Category Archives: student stories

A Canadian “Farewell”

A picture I found of my hometown's fireworks. They really are the best.

So, the school year has come to a close, and with it, so has my time at the YMCA school. My students threw me a beautiful “surprise” party last Monday, complete with all kinds of marvellous homemade food, artistry on my chalkboard, and even an unnecessary but great gift. I handed out report cards and had individual meetings with students on Tuesday; Wednesday was our year-end picnic (more delicious potluck goodies), and the final student goodbye; Thursday was a PD day, and my last day with the teachers. I had quite a bit of work to do to wrap up my job, so pretty much everyone left well before I did. Karen was the last to go, and I was pretty much a sobbing mess by that point, having just begun reading the goodbye card from the Immigrant Services staff. All that was left was to put away the resources I’d been using all year, and clear out my desk into a big box to carry to my car.

Painful as it was, the whole thing wouldn’t have been nearly as pathetic if I didn’t feel like a big fraud for talking about going to Brazil for so long. It totally doesn’t even feel like I’m going – more like I just left a secure job that I loved for absolutely no reason. On the way home I stopped at Shopper’s Drug Mart to pick up the prescription for anti-malaria pills that I probably won’t need, and treated myself to a new shade of nail polish (you know, to help fill the void with pointless consumerism and shallow vanity).

The next day was Canada Day, and I was determined to give myself at least some pretenses of relaxation and holiday enjoyment, so I spent the night at my friend Jamie’s house, and we headed off to the local Canada Day festivities in the park. Despite having slept on her couch the night before, I felt pretty good. Maybe it was getting 8 solid hours of sleep; maybe it was not having the morning sun wake me at 6 am; but maybe it was just having nothing in particular to do for once. I had the car, my bathing suit, and many unscheduled and sun-filled hours ahead of me.

We really did have a great day. Jamie is part of the county’s concert band, which was playing just after the parade finished and before the opening ceremonies began, so we got to watch the parade from the finish line in the gracious shade of the park. Her band – which opened with Coldplay, followed by Lady Gaga, some sleepy neoclassical piece, and then Smoke on the Water, finished patriotically with O Canada. A giant 8’x4′ cake was served directly after, decorated with whipped cream and hundreds of halved strawberries in the shape of the Canadian flag. Epic as it was, it managed to keep up with the long and eager line-up of patriots that formed at its arrival. There was more than enough to go around, so I’m not sure what possessed one oversized woman to share one of her two pieces with her dog – bite by bite.

After the band was done, Jamie and I bummed some money off her parents (we had come unprepared, for shame!) and readied ourselves for the international smorgasbord of vendors before us. First up was the Chinese Association’s booth, and in our quest for a spring roll (we had to buy a whole combo just to get one) I noticed several of my (ex-)students working there. They were happy to see me, and for the third time that week I was treated to a giant plate of home-cooked ethnic food for free! Jamie and I had a hard time eating everything, so we scouted out the parents of our missing third musketeer, Breanna, and donated the proceeds therein.

The beach at the park where the parade finished. Not one of my photos, as I didn't have my camera with me that day, but a nice image.

Jamie and I managed to stuff down a chocolate and peanut-coated ice cream cone before we left the park in favour of a beach near her house. (We would have just used her pool, but it was full of loud, drunken teenagers courtesy of her brother.) We sunned ourselves for the appropriate amount of time, then returned to her (now empty) house to eat a delicious surf-and-turf dinner with her foodie parents (I stuck to the “turf”). There was just enough time to shower and head out to pick up our friend Joe, visiting from out of town, and to drive down to the waterfront to finish the day with some fireworks. My hometown may not be very big, but it puts on an excellent display every year – they really are my favourite fireworks ever.

