10 quick things on immigrants, refugees, and non-native English speakers

There is a discourse going on in our country about immigrants, refugees, and non-native speakers. This discourse is heated and emotional but somehow incredibly detached from the individuals that are most affected.

My mom has been teaching ESL for over a decade in a city that, despite its desolate surroundings and relative isolation, is relatively diverse for Texas. She has taught English as a second language to native speakers of a dozen languages she does not know. (She doesn’t even know Spanish somehow.) What she does is an act of wit and witchcraft. And she’s damn good at her job.

Over the years, she taught me much of what I know about a population that is under attack more than ever. Her wisdom deserves more words, but most of the words on refugees and immigrants should be written and spoken by refugees and immigrants themselves. So here is a short list of things I think are worth noting.

  1. A person’s ability to speak a language does not correlate to their intelligence.
  2. Speaking very loud and very slow doesn’t usually help a person understand what you’re saying. This is especially relevant if you don’t have any intention of listening to their response.
  3. The circumstances of a person becoming a refugee are always out of their control.
  4. Many, many people who find themselves in this country did not choose to come to this country. (see #3) But many also know that part of assimilating in the United States means buying into American exceptionalism.
  5. School systems often only give a student a couple of years before they are tested on grade level and in English. There is not a translated test.
  6. Some people come to the states from refugee camps. Some students who are refugees have never been in a formal school setting. Some find the basics of a developed world terrifying. (One of my mom’s student’s was scared to tears at the flush of a toilet.)
  7. Some people come to the states from refugee camps. Some students who are refugees excelled in their school before circumstances out of their control took their school away. Some had lives that were way more comfortable than their life is in America.
  8. Sometimes people don’t want to learn English. This doesn’t mean that they can’t (see #1 and #4)
  9. Any official government process is incredibly difficult to navigate for a native speaker. (Think about all the things you had to read, gather, and do to get your driver’s license.) For non-native English speakers, this can be enough to go without things like government ID and aid. (Have you ever let your driver’s license expire because you didn’t want to bother with the DMV? I have. And I understand everything they’re saying.)
  10. The ability to speak a language shouldn’t determine your livelihood.

a recipe for self confidence


Her body was always a marvel to me. Like the diagrams of adult anatomy, I always saw her body as the finished product of what my growing body was. She used to lay in the backyard on her faded rainbow towel covered in a sheen of tanning oil. This moment of sun was only after she’d spent the morning tending to the breakfasts, the laundry, the vacuuming. She was a vision in a decade-old, black two-piece.

I’d watch her bake quietly in the sun. Sometimes she’d fall into a light sleep, the only kind of sleep my mother knows, and I’d poke her to ask if I could have another popsicle. She would wake startled and confused, but only for a second. Once her consciousness focused on my face she’d soften with a sigh. Not of relief or exasperation, but something in between. She was unconcerned with the way her body looked. Unconcerned with the neighbors. Unconcerned with the ways the world presses in the mind of women.

My mom doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, but an entire drawer in her bathroom is dedicated to multicolor tubes and bright cakes of powder. As a kid, this was my favorite toy box. I would carefully pluck out my prize, wiggle off the cap, gently touch the rouge with the tiniest tip of my index finger, just enough to get a dot of color transferred.  I’d scrub it onto the back of my hand to watch a thin line of red turn darker with the friction. To me it didn’t matter their intended use. These compacts, tubes, and wands were the stuff of make believe. I don’t remember ever watching my mom put it on.

People say I look like my mother. I think they’d say that even if we didn’t share any of our features. Today I chose my outfit because it was the most comfortable shell for my hungover self. I didn’t think about it longer than 30 seconds. When I walked home from work I smiled at the sun in my face. Before I take a bath, I’m going to wipe off the smudge of mascara and tinted moisturizer I put on this morning that is now nonexistent from the day’s wear.

I am my mother’s daughter.

Volume: on taking up space

All elementary school science teachers introduce the concept volume the same way. They fill plastic cylinders halfway with water and instruct their students to record the measurement of the water. Then they ask, “how would we find the volume of something that isn’t liquid?” Because their students haven’t mastered the finer points of multiplication and dimension, their goal isn’t a complicated equation but a simpler method. The students wonder, theorize, and attempt to answer until the teacher brings out the piece de resistance: the objects.

These are typically the same hard plastic objects they used to learn to add and subtract, differing combinations of tiny blue cubes, (the kind that come in single cubes, fused until of ten or a hundred) the rainbow of tangrams, and colorful little bears. They instruct their students to drop their chosen object into the water in front of them. The students do so with glee. Then with grubby hands and fat pencils, they measure the water again. To their surprise, the water has risen. Their teacher assures them, this is the measurement of the volume of the object. The goal of this lesson is simple but effective: to understand that objects take up space and that that space is measurable.

