoken to, I learn. He answers questions but does not initiate.
I think I understand a bit, at least. In college I studied French for five semesters (my teachers despaired of my ever achieving a passable accent), and I still struggle with the most basic of conversations.
There are so many ways to say the same thing. I can recognize the French for “What is the weather like today?” — but ask me “How’s the weather?” or “What’s it like outside?” or “Think it’ll rain?” and I come up empty. The words slur together if they’re not on the script I know, and that’s exactly what small talk is — unscripted.
So he and I talk. I try to remember to talk slowly; he listens carefully, staring ahead in concentration. I know I’ve said too many new words when his smile starts to look pained. He responds quickly to “Do you attend school?” but hesitates after “How long have you gone there?” I mentally kick myself, because long refers to distance more often than time, and gone is more vague than attend, and there refers to the previous question, and that’s far too much to lazily toss at someone who has just begun learning English.
I tap my head and roll my eyes, to show that it’s my fault, and his smile eases a little. He’s working so hard to understand.
“Did you make breakfast this morning?” I ask.
“Breakfast — yes, coffee,” he says, sitting back in his chair.
“How do you take your coffee?” I ask, and the smile starts to slip.
“What do you put in your coffee?” I ask, searching for new words to ask the same question. “Do you put cream, or sugar, or do you take it black — with nothing — just coffee?”
He looks at me silently, staring at the empty Styrofoam cup in front of me.
“One moment,” I say. I step outside the classroom to the coffee cart waiting in the hall, carrying the creamer and sugar back to our table.
I open my mouth to explain again, but he cuts me off, eyes lighting up.
“No sugar, just milk,” he says.
“Yes!” I say, a little too loudly, and he almost laughs at my enthusiasm, but offers his dignified smile instead. He understood the question. I didn’t teach him that.
We talk every other week, give or take. Learning conversation in a new language is practicing spontaneity: you’re methodically training for casual comfort, and it feels completely counterintuitive. It takes time, even if you study every day.
When I walk into class the day after his test, I almost don’t recognize him, because he doesn’t have that dignified smile — it’s an unrestrained grin I’ve never seen before stretching across his face, and he doesn’t have to tell me that he passed.