On Saturday, I actually slept in. That hasn’t happened in a while, as I’ve been too busy even on weekends to sleep later than 9 or so, and besides, the June morning sun just refuses to allow that to happen. I spent the day hiding from the heat and humidity in my basement room, and sorted through all my teaching materials into some semblance of order for whenever I will use them again (I’m not dragging everything to Brazil with me, and besides, it’s all Canada-specific). On Sunday, I went to the beach for a few hours, then headed to Toronto by train…

Continued in next post

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Filed under Canada, community, goodbyes, insecurities, student stories

You know you’re ESL when…

I love my job.  Seriously, most days it doesn’t even feel like work.  My students have also commented that sometimes they forget I’m getting paid, because we just have so much fun together.

Sometimes, when we get in a silly mood, they share some of their funniest stories with me.  I imagine that some days must feel to them like a situational comedy: everything is one big misunderstanding.  But these misunderstandings stem from cultural and linguistic differences, rather than he said/she said, like on Friends.

So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to a little joke line I like to call “You know you’re ESL when.”

  1. You know you’re ESL when you think a Blackberry is a kind of fruit.
  2. You know you’re ESL when you think cross-country skiing involves a trip to the United States.
  3. You know you’re ESL when someone tells you they like yogurt and you picture them meditating.
  4. You know you’re ESL when inviting someone to go to the beach causes offense.
  5. You know you’re ESL when, at your convenience store job, a customer asks for More cigarettes and you start piling boxes in front of them.
  6. You know you’re ESL when someone tells you you have a nice smile and you wonder if you even wore perfume that day.
  7. You know you’re ESL when someone tells you to open Windows and you walk towards the wall.
  8. You know you’re ESL when you think Lady Gaga is the president of some country.

All inspired by true stories!  Enjoy, share, and feel free to add your own in the comments section.

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The Great Canadian Mirage

Everyone knows about the “American Dream”: the idea that anybody can start with nothing and become a Somebody in their lifetime. I don’t live in America, and after reading Death of a Salesman in grade 10, I don’t put much stock in that concept. Here in Canada, we’re much more realistic. Nobody comes to Canada with the hopes of becoming rich and famous; no, not even native-born Canadians aspire so far (and if they do, they do it in America). So why do so many immigrants come here?

In a word: security. Canada is the land of the social safety net, free health care, and free speech for all. We have low crime rates, high literacy, and we’re nice to everybody. And with all those social programs, there must be more jobs than people in a country where the average family has only 1.1 kids (Statistics Canada, 2007). When fleeing persecution, what refugee wouldn’t be praying for their Canadian temporary residency papers?

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll find that this Northern oasis is more than a little blurry around the edges. Earlier this week, during a conversation activity, I asked my students whether they thought Canada should let in more or fewer immigrants than at present. To my fascination, they were unanimous in their desire for a lower immigration rate. Their reasons were simple: higher numbers of applicants means a bigger backlog when it comes to processing paperwork.

Although they had made it this far, life as a Canadian immigrant turned out to be decidedly different from the picture painted by the Canadian government prior to arrival. You spend three years toeing the line, providing endless documentation, trying to adapt, and never leaving the country lest your waiting period be extended. You realize that your foreign credentials, which were good enough to score you the points you needed to arrive in Canada, aren’t enough to restart your profession here, so you take a low-paying job or live on welfare while you upgrade your skills. You struggle, maybe for years, to understand your new language and culture and are confronted with your social awareness deficit daily.

One student, a Russian immigrant with an engineering degree, approached me after class. “Why does the Canadian government admit immigrants from white collar professions, like doctors, engineers, and professors, when there are no jobs for them? All the jobs are in the trades, they require unskilled labour; why not admit people who are prepared to take these jobs, and not professionals who will have to take a major reduction in pay just for work?”

Good question, Alex. If I knew the answer to that one, I would have run for office by now.

