Thursday, December 13, 2007

The UN of NoVa

I live in an area of Northern Virginia that is truly a melting pot – where virtually everyone is from somewhere else. I remember hearing that there were some 35 languages represented at our local elementary school.

After working with the mostly Hispanic pregnant teenagers this morning, I went to the fabric store to return some felt squares. Rosamaria was at the cash register again, looking a little frazzled because she was the only cashier and the line was getting longer. After I showed her the felt I wanted to return, she smiled and said, “You buy from me?” “Yes,” I replied, remembering the painfully long wait as she insisted she had to scan each of the 36 pieces instead of scanning and hitting “quantity 12" 3 times. She was still not convinced there was any other way so the return was a repeat of the 36 scans as the line got even longer.

Near the end an Asian man appeared in front of her cash register saying “Where can I get a car?” I knew he meant a shopping cart, but I could see the wheels in Rosamaria’s head turning as she said, “What you mean?” He demonstrated pushing the cart and she pointed him in the right direction.

Upon completion of each transaction, she never failed to wish each customer “Happy Merry Christmas.” But it was so obvious that she would much rather be speaking Spanish.

Another country visited as I stopped at a local gas station to try to deal with the fact that my windshield wiper was not clearing the driver side of the windshield, an increasing problem as it started to rain harder. The attendant was probably from Pakistan or some other country in the Middle East.

He immediately replaced the blades and charged me $20, which would have been fine, but the problem was no better. When I asked him to take another look, he immediately started bending the hell out of my wiper arm, while I’m thinking, “This is a Volvo. Please don’t break it because every part is seriously overpriced.” He finally took it into a bay and did something that made it marginally better. I decided to leave well enough alone and escape before I needed to buy the Volvo part.

Back to my shrinking enclave of American born families. I’m afraid we are a dying breed as we are slowly being overtaken by representatives from the rest of the world. It’s so interesting to think how this area has changed in the past 30 years.


Blogger steve said...

Years ago at a Hotel kitchen, a very educated Bartender from the Ivory Coast came to me looking for as "can of fire". It took a while, but I finally found that what he wanted was Sterno.
It was like the scene from tarzan where the native says
"Big Bird come...take man away"

3:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- But of course, a can of Sterno is definitely a "can of fire." It's all about communication and sometimes there are optional approaches.

6:39 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

I wrote a post a long time ago about the Super Chicken in Falls Church, where I was the only Gringo. Although I didn't have much success getting my food, I think it's all a hopeful sign.

2:33 AM  
Blogger GEWELS said...

I suppose to the Native Americans our ancestors were all "representatives of other countries".
Ah, America- She is a great country, no? (that last was said with an Italian accent)

7:18 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Matt, Gewels -- I do like living in a diverse community. I keep thinking what a great international dinner we could have if everyone brought their favorite dish!

It's totally a different feeling from being in downtown Bethesda!

8:15 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

America has always been about people from the rest of the world coming to live here. Even the Indians walked across the land bridge or arrived in canoes. "American born" has always been a misnomer.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- I was trying to think of a phrase to describe the shrinking group of long-time residents of my neighborhood. I could have said "the people who don't easily speak a language other than English." That would have correctly described most of us.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

When I first married Reza, my father took me aside and told me that, as a speech therapist, I should work on his accent. I tried to explain that to me, his accent was "ear candy", different from the aural landscape that I inhabit.

Reza came to this country speaking and understanding the kind of language that you learn in school, not overly proficient with slang or idiom. Every night we would watch Seinfeld and I would explain something about the episode to him, like what "12 steps" mean or... why yadda yadda yadda was funny.

One of the things that amazed me about Reza was when he was able to rebuild one of our car's engines, using a manual and minimal tools. I have often thought of how I would survive if I had to function daily in one of the languages that I have learned. I don't know if I could have romanced a spouse, rebuilt an engine,received my citizenship, gotten my doctorate... so I give Reza (and all the other emigrants who choose our country to spend their life's energy) kudos.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kelly -- I am constantly struck by the industriousness and ingenuity of these people who come to this country to fulfill a dream. They work multiple jobs, often so the next generation can go to college and not have to work multiple jobs.

Reza sounds like a fine example of someone who made the best out of life in his adopted country. I'm sure he is delighted to have your support!

1:41 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Oddly enough, I always feel most at home among ethnic diversity and out of place among white and English speakers. It was something I noticed when I moved from Montreal to Toronto 20 years ago - I couldn't stand how white and English Toronto was (this is not the problem today - ethnic enclaves are), so much so I used to wander around China town just to escape the English.

Montreal was very bilingual (still is, actually). Most of the people in my school were, technically, white (although, the Italians, who made up the majority, were the dark rather than white skinned ones. We only had one white skinned Italian).

One of the reasons I like Ottawa so much is because of its mixed ethnic diversity. When we moved back to Montreal, I was shocked at how white I found it.

A friend who moved to Toronto was saying how much she missed the diversity in Ottawa. She was complaining how she does not have one non-White friend in Toronto (she is half Pakistani, half White Canadian) because everyone just sticks to their own kind and they don't intermingle.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Oops, forgot to include the magic word, which was oyvishia.

That sounds like a good Yiddish word to me.

(this one is mtzyfdn - which sounds kind of German)

4:44 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- It's sort of like the choice between an all-white dress or one with a pattern of color. The latter is inevitably more interesting. For the same reason I love ethnic food.

Not everyone feels this way. There are still numerous gated communities that closely control who can live within the gates.

It's interesting that your Canadian cities are so different in their levels of diversity, although I'm sure the same thing is true in many cities of the US.

5:30 PM  

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