I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day. Actually, a lot of people were standing in line at the grocery store. It was a Wednesday at 6:30pm. I’m not sure if other people have the lack of shopping/planning skills that I do, or if they think this would be a great time to do grocery shopping. It’s not. In any case, lines were long and people were restless; those that weren’t shopping solo were chatting.
One lane over from me, two women – one older and one younger – were chatting in another language. They weren’t louder than anybody else. They weren’t arguing or doing anything to call attention to themselves, except, you know, speaking another language. The man behind me spoke loudly enough to be heard three lanes away, “You need to speak English in this country!” The women fell silent, as did everyone else in the general vicinity.
I cannot tell you how overwhelmingly sad I was to hear that man’s comment. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t live under a rock. I’ve heard similar sentiments from coworkers, friends and even some family members over the years. ‘If you’re living in this country, you need to speak English’, ‘If you can’t speak English you shouldn’t be here’, and my personal favorite, ‘If you’re in my country you need to speak my language.’ This last comment particularly causes me to reflect on my own heritage.
Before the guy in line behind me was born, my grandfather came to the United States from Italy. He was 28 years old. He came through New York City where the Statue of Liberty invitingly declares, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He settled in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, became gainfully employed and began to save his money to bring the rest of his family to this land of opportunity. He lived in this country for 63 years, became a citizen, paid taxes, raised a family, and weathered reduced hours and job sharing during the depression. He watched two sons and four sons-in-law serve this country during WWII. This was most certainly his country, yet he was never comfortable and secure speaking English.
My grandmother was bi-lingual and they spoke Italian to each in the comfort of their home. However, he did not allow my mother or her siblings, born here in the United States, to learn Italian. He understood the disadvantage of being different and the prejudices against those that have an accent or speak another language. He wanted my mother to be “all-American,” and although she may have been from an outward appearance, her ability to communicate, to understand and be understood by her own father was compromised. It was one of her great heartaches.
But this particular incident in the grocery store wasn’t just about this memory of my heritage. It hit me harder than most. You see those two women could easily have been my sister-in-law and niece; in fact, they probably have been my sister-in-law and niece at one time or another. My sister-in-law’s first language is not English. My niece is bilingual. Both speak English. Both are citizens. But when they are in that familial relationship, when they are shopping, sharing a meal at a restaurant and catching up on life’s events, they most easily converse in the language of comfort, familiarity and love.
I’d like to say I said something to the man behind me. I didn’t. I stood in line feeling angry, embarrassed and sad. But really, upon reflection what would I have said? That’s not nice? Mind your own business? Let me tell you a story about some people in my life?
I do know that something needs to change. We, as human beings, need to be more accepting of other human beings. We need to change the tide of suspicion and hatred of that which is different from that to which we’ve become accustomed. We need to worry more about the language of love, acceptance and understanding than the language someone uses to speak.