A few days ago I had the opportunity (thanks to this newspaper’s indefatigable Natalia Bethea) to spend a few hours with a young Burmese émigré.
I won’t embarrass her by mentioning her name; I’ll only tell you she is a student at North Side High School and absolutely delightful. She speaks English without the trace of an accent; she is an avid reader (Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is one of her favorite books); and she has a zest for life that is refreshing. We had a wonderful time, and I sincerely hope we will have more time together. Well, actually, I know we will, because she left with a book — and she is the kind of reader who returns books.
When she left my house, I thought how times have changed. This young woman apparently fits right in with her classmates. When I was growing up in Fort Wayne, there was little diversity. True, we were children or grandchildren or great grandchildren of immigrants or slaves. But the history of our country reminds us of the people who flocked here voluntarily — from the beginning — for religious freedom or for a desire for freedom from want or to escape oppression and enjoy freedom from fear or to be able to dream and make that dream come true.
But we looked pretty much alike, and we quickly adapted to the American way of life. Kids went to school, learned from teachers who looked pretty much like them, were together on teams on the playground, went to one another’s homes after school to play. Please remember, I’m talking about growing up in Fort Wayne.
Our introduction to people from around the world came frequently thanks to travelogues shown at our movie theaters. We saw saris and muumuus and fezzes and turbans and dashikis and dhotis. We heard music alien to our ears and heard of exotic spices. We read the National Geographic and saw pictures of people from all over the globe — but they were there and we were here.
Yes, there were persons who traveled on the luxurious ships to ports around the world, but they were people with large portfolios. My dream of a great graduation gift when I was about to get my bachelor’s degree was a trip across the Atlantic to Italy — but it was a dream. No president had yet suggested the Peace Corps. And we were largely an insular community, even with the advent, eventually, of radio and television.
Now our kids in foreign language classes sign up for trips during their junior or senior years that take them all over the world. Fort Wayne has sister cities where English is not the language learned at birth.
Walk into almost any classroom in one of our schools and you’ll see different shades of skin tone and various shapes of eyes and different textures of hair and different facial bone structure. Listen to the names. Our horizons have broadened. Giggles don’t come in a given language, so girls in a group having lots of fun speak an international language of fun.
Texting has a language of its own. Look at the names of members of a soccer team: from some with one syllable to those with four or five. Just think how many choices we have for different cuisines and how many ethnic restaurants we are blessed with here.
Actually, do take time to think about that. As a friend pointed out the other evening, within six minutes of her home she has a choice of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Hispanic, Mexican, Italian, Greek, French, Irish or American restaurants.
My, haven’t we become cosmopolitan! I am fortunate enough here to have a friend who is originally from Argentina, one from England’s Midlands, another from Finland, and now one who lived in Thailand for a few of her childhood years. My life has been vastly enriched by their friendships. Aren’t we lucky?