When we first began learning how to interact with our families, we were told not to bring them things directly – not to let ourselves be perceived as a source. I’ve ended up breaking that rule inadvertently nearly every week, and I think part of the reason for that is cultural. When somebody new moves into town, traditionally neighbors bring goods over to help them get started. But, between neighbors who come from the same tradition, there’s an understanding of return. When I brought cupcakes, my family took my plate and later served me food from it. I couldn’t ask for it back. When I brought coloring book pages for the children, I brought markers to use, and my markers have stayed in the drawers there. I don’t regret their migration, but I wonder where communication about lending and borrowing became confused. Is there a cultural difference that places less emphasis on return? Or has my family had few reciprocal relationships in the U.S., that aren’t from the top down?
Last Saturday on class hosted a safe Halloween party for our refugees to introduce them to the holiday. Our family got to try new foods, which was fun. They liked pizza, but I don’t think that they liked the apple juice very much. Our family was also super excited able the clothing that we had set out for them to take since they do not have very much winter clothing yet. I was surprised that while they seemed grateful to get out of the house, they did not want to stay out for long though. It was only an hour before they asked to go home. I was surprised by this because I would think that since they do not have many places to go a change of scenery would be really exciting, but apparently it was not. Maybe they were too overwhelmed by all the people? But even that seems confusing to me because they knew a bunch of people there that were from the same area and that they could communicate with. I am worried about them becoming the type of refugees that get afraid to go out and shut themselves in their house. If they are afraid to go out, they will never be able to make it in this new land. I want to make sure that they do not fall into this trap, but I am not quite sure how to help them get over this fear.
The last time we visited our family I was thinking about an article that had appeared in the Chicago Tribune about the atrocious living conditions of refugee families. It stated how when refugee families come here, since they have no credit history, they can’t get very good housing. It is sad that the only affordable housing offered to refugees are apartments that are generally run down. Even in the home of the family that I visit, I have begun to notice problems that are beginning to arise. I have noticed that the amount of flies in their apartment is slowly starting to increase. Also, the last time my partner and I visited, my partner informed me that he thinks that he saw a mouse. This presents a problem because I don’t know how to put of traps without worrying about the two year old somehow getting a hold of them and hurting herself. I find it sad that these people come from atrocious living conditions to begin with. They think that when they come here the conditions will get better, but in actuality, they still live in run down conditions. The government has to do something to welcome these people better. They have to allocate more money to ensure that these people are welcomed and are allowed to live in better conditions instead of having to remain in the unsanitary dilapidated situations which they were trying to escape.
With winter fast approaching, I am also thinking of my refugee family. I was happy to discover my family attended the Halloween Party even through my partner and I went home for the holiday. I was, however, a little confused why my family didn’t collect any winter clothing for themselves. My family comes from a warm climate in which they probably never saw snow. I worry that they are not taking my partner and my warnings that the weather will get significantly more colder as winter approaches. Every time I tell my family that the weather is going to get so cold that Lake Michigan is going to freeze, I’m not sure they believe me and can even comprehend how cold that is. I attribute this break down in communication to our language barrier and cultural differences. I can’t tell if they won’t take the clothing because they think they are prepared enough for winter or if they don’t want to take the charity. Either way, it can be frustrating. I don’t know what they need. I have live here my whole life and even I have broken out my winter coat several days this year already. My family is still wearing sandals with no socks and little sweatshirts. They have to be cold. I don’t know how to give them the stuff I know they need.
I did not attend the Halloween party, but I sent members of the pre-dental club to attend. I was really excited to get feedback on how someone with without any experience with refugees would look at this experience. After talking to a few people they seems to have all enjoyed the experience. It was also said to have been a very “interesting” experience. There was some frustration that a lot of the families didn’t understand what was going on and that it was very hard for them with the language barrier. While many of the people might not have gotten anything more than a free toothbrush out of this there was the few people that stayed around and asked questions. It was these few people that really learned something and made the experience an amazing one for the members of the pre-dental club that I talked with. It is always rewarding to teach people to brush their teeth or to learn the importance of flossing.
Every time I go running I always run past my family’s apartment building and wonder if I might see them in passing or if anyone is home. Yesterday while I was running, I was having similar thoughts as I passed the building and also began to think more about some of the hardships the refugee families are facing, especially with the upcomign season change. While I was running, I felt like it was the perfect day for running, not too hot and just the right amount of chilly to really run a long distance. For me, fall is my favorite season as I love the crispness of the air, and as long as it is above about 50, I am happy. I kind of like it when the tip of my nose gets cold from running outside. Growing up in Western New York, I learned to love the fall, and the summer was always mild. Basically, I am used to the cold and when I am living in warmer climates I usually get frustrated when the season are a bit different or not what I was expecting. It’s these little things about the place where we grew up that often times go unnoticed in our mind as something comforting or as a simple joy in our lives. It saddens me to think that my refugee family, like many others, are probably missing little characteristics like this about their home towns or countries, that perhaps Chicago just can’t offer. For example, my family is from a very mountainous region and they have commented to me a number of times about the lack of mountains in Chicago and also asking where they might be able to see some mountains.
