We began in the big classroom. Our first days varied. Some of us were already disciplined, trained in the art of sitting. For others, the time in chairs shortened our hamstrings and left us with an unnatural gait to accompany the cramps in our hands. Workbooks with perforated pages and illustrations in place of instructions sat on the tables in front of us. There were blanks to be filled in. There were clock faces demanding arms to correspond with digital descriptions of time.
On that first day, we presented ourselves to each other in the language. Hello. My name is such and such, but my friends call me this. And the speaker’s face would redden at the chorus of “Hello, this,”—at the strangeness of hearing their own name pronounced in thirty unknown accents. Names were expanded to names plus a carefully selected personal detail. Hello my name is this and that and I like movies. That detail was our first foot forward in conversation. With limited vocabulary skills it was crucial to choose correctly, to rely on the words we could pronounce best. The last thing we needed as non-native speakers was to lead with our status as non-native speakers. We practiced our presentations at every chance and filled the windowed hall outside the classroom with token greetings and goodbyes.
The classroom was typical: tables arranged in rows, windows covered by blinds that clinked pleasantly when they were drawn, the linoleum floor a mottled, dirt-concealing grey. Long plateaus of incomprehension followed fugitive moments of understanding. We surrounded each other with far off looks of concentration. The rough, complex thoughts that still flew through our minds raced towards our tongues, shot past our teeth, stumbled on our palates, and landed on weary ears like broken bricks on brick walls. We lost even the familiarity of our voices as we spat strange sounds into the increasingly cluttered air of the classroom. Worse still were the uncommented-on misunderstandings.
“You look angry,” the teacher would say.
“It’s complicated,” we would reply.
“Then make it simple.”
We were reduced to our atomic selves, to so and so’s who liked just one thing or another.
Our first afternoon spent grappling with untranslatable concepts left us longing for the tiny triumphs of object identification: pencil, snow, tree, tax bureau. Instead of pointing at illustrations in our workbooks, we jabbed at the air with our fingers, our voices rising, bored and frustrated by the inaccessibility of exactitude. The abstract idea of “just right” condensed into a single word taunted us with its precise measure constructed over centuries by cultural idiosyncrasies we did not share.
Our weekends had been just good enough, thank you. How much milk would we like in our coffee? Just enough, please. Individuality had boundaries that didn’t fit with our newfound solidarity built on common sense and approximation. We grasped rules before we could apply them. In class, you shall not think that you are something. You shall not think you are as good as we. To think of me without we was isolation, was an unobserved holiday spent alone, or the sharp silence when new words failed to express opinions once assumed ubiquitous.
At two o’clock, the school paused for coffee in the communal kitchen. A colorful world map hung on the wall overlooking three round café tables. Cookies, fruit, and coffee were provided. We took mugs from the cupboards, scooped coffee into the filter, set the milk on the counter, refilled the sugar. We took turns watering the orchids on the windowsill and watching our reflection wield the watering can.
Groups formed around each table, mirroring the hacked up world of the map on the wall. While the teacher took her coffee, we conversed in the language with exaggerated enthusiasm. The bus was late, the bus is always late, yesterday there was no train, we’re always on time, I like your jacket, blue is my favorite color, what’s your favorite movie, it’s complicated.
Then, when the teacher went out and the door shut behind her, Southern sugar takers and Northern milk sippers alike reverted to their native tongues. We came dangerously close to answering the question we dreaded to hear but were always thinking—where do you come from originally? We allowed ourselves the respite from social regulation and reverted to delicate, complex communication. At twenty past, a line formed at the dishwasher. Mugs were arranged to fit, the empty milk cartons crushed and tossed into the recycling bin, cookies shoved into pockets for long bus rides home. Our verbal sentiments simplified. We resumed narration of our movements in the language as we returned the kitchen to a state of order, ready for the next day. A chorus of gasps filled the hallway as our thoughts, those rough protrusions of self that had regenerated during the interval of linguistic freedom, were shorn off by the sharp angles of the classroom’s doorway.
We were like new, from the clothes we wore to the way we perceived the clothes we might buy off the racks in the stores. Scarves distorted our bodies and dwarfed our heads, and swollen down jackets ballooned our torsos and withered our legs. We rubbed fabrics between our fingers and tried to imagine their ability to combat the cold. Could they keep out the wet? Did they dry quickly? We had been told there was no bad weather, only bad clothing.
