The Helping that Made the Difference

We all remember that moment when we were struggling to get up the stairs with heavy bags and someone walking by stopped and said, "let me help you." It was as if he was saying, "you are not alone", “we can do this together". That's how I felt when I arrived in New York City, with no knowledge of English, and joined the English-Speaking Union (ESU) Family.

Five years ago, when I arrived in New York, I had no idea how difficult and challenging my new life would be. In Cameroon, where I am from, I had watched a few American TV shows and bought new clothes, thinking that would be enough for a start. However, the reality was brutal and bitter.

This was my first trip abroad, and I landed directly in the most competitive city in the world. The language, culture, skyscrapers, weather, and public transportation confronted me. Everything was new and unfamiliar. Exciting, and scary. Changes and improvements were mandatory. Have you ever wondered "where to start?" 

The biggest challenge was the language: English. I couldn't speak or understand. Like a child expressing himself, I stammered, mumbled, stuttered, and lost my breath. The words I wanted were out of reach and I needed them right away.  

Have you ever regretted a decision? Have you ever felt so miserable that you wished the ground would swallow you? 

I've had my share of both. One case stands out. A few months after arriving in Manhattan, I had an experience which made me fear for my social life, my future career, and myself for an entire month. 

Against my family's advice, I went out. It was so cold I could see smoke evaporating from my mouth, nose, and maybe my ears as I breathed. The air smelled like snow - not surprising, based on the latest weather forecast that predicted up to 4 inches of white slush before noon. I wasn't sure if I could run that morning, but I needed to. Due to the time difference, my body was still adjusting. So, I decided to help the transition with an endorphin rush. A light snow was falling, and the streets already had patches of ice from yesterday's storm. 

It was a kind of experience, no one can tell but you. Walking on a ground covered in bright white, a cold breeze, and the strange feeling of entering an entirely new world. The excitement was real. As strange as it sounds, I felt like I was walking in heaven...literally. I just wanted to walk everywhere and roll around in the snow. I wondered why people weren't excited about the snow. They were looking at me like I was stupid. I jogged around a bit and decided to play it safe. Then I saw a stretch of sidewalk without ice, and I thought maybe it wouldn't hurt to try to take a few more steps. An hour later, I stopped running when the air felt heavier than I could breathe - not humid, as it does before and after a rainstorm, but heavy with frost and crystals and sharp cold. Do you know that smell? The smell of fresh, clean air. As much as I wanted this experience to last forever, my lips tingled and demanded a hot drink. I took a quick look around and spotted a Starbucks. 

As I entered the Starbucks, the door closed with a clump. To my left was a map of the coffee world. Presumably, the countries from which the raw coffee beans are imported, and above it was a statement: "Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome."

The coffee shop layout seemed comfortable. I didn't understand anything, but I felt welcomed until I saw a double line. 

What's going on here? I tried to figure out why it was difficult to order a drink. After a few minutes, one after another, customers approached the counter. Then the barista took the orders. I widened my eyes; it was already done. People were talking fast; I couldn't keep up. Finally, it was my turn. I didn't know what to say. Immediately, the following dialogue took place between the barista and me:  

BARISTA: "What can I do for you?" He asked grinning.

ME: "Uhhhhh", I gasped .... He could have said it ten thousand times, the result would have been the same: My mind was blank.

BARISTA: “What can I do for you?” He repeated with a slight accent of sarcasm in his voice.

Me: "Uh." I looked behind. Angry eyes stared back at me. I looked up. I saw a menu board. I pointed to a drink.

BARISTA: "Hot chocolate." He said in a clear, sonorous voice. 

Me: "Yes," I replied. It wasn’t the drink I wanted, but I answered yes.

Brows knitted; I was standing before him after paying for the drink. He sighed, then lifted his arm to the right and said something I couldn't understand. I figured the sign meant "go that way". I followed my intuition and walked away. Fright and frustration burned in the back of my mind like an iron melting. I pretended to text a friend.

My mind was playing the saddest movie I have ever seen: "Life After Moving to New York", when I heard a strange sound. It was a female voice trying to spit, or sneeze, or maybe both. It sounded like "dju-dju-knee." I walked over, looked around, no one seemed concerned. I figured it was my drink. I wasn't sure, but I was tired of waiting. I grabbed the cup and walked out swinging the door. I couldn't communicate, and people couldn't say my name. What a tragedy!

I hardly slept throughout the week. The pain of regret grew heavier each night and my body aged. I shared my despair with my relatives. They referred me to Riverside's language program and helped me enroll.

The humbling experience of receiving my first hot chocolate instead of iced tea at a Starbucks fueled my ardor to improve my English skills. Any language other than English was not allowed.

I attended this free intensive English program Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with lunchtime conversations. At the end of the program, the counselor, Miss Imelda, congratulated my hard work and dedication and referred me to another ESL program to further my English skills. So, I came to the English-Speaking Union. 

Unlike Riverside language program, there was a language proficiency test. I took it. Fortunately, I was enrolled and got a full year scholarship.

The ESU’s culture is inherently one of belonging, inclusion, and diversity. The staff and volunteers are committed to helping immigrants. They are professional and their awareness of immigrants’ daily difficulties, creates an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance.

For twelve months, I attended free intensive English classes Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., while working nights to support my family in Cameroon. 

My goal was for my listeners (classmates, friends, and teachers) to understand what I was saying the first time they heard it. To that end, I made a pact with my freshman roommate (Assama) that he would only speak to me in academic English, put up with my mistakes, and help me improve. I remember spending nights with Assama rehearsing multiple syllable words like "a-mor-ti-za-tion". It was an excruciating exercise, but well worth it.

Angela, the ESU creative writing teacher, introduced me to the fascinating language of the heart - poetry - and I was hooked. As time went on, I could see a gradual but definite improvement in my vocabulary. I could identify patterns in the grammar I had learned in school in the novels I was now reading, and my confidence soared. 

Some of my poems got published in the NYU literacy review. In addition, I was accepted by the Borough of Manhattan Community College “BMCC” with Business Administration as major.

Since then, I have continued writing and experimenting with English: my collection includes over 90 poems. My communication skills and the confidence that ESU gave me have led to several leadership positions on campus, as Vice President, then President of the Finance and Banking club, numerous recognitions (Dean's list, winner of the 2019 and 2020 Fed challenge), and exciting work. I started tutoring in finance and business before and after graduating from BMCC with an Associate's degree, I have been awarded several grants and scholarships, have won a place at Baruch college. Finally, wanting to give back some of the help I received, I have created a Confidence club, an empowerment platform for non-English-speaking classmates

This is the story so far of my journey of learning English. It involves an act of will, requires discipline, and recognizes the need for personal growth. I’m not through yet, but I can't stress enough how important this skill is to me. Thanks to the English-Speaking Union, I know that everyone can master English when you can rely on a helping hand.