Saturday’s Intercultural Leadership Initiative (ILI) field trip through the streets of Oakland was a very enlightening and fulfilling experience. We began the trip in the Fruitvale district, a predominantly Hispanic community, and wandered aimlessly to discover snippets of Hispanic culture embedded throughout the area. Afterwards, we studied photos taken by Joe Schwartz in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, which showcases African American history. Subsequently, we roamed through Chinatown and embraced the celebratory atmosphere created by Chinese New Year. Finally, we ended the day with a gratifying meal at a southern style restaurant where we had an extravagant amount of juicy barbecue ribs.
After spending a day being immersed in so many different minority communities and reflecting on my own circumstances, I came to a profound realization. Regardless of origin and final settlement, the migrant experience is quite universal.
In 1991, my parents decided to settle in Sydney after escaping from the hardship of communism in Vietnam. As a result, I’ve spent my whole life as a minority in Australia. Consequently, I’ve been able to gain a migrant’s perspective through my parents and understand the public’s perception of migrants through daily interactions in society.
In an ideal world, a recent migrant is expected to learn the predominant language, adopt the existing culture and assimilate into mainstream society. However, in actuality, due to reasons ranging from lack of government assistance to the struggles of raising a family, many recent migrants fail to assimilate. Furthermore, rather than empathize and understand, the majority of the public tends to alienate and discriminate recent migrants because they are different in so many aspects, ranging from appearance to culture.
As a result, since they don’t understand the new culture and are alienated from mainstream society, recent migrants tend to unite with similar migrants to form tight-knit communities where they retain their original culture, speak their own language and have a sense of belonging. This was evident during the field trip. In Fruitvale, Hispanic restaurants were plentiful, Hispanic music was present, Hispanic art was visible, Spanish was commonly spoken and many storefronts had Spanish words. The same trend is seen in Chinatown and in my home town, a predominantly Vietnamese community.
If we look beyond the differences, most migrants and cultures share many similar values and beliefs. The values of hard work, self-sufficiency and the importance of the family unit were apparent throughout the field trip. In all the minority communities we visited, the owners and workers of many of the small independent businesses were minorities. Furthermore, many families could be seen walking together and sharing a meal in restaurants.
Consequently, if we appreciate the similarities and embrace the differences of migrants, everyone benefits. Migrants can achieve a true sense of belonging and the rest of community can benefit from being able to enjoy different cultures without having to leave the country.