Clearly, he is right that the Canadian immigration system needs a massive overhaul. The points system seems appropriate in theory; it helps immigration officials identify candidates with strong skills and educational backgrounds who will contribute to and not leech from the country’s economic fibre. But realistically, we don’t need those people. Why? We need only revisit those same attractive qualities mentioned above: with a high literacy rate, great health records, and a high average household income, Canadians don’t want or need to take low-paying jobs. (In fact, they aren’t even willing to settle for the rates they get in Canada and are jumping ship to the US – but that’s another post.) White-collar jobs are scarce, and getting scarcer; meanwhile, the market for unskilled jobs is getting flooded with jacked-up resumes from thousands of overqualified applicants. Where, in this equation, does the Conservative government intend to place the “average of 14 percent more immigrants per year” it’s letting in?

It certainly won’t be training all those new recruits, nor will they all get the settlement support they need. As I’ve mentioned before, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration announced just before Christmas 2010 that funding to settlement programming would be cut by 5%, or $70 million dollars, over the course of 2011-2012 (OCASI News Release). My program, Language Instructors for Newcomers to Canada, saw a decrease of 10% this year and will see another 5% next year. Sadly, most programs will become a watered-down version of their former selves, and many have already disappeared altogether.

I’d never thought I’d be an advocate for reducing immigration rates in Canada; I’ve always been of the opinion that we should share the wealth. But it can’t be denied that, while there are many opportunities we can provide by virtue of our high standards for rights, education, and social security, we are doing our immigrants a great injustice by promising more than we can provide. Not all immigrants have access to language programs. Not all immigrants will get jobs that are equal to or better than ones they previously held. And not all immigrants will be welcomed into their community with culture-sensitive programming and support. So, for a country that believes in equal or equalizing opportunity, maybe we would do better to pace our hospitality in order to keep our high standards of quality, and not quantity. Only then will the mirage solidify into the welcoming refuge that Canada has the potential to be.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

As a twenty-four year old teacher of adults, most of my students are older than me; however, I have one student who is actually my age. It’s a bit of a weird dynamic, because we could be friends, but as his teacher I am a sort of role model for his new country. I have a lot of respect for this guy; he’s smart, creative, and driven to succeed. He’s great to have in class because of these things, but I also like that he offers yet another perspective of the Canadian experience. My older students have children, and I’m sure they’d like to know what their kids will be going through soon enough.

The other day, this student (let’s call him Andy) came up to me during the afternoon break. I could tell by his tone of voice and the look on his face that he was worried about something. When that happens I get a little nervous, because I only have so much knowledge and resources to help my guys and I want the best for them. I asked him what was up.

“Do you think that I’m late?” He asked. “I mean, if I have to do one more year of ESL, and then I start university…am I going to be late?”

“You mean, are you going to be much older than everyone else?” I clarified. “Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. I know plenty of people who took the years after high school to work and figure out what they wanted to do. Many of my friends went through school at different points in their twenties.”

“Yeah, but they will have Canadian experience,” he countered. “I just have Korean experience.”

I rushed to reassure him. “That’s not true! You’ve been in Canada for a year, working, going to school and living. That counts. Even the people I know who have two degrees aren’t ahead of you; after school, everyone will be starting from zero.”

Andy seemed to be a little bit soothed after that, but I could tell that his insecurities ran deeper than I could attempt to quiet with a few anecdotes about my friends. Really, I understand his concern: the two or more years it takes to learn English can feel like an eternity for these newcomers, and worst of all, they feel like they have put their lives on hold. They have a decision to make, not just once, but over and over as their mettle is tested: should they invest their time, money, and energy into acquiring a high level of English, thus qualifying them for further education or re-entry into their previous vocations? Or, do they learn the bare minimum necessary to get a job, start providing for themselves and their families, but limit their potential for career growth?

Of course, as a teacher and as a university graduate, I would be the first to promote education. My own belief is that continuing studies are essential to personal growth and, in our society, are a mandatory ticket into the world of wage security. On the other hand, I’ve never been in a position to receive social assistance. I have worked for Ontario Works, and I do know that the amount you get to live off of is a pittance (seriously, could you live off of $23/week for groceries?). I’ve been financially insecure as a student, and lived off of credit – but I could also see the end to my temporary financial scarcity, and I knew I would come out with a degree that would make the debt worthwhile. I can only begin to imagine the desperation some of these immigrants feel to get out of poverty and move on.

