Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Example of How Diversity Impacts a Culture

I often reflect on my childhood because it's a clear example of how diversity impacts a community.

My father was career Coast Guard so we moved often. This exposured us to a variety of people, landscapes, perspectives and architecture - among other things.

No matter where we lived, my parents immersed themselves in the local history because as children each had lived in a large city. Mom in Flint and Dad in Detroit. Until there were adults neither had much experience with rural areas, travel or other professions. Mom always claimed that mixing with other nationalities had given them their inquisitiveness.

When they married my mother dove into her "seafaring life" by exploring U.S. Coast Guard stations, history and shorelines. Whenever an opportunity arose for Dad to transfer she was all for it.

We lived in the country most of the time where street lights didn't illuminate the "wilds?" We walked gravel roads where homes were set a half mile back from the road and traffic was a big event. We had "party line" phone service and went to town shopping at most twice a month. We were "newcomers" who didn't share the predominant ethnicity or religion. Several times my father was stationed on islands awhile we lived on the mainland. Most lighthouses are are desolate points and our neighbors were fellow enlistees who came from other states or cities we'd never heard of. No wonder the armed services encouraged enlistees to "See the world." We had it next door!

At age five, my parents settle in the Upper Peninsula where, once again we were the outsiders. My father was the only man who didn't farm, work in the mines, teach school or drive a logging truck. He was also the only one gone from home for six weeks at a time and home for two weeks.

We weren't raised as Finnish Apostolic Lutherans. We were French and Norwegian and until my teen years had never attended church. There were a couple Catholic families around & my parents got to know them because my mother's entire family was Catholic - except her. During that era the two religious camps didn't mix much. Today, it's more blended.

My mother worked while others stayed home. My mom explored back roads, collected antiques while the locals scoffed at "that old junk." My mom had the audacity to make dandelion wine! Imagine the surprise when a neighbor stopped by to ask if we'd like to buy 10 acres and discovered us playing cards. A few weeks later there was another couple playing poker with my folks. It was our first realization that some of these people had strayed from the status quo but kept quiet about it.

For nearly 20 years mom was pretty much an outcast until a few neighbors newer than us stopped to chat while she was at our mailbox. Two professors had moved into the area from outside Michigan drawn by the beauty, safety and bounty of the area. Over the years others followed suit and the former tight knit mostly Finnish enclave has been transformed. Like most of America, the generations born since we first arrived are more diverse, friendlier and interesting.

I recall being in the sixth grade and giving a speech on "What I Did on Summer Vacation." It made the other kids uncomfortable. Most had never left the county let alone the state & I had lived in Texas while my father was in some heathen island called Yap. My classmates giggled, sneered and pretty much disrupted my speech. Today I know their actions were borne of insecurity and fear of the unknown. By my teen years the hippies had discovered our area and once again the old and new mixed. With hippies reviving run down farms; wearing long skirts; having home births; cooking on wood stoves and baking bread, the locals relaxed their guard some. Orchards produced fruit, the tax roll increased, the school needed expansion and by golly, most of these newcomers could actually fix things!

Another type of newcomer was the college educated, world traveler who hosted friends form India, China and Africa and drove foreign cars. In time, they too were at least tolerated. Soon native retirees saw an opportunity to sell their places for what was then considered a "ridiculous price."

Diversity, so long feared and misunderstood, was actually good for an area. Though most of the old guard has passed on, their descendants have either remained and flourished by adapting to the needs/whims of their neighbors. Others have moved to areas where their religious/cultural influence is stronger only to discover that change is in the air there too.

The neighborhood dynamics over the past 40 years is a good example of what's occurred nearly everywhere. And how could it not with the rise of technology; population increasing and resources depleting? Today, those Apostolic families often have two parents working and plenty of their own children in college. And "God forbid," some would say, people are marrying outside their clan.


Craig Cavanaugh said...

I grew up near the Naval Air Station so "diversity" was always around. Plus, many Hispanics began moving to our little peninsula, once a predominantly white fishing village. We all blended just fine. And everyone I knew was at home eating Yankee pot roast, red beans and rice, lasagne, or carne guisada. We didn't see color or ethnicity so much.

Our little fishing village has grown tremendously in my lifetime (not necessarily for the better) as people flocked here for the decent school and seaside living. There are only two oyster shell roads left : ) and one of them was "repaved" with caliche. But we have a Filipino market next to Mexican restaurants, next to a Texas BBQ joint, next to a hippie head shop, next to a surf shop, next to a black barber... And Island Italian has some of the best damn calzones you ever ate. That is, if you can make it past the seafood at Snoopy's Pier! Then again, the Little Manila Lumpia House sounds good too...

Sixbears said...

Cool story. Perfect for our times, when many are starting to fear "the other" once more.