On the night of my 12th birthday, I remember my mom taking me to a McDonalds’ drive-thru.
She had the whole day planned – along with my two best friends at the time, we played glow putt at the mall, had cake (probably chocolate), and had just had the BEST dinner of our lives at my favorite sushi restaurant. But what crystallized this particular birthday in memory for me wasn’t exactly the fish.
It was the trip to Mcdonald’s soon after that.
We wanted vanilla soft-serve, but my mom was afraid that giving ice cream in cones to three hyper 12-year-olds, way past our bedtimes, I should add, would be a bad deal. So she drove up to the monitor and asked for ice cream in cups, but was having trouble explaining what she wanted.
“In cups…so you want a sundae then,” the employee at the other end asserted. “No,” my mom repeated. All she wanted was plain vanilla ice cream in cups, but after a few minutes of back-and-forth, the employee, clearly agitated at this point, wasn’t having it. He requested we drive up to the window and talk to him face to face.
We rolled our window down and it was then he asked: “Is there anyone in the car who can actually speak English here?”
My friends in the back seat looked at each other. I was speechless. And my mother burst out in tears.
To put things into context, my mom is an immigrant from Okinawa, Japan. She moved to the United States after meeting my California-born dad, and even after their subsequent divorce, has continued to live here ever since. For the sake of raising her three American kids – the youngest of which is now a senior in high school – she learned English in a country that was not her home. To me, she’s superwoman. She’s the strongest, bravest, hardest-working, most ambitious woman I have ever had the pleasure to know. But many people in this country don’t see that. To them, she’s just a heavy accent and fragmented sentences – a burden to speak to and too much work to get to know.
From an early age, I saw this. But it wasn’t until that night at McDonald’s that I really saw the scope of how difficult things were, and would continue to be, for her, living and raising her kids in a country of intolerant people. Surrounded by people too frustrated and closed-minded to take the time to communicate, empathize, and understand.
Similarly, it feels like – for whatever reason at all – many people in this country tend to equate the quality of someone’s english to the level of their intelligence, and make snap judgments accordingly. My mom has spent decades, quite frankly, taking shit from people who just don’t get it.
So now that we’re here, I’ll take the opportunity to make a few things clear:
Contrary to popular belief, english proficiency ≠ intelligence.
Immigrants are people too – with kids, with taxes, with jobs, just like everyone else.
And they deserve to be here and be treated with patience and respect, just like everyone else.
I write this right after my 22nd birthday. On deadline for (likely) the most complicated story my teammates and I have ever had our hands on, I didn’t have much time to celebrate it this year, and it was easy to get caught up in the stress of everything. But my mom, being the person she is, sent flowers for delivery, and all I can really think about is how lucky I am to have a woman like her in my life.
My mom is beautiful. She’s funny. She’s independent. She’s an immigrant. And she’s undeniably, incomprehensibly, 100% the smartest person I know.