Last week, Elsie and I accompanied our senior at Watkins Mill High School to the annual gala international night they have every year in their cafeteria. It’s always fun to partake of the food, music, and rich culture of the myriad of ethnic backgrounds represented by the student body of a place like Watkins Mill.
But one scene caught me off guard – yes even me, a veteran of cultural events. The loud speakers were blasting out some pretty standard old school Spanish ballads that I associated with Latinos my age who had carried their tastes over from their homeland years before. But I looked over at the teenagers sitting at a cafeteria table across from us and, lo and behold, I found these youngsters engrossed in the music – not Hip-Hop, Rap, R&B, or any of the usual fare for youth who are listening to the popular icons of their day here in the U.S. No, these teens were hooping, hollering, clapping and clearly animated by beats from another world not my own. And it occurred to me: these were probably recent immigrants, having arrived in the last 3 – 6 months, a population that has surged in Montgomery County in the last few years. They are probably from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, probably were sent here by their parents, and probably are staying with extended family or friends who have barely enough to support their own kids much less distant relatives. They have been sequestered to a new world, a new culture, a new home. But they remember their homeland music – and as they listen a peace, a love, a joy radiates from their faces, cutting through all the fears, doubts, intimidations. For one brief shining moment, they get to belong again!
I am not a native of Montgomery County. I was born in New Jersey. But our family moved to Washington Grove (South side of Gaithersburg) when I was five years old and I grew up here, graduating from Gaithersburg High School. So I am about as close to a native as most people I know will meet.
Because I am the exception. Most residents are not from here. And a huge percentage came from outside the U.S.: Brazil, Sri Lanka, Togo, Jamaica, Croatia, Viet Nam – the list is endless, all carrying with them a piece of their native land in their hearts. An immigrant to the US will tell you that they never truly leave their home country. Despite the overwhelming daily struggle of accommodating, assimilating, adapting to new ways of doing things – how to open a bank account, where to find a job, how to access public transportation, how to start a conversation in English – an immigrant never loses his or her native identity. They carry it with them wherever they go.
And so, if they take seriously the call to engage their new culture, not to hide in a cultural island or stay safely inside their own ethnic social circles, they will always be a representative of two cultures, a straddler of two worlds. It’s inevitable.
There are folks all around you, many who have been here for years, for whom Montgomery County is only half their life. Their views, outlooks, perspectives, etc. are still shaped by a worldview forged in a completely different spot on the globe. It can be disorienting and oftentimes lonely living in one place but living through another. Being an alien is hard work. Being an alien that still loves his/her place of origin is even harder. Especially when it was not their preference to uproot in the first place.
Which is why it is such a gift when an immigrant finds a place – a refuge, an oasis in time and space – to relish their roots. Be it with music, with food, or with a sensitive friend who asks in a big wide open inviting way “tell me about where you’re from!,” giving an immigrant a place to be their original selves every once in a while is one of the most dignifying things we can do. It communicates: “I know this place is not the sum total of who you are. I know there is a big piece of your identity that can’t be fully realized in this county. I know how hard it is to be yourself in such a foreign culture. But I want to get to know your whole self, not just the American side.”
If you know an immigrant, ask them about their homeland. Watch them come alive!