The boy who sat across from me in science class when I did the volume experiment had a history of kicking kids under his desk. He was a terror who left the knees of his victims bruised.  The teacher knew it, the students knew it, and I knew it from experience. After being kicked multiple times and having my complaints brushed off by Mrs. Klein, I solved my problem by folding my legs in configurations that made them untouchable. I’d wrap them around the legs of my desk. I’d hike them up into my book holder. I’d sit cross-legged in my chair. I didn’t complain anymore.

I doubt Mrs. Klein knew she was starting a process of folding and compacting when she half-heartedly scolded the desk-kicker. The way we learn about how to behave is never in the ways that mature people, adults would like us to. But by the time we have the words to describe the real problem we are already trained to find the comfortable spot sitting on our heels.

I often envy the people who seem to unapologetically take up space. I have a coworker who is somehow always in the way and somehow always unapologetic. He stands in the door way of a busy kitchen and forces you to ask him to get out of your way. Then, if you’re ever caught in his path, he gives you about a half second warning before he puts his hand on your back and directs you out of his way.

The thing about this guy is that the world just molds around him. I avoid him and being in his way. I change where I stand so that he can’t run into me. I’d rather change than to deal with is obtuseness. He is the hard plastic bear and the rest of the world is the water.

As an adult I am having to learn that I deserve to take up space. I have a body and this is it’s size. I try not to think too much about having to push past people to get off a crowed subway. I try not to take my coworkers herding personally. I have to force myself to move around my tiny kitchen when one of my roommates is also there. I am slowly, slowly unfolding the neat creases I’ve put in myself.

To take up space is to believe that you matter, that you matter enough for your matter to be measured. But a lot of us are not hard, plastic toys. While we are learning how to measure how much a person matters, we are so soft and moldable. It is much easier to fold yourself inward so much that you’re untouchable rather than suffer perpetually bruised knees.

Pure Poetry

Along with changing everything about my life and doing a lot of yoga, I’ve been caught by a number of poems lately. They find me in the strangest places. It’s almost a serendipity.

This one caught me in the subway. They have these poems stuck between the adds to straighten your teeth and find addiction counseling. I’ve been thinking and writing about Eve a lot lately. She is caught between mother and temptress, sage and sinner. More than just the apple and all that.


A Name

When Eve walked among
the animals and named them–
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer–
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered Name me, name me. 

Ada Limón



This one came to me on my twitter feed. I printed it and put it on my wall. I am a lucky, lucky girl. And I promise I’m not losing too much weight. (lbs to date: +3)


This one is from this morning. Read an article because I recognized Sherman Alexie from ~somewhere~. After I read the poem, I googled it. I remember him from a book list my students had last year.



It’s weird the things you need the most are often not the ones you find after looking doggedly for. There is something to be said for letting go of the anxious tracking of emotional comfort. We are bloodhounds of this sort, sniffing out new situations and people for how much affirmation, affection, attention they can give us, all to avoid whatever kind of pain we are encountering at the moment. It seems to me that as soon as you let yourself slip under the tide of feeling for a moment, hold your breath and relax to the bottom, you find that the tide goes out and you can stand again.

These poems are the pull of tide going back out.



Why I’m writing today

I’ve been writing y’all. Working on some projects. Writing some stuff. Here is why I’m writing today.

  1. Tomi

Did you guys know that before Tomi Lauren got fired she was making videos that got millions of views? MILLIONS. This is one of her many hot takes that she was PAYED TO TALK ABOUT. Context: Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime show

“These privileged, hollywood-entertainer types are really something. Beyoncé didn’t reference the Black Panthers to bring about positive change. She did it to get attention. Good for you, you made headlines! You, just like President Obama, Jada Pinkett Smith, Al Sharpton and so many others just can’t let America heal. Keep ripping off the historical bandaid. Why be a cultural leader when you can play the victim, right?”

[The historical bandaid she is referring to is, of course, the centuries of slavery, oppression and racism that black Americans have faced. Totally just a scrape on the knee of American history. totally.]

Y’all. She was PAID TO SAY THAT SHIT. I only quoted it here so you don’t have to watch the video yourself, but if you need to incite a good rage cry, just google her name.

I’m writing because Tomi Lauren exists. I’m writing because I believe that if Tomi can get a platform, so can I. Seems like by the Tomi standard, all I have to do is shout barely coherent epithets.


2. Harry Styles

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New Year’s Resolutions

Hey. I know I’m late but whatever. New year, same me. EXCEPT in this one way.

My new year’s resolution for 2017?

Don’t be complicit in your own oppression. 

I know oppression is a heavy word and, by many measures, I am not oppressed. I’m white, middle-class, etc etc. But I think the world has subtle ways of oppressing even the most privileged to not be their genuine self (except for DJT, that guy is genuinely a demon dressed in scrotum flesh trying to pass as a president). Here are some ways that I’ve been complicit in my own oppression and how I’m not having that in 2017.

