TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) I learned this lesson during my first semester at college: If the professor spoke English with a thick, foreign accent – I was going to struggle in class. I was going to have a hard enough time learning calculus or advanced economics without having trouble understanding what the professor was saying.
Foreign professors and teaching assistants were common, especially for science or math classes. My first economics class with Professor Raj Bmamapatyo convinced me that I was wasting my time sitting through lectures I couldn’t understand. On future course selection days, classes taught by “Professor Smith” were preferred over “Professor Chang”.
Sometimes there was no choice. Some required courses were taught by only one professor. Other times you’d have a scheduling conflict, and wouldn’t have a choice about which section of a class you’d attend.
I had one of those situations in my sophomore year. I was a double-major, and was determined to finish both degrees in four years. That meant taking an extra-heavy course load. Sometimes I’d take night classes since they cause fewer scheduling problems and would allow me carry an extra class or two each semester. I took Economics 202-Inventory Management Theory at night. The professor was Choi Li. Her English was almost impossible to understand.
Class would meet once a week on Wednesday night for three hours. I got the course schedule after the first week, and decided to show up for class as infrequently as possible. I’d attend for tests and group presentations, and would skip the rest. I’d read the textbook in my own time, and would seek help for things I couldn’t teach myself. Of course, this was not a formula for academic success. I wouldn’t be in class often enough to know my classmates. I wouldn’t know the professor. This would cut off the usual avenues for extra help. If I worked hard, maybe I’d get a “C”.
The course was playing out as expected. I had attended only three or four classes, but was keeping up with my reading. I barely passed my midterms, and would have to work hard to get a good grade on the final.
For Thanksgiving break I booked passage on The Lake Shore Limited to New York. The platform at Syracuse was crowded and the train was late. When Number 48 arrived, there were very few seats available. I climbed aboard. No window seats on the Hudson River site, which would have been my preferred choice. No window seats on the other side either. Not many aisle seats were available either. I look the nearest seat I could find. My seatmate was a beautiful Asian woman. “Is this seat taken?” I asked. She gestured that it was ok to sit down.
A few minutes after the train began moving, she looked at me. I looked at her. As our eyes met, and I thought for a moment that this could be a very enjoyable five hour trip. “Oh,” she said, in the kind of broken English I was sure I’d heard before. “Mister Conley… very seldom in class, yes?” I’d sat next to my professor and didn’t recognize her.
Our conversation was strained but polite. She was still difficult to understand. She was from Taiwan. She was traveling to New York to meet her fiancé for the first time. Her family had arranged for her to be married in a few months. I could tell she was both nervous and resigned to whatever awaited her. But during the trip Choi Li was more than a difficult accent. We were more the same than different.
“Mister Conley,” she said in her broken dialect. “Thank you… for speaking… to me. It helps… my English get better.”
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau