What we can learn from immigrants

July 30, 2017 • Posted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, politics, radio, writing by

Wanda Bridgeforth and I had a ball during our interview on WGN Radio last night, and as our amiable host Dave Hoekstra walked us out of the studio afterward, he called out, “Wanda, you’re a pistol! Will you come back to do another show?” As they say in radioland, “Stay tuned.”

Audrey Mitchell and I were a hit at our Skyline Village presentation Friday afternoon, too. More on both of those events later this week. After Dave Hoekstra’s program comes out online I’ll be able to blog with a link to the radio interview and publish some photos from last night — and photos from Audrey’s Friday afternoon appearance at Skyline Village, too. In the meantime, allow me to introduce a couple other writers in my life.

Some of the most talented writers in my memoir classes are immigrants. Wanda is one of them: born in Canada, she came to Chicago as an infant. Other older adults in my classes came to Chicago from Czechoslovakia, Austria, the Philippines, Germany, India, France, Egypt. Anu Agrawal immigrated to America from India in 1969. She’s in Wanda and Audrey’s downtown memoir-writing class and generously agreed to let me publish an excerpt here from one of her essays.

“The Travel” opens with Anu pointing out that “when we travel by bus, train or airplane, we have all the information about our travel plans.” What would life be like if we had the same information for our life journey, she wonders. Would we live differently if we knew how long our life journey would last, if we knew when we’d arrive at our final destination?

“Maybe not,” she decides.

“I see the same human behavior in our short travel by bus, train or airplane,” she writes. “Some passengers are good decent people, who are warm and helpful to others; but some are selfish and mean.”

Two women Anu encountered on an overnight train journey in India in the 1970s still stick with her now, some 40 years later. From her essay:

One good looking seemingly wealthy woman in her early forties was sitting across my seat. She had occupied two other seats by putting her belongings, which she could have easily put under her seat. But she wanted to grab as much space as she could and did not care for the inconvenience to other passengers. She had an arrogant and smug look on her face.

There was another young woman with a child who had occupied only one seat. she had simply put her belongings under her seat and held her child in her arms. She looked very contented and had gentle, calming look on her face.

Whenever I have doubt about my travel behavior, these two women pop up in my mind to guide me.

That’s my friend, Carolyn Alessio.

Another talented writer in my life, my friend Carolyn Alessio left her job as a writer and editor for the Chicago Tribune Book Section years ago to teach at Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a school known nationally for its innovative ideas and emphasis on building student character.

I’m not sure how she finds the time, but while teaching a talented group of high-energy teenagers, Carolyn has also managed to continue writing. She is the prose editor at Crab Orchard Review, and her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, TriQuarterly, Boulevard, and, last week, in Scoundrel Time.

Carolyn’s Scoundrel Time article Sanctuary, City begins with a description of reading Elie Wiesel’s Night with a freshmen English class on Chicago’s largely Latino Southwest Side. She had to go over vocabulary words like “invective” and “anti-Semitism” with her students, but one term they had no trouble understanding? Deportation.

From the piece:

Even though our school’s students reside legally in the United States—documentation is required for the corporate internships that finance their tuition—everyone knows members of the community who are not so fortunate. To my students from La Villita, or Little Village and nearby, the number includes neighbors, friends, relatives, coaches, church members, and local business owners.

Carolyn’s piece is very well-written, and the first-person accounts of her teenage students (all of them documented) and the feelings they carry around for relatives and neighbors that may be taken away from them gave me a different look at immigration–and immigrants–in our country today. It also reminded me of how much we can learn about ourselves and our country from the experiences of immigrants. I hope you’ll read the entire piece — we can all learn a lot from these high schoolers.

Chris On July 30, 2017 at 3:38 pm

We thought you and Wanda were terrific on the radio last night!! And thanks for sharing your friend Carolyn’s article – it is very thought provoking.
Chris, Larry & Harper

Hank On July 30, 2017 at 9:46 pm

This immigrant is glad to be able to enjoy all you do, even if writing eloquently about it may not be my strong suit.

Beth On July 31, 2017 at 7:27 am

Hmmm. Maybe you just need the right writing prompts….?

Beth On July 31, 2017 at 7:37 am

And Chris, what fun to think that Harper was listening in, too!

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