Friday, April 14, 2006


Now that I'm back to teaching more than just a couple of students, as was the case when I simply didn't have the time or energy, I really enjoy the different ethnicities and cultures my students come from. Not only are the students themselves interesting, but getting to know their parents, often first generation immigrants to this country, is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the world. Since I was little, one of my main interests has been geography and all the different peoples of the globe. My collection of world atlases is probably better than that of any library, plus these days there are wonderful online mapping tools. Reading about ethnic groups is not the same as coming face to face and interacting with them. I hate to stereotype, but at least in this case the immigrants are usually better educated and more knowledgeable about the world than an average American. It gives me great pleasure to learn about their history, languages, customs and so on, and I tend to spend a good deal of time doing my 'homework', researching through my library and the web.

This country is a wonderful mix of people, although there has always been a lot of pressure to assimilate. Obviously, a grown man or woman is not going to be able to do that to the same extent as a child. Parents wanted their children to fit in, gave them American names and didn't want to pass on their native language. This was especially true in the earlier part of the 20th century. "John" would certainly not have been a choice for a son's name in the Pale: here it became very popular as it didn't carry the same label attached to it as 'Mordechai'. Often parents and their children grew so much apart that they couldn't even verbally communicate with each other well enough to remain close. Recently much of this has changed, and especially Latinos and people from different parts of Asia are proud of their heritage, and make sure their children have a tie to the old homeland. I personally could have done better: out of my four daughters only the eldest speaks Finnish completely fluently, the second one fairly well, but the two youngest only know words and phrases. At least they have visited in their second homeland often, and know the customs and understand the special qualities their people have.

What usually sets an immigrant student apart from an American is their work ethic and desire to learn and learn well. As classical music and playing the violin may not be part of their background, being at ease with our Western music can be in some ways be more difficult to them, but most of them overcome this in no time. As a teacher I feel more challenged but I simply love that. I just wish I could learn about their music and culture as much as they learn about ours. I'm doing my best and have always enjoyed listening to songs and other works from all over. Since early on, I was a short wave radio buff, and I would spend hours listening to faraway exotic radio stations. These days it is easy as you can hear them on a web stream, as clearly as your local stations.

This country has not always treated its immigrants, legal or illegal, very well. The Chinese were singled out for a long time: they couldn't become citizens or own property, although we had brought them here to build railroads as they were willing to work under conditions our own people wouldn't. The last couple of weeks have seen massive demonstrations against proposed legislation that would make criminals out of people here without legal documents. Yet, like the railroad builders, they work the jobs we wouldn't touch. Without them our economy would completely collapse, and it isn't doing so well at this point anyhow. People from the Middle East are treated with suspicion, even when they have been born here, and anyone dark-skinned is lumped easily in the same category. Many stories are simply heartbreaking, but it is not easy to find them in the media. If you have the time, read this article by my journalist daughter Silja, who has dedicated her life to writing about social injustice.

Our differences are our greatest blessing.