Bridging the Immigration Culture Gap with Language



Image Credit: WikiCommons

My sophomore year of high school I traveled to Mexico for a fifteen day trip. I had one year of Spanish under my belt, and on the way I felt like I could already speak the language.

“Hola ¿Cómo se llama?” said a stranger with a friendly smile and an outreached hand. And then, with a still friendly, but slightly impatient look: “¿Cuál es su nombre?”

I could only stare blankly. Hombre? Was that man or hungry? No…wait, that’s hambre.

With a more impatient expression this time, he asked, “Hi, what is your name?”

I was flooded with relief at the sound of English. For the rest of the trip I couldn’t even bring myself to try to speak in Spanish to anyone. Surrounded by Spanish posted in street advertisements, scrawled across the sides of buildings, and thrown between the shops of the open air market, I couldn’t escape my insecurity in the language.


Image Credit: WikiCommons

Putting aside the comforts of familiarity and home, I had wanted to understand the people of the small unfamiliar Mexican village we stayed at.

This feeling however, of being the stranger, unable to speak in the way I wanted to, was a better insight into the lives of hispanic immigrants and their children in the United States. In the social systems of the United States, speaking English, especially with the general American english accent, is considered a privilege.

This fall, after four more years of Spanish studies, I listened to hispanic staff at Pacific University as they went about their days. These friends and coworkers, speaking to each other in Spanish, conversing and sharing stories, I realized I wanted to be a person that meets people in their culture, their perspective, and with their language–if possible– to hear the stories that make them who they are.

Gloria Anzaldúa, one of the foremost scholars on feminism and chicana culture,   discusses the process of her language being taken away from her in her writing, “Cómo domar una lengua salvaje.” In U.S. schools she was punished for speaking Spanish or put down for speaking English like a Mexican. For many chicana people, Spanish may not even be a relief or safe haven.


Image Credit: K. Kendall Flickr

A few weeks ago I finally challenged myself to speak Spanish out of my comfort zone. All I needed was a simple, “I’m doing well, thank you. Y, ¿Cómo está usted?” in response to a greeting to find out more about the people living around me as they are. I recognized the feeling of excitement and relief of hearing one’s fluent language on the faces of the people before me. A few words opened an important door.

For me, Silk Road is a place where we meet to share our stories and learn about international perspectives. When the fall 2015 staff first met, we read over the Asia issue, describing what we liked about the entries. Those pieces exemplified Silk Road: relevant, interesting, diverse, well-crafted, a new perspective, cultural. The most effective submissions, and published pieces, are those that share a new story, bring a new and rich setting to the forefront, and come from the heart of a culture. Silk Road is the opportunity to give voice to the displaced and hear about the lives that make up an international culture.

By: Karissa Mathae


Steeped and Brewed

Picture 1

I watched a woman move her hands rapidly; it looked like she was hardly touching the bushes in front of her.  She flicked and picked her way across a section of the bush, and once she got to the end, she emptied her hand into a canvas sack on her back. Our group was walking through the countryside in Fuling, China. Beyond this woman were miles and miles of green bushes fresh with tea leaves straight from the root. As we walked, we saw many older natives doing just the same, assigned to different regions of the tea farm.

A man and a woman occupied an abandoned-looking shed that we stumbled upon. They kneeled, spreading the fresh-picked tea leaves on a circular metal mesh pan that was then placed in a metal storage rack. They started asking us questions, and our translators helped guide the conversation. They invited us into their home just down the road to try the tea that their family dries and processes.

Picture 2

The five of us and our two translators followed this man and woman up the hill to their house. It immediately struck me as a rundown home in an impoverished section of the city – doors were left open, their unkempt dog would not stop barking and was unkempt, and there were pitchers and pitchers of moonshine lining the counter. The lack of communication and the unknowing nature of the event made me feel like I was in the middle of a drug deal rather than a tea tasting.

There was a younger man, presumably their middle-aged son. He was shirtless and smelled of hard work in the sunlight. He gestured us to sit around their round table, bringing up more chairs for our group. The table was garnished with cups filled with tea that looked days and weeks old. He handled a tea pot, placing loose-leaf greens into a strainer then into the teapot. He waited, then poured us each golden liquid into small ceramic cups, gesturing us to drink.

Picture 3

The green tea this family dried and processed was the most pure tea I had ever tasted – it was crisp and light, hot and comforting. I could feel all of the care that went into making this tea slide down my throat, warming my stomach. This was their life for this family – living in the countryside, waking up before the sun rises to begin picking tea, staying indoors when the sun hits its peak, then the inevitable return back to the tea gardens as the sun goes down. They work every day for years on end pruning miles and miles of plants, working the irrigation, to simply give the world tea.

China’s countryside tea gardens are responsible for the majority of tea that is imported to the United States. We drink tea when we need a little caffeine and we don’t want coffee, or when we want to calm down; but for them it’s a lifestyle – waking up to harvesting, drying, processing and, of course, drinking tea.

Written and photographed by: Josie Kochendorfer

Meet an Editor: Joshua Young

josh1What do you look for in a Silk Road piece (or any writing)?

First I look at the language itself, for indications of the author’s mastery and sense of aesthetics.  I will follow a skillful guide just about anywhere. Afterwards there are some factors which consistently win me over: anything that overcomes the mundane instead of celebrating it; insight, or else an unusual yet consistent perspective and/or sensibility; to treat one’s characters/subject with compassion, without succumbing to sentimentality; a complete lack of moral, social, and/or political agenda.

Also, all cats must be treated exceptionally well by the universes they are made to inhabit. I allow no wiggle room on this point.

If you could have ANY job once you graduate, what would you love to do? Money is no object.

I would want only to write, and to read, and to work for no one.

Do you have any authors (or pieces of literature) that inspire you?

Anne Sexton’s “Flee on Your Donkey,” Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” and Denis Johnson’s “This is Tuesday, Your Exam was Thursday” rank among my favorite poems. My favorite authors include Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Philip K. Dick, Joan Didion, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Cormac McCarthy, Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, and several more others than anyone would feasibly care to know.

What does Silk Road embody to you? What words would you use to describe Silk Road to someone who knows nothing about it?

Among the first of many testing grounds for voices of diverse backgrounds, which can lead to some truly splendid moments of convergence.

Majors: Creative Writing & Literature

Graduation Year: 2016