Can You Speak English?

Can You Speak English?

This story is inspired by events in Naina’s life as an immigrant and those in the immigrant community she’s connected with. For Naina, preconceptions about immigrants are detrimental, especially when navigating school and work. Here’s how.

40+40+13+7. That’s the years of life between the four of them, packed into eight suitcases, with dreams taxed, passports stamped, hearts heavy and ablaze. Baggage weighed, not including the emotional. Family waves goodbye, the land feels betrayed. Bidding farewell to all they have ever known and possessed, they board a plane to the land Down Under. 

She embarks on this journey to the unknown

Parents saying goodbyes to their parents, already conjuring nostalgia of all the bittersweet moments. 

After a plane ride that wouldn’t seem to end, four new immigrants–jetlagged, sleepy and scared—clumsily get their luggage and make their way to the immigration counter. 

Their first interaction upon touchdown left them questioning their decisions; muddy in their head and heavy in their heart. Looked at like they had no right to be there, the immigration officer said, ‘Can you speak English?’ ‘Yes,’ they returned with a smile not mutually exchanged. Taking it in their stride, they masked their countless anxieties with a pseudo-brave appearance.

‘It’s been a month,’ the mother said, her hands folded in front of God. Prayer was her solo resort and hope. Despite being very well qualified, not being allowed a go at employment made the parents feel worthless and scared for their lives and careers. 

How was school?

Putting on a cosmetic smile every day after hours of disappointment in the form of recruiters’ scoffs, they picked up the kids from school. The children were no less masters of theatrical arts as when asked, ‘How was your day at school?’ They always lied and said it was fine. The word ‘struggle’ never made it to their lips but the four of them silently fought battles day and night, in order to create illusions that they made the right choice for the sake of each other. 

Staying strong in the face of adversity, they expelled their sorrow on pillowcases in the hours of darkness. ‘Can you speak English?’ No longer dreaded, just accepted. Their flaw was the melanin bestowed upon them by their ethnic roots of origin. Once their pride, now their everyday embarrassment.

When gaining admission to high school, she was required to sit an examination which tested her English speaking, reading, writing and listening skills. After totalling the results, the report stated that her linguistic skills were among the best they had evaluated.

After the admission processes were finalised came the daunting part, the reality of high school as an immigrant. She got offered a place in a class of high achievers and was curiously welcomed with the now ubiquitous ‘Can you speak English?’ 

Soon after she proved herself through stellar reports, the peers gained respect for her abilities. Skin shade didn’t define who she was anymore. She went on to secure a place in a selective school where her intellect was what people saw in her.

And what about work?

Eventually, finding employment as recruiters, the parents introduced campaigns to increase diversity and representation in the corporate workforce. They proved to their kids through perseverance, to be the change they want to see manifest in their world. 

An estimated 43% of recent migrants who have had a job since arrival in Australia received some form of help to find their first job. About one third (35%) of recent migrants reported experiencing some difficulty finding their first job in Australia. 

Inspired by her parents to be the change she wants to see, she now runs programs and aids kids in the immigrant community coping with the initial feelings of isolation. She hopes that someday no Naina, Ahmed, Ali or Ling Lee will be daunted by and scared of the question, ‘Can you speak English?’