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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : English Only?

February 13, 1989|BARBARA KOH | Times Staff Writer and Growing numbers of people--mainly newly arrived immigrants--live and work in Southern California with only minimal command of English. To get a flavor of their experience, three bilingual reporters spent time on the streets around Los Angeles, speaking almost no English. Of course, they had the advantage of being able to understand what others were saying to and about them. Marita Hernandez spoke Spanish, Barbara Koh spoke Mandarin and George Stein spoke Russian. Here are their accounts:

The Century City Post Office is tucked in a block-long office complex under renovation, near a health club and a realty office. It's below street level, its entrance set back from the sidewalk. I couldn't find it without asking.

"What address? Deli? What are you looking for?" the building security guard guessed.

After I said letter in English, he pointed and said, "Take a left, take the outside sidewalk, and turn left." He repeated the instructions, adding, "Mail letter . . . mailbox."

I roamed the Westside, downtown and Chinatown as a Chinese speaker armed with just a few words of English. Most of the non-Chinese I met, armed with hand signals, made sincere attempts to decipher, direct and sell me their wares. I was offered reassuring nods and scattered words of Japanese.

I did not hear any snide remarks and did not sense any hostility. A few people were impatient or rude, but generally they had no practical means to help.

At the post office, I told the clerk, "No speak English." She smiled, said "OK," and nodded. I asked for stamps; her eyebrows furrowed. I repeated the question, stamping the counter with my fist.

"Stamps?" the clerk said. She used hand gestures in asking how many I wanted.

On the street, I stopped a white-haired, bespectacled man with a baseball cap and walking stick. "No shaberi, " he said. I was mystified; it sounded like no shopping. "No shaberi (Japanese for can't converse) ," he repeated, shaking his head. "Can't speak Japanese. I can't understand you, dear."

But the rental agent at an apartment complex was undaunted by my lack of English.

Pulling out a pastel-colored brochure, she opened it to a floor plan for a one-bedroom. "For this, $1,275 to $1,600 per month," she said, writing the prices.

A woman in the back of the office asked the agent if she needed help. "No, I can understand her," she replied.

She led me past the gym and game room, naming them. "Oh, it's so big," I remarked in Chinese. "Yes, uh huh," she said reassuringly.

In the apartment, she pointed out all the features, including the "his and hers" sinks. She explained the thermostat. "When it's cold, you can put on the heat. Heat, hot," she said, rubbing her shoulders and writing the words. "Cool, cold air. . . . You can program it."

I asked about the number of tenants, the second time adding in English, "People?" "Doctors, lawyers, accountants," the agent said. "We have people who earn three times the monthly rent. . . . People who make 50K to 100K per year. . . . We have young people, students who are just out of college and starting professional careers."

"Are you Korean?" she asked. I looked uncertain and finally said, 'Chinese." "Well, we have lots of Orientals here," the agent said.

"I have a friend who's Oriental, who lives upstairs. . . . I have a client, his last name is I-T-O," she said, writing the letters. "He's from Japan, lives in a one-bedroom.

She gave me a rental application and credit verification forms, asking if I could get help to fill them out. She thanked me and offered her hand.

The waiter in a restaurant was just as ready to help. After I ordered salad in wavering English, he beckoned me to the kitchen, pointed to the chef who was preparing the salad, and said, "Is that OK?" He showed me the array of salad dressings and asked which I would like.

Bringing the check, he asked, "How long have you been here?"

"It's hard," he said, nodding. "Six months, you'll be fine." He made a chattering gesture with one hand. "You'll be able to talk, no problem."

At a public library, a sign at the counter announced, "We now have Korean books!" The library also had English lesson record sets--for Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and Japanese speakers, but not Chinese. "Rats," the librarian said, scanning the collection.

The librarian gave me the address for the Chinatown library, noting, "They have a lot of Chinese books there." After trying to give directions to Chinatown and finding three advanced English-lesson books, she called the Chinatown library. "We didn't get very far," she explained into the phone. She handed the phone to me. The woman on the other end spoke Mandarin.

It was more difficult negotiating the Department of Motor Vehicles in Culver City. The second time I asked about a driver's license, the clerk at the information counter threw up her hands, mumbled, "Pfft," and said, "You better bring someone who speaks English."

A Latino customer tried to help. "Registration? Driver's license?" he said. I made steering gestures. The clerk held out an application for a license, but later, still not understanding me, she took it back, saying, "We don't have anyone here who can speak." About 10 feet from her was a table with California Driver Handbooks in English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese.

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