To be frank, many of them do choose immediate financial independence over long-term gain. They think, “Well, if I can just work for a few months, I’m sure my English will improve.” They have massive guilt about coming to Canada and relying on the country’s social safety net the second they get their residency cards. Their pride gets in the way of logic: “I spent X number of years providing for myself and my family in my own country. I can do the same here. I don’t need help.”

But you know what? They do need help. They leave school for promised full-time employment at minimum wage, and eighteen months later they get laid off, and re-enrol. They spend years working at gas stations, convenience stores, and cleaning office buildings, chatting up anyone who will listen for “practice,” then go home and study for professional exams that they will fail again and again because their reading and writing skills are poor, and their job-specific vocabulary is nonexistant. They work two jobs for the American dream of putting their kids in soccer and ballet, then have no time or patience to show up to games and recitals. Years go by, and they realize they are stuck until they can speak like the natives.

I’ve painted a pretty grim picture here, I know; but this is the undercurrent of my students’ lives, and if I don’t recognize that as an instructor I will fail at providing for them efficiently and effectively. My conversation with Andy was a reminder of the great insecurity and self-doubt that he and others continually experience, and I am humbled to know that my opinion and my advice can make or break their resolve to continue. For Andy, I know this was a moment of weakness for him: he’s strong and resilient, and he’ll be one hell of a successful Canadian one day. But until that time, I can only hope that he continues to find points of motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, that will keep him on the path.

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A Cow Dung, by any other name, would smell much sweeter

Have you ever thought about what your name might sound like in another linguistic or cultural context? That single proper noun, something you have known and identified with since before you had the ability to say it yourself, is often one of our most valued possessions. For me, it’s what makes me unique. Skylar is a very uncommon name – so uncommon that my mom thought she’d made it up, and the only other Skylars I’ve ever met have been boys, or born after the year 2000. I’ve cherished the distinctiveness of my name since I was a kid. There were always two Ashleys, a handful of Mikes and Johns, and every girl seemed to have Sarah or Lynn as a middle name at the very least. Then there was me, who only looked up at the wrong time if there happened to be a Tyler in the room.

Today, I had my students read “What’s Your Name Again?” an article in Newcomer Magazine about “foreign” names, and whether to keep them in a Canadian workplace. This topic is highly relevant to my class, and almost any class I’ve ever taught. Especially among the Asian population, it is extremely common to have an English or Christian name that you go by instead of your given name. The article specifically focussed on the use of English pseudonyms in the workforce, citing a study from UBC about ethnic versus “Canadian” names on resumes. The study found that immigrants who opted for a more English-sounding name had a much higher chance of being called back than those who kept their given names.

My class ended before I had a good chance to pick my students’ brains on this subject, although we did begin a conversation about the reasons why they had changed their own names. One of my students changed his name from “Sasha,” a very common short form for Aleksandr, to “Alex.” I was confused at the need to switch, since Sasha is actually quite a well-known name in North America, but he informed me that when he moved to Montreal (his first place of settlement in Canada) he didn’t like the way it sounded with the French accent – more like “Sacha.” So rather than have his name butchered forever, he opted for the easily pronounced “Alex.” Another student, a woman from China, admitted that she’d picked her English name in a Chinese English class many years ago by flipping through a book with English names and taking the first one that was easy to say and spell (it’s “Amy”). Other students who have changed their names have obviously chosen what seems to be the closest English-sounding name to theirs, with some changes in spelling. This seems to have worked out well for the most part, but I don’t really understand the logic behind picking a name with an ‘l’ or an ‘r’ in it if you have a hard time with those consonants. Other non-English-speaking immigrants make the mistake of picking random English words that they think sound or look nice – hence the unfortunate existence of Asian girls with names like “Circle” or “Orange.”

