By Brii A. Williams, Medill, Immigrant Connect

I enter Fran’s Café, one of Northwestern University’s late night dining halls for the first time to the whiff of crispy chicken tenders, buffalo sauce, paninis, and waffle fries. It’s come highly recommended and the room bustles with smiles and laughter. People are in small clusters talking and bonding over milkshakes and difficult homework. Others sit alone enjoying the ambiance and completing tasks.

My attention is drawn to a cluster of students standing around the cash register socializing with the cashier. A woman who looks to be in her mid-30s is behind the register with a contagious smile and spirit that I can feel from a distance despite the confusion around me. Once the line moves and it’s my turn to order, I quickly understood why.

With what seems like lingering joy from the jokes she exchanged with the student in front of me, she turns to me, and in what I sense from television is a Jamaican accent, says, “Hello honey, how are you today?” She waits for me to respond to what I’m thinking is just a friendly gesture or rhetorical question. I tell her I’m doing well and can’t wait to taste the food.

Excitedly she says, “I knew you were new here. I’ve never seen you around. Are you a freshman?” I order my food and confirm that I’m a freshman. She’s so eager and excited to know more about who I am and what my day has been like. Her comforting personality draws me in and makes me feel like I’m home talking with my parents about my day.

After learning her name is Yiraida, finding out that she’s from the Dominican Republic, and divulging to her more of who I am, I know I’ll be back in Fran’s again.

Yiraida and her welcoming smile at Fran’s Cafe (Photo credit: Briana Williams)

Each time I’m back, I’m greeted by Yiraida. She gives me a hug and asks how my day or week has been. Sometimes I go to Fran’s not for the food but just to see her. I learn more about her each time I visit. I’ve come to notice a trend in the conversations we share.

Oftentimes she mentions her hometown and how things were in the Dominican Republic when she lived there. She tells me that the Dominican Republic is full of beautiful colors and that it’s very lively. She keeps up with fashion trends there before they get to the US. Sometimes she speaks to me in Spanish because I told her that I took Spanish in high school.

One conversation sticks with me. I showed her a Facebook post on my phone. It was a fairly short post but when I gave it to her, it took a couple of minutes for her to read. Afterwards she told me it took her a second to get the joke because she didn’t know that we used a particular word in a certain way. What confused her is that the word was not being used in its conventional way and is more of a common English slang than standard English. It became clear to me that although she speaks English well and is so friendly and social, she still misses cues in American culture or language.

Before that moment I had never thought about the difficulties that accompany being an immigrant and adjusting to a different culture. Although this is small in comparison to more serious issues immigrants face, it is still a nagging embarrassment for someone who wants to fit in. On my way back to my dorm that night, I found myself thinking of cultural norms and commodities such as language, cultural understanding and even social status that I take for granted by being an American in America that an immigrant may not be able to.