THE KITCHEN COUNTER – Here are all the different things I ordered from the drive-thru chicken place. Three wings, one breast, slaw and biscuits. Wait. No biscuits. I’ve got to learn to count my change and my purchases before leaving any establishment. It happens to me time and again, and I’ll bet it has happened to you, too. You place an order at a drive-thru or any take-out at a restaurant and, when you get home, what you ordered and paid for is not what you got. The reason, as Strother Martin said to Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” I know what I ordered, but the fellow who took my order didn’t speak much English. My excellent dry cleaner lady is Vietnamese. She knows the laundry business and would probably do quite well in Hanoi, but in Texas she fails to communicate, and so I have to repeat and repeat my instructions. (I’ve found that it helps if you shout.) A waitress seems to be just out of the detention center in Brownsville, and gets my order wrong. It’s not just the locals who have a communications problem. Have you ever called up your cable company and talked to someone you can’t talk to? He’s probably making a dollar an hour in Bangladesh. The computer company saves a lot of money that way, but the customer gets frustrated.
“My computer is down and can’t get up,” I say.
“Yu scooter not something something?”
This is not to ridicule immigrants or those in other lands whose job, probably at lower than minimum wage, is to communicate with us, it’s that employers choose to save a buck by hiring people who are not yet capable of handling a major part of that job: dealing with customers. And the boss won’t train them. So I blame the employers, not the employees, who, God bless ‘em, are in over their heads. On the other hand, our immigrants need to make some effort on their part to assimilate. The other night I was watching the local news on TV – the usual car wrecks, apartment fires and shootings — and the reporter was interviewing a woman who couldn’t speak English and needed a Spanish-language translator. “How long have you been in America?” the reporter asked. Through the translator the woman replied, “Thirty years.” Now if you lived in, say, Mexico City, for 30 years, wouldn’t you pick up a little of the local lingo? Actually, in Texas you can get by very well just speaking Spanish as you are surrounded by Spanish-language TV, radio, even political speeches. Home Depot, Walmart and other stores have all their signs in English and Spanish.
So who needs to know English? Amy Lacey thought her students should. She was fired as principal of Hempstead Middle School outside Houston after, the school administration charged, she told her students over the school’s intercom, half of whom are Hispanic, not to speak Spanish. Lacey denied banning Spanish, and said it is state policy to teach English and the official language of the state of Texas is English. Her intent, she claimed, was merely to encourage her students to use English more, a skill especially important in taking state tests. She sued to get her job back.
Then there is TV sage Tom Brokaw, who coined the term, “the Greatest Generation.” On “Meet the Press,” he was discussing immigration and fears Republicans have over Hispanics who would vote Democratic. “Also, I hear, when I push people a little harder, ‘Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.’ I mean, that’s also a part of it. It’s the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.” Brokaw went on to say that “the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” and “make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.” Well, ol’ Tom caught unmitigated hell. “Brown grandbabies” didn’t go over very well with some viewers. He apologized all over the place. On TV, he said he felt “terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture.” He twitted (no capitalization): “”i am sorry, truly sorry, my comments were offensive to many. the great enduring american tradition of diversity is to be celebrated and cherished.”
He may not have worried so much. A Pew Research Center study from 2013 found about 62 percent of Hispanic adults in the U.S. either speak English or are bilingual. Their kids do better. A Pew study also found that “fully 89 percent of U.S.-born Latinos spoke English proficiently in 2013, up from 72 percent in 1980.” The research shows that as immigrants settle in the U.S. they and their kids embrace English. The others are doomed to spend the rest of their lives washing our cars and mowing our lawns. Unless you play for the Astros, you can’t get very far in Houston unable to speak English.
Houston is a good example of this melting pot, which is actually more of a cafeteria line: we get a look at everything offered and choose what we like. There is quite a choice: 145 different languages are spoken in the city, about 100 in the Houston ISD alone. We have 79 foreign consulates, honorary counsels and foreign representatives. Almost a quarter of Harris County is foreign born. No wonder Houston is called “the most diversified city in America.” You want proof? There are 10,000 restaurants in the Houston area representing cuisine from more than 70 countries. Tripadviser reviewed 9,242 of them (I guess they got full). This included 236 Italian restaurants, 320 Chinese, 82 Indian and so on. They checked out 785 Tex-Mex eateries. When they are called Mex-Tex restaurants, we’ll know who assimilated whom. Meanwhile, check your take-outs.
Ashby is monolingual at email@example.com