“Learning a new language is hard, connecting with other people is hard, leaving your homeland is hard, no matter where you are. Here, in the U.S., if you are not an English speaker, you are almost immediately stripped of your humanity, your ability to connect with others, your ability to be your full self.”
I read these program notes by Director Melory Mirashrafi while waiting for Speakeasy Stage’s production of English to begin. I already knew the premise of Sanaz Toossi’s play: four Iranian students and their teacher in a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) class in Iran, circa 2008. Still, these notes clawed at my throat. Yes, learning a new language is hard. It is also revelatory. Connecting with other people is hard. Duh! Leaving your homeland is hard. True, yet a bit off, since the play is about Iranians in Iran; they may have left and returned or they may wish to leave, but in the play, they are in their homeland.
Then comes the clincher clause, “…in the U.S, if you are not an English speaker, you are almost immediately stripped of your humanity, your ability to connect with others, your ability to be your full self.” Hyperbole at best, provocation at worst. And…simply not true.
I have never been an immigrant, though I have lived in countries where I did not speak the language. I also tutor ESOL (English as a Second Language) to actual immigrants. When I was in Haiti, I had to communicate rudimentally, but the experience did not strip me of my humanity. On the contrary, it made me more appreciative of how challenging communication can be, and broadened my view of human possibility. Similarly, when I tutor Haitian immigrants in the States, the our language gaps force us to connect in a more conscious, direct way. As to how an immigrant compromises their ability to be their full self when they arrive in a foreign land with a foreign tongue, I might remind Ms. Mirashrafi that they were likely not able to be their full selves in their homelands. Thus, the decision to emigrate.
Perhaps it is not fair to pick apart Ms. Mirashrafi’s notes. After all, they are just one of so many examples of progressive ideals stated to a point so extreme that they negate the underlying good intention.
A digital notice at my gym the other day, sponsored by Bridge Over Troubled Water, stated that 1 in 13 children are homeless. A statistic so shocking, it is unbelievable. Bridge Over Troubled Water is a well-established and respected intervention program for runaway teens; and without doubt the homeless situation in our country is terrible, and getting worse. But I simply cannot believe that 1 in 13 children are homeless. That equates to two children in every classroom in America. When a statistic is so discordant from any perception, whether direct experience or indirect reading, the result is not to heighten awareness and concern for a problem. It results in us discounting the entire message.
Later the same day, I read an internet notice that 40% of all children in Massachusetts suffer food insecurity. To be sure, I do not suffer food insecurity. However, I work in a Food Bank, pack and deliver boxes to all sorts of folks in need. So I know that, despite living in one of the most affluent cities in America, hunger exists too often in too many places. But 40%—ten or twelve children in every classroom in America—is so incredible as to cast doubt. An internet search reveals that childhood hunger in America varies from 6% to 9% to 13% to 20%. Any of those percentages are too high for a nation that calls itself civilized, but none approach the 40% figure that was obviously heralded to capture attention.
I decided to explore the definition of ‘food insecurity” and discovered that, in many surveys, it is a self-described condition. A person with an empty pantry should surely describe themselves as food insecure. Then again, I met a person all agitated because Whole Foods did not have the array of lettuces she desired. Would they self-describe as food insecure?
Others may chide me that conservatives also exaggerate, often with even more outlandish statements and statistics. I totally agree. However, to quote my wondrous mother, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” Since I argue progressive points more often than conservative ones, I seek reasoning that’s valid rather than pumped up.
Each of these examples illustrate how progressives damage their own agenda through exaggeration, whether through inflated statistics of woe or by normalizing exceptions as the rule. When Bob Dylan sang, “I pity the poor immigrant who wished he’d stayed at home,” he connected with that particular immigrant for whom a new land, a new language, resulted in diminished humanity. He did not smatter that pathos over all immigrants. I wonder why Ms. Mirashrafi feels the need to do so when, to me, it dilutes her entire argument.
When the lights went down, I watched English. It’s a good play, though not as gripping as I hoped. Oddly, the play proved Ms. Mirashrafi’s notes even more inappropriate than my initial perception. On the surface, English may be a play about learning a foreign tongue. But it’s universal appeal is in five specific characters, striving to be their fullest selves, by making connection in their fullest humanity.