Day after day Jose showed up at Gino's pointed to some fried chicken and paid, without speaking, for his order.
New to this country form a farm in El Salvador and unfamiliar with restaurants and American foods, Jose had chanced upon a fast-food counter where he could buy something he recognized without having to speak to a waiter. He spoke no English. He ate there almost every day for two months.
Jose had been hired abroad to work as a laborer here, with the money going to help support his wife and eight children at home. His first job was spreading salt on snow-covered streets. Coming from a winterless Central American nation, he showed up for work the first day without gloves or galoshes and caught a bad cold.
Advised to drink fruit juices for his health, he thought that was what he was getting when he coins into a soda-pop machine for the orange or grape drinks he saw.
"He was reaching a stage of desperation," say Elena Tscherny, Hispanic coordinator for the D.C. Public Library, who became Jose's English-language teacher after he finally sought help from the Reading Academy administered by the National Retired Teachers Association, 1909 K St. NW.
When he left the United States after two years, Jose could understand English fairly well, Tscherny says, and was even learning to drive.
Jose's case may be extreme, but it's an example of the problems many foreign-born experience when they arrive in Washington as students or to work as domestics, in the embassies, the World Bank and other international agencies.
Americans who have traveled abroad may empathize with some of the difficulties Jose faced. Not a few tourists have ordered Weiner schnitzel repeatedly from an intimidating German menu because that's the only thing they recognized.
Even a foreigner who speaks English may experience a culture shock on arrival in the United States. Norma M. McCaig of Meridian House International saw this happening with young Nigerians, many from rural areas, coming to the United States to study.
How confusing it must be, she says, for an 18- or 20-year-old to first drop down in a radically different culture like Washington "and then be sent out to study in Iowa for two years."
The confusion, she says, includes coping with our winters, our food ("Imagine walking into Safeway for the first time and being confronted with 18 different kinds of cereal and none of them familiar") and our culture ("Our men-women relationships" can be puzzling).
McCaig has written a booklet, "Living in the U.S.A.," to help ease the transition. Topics range from basics like underwear-buying to dividing dishwashing and vacuuming chores among a group of students sharing accommodations. That's a new experience, McCaig says, for male students coming from a society where females in the family or the servants do all the housework and cooking.
Pointing out that even such common items as American beds may be a puzzle, she explains the proper way to tuck in sheets and blankets. And she warns those who want to avoid pork to watch out for loin chops and meat loaf.
"When a foreigner first gets here, the sense of isolation can really be debilitating," says McCaig. "Our individualism is often interpreted as our being cold and alienated by someone from a culture where there is a lot of interdependence. And our concept of friendship - we're very gregarious - is confusing and can be misinterpreted as an invitation to deeper friendships."
The problem of isolation may be particularly bad for the wives of foreigners working in the embassies for international organizations who often don't have opportunities to make social contacts, says Alex Stein, director of the Adult Education Center of the Psychiatric Insitute Foundation. Adding to the isolation is the lack of foreign-language radio and TV programs and newspapers and magazines in the Washington area, he says.
To help the foreign-born become acquainted with Washington and the United States, the Adult Education Center is offering two eight-session courses this summer, "Understanding Washington" (July 24 to Aug. 16, 7:30-9 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays) and "Adjusting to Life in the United States" (July 23 to Aug. 15, 7:30-9 p.m., Mondays and Wednesdays). Cost for each series is $30. Class location is 2141 K St. NW.(Additional information at 467-5629 and 659-9415.)
According to Stein, who will teach the class, information will be provided on how to rent a house or apartment, how to stop and avoid rip-offs, where to get medical and dental care, how to establish credit and open a bank account, where to get legal help. They'll also touch on such other aspects of American society as popular sports and sports heros, local newspapers, TV and radio and even the air-quality index and how to save money by clipping food coupons.
Stein says that students have needlessly flunked college courses because they did not know the proper way to withdraw. And many people, he says - not surprisingly - have difficulties coping with the bus system.
A number of other organizations offer aid to the foreign-born. Among them:
The U.S. Catholic Conference - multilingual help with visas and other immigration documents. No fixed charges, but contributions requested. 1312 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 659-6625.
Ayuda - legal aid, especially for the Spanish-speaking. 1736 Columbia Rd. NW. 387-4848.
International Visitors Information Service - language help aimed at foreign tourists, with desks at Dulles, Union Station and on the Mall. (IVIS recently helped three French women recover their car which had been towed from a Washington street.) 801 19th St. NW. 872-8747.
Spanish-catholic Center - a wide range of health, education and employment services for the Spanish-speaking, most of whom come from Central and South America. 3055 Mt. Pleasant St. NW. 483-1520.
Gordon Adult Education Center - English-language lessons, citizenship training and Americanization classes daily and evenings. Free to permanent D.C. residents, a small tuition fee for others. 34th Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW. 282-0140. CAPTION: Picture, no caption