November 11th, 2008 by Bill Keitel
Its a summer evening and I walk with my Uncle, (an Archaeologist) from Southern Illinois. We walk along the streets of my little town in search of exercise and an evening stroll.
Our first stop is at Ban Lao Foods and we say Symbaidee (hello) to our Laotian friend Siam. She’s tending the store this evening (they are open 8 to 12 hours each day). We take the time to examine the various bags of rice that are available this week. Her husband makes 300 mile/ bi-weekly trips to restock the pallets of rice at his store. We aren’t in the market for 50 lbs bags of rice, but we admire the artwork on the bags and value her friendship. I often stop by the Lao Coffee and my wife buys an assortment of others items that I rarely appreciate. Their friendship is the value.
As we progress along the street, it has the look & feel of a world market. Decades ago the city planners placed street benches to allow for comfortable seating arrangements along the streets. This was done in hopes of stemming the outflow of business to the “MALL”. As in every small town in the middle west…its the de-evolution of the concrete jungle, people headed to the “new guys in town, The Mall!”
At long last! The street benches are finally being used, the first one by Ethiopians, the 2nd bench by Sudanese, the 3rd by Guatemalans, the 4th by an assortment of Hispanics. Those not being able to sit on the benches are laying on the ground. Its a warm summer evening and everybody is outside trying to stay comfortable. We find it an incredible,vibrant & eclectic mix of new world emigration.
However, it’s not that simple…..we live 50 miles from Lake Wobegone and this sort of casual “sprawling on the main” doesn’t illicit comfortable vibes from long time residents.
It takes concerted efforts on everybody’s part to understand the nature of what emigration is all about. Laying in front of us are the people that are continuing to buoy our real estate values, buy our cars, shop in our grocery stores and continue to make the tenuous local economy remain somewhat stable. We are historically a little railroad town. Many of the houses are suited for first time home buyers with limited income. Its a perfect match & demographically, this is exactly what we need!
We stop and see Rudolfo and his Music Store /turned fashion beautique. It has been a few years in finding his niche’. Rest assured, he can find it on his own, without the help of Wall Street analysts. His store started out with ” lower end” musical instruments and has progressed to the latest Mexican fashion statements. His wife, Grandmother and children share in this amazing enterprise. They will succeed, with or without our sometimes…..cynical eye. Hmmmmm? Crocodile boots? Who would be interested?
I suspect I’m not innocent of miscalculation or prejudice. I try my darnest to see all sides….and error in accommodation. I’m aware of the burdens that immigration brings to a small town. I’ve had the good fortune to be friends with everyone from the Mayor, to undercover drug enforcement people to the marginals folks trying to survive using false passports and people not playing by our prescribed rules.
The account that you will receive will be from an untrained observer, a person with an incomplete college education, a person that has founded his daily life on the trust and friendship of these new emigrants. I draw from the strength and past associations of far more eloquent friends that have long ago moved on or have tragically passed, with this…..I honor their passing.
Can I tell you about my first friends of 25 years ago? My wife took them for their 1st day of school….it was burdensome for the teachers to discern the difference in their names…..tSuun and Soom.
They lived across the street from us and we all shared, without apprehension. I recall a time when it was explained to us that their Grandmother would “enjoy” our pet toad in other ways. This revelation allowed us to start to understand the curious adventure on which our community was embarked.
Immigration is never easy, the American Dream is never a clean a calculated script. People never leave their homeland because things are dandy! They have been thrust out of their nest and hopefully into an environment that will allow them to survive and prosper.
As I glance back, I see those same young Lao children buying cars, buying homes, having babies, becoming quite responsible citizens. I share in their success, I’m proud of their accomplishments.
What causes me to stay in an overly conservative community of 10,000, with limited growth potential? It’s a question that my wife and I have continued to ponder over the decades. Our engagement with an emerging class of America, the emigrants. Immigration, this is not a process that is clean and void of grit. It is a process of generational success. The parents scrape by., …the kids often succeed.
We attended a graduation of an immigrant family that had since moved to another side of town. We didn’t know whether they would be accepted on that edge of town? Our arrival at the party confirmed our hopes and apprehensions, an elderly neighbor lady attended the graduation party in her polyesther house coat. Lending credence to the accommodating spirit of a small town.
Another graduation party the following year added further dimension to our ego-centric understanding. The Lao Family had reason to be proud, a prosperous business, the largest Asian grocery store in perhaps all of Minnesota. The smartest and brightest kids, the middle child received an above 4.0 grade average! At her graduation party we had the opportunity to meet the extended family.
Her uncle was also an achiever, we visited at length. After fleeing Laos he opened a store Thailand and contines to pursue business in the midwest and throughout the world. This strikes me as curious…….I always thought that the “American Dream” was the end of the story. He made me realize that there is business to be had in Brazil, Tawian and a few other assorted countries. He also noted that Uruguay was not one of them! He felt it was far to corrupt. Immigrants pursuing the dream. I am starting to realize that the dream doesn’t end on these hallowed shores anymore. Our new immigrant & U.S. Citizen friends are far more adept at negotiating inter country trade.
They have been living amongst and betwixt numerous cultures all their lives, adaptability is the key. They will be an incredible asset to this nation as we move forward.