My high school had a system in place to deal with recent immigrants. All students from abroad were moved a year behind and had to take a semester of mandatory ESL classes. We were all starting a new, better life, as we were amply reminded by the school’s staff, and our inability to communicate, as unpleasant as it was, was temporary. But being reduced to silence was not a new experience. In fact, as a woman, I was so used to this state that I only had a vague notion what being able to freely express myself would mean. If women did not know what it meant to be deprived of their own voice here, I wanted to be an American.
The elderly nun who ran those ESL classes tried to introduce us to American culture by making us read about Puritans and robber barons. Reduced to a child-like stage (and how terrible and socially damaging that is to a teenager), we spent our days stuck in her class learning how much we didn’t belong, or what it means to be an immigrant. We did not know English, but we were still able to communicate our disparagement for the situation we were in. It quickly became clear that after all, America is not much different from everything that I have known. Like everywhere else, some people had more than others the right to have their voices heard.
Students who attended the ESL classes were not expected to perform well in school, to develop a new language identity, or to assimilate. We were merely required to learn enough English to become what was once called semilingual. It was assumed that our English would be severely deficient. It was also taken for granted that we’d lose proficiency in our native tongue. We’d pay for our broken English with a stunted first language. Our tongues were to become a form of disability. The same way I was once trained to think about my body, I now treated my mother’s tongue. For the next decade, consciously and mostly not, I hated, resisted, and tried to overcome my disability, to erase my voice. The same way I have once dreamt of having a normative body, I now dreamt of developing a common tongue.
That year in high school, the first thing I needed to do was to get out of that class. I did not want to be perceived as one of the new kids, the socially impaired kids, the silent ones. About two weeks into the class, I requested to take the English competency test that all ESL students had to take at the end of the semester. I was asked to write about my first impression of the United States. I wrote about a summer camp I attended years earlier, where I learned by heart the lyrics to TLC’s “Waterfalls” and the Pledge of Allegiance. And I was immediately labeled functionally bilingual; unfortunately, the label was only somewhat accurate. My sense of belonging was definitively only at the functional level, and English was still a foreign language to me. Though I could read and write in it, I was lost when it came to ordering a bagel with lox, following a conversation on Hot 97, or responding to a drunk on the subway. I was vulnerable, and I knew that my vulnerability was related to the status of my English.
Language is home; I have seen how difficult it had been for my parents to feel at home in the United States, and I knew much of their anxiety was related to their lack of linguistic confidence. They were made fun of or infantilized; they were perceived as incoherent or scheming. I saw many times how surprised people were to discover my parents were funny or thoughtful, as if their accents limited their empathy or forced them to think oversimplified thoughts. To others, their wild, abrasive tongues represented the oppression, corruption, and poverty from which my parents had tried to escape.
Onward. I escaped from the ESL into Regents class. I did very well in school, but outside of it, I was completely lost. It didn’t help that my sense of cultural exile was layered over the emotional limitations of a teenager—it was the most dramatic and lonely period of my life. Most fittingly, I took poetry as an elective. It was a poet’s patience for language—its malleability, the time it takes to use words with purposefulness—that made me fall in love with my new tongue.
In the poetry class, my wild new tongue, twisting and mixing with my native tongue, made sense. I was not living between languages; I was no longer in no man’s land. I was making language my own. I was populating my world with new, often invented words. I was becoming my own woman. I was becoming whole because I discovered there are people who will listen to the voices on the margin, who will appreciate polyphonies, so I dared to create my own. Ways in which I could recover from a broken tongue were becoming clear to me. However, language improvement was so central to my identity, I failed to realize that my stories were visual, not word-based.
It took a long time before I stopped seeing my bilingualism as a form of disability. Like many 1.5 generation students, I lost comfort in my native tongue and gained a strange accent in it while the richness of my native Polish still seeps through my English. My problems with prepositions, my abuse of passive voice, and my roundabout way of telling stories are considered fossilized errors. Of course, the word “fossilized” is supposed to refer to deeply ingrained linguistic structures, but it also evokes the images of some purer, wilder place that is far removed in time. I feared being exoticized in English and misunderstood in Polish until I understood that I lived in translation, between the lines, and with language skills that are contextual. Once I understood my literacy—verbal and visual, my skills, as tactical, I dared to understand myself as a storyteller.
I was recently told that at their best, my projects develop a new language. This comment, surprisingly, opened me to thinking not about my bilingual status or even other immigrant artists. It made me realize that the majority of artists—women artists whom I admire—also sought to develop their own visual or conceptual language. Their attempts to communicate with the world were often considered fractured, incoherent, or haphazard. Their need to express themselves was seen as vulgar, desperate, even violent, or uncouth; their presence—their language somehow insulting, or at least disturbing. I have experienced many people feeling this way about broken English, the immigrant tongue. The realization that there is a parallel helped me reconfigure the way my linguistic status is used to frame me. Because the experience of being resented for what I represent is not new to me, at least I know how to navigate it. And I finally feel proud of my language skills, because I began to see myself as part of a long line of women who feel like immigrants into the world of patriarchal linguistic structures and who have (purposefully or not) created space for other women to develop their own voices.
Today, whether I’m in New York or Warsaw, people try to figure out where I belong. The preferred trick question I’m often asked is what language I dream in. I used to worry that I didn’t understand this question. The suggestion that dreams or languages are static, that they are like language books—full of drawings with captions—seemed ridiculous to me. “I dream in images,” I mostly answer these days.
TUSIA DABROWSKA is a time-based artist and a writer. With background in spoken word, writing and performance, she works with video and live arts. Recent projects have been seen at the Currents Festival (New Mexico, 2012), Video Guerrilha (Sao Paolo, Brazil, 2012), Museo Reproducciones (Bilbao, Spain, 2013), Slingshot (Athens, GA, 2014), CologneOff (Cologne, Germany/Tel Aviv, Israel, 2014), Loop Discovery (Barcelona, Spain 2015), TAFNY (NY, NY, 2015), The Great Wall of Oakland (Oakland, CA, 2015). Her writing/translation appeared in Nth Position (poetry), the Forward (translation), and Aish (personal essay). Tusia is a recipient of the Puffin Foundation Grant (2014), and the Asylum Arts Alumni (2015). She holds degrees from the New School and NYU.
(Note that the images for this gif are by Gabriella Bass.)