We tried to wear what they wore. Tried to keep straight the myriad words for hat. The princess and her husband were photographed in matching knit beanies topped with bobbles of fur. Sidewalks on the north side of the city became dotted with bouncing bits of dead rabbit. Then old town. Then the south side. They all wore this hat. So we all began to wear that hat. Then it was just us wearing the hat. It had become our hat. We were aliens, travelers in space topped with dead rabbit bobbles as we approached our new home and watched the grief on the faces of our welcoming party come into focus.
The teacher in the big classroom was everything we aspired to be, a model of passing. She had an indiscernible accent. Her hair color was meticulously regulated along with her wardrobe choices and her interactions with students. We practiced saying her name to ourselves, but rarely spoke it. On occasion, she summoned us to join her at her desk, to fill out papers or explain an absence. At these times we heard the thoughts we dared not think reflected in her tone when she spoke of them, their fashions she had resentfully adopted and their bureaucracy, which she dutifully upheld. We recognized her authority as their representative. It was she who administered our exams, determined our progress. But in our eyes, it was the apparent success of her divided allegiance that secured her legitimacy.
Each chapter sandwiched between the bright blue cover of our oversized workbook was given a letter—A through D. Each letter contained vocabulary, grammar, listening competence, and pronunciation, all presented under the umbrella of a unifying aspect of the culture that tied into the global context via current events. Newspaper clippings depicting human rights abuses in far off places and local train derailments provided an opportunity to evaluate the world using our new lens. Diamonds were a good investment, here we did not have to worry that our purchases were bloodstained. But of course differentiating oneself through displays of wealth was undesirable. Though it may seem outdated, the public transport system we rode each day had once been a model of modernity. Perhaps the trains would be on time, had track maintenance not been entrusted to an overseas contractor.
Students progressed through their workbooks at their own pace. The instructor moved around the room making corrections, answering questions, and selecting students who completed assignments within the same timeframe for discussion sessions in the kitchen.
We were encouraged to listen to the radio.
Test B was administered in the morning. We answered questions regarding a recorded message that announced a train delay and the location of replacement buses. We filled in blanks, drew lines from words to objects, wrote mock letters to our neighbors requesting they not remove our clothing from the dryer in the communal laundry room before the dry cycle had been completed. We reproduced our imaginary family trees.
Results came the next morning on official letterhead tucked into envelopes. Samaneh, Kathrin, Olga, Akberet, and Mary. We were to form a separate class in the room at the end of the hall.
We chose seats from the ergonomic chairs around the large rectangular table and turned to face the native woman at the front of the classroom: our new teacher, Anita. As we presented ourselves, our carefully chosen words and practiced pronunciations became stilted. Anita’s naturally blond hair, ruddy cheeks, and boxy clothing disarmed us with authenticity. Through the classroom’s one window we saw a lane lined with villas and harshly pruned apple trees not visible from the big classroom.
She asked questions for which we had no prepared answers. She had us repeat what we said until we were sure what we said had no meaning, and shook her head at our perfunctory vowel sounds. She coached our mouths to new levels of compliance with the aid of pencils held in place under our noses by pursed lips. We snickered at the sounds we made. Anita passed out hand mirrors and we watched the spectacle of our faces as we taught them to behave. She pulled us apart, called us by name, and tailored her treatment to our individual anatomical configurations.
At five minutes to two we paused for coffee. We passed the big classroom on our way through the windowed hall to the kitchen. Students were bent over their workbooks. Our old teacher paced between the rows. A man known for his unusual height stooped at the wall mounted pencil sharpener. A few watched us pass. Most continued working. We could hear the familiar thud of frustrated movements and exaggerated sighs. It seemed only natural that we, the first to arrive, should put on the coffee. Mary watered the orchids, and as she bent to read the thermometer we saw a uniformed postal worker pass on their bicycle, fitted with extra baskets and laden with local mail.
The students from the big classroom appeared in the doorway, tentatively, as though re-navigating the ritual with consideration for the novel condition of our early arrival. The room filled in around us. Our table continued to speak the language with newly contorted faces, sustaining a strained conversation that felt like an extension of our classroom discussions. Anita had taken coffee and left the room, but she could appear in the hall at any time, could look in and see how our lips moved. A single word from a relaxed mouth threatened to undo our progress and challenge our newfound social position so close to one of them. The ties of the classroom web snapped around us. We nodded despondently to questions about the back room or replied in the language until the students of the big classroom ceased to approach us. Tenuous strands of allegiance to Anita—to the new ideal—emerged.