While I was running I also began to think about the changing weather and how a wickedly cold winter is hard for anyone to get used to, let alone someone who has never even seen snow before. I’ve grown up in places where there are harsh winters, and many times I don’t want to run outside in the dead of winter let alone leave my apartment because it is too cold.
I also began to think about how they might view my running outside. I run as a stress reliever and also to stay in shape, however I feel that something like that may not always transfer to other cultures. I am sure that they are aware of runners and their motives for running, but I can imagine that it was something new upon coming to the U.S. I don’t think they have ever really been concerned about staying in shape or staying fit, at least not to the extreme that many US Americans take it.
And then as all of these different thoughts were going through my head as I was listening to my iPod, I saw the mother and father of my family walking down the road. I greeted them with a breathy hello and a smile, and while I knew they may be struggling with reckoning our culture or they may be missing their home country, I also knew that they would be okay and would come to happy place eventually between their new home and memories of their home country.
It became apparent just this past week how much my refugee family has learned English. When we first met them, the daughter knew very little English and all the mother knew was “My name is …”. This week, we were able to communicate with the mother without the help of her daughter, using hand gestures of course. She is very funny! She had Kate and me laughing for a long time. I am so excited for her to learn even more English so we can communicate even better, and so we can laugh more.
The mother is also going to a sewing class once or twice a week. The class is under a program with “Women’s Empowerment” in mind. She was actually wearing a robe she had made in class that day. For a while I didn’t think she liked leaving her apartment, but I’m glad to see that she is indeed getting out there, meeting new people and experiencing new things.
There was also a bit of a cultural misunderstanding this week. Kate told them that she was very sad because her dog died over the weekend. Sally* asked if she had cried. When Kate replied “Yes,” Sally* started cracking up. She translated the story to her mother and she also began to laugh. As Sally* later explained to us, in their country, they “stone dogs.” Kate and I were horrified to hear this. However, when Sally told us that dogs in her country attack people every chance they get, we realized that they were dealing with wild dogs. We showed them pictures of a shih-tzu and a pug and explained that these dogs are not mean. There’s not much else you can do at cultural misunderstandings like this one, but laugh it off, and that’s what we did.
I am so happy that everyone who attended the Halloween party on Saturday worked so well together to make the afternoon a huge success!!! I was so excited to have an event to take my family to and I think they really enjoyed themselves. Despite them not having children, the two of them took part in making silly masks and playing Bingo. Our wife also brought a traditional African dish called saka saka, which was made out of crushed cassava leaves. Besides bringing the food for everyone to share, our wife also brought Annalise and I beautiful traditional dresses!!! I can’t believe what big hearts both of our family members have and I am truly so happy to have met them and to be able to be their cultural broker in as many ways possible while also becoming their close friend.
As usual, we also visited our wife on Friday afternoon too. When we arrived the husband was still there and he showed us a Web site he plays chess on, then demonstrated his skills by winning a game. Our wife told us that she is not pleased with her new English teacher at the community college because she “gives a lot of homework, but doesn’t make corrections.” I can definitely understand her frustration and I hope things improve or that she gets through this level of English quickly so she can move on to another teacher. We made corrections for her though and helped her with her homework due this week.
At one point we began talking about dictators in Africa and other things about the Congo and after a while I asked the wife if she had any questions about America for us. She thought about it and came up with the following questions, all of which were very interesting, as they showed what kind of first impressions Americans make on foreigners:
-Why do Americans get cremated?
-Why do Americans like pets more than children?
-Why do Americans like to go to restaurants?
-Why don’t Americans like to give out their phone numbers? (In reference as to why her English teacher wouldn’t give out her phone number so our wife could call her after school got out)
-Why do Americans call the police?
If a husband beats his wife or parents hit their children, she felt it was their own problem to be handled privately in the home. This was the most upsetting, but we keep conveying to her that in American no one is allowed to hit anyone else and if they do they can go to jail. She laughed and explained how in Africa the police would come if you called them, but immediately ask you for money before they were of any help to you. Still, I believe she understood the benefits of having policemen here that care about people and want to help them, particularly because she never wants her sister-and-law to come by, as she has harrassed her before. She knows that if the sister-in-law comes by and harrasses her again she has the freedom to call the police and she seemed happy about that.
I went to visit my family with Renee today and became incredibly frustrated. Perhaps for the first time since our preliminary visits I felt completely useless. I was supposed to be helping the family’s 12-year-old son with his homework. As usual, some of his homework was from his ELL classes, and some was from regular 7th-grade level classes. But today, he was supposed to read a 9 page story, written at a very high reading level, and answer several critical thinking questions about the story. I did my best to read the story to him, as when he tried to read it he became wrapped up in sounding out words. Even so, with explanations and pausing and everything, reading the story took at least half an hour. I tried drawing pictures and miming things out, but I was getting nowhere. Eventually we decided to just move on and work on his multiplication tables instead. I felt like I was wasting his time. I just don’t know what to do to help him. He isn’t ready to be reading English at such a high level yet, and struggling through the homework is not going to teach him a thing. I don’t understand the ELL resources at Chicago Public schools- maybe learning more would give me some insight as to what I can do for this boy. In the meantime, I feel pretty helpless and discouraged.