It is 9 p.m. and Jennifer is just now returning home in Valley Stream, Long Island. Valley Stream is a quiet residential neighborhood. There are many 1-4 family housing units and the neighborhood appears family oriented. Schools and parks within walking distance from Jennifer’s home.
She removes the groceries from the trunk of her car and walks up the driveway to her front door. Jennifer struggles to carry the bags of groceries because she is also carrying her nursing textbooks and purse. While attending nursing school at Long Island University as a full-time student, she also currently works part-time as a Hospital Representative in the Emergency Room at Northwell Health. “It is difficult and sometimes overwhelming to balance my work life with my home life and my academics. Sometimes I wonder how am I going to get all of this done,” Jennifer explains to me. Her days are strenuous, but she maintains her smile.
After entering her home, she kicks off her shoes and massages her aching feet. “What a long day. Today you would not believe what I did! I helped a woman deliver her baby in the back of her car. She thought she was having a girl, but the baby was a boy. She was so surprised. It all happened so fast,” she says to me as she heads into the kitchen. There are so many more details that I wish she would answer, but before I can ask, she is shifting topics. Jennifer leaves her textbooks on the nearest surface, the dining room table, and as she packs away her groceries, she tells me what she plans to do tonight. She says, “In the evenings, I usually cook dinner and do the laundry. But when I have classes, I return home too late to make dinner.” She rushes off to put the laundry in the washing machine. I watch her from the dining room table and she is like a whirlwind around me. She moves back and forth between the kitchen to the laundry room.
While Jennifer and I discuss the classes she is taking to become a nurse, Richard her husband, returns home carrying a take-out bag from Wendy’s. Jennifer laughs as he hands her the bag. She opens it and inside is a box containing chicken nuggets and a container of sweet and sour sauce.
“What a coincidence! Chicken nuggets were my favorite food when I moved to New York. That’s all I wanted: Wendy’s chicken nuggets with sweet and sour sauce. I’d never had this back home. Fast food was so much more accessible here. Back home, fast food was only available in the capital,” explains Jennifer. Jennifer immigrated to New York City in 2001 from Suriname. Suriname is a country in South America and the capital of Surinam is Paramaribo. There are many recognized languages including Dutch and Hindi, both of which Jennifer speaks fluently.
Jennifer was seven years old when her family moved from a rural area in Suriname to Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were farmers and rice factory workers, so they had acres of land. “I spent my free time playing outside and messing with the chickens and ducks.” She spoke Dutch and did not speak or understand English.
Her first memories of New York City are tinged with both excitement, loneliness and fear. She was unsure what New York City, this foreign land, was going to be like. When her family arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport, she describes “it was cold and dark. I felt lost and overwhelmed by the big airport. It was April, so I needed to wear a heavy coat, which I was not a fan of. There were so many people rushing around and speaking a strange language that, at the time, I did not understand. Once we left the airport, extended family picked us up from the airport. As they drove us to Brooklyn, I looked at the tall buildings. They all looked uniform and seemed to blend together.” Jennifer and her family immigrated to New York City in 2001. There are about 60 million international and domestic commuters traveling annually through John F. Kennedy International Airport. It is no wonder, that Jennifer felt confused in such a hustling environment.
Jennifer and her parents spent her first year in New York City living in a small cramped apartment. The three of the them shared the apartment with a black cat, Jennifer’s grandmother and her aunt. There were only two bedrooms and one small bathroom. “Adjusting to the city was challenging,” Jennifer recalls. “Since we came in the winter, I had to spend most of my time indoors. The water was cold when I showered and the food was not the same. The fish and the meat were not as fresh as they were before.”
Jennifer and her family lived in a small village in Suriname. The vast acres of land that they once had was a stark contrast to the limited space Jennifer had to adjust to when she immigrated to New York City. There was no backyard for her to play and she also felt isolated since she had few friends in the city. “I enjoyed spending time with my cousins. They had a much larger house and it was nice to know people my own age.”
Her cousins did not live near to her home in Brooklyn, so she did not see them often. When they were not around, Jennifer had to find other ways to occupy herself. “Although, I did not get to do the activities I enjoyed in Suriname, I was able to watch television for the first time. My favorite shows were Calliou and Full House. I used think ‘This is amazing!’ I could spend hours watching Hey Arnold and The Rugrats.”
The television was captivating because it was novel and a source of entertainment while trapped indoors. Coupled with the ESL classes that she was placed in, watching American television helped Jennifer learn English. Television shows can influence one’s ability to learn a foreign language. A person who consistently and repeatedly watches television shows in a foreign language has an increased chance of learning that language. The act of watching the shows incorporates active (trying to translate the words) and passive learning (looking at the scenery of the show). Television shows tend to have relatable plots that captivate their audience.
Unlike, watching television, Jennifer did not enjoy attending school because, “I hated being a part of the ESL class. I felt like it was insulting to my intelligence. My favorite class, even to this day, was math. Numbers are universal. There was no language barrier and it was the one place that I did not feel like an outsider or unintelligent because I could not understand English.”
Unlike Jennifer, her parents did not have to learn English because they were originally from Guyana. The native language of Guyana is English, so instead of taking ESL classes when they immigrated, her parents had to help her learn the language. The initial transition to life in the city was difficult for Jennifer. One memory that she will never forget is the first time she took the train and got lost. “It was at five p.m., so that meant it would have been rush hour, but we did not know about that. My mom and I planned to get off at the next stop on the 7 train. It was packed with people, so it was difficult to see my mom and follow her. She stepped on the train before I could and then the doors shut. It was terrifying to be in this strange place, with foreign people and struggle to understand the language.” This would likely be a difficult experience for any young child, but the challenge was further amplified since Jennifer could not communicate with anyone to ask for help. She chose to remain on the following station and wait for her mom to arrive.
Unlike that moment, Jennifer was able to fondly recall the first time she played in the snow. She laughed and said, “I wanted to eat it!”
This time of transition was emotionally challenging and difficult because of the language barrier. Jennifer did not truly feel at home in the city until almost a year later. She describes that moment as the time when “everything clicked. I did not miss Suriname as much because we had our own house. I was no longer in ESL and I understood the customs in the city. Not to mention, I had access to chicken nuggets!”
Originally, the city seemed daunting and lonely, but now the features that Jennifer had once hated are the ones that she loves. She admires the “business and richness of the city.” This is the place that never sleeps, “it is known for creativity and innovation. Who wouldn’t want to be here?” she asks as she prepares to study her lecture notes.