Anita showed us pictures of families. We passed them around the table holding them carefully by the edges. We wanted to know how to express that we liked the baby.
Samaneh asked, “If we say that it’s sweet, will they think we want to eat it?”
“Samaneh!” we said. And to Anita, “But really, will they?”
There was a rumor that a new culture could only be learned through the eyes of a child. It was possible to become one of them by renouncing yourself and starting again from the beginning, relearning each sandbox value, regarding high time celebrations with idiotic awe, and eating the foods of native school children. Akberet brought papers from her daughter’s school for Anita to decipher. Kathrin taught us the songs her son learned at daycare. They had brought motherhood with them. How could the rest of us think of children when we finally had the opportunity not to think about children?
We discussed a hypothetical visit to the home of the family in the pictures for coffee. We did not bring food. They would provide it. We brought flowers because it was the host’s birthday. We took off our shoes by the door. They gave us a tour of their house.
“Can we look in the closets?” we asked.
“Wouldn’t you rather see the new appliances in the kitchen?” asked Anita. Yes, of course. We accepted more coffee the second time it was offered. We left a lonely bun on the plate even when plied by our hostess to take it. We said, “What a sweet baby!” and “He’ll be out running marathons before you know it,” and when he was bad, “How good he is!”
Anita took us into the city. Old town had narrow cobblestone streets that radiated from the castle. The waterfront was lined with pastel plaster facades, classical columns topped with gilt scrolls, and the sea was frozen black and unmoving. We took our coffee at the state library, a modern cube on the corner of two streets of austere, compact buildings built in the functional style that dominated the newer quarters.
Copies of The Count of Monte Cristo, translated and converted into “easy reading” for use by the program, had been reserved for us at the main desk. Books such as these—simplified classics—were available in all of the paperback shops, as well as the many branches of the municipal library system. Anita passed out vocabulary lists and we mumbled as we walked: traitor, treasure, fate. The large state library was a shell, a massive rotunda lined with books. We carried our copies as we ventured beyond the easy reading section, our steps echoing in circles around the empty core. Our stilted sentences smeared across the bindings of native poets to whom we would never be introduced.
We waited for the bus to take us back to our classroom. Our breath formed crystals in our noses. Anita had mittens; we all had gloves. She told us we could keep warm by not shivering. We spotted the man from the big classroom known for his unusual height behind the wheel of a taxi on the other side of the street.
“Yohannes!” we said. “He’s gotten his license.”
“He offered to show me his driving manual once,” said Anita.
“He was saving to buy his own car,” we said.
Akberet invited us to her home after class. We rode the train together, then the bus, and walked flat-footed over the snow and up a steep hill. At five o’clock, it had already been dark for an hour. We moved towards floating rows of glowing dots, single candles set in each of the windows of Akberet’s building. We were awkwardly empty-handed, except Mary who brought flowers in case there was a birthday.
Apartment houses were erected in a ring around the city as the number of new arrivals skyrocketed thirty years ago. There was no program then. The apartment houses were built at the end of the bus lines to a just-right height barely visible above the trees. Their square simplicity refused adornment. Apartments in these buildings followed the standard layout of one or two bedrooms and a kitchen. The walls were lined with cabinets lacquered the same white as the walls. The ground floor housed storage rooms for bicycles and communal laundry facilities.
Akberet’s building had a glass elevator, one of the few possible variations. We were too many to turn and face the same direction. Akberet’s daughter, Genet, opened the door, then hid behind her mother. We lined up our shoes by the entrance. Genet rearranged them while Akberet put the flowers in water.
“How good she is,” we said.
The language and universal experiences guided our conversation. We exchanged tips on layering our clothing for warmth and asked after each other’s families, offering updates on fake relatives we had used to populate our fake family trees.
“Your father, Mary?” we asked.
“The same,” Mary answered gravely. We nodded sympathetically. The hole left by excised sincerity was easiest filled with feigned concern for false characters. Music we recognized from a lecture on the coming celebration played on the radio. We sipped coffee and eyed the last bun on the plate. Akberet’s daughter fell asleep dangling from her mother’s breast. We sorted our shoes quietly to leave. Olga took the last bun and we looked away.
We returned to the bus stop to begin our journeys home. One side of the glass bus shelter had been smashed, the tiny pieces of shatter resistant glass held together by an “x” of orange tape. Through the glass the lights in the windows of Akberet’s apartment house glittered between the pines like gravel in a skinned knee. Chains on the tires of passing cars scratched at the road. Headlights searched our faces and flung our shadows across the snow. An older couple arrived at the bus stop and we smiled sweetly, standing to let them sit.
