(Where Paul explains how we experienced our China and Colombia travel adventures without leaving home…)
In a couple of hours, I’ll be joining a group scavenger hunt on the nearby subway line.
I’ll be teamed up with Peter, a young immigrant father from Guangzhou in southern China, and together we’ll follow the English clues, hunt down items, and perhaps win the prize!
The afternoon event is a creation of our local immigrant services society, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees adjust more quickly to life in their newly adopted country. The society offers classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), as well as practical information on “how things work here” for everything from applying for a driver’s license to networking for jobs and business opportunities.
My involvement started when I signed on as a “settlement mentor” a little over a year ago. It seemed a great way to volunteer my services, and at the same time satisfy the travel bug during times we were unable to travel. It’s done that and more.
Last year, I started my assignment with Wei, another young father from Guangzhou. My commitment was to meet weekly with Wei, and come up with activities we could do together that would help Wei with his English, and learn something about his new hometown. Over the course of the next six months, he joined us for a Labour Day barbecue, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and some family Christmas-season fun. Of course, it wasn’t all one-way. Wei and his friends invited us to a fabulous authentic Harvest Moon dim sum lunch at a fabulous restaurant, home-cooked several lavish Chinese meals for us, and even taught our boys how to cook a couple of spicy Sichuan specialities.
Wei must have valued the interaction, because he soon asked whether he could invite a friend to join us. Over the next few weeks, the circle grew to include Mannie, Meng, Laureen, and Sonny.
Searching our city for opportunities to visit with the new immigrants took some doing, but it was a novel way to look at familiar territory in a new light. We discovered interesting things together, including an elaborate traditional Halloween Haunted House that centered on the exploits of the famed 7th-century Chinese detective “Judge Dee.” My new friends also marveled at an exhibit in the local city museum, featuring some of the stories and living conditions of Chinese immigrants from the 1800s.
We in turn learned a lot about China, some of it surprising. One of our friends went back to China for New Year’s and came back divorced. Apparently, a divorce in China is just a matter of signing the proper forms. We also learned that many of these young people had very little sense of their ancestry. During Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, a concerted attempt to erase ties with the past had extended even to destroying family pictures. Some of our young Chinese had no idea what their grandparents had looked like. One of those grandfathers had been a well-known stage actor; the government had burned all of the silk costumes of his profession, so not even heirlooms remained.
Even more surprising were some of the things we learned about life for these new immigrants here in our country. All of them had come from professional or business backgrounds in their home country: small and mid-sized business owners, accountants, wholesale sales reps, and the like. Here in North America, their professional experience and credentials meant nothing. What’s more, without a certain level of English skills, acquiring similar experience here would be very challenging. All of my charges were highly desirous of improving their English; they saw it as the key to whatever success they would ultimately achieve here. They were highly appreciative of even the few hours we could spend conversing.
For a new immigrant, it can be very easy to settle into areas of town where others from your background are living. The downside is that, for larger communities, it’s possible to live a reasonably normal life without forgoing your native tongue. You can shop in stores run by your compatriots, work in an immigrant business, socialize with fellow new arrivals, and perhaps even attend churches or temples populated by fellow-speakers. One of my adopted mentees was a single mom who had left China when her marriage broke down. In her early years here, struggling to get by and raise her son, she had little time to devote to English. Now her son, having learned English at school, was losing interest in speaking Mandarin to her. I talked to her about how hard it must be to have lived here for several years, and yet still feel like an outsider and be unable to work in anything approaching her level of professional training. What’s more, English-speakers often subconsciously assume that others with minimal English skills are less educated or even less intelligent. As we spoke, I could see written in her face a deep sadness over how life hadn’t gone quite the way she had hoped when she left the comfort and safety of her birth land to seek opportunity for her son in the West. She was seriously considering moving back to China. It was at that moment that I really realized how much of a difference I could make in their lives by simply spending a few enjoyable hours together doing simple things.
I’ve grown to admire the bravery of these new arrivals to our shores. My new friend Peter actually placed his two teenage sons in local homestays for six months so that they could learn English faster. They only saw each other weekends. Having arrived here with her husband and knowing no one, the young divorcee has now set out on her own, and is taking every opportunity to practice her English. The young single mother has chosen to stay, and has found new employment. She and the divorcee have become friends. Meanwhile, Wei and his newly arrived family decided to move away from the familiarity of their ethnic community so that they could live in a neighbourhood where they only hear English.
We stay in touch with some of last year’s troop, while this year I’m just getting to know Peter. He’s asked if I’d like to visit the local Chinese Buddhist temple with him one day soon. Sounds interesting. And we have several invitations to visit families in China, make some new friends, and no doubt get a unique perspective on the country.
If this account has you interested in doing something similar, you may have to do a little research. I don’t know what organizations might exist in your community. Start by searching “immigrant services” on the Internet. Here, we have a wide variety of non-profit groups that provide these services. There are also initiatives within the local governments. If that doesn’t produce results, try contacting some broad-based community groups such as the YMCA.
A more low-key way to start out might be to join a language group in your town. Here we have a wide selection that can be found via Meetup.com – try searching ESL, or “English Conversation”. If there is a prominent language group in your area, then try that, e.g.“Spanish” or “Mandarin”. Mannie joined a local Mandarin Meetup, and now trades talk time with a local Anglophone who wants to learn Chinese.
Or just keep your ear to the ground. In our part of town, Spanish is uncommon. When I ran into a family of cyclists speaking Spanish, I struck up a conversation. Next thing we knew, we were trading visits, hearing new Latin music, and trying out the favourite drink of Colombia. Unfortunately, our friends from Bogotá were not able to transfer their professional skills, and when their daughter graduated from high school, they returned to Colombia. By that time, the political climate there had improved, and things have since gone well for them. They hope we’ll visit some day. As do we!
- What It Takes (And Means) To Learn English As An Adult (npr.org)
- How Chinese migrants changed their fate (thestar.com)
I have done volunteering with new immigrants myself and I also found it very rewarding. In my day job I meet many new immigrants as they look for work. What impresses me the most is the appreciation for even the smallest things you do for them. Where many Canadian born individuals take for granted the services we offer, these newcomers can’t thank us enough. I always learn something from them as well.
Yes, Cheryl and I have on several occasions been embarrassed by the level of gratitude we have received. It’s been humbling.
What a great picture you’ve painted, linking travel with a volunteer gig that really makes a difference. Love the description of the people you’ve gotten to know. You’ve created a spacious universe for yourselves.
Given that it’s so rewarding, I’m surprised & disappointed that there aren’t more people volunteering. There’s a chronic shortage here. I hope others will see an opportunity here!
Update: Peter and I did not win the prize – his wife’s team did! But we had fun trying, and everyone learned a lot. As Peter remarked, it was his first time on public transit. (So much easier to drive around town with your GPS.) I can’t even begin to imagine how I might have done on a scavenger hunt on Guangzhou Line 3 – how would I find the way to 番禺广场 station?!
Thanks for sharing your experience with our program! Our organization is so grateful for our wonderful volunteers. If your readers are interested in learning more, they can visit http://www.issbc.org. They can learn how to get involved in the “Volunteer or Mentor” section.
It’s a great program, Jericho. See you soon.
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