It was freezing again, and I turned up early at citizenship prep wearing the blue coat Laura equated with my identity. The class had progressed to Unit 2 and was now studying Native American tribes and the original U.S. colonies.
I peeled off two women from the group, and after determining that they didn’t have many states banked in their memories for reference, set about teaching them names of all 50 states in alphabetical order – something I had retained since the age of nine thanks to a particularly catchy Schoolhouse Rock.
As we worked our way down the list, I noticed that one of the women was dropping the “s” from United States, a common mistake among the Spanish speakers in the class, and one I didn’t feel immigration officers would look too kindly upon.
The other woman, however, was tripping up on sounds that hadn’t previously proved problematic for the students I worked with. I squinted at her, trying to determine her country and language of origin. Her skin was darker than most of the other students’ and she had a vaguely African-Caribbean look, but her pronunciation errors weren’t those of a native French speaker, either. I listened closely as she trilled out, in chorus with the Spanish speaker and me, America.
I must have been watching her a bit too intently, because she blushed and said, by way of explanation, that she was from Sao Paulo. My eyes lit up. A couple of years ago, while staring at the dead plants in my tomb-silent office in Beijing, I had hatched a plan to hop around to all of the BRIC countries and report on their development. If I had managed to do it in China first, I certainly wouldn’t fail in Brazil, which at least had a Romance language for me to work with.
Shortly thereafter – and for a very short period – I had started studying Portuguese. I told Linda how I had struggled against the natural sounds I knew the consonants to make, particularly turning the R’s into H’s, and she asked how much I remembered. I sheepishly repeated the only phrase that came to mind: Eu sou uma mulher. I am a woman.
She laughed and laughed at my ignorance, and for the rest of the session, I noticed that the words rolled more freely off her tongue. My weakness had formed a basis for her strength.