The migrant experience

Oakland's Chinatown

Oakland’s Chinatown

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.

About henrynguyen

G'day, my name is Henry Hoang Duc Nguyen and I'm a spring exchange undergraduate student from Sydney, Australia, studying civil engineering. Thanks to my parents, who are originally from Vietnam, I've had the privilege of growing up in beautiful Sydney with a supportive and caring family, comprising of two older brothers and a big sister. In my spare time, I enjoy bantering with mates at the pub and spending time with my family. I'm ecstatic to be living here in International house with so many talented and passionate poeple from around the world. So during my brief stay, I look forward to hanging out with y'all.
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4 Responses to The migrant experience

  1. doropatent says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog, Henry. You are so right–if people in the dominant culture can reach out and appreciate the migrant culture, they can receive benefits such as great new food experiences and interesting art, and, even more importantly, interesting new friends. All this can help the migrants feel more at home and more welcome, and can also help them economically.
    When a group of scientists makes a new breakthrough, I always look at their names and note that their surnames reflect the variety of this country, which has become great largely through the efforts of the waves of immigrants willing to work hard and who have strong family values. The same is true for the young scientists who win in national competitions.

    • henrynguyen says:

      Thank you for such a nice comment. As a minority, all we want is a home where we feel safe and appreciated. So, I’m pleased to hear that you are welcoming migrants with open arms and embracing our culture. Similarly, I’m always so proud to see accolades achieved by minorities, in any field. Their achievements are a source of inspiration and remind me that I can make it, regardless of my origins.

  2. joelurie says:

    Hello Henry, I was moved by your thoughtful blog and wish it could be seen by many people beyond the walls of I House, especially those who may not have ventured beyond their familiar comfort zones. I wonder if you have considered sending as an opinion piece to the Daily Cal or to the Insight section of the SF Chronicle. Thanks for sharing . joe lurie

    • henrynguyen says:

      Thank you for such an uplifting comment. I would love to share my story with a wider audience. After reading your commment, submitting my piece to a newspaper sounds like an awesome idea.

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