Post Tagged with "Immigrants"

Navigating Chicago's Cultural Stew

I have the luck of living and working in two of the most diverse neighborhoods not just in the city of Chicago, but also the whole USA: Rogers Park and Uptown. 

I was reminded of this fact by several people I met on a recent Monday night as I stopped into my favorite Rogers Park watering hole. It’s just a little neighborhood dive; cheap beer, pool table, dart boards, cracked tile, and the standard wood-paneling of any old-style American bar.

The bartender that night was Cuban-American, and I ended up in conversation with 3 Sudanese refugees. One of the Sudanese fellows wound up talking to an ethnically-mixed gentleman who grew up in Hyde Park (15+ miles away) about politics, while I spoke with his two friends about Sorghum and Millet (two types of grain very common in Africa) and the resulting beverages one can make from them… among other topics.

We were suddenly interrupted by a Mexican-American gentleman… he was either perturbed by the fact that I was speaking Spanish to the Sudanese immigrants (I was doing my best Cuban accent for them and the bartender), or that I wouldn’t speak Spanish with him.

In any case, he had some choice Spanish words for me, and I decided to head home for the evening. I could have been upset, but the ludicrousness of the situation just made me laugh. There wasn’t a potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding… there was going to be cross-cultural misunderstanding. It was as if five drivers obeying five different sets of driving laws all ended up on the same road.

I returned the next day to watch a hockey game with some friends, and found six Montenegrin immigrants (former Yugoslavia) quite jovially singing traditional songs together.

I talked to the bartender, and neither of us could figure out what had made the one gentleman so upset the night before. The best part was after I left, he apparently was trying to ask the Sudanese refugees if they would “step outside… I got my people outside,” in other words, he wanted to fight. The Sudanese gentleman had been confused: “What’s outside? Why would we want to go outside?” The bartender and I had a good laugh over that one.

In the Uptown neighborhood where I work, the maintenance staff of our building is mostly Bosnian. There’s a refugee/immigrants’ services organization that operates out of our building, and it’s not uncommon to see people in full Hijabs, Burkas, traditional Afghan dress, etc. entering and leaving the building. This is juxtaposed with a slew of “native” Chicagoans, with backgrounds typically from Poland, Germany, Ireland, Italy and other European countries, as well as a sizeable population of African Americans, and newer Mexican immigrants (and native-born Mexican-Americans). There is “Little Vietnam” just north of my office on Argyle, where you’ll find a wide plethora of Asian immigrants, and the buildings East of Sheridan road along the lake where you’ll find large numbers of retired people and dog-walking professionals living in condos.

It gets confusing sometimes; elevator etiquette, for example. Many Americans would prefer to completely ignore people they see in an elevator, even if they may have ridden together dozens, or even hundreds of times. This is generally my preference too. However, there are certain US subcultures, who generally believe it is rude not to speak to people. So every so often, I’ll adopt my usual glazed-eyed stare at the wall while the elevator goes up, and I’ll hear a *cough*, and a “Well, how do you do today too sir?”, indicating displeasure with my failure to greet them or make eye contact. I’ll smile sheepishly, and say “Oh, excuse me, I’m fine, how are you?” and do my best to strike up polite conversation, usually about the weather, sports, or lately, the economy.

It’s inevitable. You can make your actions as contextually specific as you want, but there are simply too many cultures present at any given time to always be able to effectively communicate. You just try your best, and are prepared to laugh at the results.

Chicago’s claim to fame has always been immigration. In horribly over-simplified order: Irish, Germans, British, Scandinavians, and Swedes; later African-Americans, Czechs, Lithuanians, Serbs, Croats, Greeks, Russian and Polish Jews, Italians, Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese; and more recently Mexicans, Caribbeans, Central Americans, Indians, a new smaller wave of Eastern Europeans, Africans and Middle Easterners. 

Neighborhoods have changed drastically in terms of main ethnic group since the early waves of immigration as well: Mexicans have replaced once-Czech Pilsen, though the East Side of Pilsen has lately become gentrified with artists and other non-Latinos. The major Puerto Rican neighborhood in the city, Humboldt Park, was previously a Jewish and Polish neighborhood, and before that, was mostly populated with Germans. Rogers Park formerly had large Jewish and Cuban populations, but is now a mix of most everybody.

Both neighborhoods have historically been points of entry for various immigrant groups, and as a result, in the stretch of Broadway and Sheridan road between them, I can buy pretty much any food product in the world. Sometimes on a Saturday, I’ll pick a recipe from a country I’ve never been to (and never cooked), and just try to find all the ingredients on my way home.

In the summertime, everyone in Rogers Park comes out to the beach, and you can listen to music from every corner of the globe, and smell all the different foods cooking on the park’s grills. Kids play soccer, football, or softball; adults sit and talk, and a few local neighborhood characters who like to sleep on the beach drink beers out in the sunshine on park benches. We don’t always all get along, but we try.

All photos courtesy of Rogers Park in 1000 words

This is Sean Oliver’s first post for PocketCultures. Why not say hello in the comments?

Sean is a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Sean grew up in Ohio, ending up in Chicago after extended periods in Costa Rica, Chile and California. He now has no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of his favorite places on the planet. Sean will be writing on PocketCultures mostly about American culture, and drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.