“Always late,” said the man to the woman. His fur-trimmed hood slid from his head as he craned his neck in the direction of the bus’ impending arrival. They shook their heads and sat.
The bus arrived, heaved and screeched, and sank for boarding. We let the older couple board first. We sat near the front, shook our heads at one another in pleasant camaraderie, and said, "always late."
We heard the couple behind us mutter, "Always early."
The next Monday, a new woman joined us. She had been promoted after completing Test B.
“My name is Renata. My friend’s call me Rena. I like to dance,” she said.
“Hi Rena,” we said. We asked about the big classroom. The teacher had been given an assistant, a man sent by the employment office to teach job skills. He sweat through his shirt, was unpleasant, and had an accent no one had heard before.
The program was designed to make us employable. It’s purpose was to teach us how to behave at a job: to ignore hierarchy unless called into an office, to participate in After Works when invited out by colleagues, and to name the parts of a computer. After the program, there would be an opportunity to take tests at the employment office to determine what profession we were best suited for, and for which job we would settle. Everyone was required to attach their picture to their resumes. The employment office was always crowded.
We felt there were things we were not being told. We discussed the snickers we got, the whispers directed at us. What was it about our efforts to become them that made us feel we were moving backwards, farther away from our future selves? Our vocabularies grew and we heard one another’s accents more clearly. We learned customs, but without occasion to practice them outside of the program. We strived to form the connections that made their jokes funny, but our misinterpretations diverted our efforts and formed another type of humor—one that further separated and marked us.
Anita told us the days were getting longer. The sun stayed in the sky, behind clouds and falling snow, until five. We wanted the spring to melt us so we could become undetectable, like the snow Anita promised would eventually melt into the gutters and rejoin the waterways of the city. We moved through the program faster than expected. The date of the final exam was pushed up.
We sat in the classroom around the long rectangular table making strained, uncomfortable faces that matched our mental exertion, but not the meanings of our words. The spring sun had arrived and we longed for the walk to the bus stop, to listen to the trickle of melting snow, to unwrap our scarves so the sun warmed our skin and the wind whipped it. Rena stood at the white board attempting an extended self-presentation.
Rena had left a job at an ice cream factory. She had arrived with her husband, Benjamin, and her teenage son, Martin, a year ago. She lived with her family in an apartment house near a pizzeria. Her husband was in the large classroom. He carried a brown leather briefcase. Her son wanted a skateboard. He had begun to walk ahead of her after they disembarked from the bus, as though they had not boarded and sat together. She paused and looked at Anita.
“What else? What else?” asked Rena.
“Tell us what you want from your life,” we said. She didn’t know, she didn’t know.
“What about University?” we asked. She thought about taking classes once she finished the program. What in? Who knows!
“Have you exercised all of your rights? Have you voted?” No, not yet, but she would.
“Have you taken sick leave? Been to the doctor? There is healthcare to be accessed!” we cried. “There are freedoms to be enjoyed!” And she had, and she had, and she would.
Rena turned to the board. She drew a house surrounded by t’s. “Berry. Berry? Buried?” said Rena. She pointed out the window. A cat sunned itself on the veranda across the lane. Smooth new shoots radiated from the apple trees. She pointed to the house in her drawing. She stabbed at the t’s, grabbed a dictionary from the table, and began to flip through the pages.
“Burial!” she said. “Burial! I want to bury my family in my yard.”
“You want to bury your family in your yard?” we asked. Of course she did! She wanted a large house—a villa—with a yard large enough to bury every member of her family. The ones in unmarked graves! She would have them shipped here. There would be space for her husband, her son, herself—one day. They would all be together.
“Is that all you want?” We clicked our pens. Olga went to the wastebasket and dropped in a crumpled piece of paper.
We told Rena that was not allowed here.
There was a new sign posted outside of the kitchen advertising monetary incentives for those who began the program after a certain date and completed it by another. We did not qualify. New students stopped us in the hallway and asked us to read the sign to them and explain its meaning.
In the back classroom, we watched movies to learn what was worth telling stories about. We spoke to one another until we were understood, no matter how long our turns became. We read their news and history, learned who was and had been important. We learned idioms. In our eagerness to become them, we ceased to search for the words to describe ourselves. The words we might have used disappeared from our vocabulary. Rena stopped coming to class. Her husband said she had found a job that did not require speech.