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Maltz Museum: Cleveland's Immigrant Communities Today

On Wednesday, August 10th, we went to the Maltz Museum for another program in its "Cleveland's Immigrant Communities Today" series this time focusing on the Asian community.

IMG_3557The program consisted of Mr. Jeffrey Allen, the Museum's director of education and public programs, interviewing a panel consisting of Ms. Nupur Goel, the winner of the Museum's 2016 "Stop the Hate" essay contest and our friends Mr. Asim Datta, Ms. Gia Hoa Ryan, and Mr. Johnny Wu.

Mr. Allen first asked panelists to share a story about their experiences when they first came to this country. Ms. Ryan's recollection of how hard she had to work to get a job as a bartender was particularly poignant and Ms. Goel, who was born here, told of how her parents immigrated to the United States from India 23 years ago very little money and just a few suitcases but made the most of this country's opportunities; their experience thus became a major part of her upbringing. Mr. Datta talked about a friendship that he formed when he first arrived here from India that lasted for decades. Mr. Wu shared with us that his father was a diplomat and that he, himself, was largely raised in Panama thus Chinese was his third language behind English and Spanish. Eventually he came to Cleveland ("just me and my computer") to make his own way and said that he now regarded Cleveland as "my home, my town, and my heart."

Next they discussed the term "Asian" and how evasive it is because, one estimate it could apply to 60% of the world's population and the dangers of labeling. Ms. Goel said that she didn't believe that labels were bad (i.e. saying a person was an Asian based on where he/she and/or his/her ancestors were from) as long as they did not lead to stereotyping.

Mr. Allen brought up the subject of cultural shifting as exemplified by the change of the name of the section of Cleveland once referred to as "Chinatown" to "Asiatown".  On this matter, Mr. Wu and Ms. Ryan firmly disagreed with IMG_3562Mr. Wu approving the change while Ms. Ryan did not. Both eloquently stated why they had the viewpoint that they had.

On the subject of what motivated people to settle in areas according to their ethnicities, Ms. Ryan and Ms. Goel had interesting insights. Ms. Ryan indicated that when 10,000 Vietnamese arrived in Cleveland in 1975 they settled in one area at first because that was where the resources and the jobs that they qualified for were located. But now, due to expanded opportunities, this is getting to be less and less the case. Ms. Goel said that she believed that it was part of the human condition for people to settle where those of their own ethnic group tended to be.

At this point an audience member voiced his concern about the unwillingness of some immigrants to "assimilate" so Mr. Allen quickly pointed out that research has shown, that people who immigrated to the United States when they were older tended to stick together due to shared customs and language but their offspring tended to move increasingly into the mainstream with each generation. This question and another one by our friend Ms. Sujata IMG_3554Lahke Barnard about what the term "assimilate" really meant prompted a discussion about the need and the difficulty for a foreign-born person to find the right balance of maintaining his/her cultural identity while functioning as a vital part of American society as a whole.

Mr. Wu discussed his work with international students who are sometimes put off by our customs here and native-born students who are sometimes put off by the attitude of international students. He believed, as we do, that both sides must work together because the potential is there for a tremendous learning experience.

Ms. Goel shared with us about how she was treated with disrespect by other students at her high school due to her ethnicity so she helped to establish a course about understanding the Indian culture. She thus believed that cultural gaps can be bridged by such efforts. She believed that her parents had done a very good job in preparing her to find a good balance because Hindi is spoken in their household and Indian customs are observed but she is not threatened by U.S. culture and is comfortable working with it outside of her home.

Likewise, Mr. Datta affectionately introduced his daughter who was in the audience and talked about how he did not want to "limit her growth" so he exposed her to the Indian culture as much as possible while she was growing up but never told her that she had to live this way. As for himself, Mr. Datta didn't feel like he had to give up anything by immigrating here but he "added" a lot.

Ms. Ryan expressed regret that, due to social conditions at the time, she perhaps "pushed English" a little too heavily on her daughter (who came here from Vietnam when she was three years old) and did not place the right emphasis on her also learning the language and the cultural traditions of the Vietnamese people. Subsequently, over the years, she has helped many of her family members from Vietnam IMG_3553immigrate to the United States  and always emphasizes that they must preserve their cultural heritage. Mr. Wu seemed to second this as he recalled that it was tough having to learn Chinese after he got home after a long day at school but he now he was glad that his father insisted upon it because now he "co-exists" very well within both the Chinese and the American cultures.

At this point, our Mr. George Koussa from Margaret W. Wong and Associates who immigrated to the United States from Syria gave a very moving testimony about how much living in this country means to him and the need to bridge cultural gaps because he knew, from his experience with Syria, how damaging these gaps can be. He defined assimilation as the need to succeed in a culture and to respect its values. But, as he cautioned, this is not to be done at the expense of giving up the values of one's own heritage because this is what makes the American experience so unique.

It was time to wind down so Mr. Allen concluded with a question about why the panelists liked Cleveland and chose to settle here.

Mr. Datta said that he settled here for "family reasons" but grew to love Cleveland, the CAVS, the Browns and its orchestra. He astutely said that pastures may be greener elsewhere but if he had lived anywhere else he wouldn't have had the life that he has had here.

Ms. Goel said that she asked her parents what made them chose to settle in Cleveland and she was told that it was the "people" along with the spirit of "nothing given and all is earned." Moreover, her parents told her that Cleveland provided "a strong foundation to better ourselves" and to actualize the American dream.

Mr. Wu said that for him it was simply "the people, the diversity, and the food."

Ms. Ryan praised the friendliness of Cleveland and said she loved its diversity. Along these lines, she was very glad that we have such a fine organization as Global Cleveland here.

Speaking of Global Cleveland, along with the Maltz Museum, it was the key player behind the producing of this panel series. Unfortunately, Mr. Joe Cimperman, its president, could not be there for this particular program so Ms. Jazmin Long, Director of Community Relations and Strategic Partnerships, introduced it by saying that she hoped it would "spark dialogue and strengthen our community."

Sitting behind us was Mr. Richard Anders from "The Real Deal Press" who, only a few days prior, attended a naturalization ceremony in Kalamazoo, Michigan where 131 people became new American citizens. He said that it was a very touching thing to be a witness to especially in light of the current political climate. For us, hearing about this, was an excellent capstone to a very fine evening.


Michael Patterson 

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC

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