Read more:
The year of America: do Europeans stereotype the USA?
A photo tale of 50 states: around the USA in photos
Global migration and Europe’s population collapse

February 17, 2010 10 comments

Immigrants: Citizens of the World

This is a guest post from Gina Vazquez, who is a Mexican living in Canada. Her blog Let’s Talk Languages is about languages, diversity and the experience of living abroad.

A few days ago I was writing in my blog how we immigrants are a totally different breed. First of all, we have the courage of leaving our whole lives behind to embark on the adventure of adapting to a totally new environment, which entails a new culture, a new language (in most of the cases), a new currency, etc. And we are so optimistic about this change! However, it doesn’t end there, after all that we have to cope with identity issues and feelings of not belonging to a particular place anymore.

I am at that stage now. It is very small day-to-day things that I experience, that remind me I am not 100% Canadian. For example, language issues, my English is not bad (I have to say), however, no matter how well I speak it, I have a hard time understanding humor or sarcasm, people just stare at me waiting for me to start laughing at something “funny” they have just said and I just can’t get the meaning of it! Sometimes it is not even language related, it is culture related, which makes it even worse. Getting directions is another reminder, when people mention streets or avenues with such familiarity and I have no clue where they are.

Another thing that always comes up in reunions or gatherings is references to old TV shows, as much as I try to participate in the conversation, I just feel completely left out. And these conversations can go on for hours!

The problem now is that when I go back home (to Mexico, that is) and get together with friends, they also start to talk about things they have done these past few years that I haven’t been a part of and I feel just as left out.

Every time I have traveled to Mexico I have experienced different feelings. I remember one of the first times I was so happy to come back, I really felt like I was coming “home”. But what does “home” mean? Of course, coming back from a trip and thinking you will be able to sleep in your bed and see your loved ones makes it feel you are actually coming home… but shouldn’t “home” be more than that? I am convinced that Canada is the place where I want to be (at least for now) and fortunately in my case it was my choice to come here, but will I ever feel truly Canadian? And my son, who was born in Canada and will most probably grow up here, will he ever feel at all Mexican?

As time goes by I will get passed this stage and I will probably start feeling like I belong here, in one month I will be able to apply for the Canadian citizenship and I am sure that will help. For now, I can say that this cross-cultural experience has changed me as a person and the way I see things and I am sure that it will influence the way I raise my child, hopefully, he will be able to understand and be more sensitive to cultural differences.

For all these reasons I started by saying immigrants are a different breed, “home” for us is where our heart is and for some (like me) where our loved ones are. We have such a great capacity to adapt that we end up laughing at humorous comments that in our own culture people would find boring; we do our research before the party to learn about old TV shows, and we spend our weekends traveling through the city to get familiar with streets and avenues. I guess we are the clear example of globalization (and I am just speaking about the positive aspects of it) and we are the ones responsible for cultural exchange. We make the workplace more fun and the lives of others just as rich as they make ours.

It is great privilege to be a citizen of the world.

Read more:
What is a global citizen? Defined by PocketCultures readers
Global goes local: travel like a local
Stories of cross-cultural relationships from My Partner is a Foreigner

November 2, 2009 4 comments

US town transformed by German rocket scientists

A few weeks ago Global Culture blog featured a post about people who are open to new experiences. One of the points of the post was that cities of the USA which have been more open to receiving immigrants are now hubs for creativity and innovation.

In other words, immigrants can have a positive effect on a community because they bring new skills, an open mind and create global connections.

One early and important example of this phenomenon was the town of Huntsville in Alabama. Home to a space programme led by German scientists after World War II, the town supplied the brains behind the launch of the first American satellite in 1958 and put astronauts on the moon in 1969.

So what was the effect of opening up to immigration on this one-time cotton market town? It is now a thriving city of 170,000 people and has one of the highest concentrations of scientists and engineers in the USA.

May 12, 2008 Comments disabled

Poles in the UK

Migration from Poland to the United Kingdom over the 4 years since Poland joined the EU has been the largest wave of migration to the UK in centuries. Immigrants typically find work as plumbers, builders or manual work on farms.

The UK economy has benefitted enormously from this migration wave, especially small businesses who previously found it hard to recruit enough employees. However as prospects improve in Poland, many immigrants are thinking about going home. Others have decided to stay in the UK, and are taking part in community activities such as teaching locals about Polish culture and traditions.


April 29, 2008 Comments disabled

Museum of the person

Museum of the Person (Museu da Pessoa) aims to document life stories, with the idea that every life story is a part of history and leads to better understanding between peoples and cultures. The virtual museum project was founded in São Paolo in 1991 and so far museums have been created in Brazil, Portugal, USA and Canada.

On the site we can see stories of ordinary Brazilians, such as André Fodor, who was born to a Brazilian / Italian mother and Hungarian father. After growing up in Brazil he went to university in the USA, later coming back to Brazil with an American bride to help his father with his confectionary business. Many of those interviewed were born outside Brazil, or have ancestors of different nationality, reflecting the high level of immigration to Brazil over the last 150 years.

As well as collecting a fascinating repository of stories and information, the project has been very innovative in using multimedia to record life stories. Let´s hope they are able to collect many more stories from people in different places as the project continues to grow.

January 14, 2008 Comments disabled