One student, who goes by his Korean name although he has a Christian name, pondered the potential of switching to his Christian name once he goes to university in the fall. The consensus from the class was that it should really be his decision, and he should pick whatever he is comfortable with. He divulged that he’d also played around with spelling in hopes of making his name more pronounceable, for instance by removing the space between the two syllables that make up his name. After he wrote some possibilities on the board, the class noted that a change in spelling wasn’t guaranteed to reduce confusion. This is especially true if you don’t know the nature of English well enough to pick the right vowel-consonant combinations. His options, in my opinion as the only native speaker, were more likely to lead to mispronunciation than his actual name; but how could he know that?

After class, I mentioned the day’s reading/speaking topic to a veteran co-teacher. She recalled a student she’d had years before from China, who went by the unfortunate (by English standards) name of Cow Dung. This teacher had done her best to explain to this man, tactfully, why he was not getting call-backs for interviews. But how can you tell a person that their name means something offensive and, let’s face it, sounds like a Bart Simpson prank call? The man insisted that his name was a noble and beautiful one in his native language, and that should be enough for anyone. “I wonder where he is today?” mused my coworker. “I never did hear.” Maybe this is because this man finally came to his senses and changed his name!

I must admit some reservations to the actual premise of having to change one’s name in order to better integrate into society. It is ridiculous that employers should ever look at a name and make assumptions about that person; however we all know this to be a fact of life. A case study of the pointlessness of judging based on a name: my mother. Born and raised in our small, homogeneous Canadian city, she married my father, a Trinidadian immigrant of Indian descent, and took on his equally Indian last name. She has worked for the same non-profit organization for as long as I can remember. Her very first boss, after several years of working with her, left the organization, and his parting remark to my mother was along the lines of this: “It was great working with you! Can you believe we almost passed over your resume all those years ago because of your last name? Good thing we didn’t!” My mom, understandably, was stunned by the insensitivity and inherent prejudice in his comment. When I learned of this incident years later, I was – and still am – disgusted by the blatant display of stigmatization to which so many people are still subjected.

So: to change, or not to change? I consider my own name, and how it would be twisted or warped in other cultural contexts. I know that speakers of Romance languages think of the direct translation of my name, Sky, and wonder why my parents gave me such a masculine name. That’s because “sky” as translated into these languages takes a masculine article: le ciel (French), il cielo (Italian), o céu (Portuguese) and el cielo (Spanish). Some languages pronounce the letters in my name differently or not at all, and others don’t officially have letters like ‘k’ in their alphabet. And if I go East, I’ll have further problems having to change my name into different characters. Would it be easier for me, then, to just pick a nice-sounding name from that culture? I don’t know if that’s a question I’m prepared to answer right now, but it’s one I think I need to be aware of as a teacher and a student of global culture.

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The True Value of Democracy

Last night I watched the leader’s debate for the upcoming Canadian election.  Well, I say watched, but what I really mean is I caught the last 20 minutes after spending an hour talking to a friend.  Did I know the debate was on?  Of course I knew; I had many reminders throughout the day, from CBC.ca to texts from friends.  I’m a politics major who spent 4 weeks drilling her class of immigrants and new Canadians on government; of all people I should be interested.  Why didn’t I watch?

To be honest, I feel a little apathetic towards this whole election.  I’ve probably felt this way for several years, actually.  The Canadian governments of the past 10 years seem to be getting more pathetic all the time, and minority governing is so frustrating!  We’re bound to be spending our $300 billion for something that’s only going to happen again in another 24 months.

But wait a minute!  Aren’t I the one who has been stressing that we have a civic duty to vote and a responsibility not to take our rights for granted since I knew what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was?  Sometimes I need a wake-up call as much as the rest of my apathetic generation.

That wake-up call has come, on many occasions, from my amazingly resilient and unintentionally inspiring students.

