1. Learn English.
My friends and family who are about to immigrate always ask me, “What shall we do to before we move to America? Do we need to study computers? Should we learn to be hairdressers? Get a certificate in accounting?!” I always respond: “Learn English.” They ignore this response every time. Yet, it’s the most important step in the quest for the American Dream.
I understand why people ignore it. Naturally, everyone will learn English once they move, there is no rush. Also, all Americans already speak English, so why would they value it? Some may still dread their high school English lessons: the thin-lipped teacher, the logic-defying grammar rules, the words that read NOTHING like they look. Strange pesky “the’s” and “a’s.” After living in US for fifteen years, I still make many errors, as you can see in this book.
But, it’s critically important to learn English before you even step off the airplane. First, you will be shocked to discover that there is no “immigrant reception” program upon landing. Read this sentence again. Let it sink in. There is no group of cute kids in matching blue outfits playing musical instruments in the Arrivals. You do not get a lei, the keys to a small but sensible apartment in Queens, and a small monthly stipend to get you by until you get acclimated and start earning the big bucks. In fact, you get nothing at all.
As soon as you hit the ground, you must fend for yourself. You must find a job while you are still recovering from jetlag. That’s where the command of the language becomes so important. You may be the most brilliant engineer in your town or bake the best German apple pie, but if you cannot communicate with the employer and customers, you are u-s-e-l-e-s-s and your earning capacity will reflect that.
“But…but… I am prepared to clean the toilets and stock the shelves in a Korean supermarket!” – you say. Still need to speak English. Read the job postings on Craigslist, Indeed, or Monster. Even a job stacking pallets in a grim warehouse requires good written and spoken English. Why? Read the orders, understand what your boss tells you to do.
“But English is so hard! It’s like pulling teeth!” – say you, making a sad face. I didn’t say learn it perfectly. No one knows it perfectly anyways – especially not I (me?). And it’s the Land of Immigrants. So, many speak with accents. No one cares. I’ve met lawyers and doctors who spoke with such heavy accent, I’m still not sure what they said. So go ahead and learn it and butcher it, be unapologetically bad at it. But you have to be able to explain yourself and understand others.
Even if you are not an immigrant, your ability to write and speak well is priceless. It will determine whether you can be a manager or forever the lowest-ranking employee. (See My Fair Lady for a great illustration.) It will determine whether you can even get the job in the first place. Do not underestimate it. Look around and see it for yourself – every person on top of the ladder speaks and (often) writes well.
If you weren’t paying attention in school, don’t worry, it’s not too late. Just start reading good books, newspapers, and magazines every day. I suggest New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Economist. And read the classics by William Strunk and others (ask your librarian for recommendations). Slowly work through the exercises. Don’t worry if you make mistakes – no one cares. If you have friends who write and speak well, ask them for critique and tutoring. If they say no, get better friends!
Carefully curate the quality of information you are obtaining each day. For example, do not watch reality television unless you want your IQ to drop by double digits. Watch an educational documentary instead. Unfortunately, it will not be on TLC, History, or National Geographic. Try BBC or something old school on Netflix or even Youtube. That way, the English that you will inevitably learn, will be of a better quality.