“I Don’t Know” the Ways of the United States

Immigrant Stories, Immigrant Lives

By Jorge Munero

In the morning of April 2, 2005 I woke up at 7:30. I usually take a shower and drink coffee when I first get out of bed. After coffee, I go to work. I take the Blue Line of the MBTA subway system, and I go 3 stops to the Green Line. Once I get on the Green Line I travel three more stops to where my job is.

On this day, I was waiting for the Green Line when a man who was sitting nearby asked me, “Where is this train going?” I told the man, “I don’t know.” This was my answer, because I had not been in the country for very long, and I knew very little English. In fact, one of the few English phrases I knew how to say was , “I don’t know.” I did not recognize what it was that he wanted, and if I had understood what he wanted, I would not have been able to tell him.

This man got very angry with me. I thought it was because I did not give him the information he sought. In that moment the train approached. I hurried onto the train, and this man pursued me — he came right on behind me. This man then started yelling at me: “One more time I ask you: Where is this train going?!!” He may as well have been yelling, “Bla, bla, bla , bla, bla, bla bla.” I knew no English, so I did not know what he was saying. I responded frantically, “I don’t know! I don’t know!”

This man is clearly in a confrontational mode. He wants to have an argument with me. This feels like the longest train ride I have ever been on. Now the man, who looks like he is a Black American, starts yelling at me, “You are a racist! You are a racist!”

I needed to ride three stops on the Green Line to get to my job, but the situation was so scary for me that I decided to jump off the train after one stop so that I could get away from this man. Given the circumstances, I think I did the right thing. I felt like I had no choice. Upon quick reflection, it seemed as if I had two choices: either get into a fight with this man, or get off early and walk the rest of the way to work. I took the second choice.

When I got to work, I asked one of my co-workers who speaks Spanish and English, “Why did this man accuse me of being a racist?” My friend at work explained to me, “I think the reason is because you responded in English. The only words you know in English are ‘I don’t know’.” My friend continued, “If you had responded in Spanish, the man may have recognized that you were not a White American, that you were Latino, and he may have understood that you did not speak English. When you responded in English, the man thought that you were refusing to help him.”

This experience taught me how important it is for me to learn English — and also the ways of the United States! I have been studying this new language and this new culture very hard ever since.