One day last fall, during the first month of my new job, I innocently gave my students a news article to read about a couple of Canadian university students who had been expelled for cheating.  The evidence for expulsion was a facebook group the students had created to share study material in order to better prepare for their tests.  The students were suing the school on the grounds that they had a right to freedom of speech, and according to the article, it looked as if their case was strong enough to win.

While I had expected the article to be an interesting starting point for discussion, I was surprised and unprepared for the twist it soon took.  According to many of my students, the young men had no business questioning the authority of academia; if they were told they were wrong, they should accept it and keep quiet.  When I questioned them further as to why they wouldn’t challenge the decision when they only stood to benefit, they explained that in their countries, questioning authority is the fastest way to ruin your future.  People in positions of power will not only deny you, they will likely thwart you at every turn, simply out of spite.

It’s probably relevant to add, at this point, that my students are from around the world.  However the ones who followed this line of thought came from authoritarian regimes, including China, Algeria, and Iraq.  One man, an Algerian, was actually a syndicated journalist.  Others were educated professionals in other fields.  Needless to say, things got even more interesting as the discussion moved into the topic of free speech.

“You realize,” I said to them, “that in Canada you have a right to freedom of speech.  If you think you are being wronged, even if it comes from an authority figure, you have the right to speak out against that person without fear for your livelihood or future prospects.”

I was surrounded by blank stares.

“Don’t you know these are fundamental rights?  In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?”

More blank stares.  And then I realized: these people had no idea what fundamental rights even meant, let alone how their existence would affect their daily lives.  Heart and mind racing, I quickly photocopied the preamble and first two sections of the Charter for my class during the break, and handed them out once class resumed.

Together we read over the short passage, and I tried my best to explain that they were holding the ‘trump cards’ of Canadian law.  “These rights and freedoms,” I said, “are what make Canada so special.  We fought hard for them; the Charter was only established in 1982.  This is the reason my father immigrated to Canada.”

“We know,” said an outspoken Muslim woman.  “This is why I came to Canada, too.  Canada is the best country in the world, you should be very proud of that.  But you have to understand: where I come from, democracy and freedom are only ideas to most people.  They sound nice, but people don’t think they are real.  We came for freedom, but we are still learning how to live with it.”

More recently, I had a conversation with a student, an Iraqi woman who has been living in Canada for over a decade.  As part of a lesson I’d had the students use the Vote Compass tool on CBC, which many found informative even if they can’t yet vote.  Since this woman has her citizenship, I asked her if she would be voting in the upcoming election.

“No,” she said, “I don’t vote.  I would rather pray about it.”

Although I cringed inwardly, I wasn’t really surprised, knowing that this woman was particularly devout.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself from saying, “Well, that’s not really how democracy works.  By all means pray for guidance, but if you want to make a difference you need to cast a ballot.”

“I know, but I don’t want the responsibility of choosing a leader.  What if the person I pick does a bad job?  Then I am to blame for making a bad choice.”

As she spoke, I realized how naïve I was for not understanding: this woman came from Iraq, a country that had allowed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power through so-called ‘democracy.’  Her decision not to participate in the electoral process had nothing to do with misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the system, and everything to do with personal precedents.  I found myself, once again, closing my mouth and nodding my respect to her decision; after all, we must all act based on a combination of knowledge and experience, and who am I to question hers?

These are just a few of the times that I have been stunned to humbled silence by the profound differences between the life that I’ve always known and the lives that my students knew before arriving in this country.  As a socially and politically aware young person, I never thought I took democracy for granted.  But as a born-and-raised Canadian, I didn’t realize that I had essentially become a trust fund kid, born after the sweat equity had been put in by my forefathers and handed down to me as an inheritance.  I have benefited from and come to expect democracy, and would only truly recognize its value if it were taken away and I had to work to get it back.  These conversations with my students remind me that while I should indeed be proud of the country that raised me with high expectations, it is up to me and the work that I do to maintain the value of my inheritance, and not, for lack of appreciation, to fritter it away.

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