One of the many reasons I’m enjoying the work of the Chicago ESL students featured this week is how their poems shine a light on the potential for community, regardless of background. Here we have people from different countries whose fluency is in different languages connecting on a common struggle and a common goal. Here we have poets from Taiwan, Ecuador, Ukraine, Columbia, Japan, South Korea, and China, a group that in other circumstances might form a veritable Tower of Babel. And yet here they are together here on the page, understanding each other at the deepest level.
Today our poets are from Taiwan, France and Ecuador.
by Ellen from Taiwan
My Chinese isn’t enough
I remember how I would laugh,
Arguing with my close friends,
And understanding the meaning of what they said
Art, classical music, love poetry and the meaning of life.
But that was in Taiwan.
Now I am in the United States,
Everyone speaks English
At the office, I didn’t know any answers to trivia questions they asked.
With neighbors, I don’t get the political problems they argue about.
At movie theaters, I was quiet while everyone laughed out loud.
My husband keeps correcting my pronunciation.
Sometimes at stores the clerks lose patience with me
I became chicken-hearted,
I became wordless,
I became dumb.
I finally took ESL classes.
I have to keep it up.
If I stop learning,
My world would be dark and silent.
by Alexandra from France
My French isn’t good enough.
I remember how I’d discuss
Society, politics, culture.
It was easy then.
Qui vivra verra*
But that was in France.
Now I have to find my words.
I don’t have enough English
But no matter what,
I improve it through English classes.
*French for “Time will tell.”
by Mabel from Ecuador
My Spanish isn’t enough.
I remember how I used to get the whole family together to share time.
Está servido y se enfría! Ya vengan a sentarse y siguen conversando mientras comen!” **
But that was in Ecuador.
Now it’s just my husband, my children, and I against the world.
We are a very close family standing together at all times,
But Birthdays, Holidays, and special dates are not the same anymore.
Now, they are more intimate, just us
The Happy Birthday song no longer sounds as uproariously as it used to.
However, we are very happy. The four of us came together to begin a better new life here.
**Spanish for, “It’s served and the food is getting cold! Come have a seat and you guys can keep chatting as you eat!”
These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.