Learning to Speak American
Not a single day passes without immigration being front and center in the news. Stories of immigrant experiences, whether they took place last year, or in years past, remain relevant and refreshed continually by the traumas and triumphs of immigrants striving to shape a new, American identity.
Learning to Speak American is not just an immigrant story, it is a coming-of-age tale, a classic American success story. Annette and her brother, the now world renowned architect, Daniel Libeskind, grew up in a world turned upside down by WWII. Faced with new tongue twisting languages, alien cultures, new relationships and a daily effort to survive, both triumphed in a way neither they, nor their parents, could have expected given the bleak beginning.
Annette achieved something unheard of till today: she entered the nationally acclaimed Bronx High School of Science in New York, days after her arrival, without knowing any English and without taking the mandatory entrance exam.
Learning to Speak American provides adventures a plenty: secrets, religious questioning, a robbery, a death in the family, a near drowning, first love, and most of all, the emotional turmoil of survival in alien worlds and separation from a beloved father.
By Kelly Caldwell
Kelly Caldwell has written for Vox, New York Newsday, House Beautiful, Time Out New York, The Writer, The Huffington Post, and others. One of her essays was named a Notable Essay by the editors of the Best American Essays series and anthologized in "If These Walls Could Talk: Thoughts of Home." She is also dean of faculty at Gotham Writers Workshop. She holds a BJ from the University of Missouri and an MS from Columbia University.
“…I am rolling my new name on my tongue, tasting it like some strange fruit. Anat. Anat – doesn’t quite conform to the shape of my mouth. It feels too guttural and foreign. It contorts my epiglottis. It’s the third name I have been given in my thirteen years. Everyone says that I better get used to it quickly, but I wonder if I will change along with it. Will I become someone else, or be the same old Ania in Anat’s skin?
Aunt Chava rolls up the shade. Sun pours in through the window with a blinding intensity, making me squint. The bluest sky I have ever seen squeezes in through my eyelashes. It shimmers. Its brightness is unnerving. Its unreal cerulean hue seems surreal like my presence in this place.
“Anat, get up, we have a plan for this morning. Remember?” Chava snaps me out of my disoriented state in her amusing Hebrew accented Polish. She has been away from her native Warsaw for more than two decades. I wonder if this is how I will sound at some distant time, but I am unable to imagine it.
“Anat, did you hear me?” Chava calls out from the next room.
“Yes, ciociu. I am getting ready.”
Anat? I try to convince myself that it is really my new name. Maybe years from now it will not feel so awkward, but for now it grates on my nerves.
After an overwhelming sense of relief when we came to this beautiful valley where the fragrance alone can transport you to Paradise and meeting the family, so loving and welcoming...well, that was two weeks ago! Now, I don’t feel so enchanted anymore. Mama and Tinek left Daniel and me on our own! No one says for how long. Not knowing drives me crazy.
This morning I dawdle, still thinking about my odd new name, like so many other strange things I have been seeing for the last two weeks. Will anything here ever become as familiar as the home I left behind? It can’t happen soon enough, for I stick out like an albino among my bronze-skinned peers, whose tanned legs flash out of their white shorts like chiseled columns…”