Don’t judge a person for his/her broken English

I had lunch with a friend whom I met in college today. It has been a while since we met and the meet was pleasant. In addition to catching up with what the other was doing, we touched upon what would seem to be quite a deep topic for lunch, but you could tell that we were close enough to open up on it.

Long story short, I told him the last time we met that I somehow felt looked down up on by Americans because I am Asian, because I don’t look big enough and because I don’t speak English like a native speaker. I have been trying hard since I was 16 and I wish I could, but the fact is that even though I speak the language well enough to get me a job and two Master’s degrees, I don’t talk like a native speaker.

The friend brought it back today. He talked about his encounter with a French engineer who uprooted his life back home to come to America to have a better career and life. The French guy doesn’t speak English well, said my friend, but my friend admired the courage taken to go to a foreign country alone, as he once told me. My friend said that the biggest lesson he had in the last few years was to learn that it wasn’t easy for others to come to the US and that no matter how good or bad someone’s English is, the effort to speak the language is already admirable and it shouldn’t be the basis on which judgement is passed.

As an immigrant, of course, I understand the sentiment, yet it is great to hear it from my friend. But if I have to be honest, I don’t use my inability to speak English natively as an excuse. To me, if I succeed, good. I did put in the work, but I was lucky as well. If I fail, well I was just not good enough. Coming here to study and work is a game. I chose to participate in that game and it just doesn’t make sense to say that my failure is justified because the rules are not in my favor. Nonetheless, I am happy to hear that from my friend and proud to have him as a friend.

For the compassion and humility, I have learned a great deal myself from learning technical topics such as coding and IT. I am always a believer in the notion that we all should try to find answers on our own first before asking questions or for help from others. It matters more to me that a person actually tried on his or her own first than whether he or she succeeded in finding the answer. But admittedly, I easily got irritated. I was arrogant. I got annoyed whenever I thought people asked too easy questions.

Since learning how to code, I have realized that I was…well, an asshole. Code is very binary. It either works or it doesn’t. There is nothing in between. When trying to find answers to my coding problems, I encountered numerous times guys who were better than me, but gave replies that asked more questions than answers. Some guys on StackOverflow or at school answered, but in a way that you couldn’t fathom unless a significant amount of time is spent on that or the person elaborated more.

When I was still an intern at an IT company, all the technical details and jargon floating around the office were initially another language to me. I had to, if I am honest, disturb some engineers in the office to help me understand even the basic concepts in their mind. I told them: “please speak English to me. I am dumb. Dumb it down for me”. I am glad that they did because it helped me tremendously then, now and in the future I believe.

Since then, I have learned the value of humility and compassion more. I have consciously made an effort to be very specific with words and visuals when helping others. I have consciously tried to be patient and understanding that the person processes information differently than I do and that I used to or still am in that position.

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