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MIDDLE OF EVERYWHERE
The World's Refugees Come to Our Town
CULTURAL COLLISIONS on the GREAT PLAINS
I AM FROM
I am from Avis and Frank, Agnes and Fred, Glessie May and Mark.
From the Ozark Mountains and the high plains of Eastern Colorado,
From mountain snowmelt and lazy southern creeks filled with water moccasins.
I am from oatmeal eaters, gizzard eaters, haggis and raccoon eaters.
I'm from craziness, darkness, sensuality, and humor.
From intense do-gooders struggling through ranch winters in the 1920s.
I'm from "If you can't say anything nice about someone don't say anything" and "Pretty is as pretty does" and "Shit-mucklety brown" and "Damn it all to hell."
I'm from no-dancing-or-drinking Methodists, but cards were okay except on Sunday, and from tent-meeting Holy Rollers,
From farmers, soldiers, bootleggers, and teachers.
I'm from Schwinn girl's bike, 1950 Mercury two-door, and West Side Story.
I'm from coyotes, baby field mice, chlorinous swimming pools,
Milky Way and harvest moon over Nebraska cornfields.
I'm from muddy Platte and Republican,
from cottonwood and mulberry, tumbleweed and switchgrass
from Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and Janis Joplin,
My own sweet dance unfolding against a cast of women in aprons and barefoot men in overalls.
As a girl in Beaver City, I played the globe game. Sitting outside in the thick yellow weeds, or at the kitchen table while my father made bean soup, I would shut my eyes, put my finger on the globe, and spin it. Then I would open my eyes and imagine what it was like in whatever spot my finger was touching. What were the streets like, the sounds, the colors, the smells? What were the people doing there right now?
I felt isolated in Beaver City, far away from any real action. We were a small town of white Protestants surrounded by cow pastures and wheat fields. I had no contact with people who were different from me. Native Americans had a rich legacy in Nebraska, but I knew nothing of them, not even the names of the tribes who lived in my area. I had never seen a black person or a Latino. Until I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I had never heard of Jewish people.
Adults talked mostly about crops, pie, and rainfall. I couldn't wait to grow up and move someplace exotic and faraway, and living where I did, every place appeared faraway and exotic. When I read Tolstoy's book on the little pilgrim who walked all over the world, I vowed to become that pilgrim and to spend my life seeing everything and talking to everyone.
As a young adult, I escaped for a while. I lived in San Francisco, Mexico, London, and Madrid. But much to my surprise, I missed the wheat fields, the thunderstorms, and the meadowlarks. I returned to Nebraska in my mid-twenties, married, raised a family, worked as a psychologist, and ate a lot of pie. I've been happy in Nebraska, but until recently I thought I had to choose between loving a particular rural place and experiencing all the beautiful diversity of the world.
Before the Europeans arrived, Nebraska was home to many Indian tribes. The Omaha, the Ponca, the Pawnee, and the Nemaha lived in the east, the Lakota Sioux in the west. In the late 1800s immigrants from Europe pushed out the Native Americans. Wave after wave of new pioneers broke over Nebraska and we became a state of Scots, Irish, British, Czechs, Swedes, and Danes. For a while, we had so many Germans that many schools held classes in German. But after World War I, when nativist sentiments swept our state, our unicameral made instruction in German illegal.
Mexican workers came to build the railroads and to work on farms and in meatpacking. African Americans came to farm and to work in our cities. Nebraska's first free black person, Sally Bayne, moved to Omaha in 1854, and an all-black colony was formed at Overton in Dawes County in 1885. Malcolm X was born in Omaha in 1925.
Even though people of color have a rich history in our state and, of course, the Native Americans were here first, our state's identity the last 150 years has been mainly European. Until recently, a mixed marriage meant a Catholic married to a Methodist. After World War II, so many Latvians came here that we became the official site of the Latvian government in exile. Our jokes were yawners about farmers or Lutherans-"What did the farmer say after he won a million dollars in the lottery?" "Thank God I have enough money to farm a few more years." Or, "Wherever four Lutherans are gathered there is always a fifth."
However, in the last fifteen years something surprising has happened. It began with the boat people, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodians, coming in after the Vietnam War. In the 1980s Lincoln began having a few Asian markets, a Vietnamese Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, and English Language Learners (ELL) classes. Around the same time, Mexican migrant workers, who had long done seasonal work in our area, bought houses and settled down. Refugees from the wars in Central America trickled in.
The real change occurred in the 1990s. Because Lincoln had almost no unemployment and a relatively low cost of living, we were selected by the U. S. Office of Refugee Resettlement as a preferred community for newly arrived refugees. Now we are one of the top-twenty cities in America for new arrivals from abroad. Our nonwhite population has grown 128 percent since 1990. We are beginning to look like East Harlem.
Suddenly, our supermarkets and schools are bursting with refugees from Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Ethiopia. Our Kurdish, Sudanese, and Somali populations are rapidly increasing. Even as I write this, refugees from Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are coming into our community. Some are educated and from Westernized places. Increasingly, we have poor and uneducated refugees. We have children from fifty different nationalities who speak thirty-two different languages in our public schools.
Our obituary column shows who came here early in the 1900s. It is filled with Hrdvys, Andersens, Walenshenksys, and Muellers. But the births column, which reflects recent immigration patterns, has many Ali, Nguyen, and Martinez babies. By midcentury, less than half our population will be non-Latino white. We are becoming a brown state in a brown nation.
Lincoln has often been described by disgruntled locals and insensitive outsiders as the middle of nowhere, but now it can truthfully be called the middle of everywhere. We are a city of juxtapositions. Next to the old man in overalls selling sweet corn at the farmers' market, a Vietnamese couple sells long beans, bitter melons, and fresh lemongrass. A Yemeni girl wearing a veil stands next to a football fan in his Big Red jacket. Beside McDonald's is a Vietnamese karaoke bar. Wagey Drug has a sign in the window that says, TARJETAS EN ESPAÑOL SE VENDEN AQUI. On the Fourth of July, Asian lion dancers perform beside Nigerian drummers. Driving down Twenty-seventh Street, among the signs for the Good Neighbor Center, Long John Silver's, Fat Pat's Pizza, Snowflakes, and Jiffy Lube, I see signs for Mohammed's Barber Shop, Jai Jai's Hair Salon, Kim Ngo's jewelry, Pho's Vietnamese Café, and Nguyen's Tae-Kwon Do.
We celebrate many holidays-Tet, Cinco de Mayo, Rosh Hashanah, and Ramadan. At our jazz concerts, Vietnamese families share benches with Kurdish and Somali families. When my neighbor plays a pickup basketball game in the park, he plays with Bosnian, Iranian, Nigerian, and Latino players. I am reminded of the New Yorker cartoon which pictured a restaurant with a sign reading, RANCHO IL WOK DE PARIS, FEATURING TEX-MEX, ITALIAN, ASIAN, AND FRENCH CUISINES.
Women in veils exchange information with Mexican grandmothers in long black dresses. Laotian fathers smoke beside Romanian and Serbian dads. By now, every conceivable kind of grocery store exists in our city. And the ethnic shelves in our IGA grocery stores keep expanding. The produce sections carry jicama and cilantro. Shoppers can buy pitas, tortillas, egg rolls, wraps, and breads from all over the world. My most recent cab driver was a Nigerian school administrator who fled his country because he was in a pro-democracy group. S. J. Perelman's description of Bangkok-"It seemed to combine the Hannibal, Missouri, of Mark Twain's childhood with Beverly Hills, the Low Countries, and Chinatown"-could now apply to Lincoln.
Copyright © 2002 by Mary Pipher
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