ESL series, part four: Caroline, WooYoung, and Mary


Reading these wonderful ESL poems about learning a new language, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, Brooklyn, starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. She’s not learning a new language so much as a new culture. Excited as she is to be starting life in a big city, homesickness colors every experience. I cried my way through the movie. I cried much more than the people I watched the movie with. I could not stop crying even when it was over.


I was re-experiencing my own homesickness, you see, after years and years of forgetting I ever had it in the first place. When I was in my late twenties I moved from Maryland to Michigan. The cultural differences between the east coast and the Midwest are not as big as those between Ireland and Brooklyn or between Ecuador and Chicago or between any of the countries these ESL students have emigrated from. But they did exist. Midwesterners were too friendly and enjoyed small talk more than I did, speaking with nasal accents I disliked but eventually adopted. I missed hills and lush greenery and beaches and cities, and most of all, my big Catholic family, which has a culture of its very own. It was the reverse move of the third poem posted today, “Midwesterner” by Mary Gramins, an ESL classroom assistant who participated in the assignment.


That’s a long introduction to the fourth installment of this series of imitation poems from Chicago ESL students taught by my sister Ceci. It’s all to say the experience of leaving behind an old life and trying to make a new one is a universal one. It’s much more challenging when language is involved, but homesickness is a country we all visit at some point in our lives.


It was Ceci, by the way, who told me the truth about moving. Ceci had re-located years before I did from Maryland to the Midwest. “It’ll take ten years,” she said, “and then it will feel like home.”





by Caroline from Columbia


My Spanish isn’t enough.

I remember how I used to make jokes to my family and friends,

Making everybody laugh or smile.


            Parece Buena idea pero me dices cuando lo vas a hacer para esperar en la esquina *


But that was in Colombia

Now I’m here trying hard to understand what people are talking about,

My mind is busy, I don’t have time to make jokes.

Sometimes I’m not even sure if I am listening correctly or I am misunderstanding something.


But I keep trying.

I am still studying, listening to people speaking in English

And talking with all the English I know.

Hopefully one day something funny comes up in a conversation,

And people here will smile like my people back home.


*Spanish for, “It seems like a good idea but tell me before you start doing it. I’m going to wait on the corner, nothing personal.”





by WooYoung from Korea


My Korean is not enough.

I remember how I’d smile playing with my kids

Having fun with badminton, biking, and snow skiing


아빠, 조금놀아요!!!!”***


But that was in Korea.

Now, my children are graduates of American universities

With their own jobs and social life.

My wife speaks English much better than I.

Still, she often asks my children for better English sentences


Once in a restaurant for breakfast the whole family was ordering food.

But I was silent reading the menu because it was unfamiliar.

At last, the waiter asked

“How would you like your eggs cooked today?”  It made me in a daze.

All I knew was fried eggs.

So many choices – sunny-side up, over easy, scrambled, omelets, poached eggs, hard-boiled eggs

That day I chose over-easy eggs.

Next time, I will order sunny-side up in English.


*Korean for Daddy, let’s play more!”





by Mary Gramins from the United States


Milwaukee I knew like the back of my hand,

the lakefront, beaches, the downtown with its buildings—all yellow or gray,

orange buses, walking paths, the bridges my grandpa built,

Marquette and my home on the corner Locust and 70th,

and my friends since birth.

We “lived” at each other’s houses on our street lined with elms;

we giggled, laughed and shouted, shared secrets, told stories

and we talked to moms, dads, and grandpas and aunts, the grocer, the druggist, the barber,

the policeman, the stranger and they talked to us.


When I married and moved to Washington, DC,

Our glistening capitol filled with buildings so white.

So majestic by day and so breathtaking by night.

A sacred city where leaders and legislators held other people’s lives in their hands

Not just of our citizens but folks from every other land.


The government workers at the Bader, our apartment on 25th and K

Looked neither right, nor left, nor at you, and NEVER would talk.

The elevator ride was like life in a tomb. For weeks and weeks. . .

One morning my Midwestern roots emerged

and I said “Good Morning” in my loveliest voice.

Silence, dead silence for eight floors going down. . . .

As we all walked through the lobby and approached the door,

a young man held it and said, “Have a good day.” And I wished him the same.

“I’ve only begun” was the song in my heart as I walked toward the bus that would take me to school.




Teacher’s Note

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.


Ceci Greco



  1. thesongsmymothertaughtme

    I loved the entire ESL series! Thank you.


    poemelf posted: ” Reading these wonderful ESL poems about learning a new language, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, Brooklyn, starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. She’s not learning a new language so mu”

  2. MaryJo

    Wonderful series.
    Your sister was right about moving from the East Coast to the Midwest–10 years. I never thought I’d adjust coming from Philadelphia. I still miss it sometimes.
    what courageous people, your sister’s students. Thank you for sharing their poems with us.

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