Despite his hard-won skills while wandering the Cambodian jungle for weeks, such as scaling trees to navigate and fine-tuning his senses to sniff out water, Ty Tim admits through a thick accent that once he came to America, one of the hardest adjustments was the seemingly simple task of speaking.

When the Cambodian Association of Illinois museum archivist came to America as a refugee in 1982, his initial shocks were on the surface level. Arriving in March, he thought that there would be snow on the ground all year. He didn’t know how to complain to his sponsor family that he didn’t like their American food. Though he knows it’s only seasonal he still “hates the snow,” and he got over the initial culture shock of the food. But the challenge of speaking English was one he would struggle with for years even though he was a teacher in Cambodia.

“[It was] so hard for me to understand,” said Tim, whose native language is Khmer.  “I just learned ABC from the radio. I knew how to answer a teacher’s question.”

“Here, even one word,” could be a challenge. Body language was difficult for him to read, too. After a few weeks of practice, he tried taking the bilingual test for the first time at the urging of his sponsor. Passing the test would entitle him to a diploma so he could teach bilingual courses for students from Cambodia and Vietnam. He didn’t care if he passed the first time, he said. He just wanted to see what the expectations were.

When he arrived to take the test, Tim learned it was common for people to take the test multiple times.

“They asked me, ‘How many times have you taken the test and I said, ‘I just came less than a month ago. You’re asking me how many times?’” When he was led into a classroom to take the test, he remembers someone wishing him good luck.

“I said, ‘Gooluck, what?’ I don’t know what’s good luck,” Tim said he thought at the time.

For the first part of the test, he was asked to speak in English, but he himself could not even comprehend what he was saying. The next step was the written portion. Once he was handed his booklet, he was eager to open it and find out what lay inside it. He couldn’t completely understand the proctor’s directions anyway, which, he was admonished, were specifically to not open the book.

When he was finally instructed to start the test, Tim spent the first few minutes just flipping through the booklet, trying to understand as much about the test as he could. He noticed the type got smaller and smaller and most of the questions were multiple choice.

“I [thought] to myself I survived the jungle,” Tim said. “I can pick A or B, A or B.”

But at five minutes left he was only half finished. He did not pass.

His journey into the English language would continue for five years until he could truly understand people, he said.

He was later able to teach again and drove Interstate Highway 94 to the school where he worked in the Chicago area, listening for traffic updates. “They’d say 20 minutes from “in,” 15 minutes from “in.” I’d think ‘in’: what’s ‘in?’ I.N.? I.N.N.?”

It was only after he saw a traffic update on television about the I-94, after years of driving the road, that he saw it written out – “EDEN” – and realized they were talking about the Edens Expressway, which includes the I-94.

“I said, ‘I’ve driven this four million times!” he said, laughing.

Tim still grapples with the language barrier, which he attributes to learning English so late in life. Meanwhile he said his four daughters speak much better English after attending American schools.

“The young ones adjust easily,” Tim said. “For myself, I’m still not at ease.”