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Adult Students at University Settlement Master English Through Spoken Word Poetry

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Pei Lin Yu, center, The Performance Project. Photos by Zach Williams.
Pei Lin Yu, a participant in University Settlement’s spoken word poetry program; Speyer Hall. Photos by Zach Williams.

This story was written by Zach Williams.

One group of Lower East Side residents found their poetic voices through polishing their spoken English skills.
As students at University Settlement, they joined artist-in-residence Kyoung Park this fall in an innovative program that allows them to express their life stories through spoken-word poetry and monologue. At first the students — who predominantly immigrated from Chinese-speaking countries — came to perfect their grammar and master new vocabulary. However literal communication was beside the point by the time they stepped up to the microphone Nov. 18, two months after the program began, as part of Immigrant Poetry Slam, held in the settlement’s Speyer Hall on Eldridge St.

Improving her English through performing poetry was not the expected way for Liang Tung, who like her classmates, was experienced in more conventional, but ultimately ineffective courses of language study before she came to the settlement. Embracing her artistic side catalyzed unforeseen improvements in her ability to convey thoughts and ideas, she said.“I can’t believe what I’m writing,” said Tung, who taught school in China before coming stateside years ago.While her poem “Life is Art” espoused the virtues of integrating new beginnings with metaphysical purpose, her classmates’ musings ranged from the inherent beauty of daily activities and words themselves to more abstract subjects such as the calming effects of aging.

Liang Tung.
Liang Tung.

Pei Lin Yu said life was not so easy when she gave up her career as a civil engineer in China in order to move to the United States. But 20 years later she struck a serene tone as she read from her poem “Old Age.”

“Time flies fast from childhood
To old age just in the blink of an eye
Don’t cry about getting old
Don’t worry about the unknown future,” the poem concludes

Previous efforts at studying English only went so far until she learned to confront the difficulty of a second language in a more relaxed manner, she added during an interview.

The value of communication itself, meanwhile, took center stage as Wen Fei Liang reflected on the shroud of incomprehension and loneliness which often accompanies life in a new country. One electronic device bridges the gap between the old and new ways of talking, according to Wen.

“He speaks to me
And I never feel lonely
He comforts me when I feel dark
The radio tells me funny stories that make me laugh,” she wrote.

Wen Fei Liang.
Wen Fei Liang.

The poetry slam is part of The Performance Project, a program at the settlement house which aims to redefine the relationship between artist and student on more inclusive grounds, according to Alison Fleminger, director of arts programming.

“So many artists in New York City make a living teaching in some way and are really great facilitators but often have to separate their teaching from their artistic process,” she said.

Community building plays a role as well, she added. A defining characteristic of settlement houses is an emphasis on serving all demographics within the local community, according to Felminger. By providing artistic space for immigrant families to enjoy, they can break out of their “cocoon” and take better advantage of the cultural offerings throughout New York City, she said.

Kyoung Park.
Kyoung Park.

The common experience of starting anew is a personal matter for Park, who came to the United States in 2000 from his native Chile, where he was raised in a Korean immigrant household.

“I shared a lot in common particularly with this generation of students because they all came here and had to find a way on their own,” he said.

Growing up in a Spanish-speaking country and attending an English-language school meant that he had to remain vigilant in maintaining his Korean language skills after his arrival, he said.

As a child he often struggled to fully communicate with his parents in their native language — a situation akin to that of many older immigrants who find they do not have a common tongue with children or grandchildren. But after coming to New York City, extra effort at studying Korean strengthened his ties to the old country just as he began a new life here, Park said.

The pedagogical currents ran both ways for Park and his students as the latter improved their writing skills and he broadened his insight into the wider experience of moving from one culture to another. He said his upcoming tragicomic play TALA will reflect their experiences as well as his own when it premieres at University Settlement’s Speyer Hall in January 2015.

“Eventually what I would like to do is to continue collecting the stories of members of the community so that we can raise awareness and visibility for all of the immigrant experiences that live in this space so that when people come see the show in January they understand that my story is not particularly extraordinary,” he said. “It’s just one more of so many stories of this neighborhood and community.”

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  1. Thanks so much for covering the event. The students were excited to see the photos and article and we had an enjoyable time discussing it in class.

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