Being silenced

Anyone who knows what mansplaining means also know the feeling of being silenced. But trust, it’s not just in that, “oh sweetheart, you can shush, the men are talking” way; it happens in ways that I find myself complicit to. I’ve been afraid to write (for many personal reasons but also) because the entire liberal media and the media campaign that is the Trump administration has been sending two messages: 1.  everything I’ve thought has already been written (and done better than if I attempted) or 2. whatever you could think or write will sound whiney and will never win your mom’s approval. Both of these work in tandem to keep me quiet. They keep me afraid to write outside of my journal, afraid to even be typing directly into this wordpress text editor. What if I accidentally hit send and then everyone will read my stupid, self-involved ranting and think that I’m stupid and self-involved and fit to be sacrifice when the Trump/Pence Hunger Games begin. Literally, I would die. These hands are made for drinking coffee and typing nonsense not feeling the life drain from a weak competitor. 

To combat this, I will imagine the messages as a part of a Comedy Central roast. In this scenario, I have written many things and have many fans. I have been made the subject of a well-intentioned roast. I sit on that ugly stage as less funny, less smart people try to get my goat because I, myself, am the GOAT. A representative from the New Yorker jokes about how I’ve never been published there. My dad tells an embarrassing story and tries to get the audience to laugh at my Yankee liberal ideas. Snoop Dogg says something between blunt hits. I laugh. I leave the stage. I cash the check. I write the next thing.


Look, I apologize. I’m incredibly sorry for bumping into you on the crowded subway car. I even more sorry for not paying attention while I’m trying to find my way via google maps. I am the most sorry for every hurtful thing I ever said. I’ve lived swinging between being deeply, deeply sorry for shit and not giving one. I think it’s time the pendulum stops swinging. Apologizing indicates guilt, the person to blame, the one responsible. But I am not responsible for the feelings of anyone else. Of course, I live my life in a way that doesn’t intentionally hurt others, but damned if I’m going to spend 2017 trying to avoid the minefield that is ya brain.

I’m going to stop apologizing, obviously, but I’m also going to stop preemptively apologizing. I did this thing all through 2016 where I told people how much of a garbage person I was. It is a funny joke (doesn’t really lose it’s bite and it’s always relevant) but I realized that people kind of believed me. In 2017, I’m not going to apologize to people about my every imagined vice. I’m going to stop talking about myself negatively in the hopes that if I do do something bad all I have to do is apologize and say “see, I told you so.” I’m not sorry for who I am. It took a long time to get this good. A fine wine aged 15 years does not apologize for not being aged for 25; it is just fine and good and unapologetic.

Being Emotional 

Long long ago in 2016, I made the mistake of crying at work. Some really good news came right when I really needed it and I excused myself to the office to let out the happy tears in peace. Within three minutes, I’d was harassed by two male coworkers about what was happening. They first demanded that I told them what was going on, so as to justify them covering the MOUNTAINS of work in a coffee shop at 8 pm. After I tried to decline then told them the truth (that I was crying for joy, not some deep wound that they could gawk at and say they were ~there~ for me), they then demanded that I get back to work. I let them demand that. I wiped my tears and went to talk to the one table in the restaurant who didn’t need a damn thing while the dudes sat there, dick in hand, doing nothing. Why did I let that pressure snap me out of the feeling I was feeling? Why did I let them dictate my emotions in that moment? Why was their feeling of comfort more important than my feelings?

2017 is. not. having. it. I’m emotional about a lot of stuff these days. I’m mad as hell about everything happening in this country and I want to be mad. I’m sad about my life changing in ways I never imagined and I want to be sad. I’m happy about the opportunity to make a life for myself that’s aligned with my whole self and I want to be happy about that. In 2017, I am going to feel the feels I feel. (#feelfeelsfeel) I am not going to let the bigots around me convince me that I shouldn’t be mad or sad or happy. I am going to yell at people who deserve to be yelled at. I might cry when I do it.


2017 is not a year to be complicit in your own oppression. And let’s not forget that as long as our brothers and sisters are oppressed, we are too. The oppression experienced by POC, immigrant, refugee, LGBTQ, Native, and other peoples are our oppressions too. Don’t be complicit in systems of oppression. Don’t be complicit in quiet oppressions. Don’t be complicit in personal oppressions. The war is fought at home and abroad. Fight like hell and, hey, at the very least it will toughen us up to emotionally endure the apocalypse.


Why Hillary Clinton Won’t Win the Presidential Debate

We don’t like women’s voices for a lot of reasons. They’re not low enough. They’re not intimidating enough. They’re not powerful enough. They’re not even processed by the same parts of our brain. But even if a woman makes it to a platform where her voice is heard (literally), that platform is already slanted against her.

