Driving through my neighborhood, one might think, Wow! The beauty of America! What a melting pot. And it should be. Often refered to as International Boulevard, my street is home to first generation families from China, Austria, Germany, India, South Africa and Russia. Additionally, there are families that trace back several generations in America. There are Caucasians, Asians, African Americans. Driving up the street to our home, watching families on walks in the late afternoon, it’s amazing such a mix of cultures exists on our street.
The melting pot, though? The image is too good to be true. When we first moved in, our Chinese neighbor commented that block parties on our street will be wonderful! He boasted that his wife would introduce us to genuine Chinese food at his house. I responded that for the block party I’d make a brisket and a kugel.
The invitation never came. The party never happened.
What happened in our very colorful neighborhood? It segregated. Cliques formed. People of different cultures now barely wave at each other in passing, let alone smile or say hello. Each night while the kids (who “melt” through school) play, the parents and grandparents stand in clusters. And the clusters are completely monochromatic.
My interpretation of our neighborhood is through my eyes, I’m a caucasian. I’ve lived my whole life in the majority. Favored, I suppose, because spoke the same language as my neighbors, understand the culture of my education, rarely consider the policy of my peers.
It took reading Girl in Translation to open my eyes to just how difficult being a first generation American can be. Its not just that the parents don’t speak the same language as the rest of us, its that their school teachers from their origin countries have different expecations. Dates are hosted differently. Birthdays are celebrated another way.
Being American, something so very simple for one who was born here, isn’t so simple for one who comes here from a different culture. In Jean Kwok‘s story, I was struck by Kimberly’s first days at school. It took me back to my experience teaching. I learned how difficult it was for this child to enter a new school in a different culture. I recognized that the international families of my classroom may not have clearly understood the homework projects I assigned, they likely had difficulty following our school customs and expectations, in response to how different those were from their education.
One day, I had my copy of Girl in Translation with me while waiting for my son at the bus stop. As I watched other children get off the public school bus, it occured to me just how difficult an American education may be to my neighbors. I’m certain they’re proud of their children. I’m certain they enjoy their friends. But do they follow the culture? Do the expectations surprise them? Do they talk, in their clusters on the streets each evening, about how different our culture is from the one in which they were raised?
I learned a lot reading Girl in Translation. With every turn of the page there was something else to discuss: culture, language, expectations, poverty, success, sweat shops (oh my goodness! They’re horrible!), emotional control, ambition, values, choices and family values. It’s a book that lifted me; gave me something to consider in my life, and in those around me. It’s a book I’ll take with me in my interactions with others for years to come.
This post was inspired by the SVMoms Book Club’s June selection: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I received the book for free as a member of the book club.
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