We police women’s voices until we can hardly hear what they have to say. Take vocal fry, the “epidemic” sweeping over millennial women and NPR podcasters alike. Those who spoke with vocal fry were thought to be less authoritative and intelligent, while the Ira Glasses’ of the world continued to be heard without listener complaint, vocal fry and all. Despite what we like to think about our progress, our expectations of how people should talk are surprisingly gendered and still put women, especially powerful ones, in an impossible bind.

For the first time in history, these expectations are playing out on a grand stage in the 2016 presidential election. For the first time there is a woman nominee, and on September 24, that woman nominee will debate yet another male nominee, and our unconscious biases could mean a hell of a lot more than liking a podcaster.

So what do we expect out of Hillary and Trump?

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Nice Girls Never Win: How Taylor Swift Got Caught in a Web We All Weave

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive

While researching an insignificant topic for a paper that was really assigned to practice our cursive, I became transfixed on this quote in the margins of the page of a children’s encyclopedia. I wrote it down. I recited it to myself. I fixated my fourth grade brain on what on earth that little ditty could mean. I knew that “deceive” meant something like “lie,” but I couldn’t understand why or how someone would practice to deceive. I didn’t understand then that, for many women, the very act of being nice depends on this practice of deceptive web weaving. I didn’t understand that this web that holds things together for time will only entangles the weaver.

Success and the Need to be Nice

Taylor Swift is caught in one such tangled web. After being “exposed” by Kim Kardashian she pivoted her story to accommodate the new information and keep Kanye West in the wrong. But none of the twists of this feud have been about the truth. Every turn is about personas (Swift’s, West’s, and Kardashian’s), and Taylor Swift’s is becoming unsustainable. Swift’s plight, from top-of-her-game to put-in-her-place, is an all too familiar one for a girl who wants to be known as nice.

First, a note on success: I refuse to believe that Taylor Swift is naive, stupid, or without control of her image. Like most famous artists, she has earned her success through a series of incredibly shrewd business moves and careful construction of a brand. Swift’s persona would never allow for an honest discussion of these aspects of her career, but there are there if you look past the red lipstick and instagram spam. The very brand that Swift and Co have created relies on Swift embodying the nice girl who’s defining characteristic is that she is likable.

Second, a note on being a nice: It’s not nice to say, “I got here because I worked my ass off.” Instead, nice girls say things like “I’m incredibly lucky” or “I couldn’t have done it without_____” It’s not nice to believe your work is better than others. Instead, nice girls show that they are just regular girls doing what came naturally to them. It’s not nice to keep a private, small circle of friends because it’s cliquey (read: bitchy). Instead, nice girls collect friends because everyone wants to be their friend and they’re so damn nice that they would never turn anyone away.

In this framework, Taylor could never speak specifically on what she had to do to earn an audition, a seat at the meeting, or control of her artistry. Taylor could never not like someone, unless that person was specifically and verifiably rude to her. Then, of course, not liking someone is justified. In this framework, Taylor must have a squad but can never support someone as controversial as Kanye West (even if she wanted to). To agree with Kanye when he is not being nice (i.e. calling Swift a bitch) means she may not be so nice. The web is tangled from the start because Taylor attempts to balance characteristics that are seen as mutually exclusive in our culture. You can’t be a nice girl and not be bothered by being called a bitch. You can’t be Taylor Swift and understand Kanye West. You can’t be nice and a shrewd business woman. 

In short, nice girls can’t win.

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Fathers be good to your daughters

When I was growing up, I wasn’t close to my dad. For me, he was the authority, the enforcer, the coach.

I grew up watching him on the sidelines of the football field every fall Friday night. He earned a solid reputation for being a son-of-a-bitch. Once at a middle school track meet a boy told me that my dad was an asshole. I responded, “If you think he’s an asshole, try living with him!” Our roles in each other’s lives forced us into positions that were distant from and in reaction to the other.

But there is a long season of a daughter’s life that is unknowable to her father. It isn’t just about him not liking your boyfriend (he didn’t) or not approving of the late night activities the cool kids were doing (he rarely). It is more about an inability to access the strange alchemy that turns girls into women.

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Should you read this?


The Basics

Title: By the Light of My Father’s Smile
Author: Alice Walker
Published: 1998


Yes, said Lily Paul. True education is never a one-way street.
Ouch! said Susannah.
Oh yes, said Lily Paul. I can study just as hard as you. And what I’ve learned from our years of mutual cramming is that I can neither have you nor be you. Nor can I have your childhood instead of my own. I’m stuck with who I am, she said, twirling a silver lock with her finder. I’m trying to learn that that’s not so bad.

If this book were a song, it’d be….

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