Often the thought crosses my mind, “I wonder what foreigners think of America watching American TV shows, movies and reading the stories that make front page news?” Even closer to home, I’ve often wondered what immigrants to America think about us and for the purpose of this post, I’m not going to veer into the political hot potato illegal immigration patch. Instead, I want to talk about immigrants, people who move to our country and don’t know us yet.
Working in a big box store offers an opportunity to meet all sorts of people and years ago when I worked in the fabrics and crafts department, my store utilized recent immigrants to handle the floor-cleaning and overnight maintenance. We had a Bulgarian cleaning crew of three people, a couple and one other very tall man. They worked diligently with never a fuss, starting before my evening shifts ended. They avoided eye contact as they passed through the fabrics and crafts area every night. One evening I decided that I was going to meet them, so I began a halting conversation with the very tall gentleman. His English was not good. I don’t know any Bulgarian and through a few words I realized he spoke Russian, but I couldn’t remember more than a few words from my high school Russian classes. He quickly introduced me to the couple and I began chatting with them whenever I saw them in the store. The couple had been professional people in Bulgaria and they had a middle school age daughter. The tall gentleman, Lubomir, had been a Soviet-trained Bulgarian army officer. He was saving up money to bring his wife and son to America and besides working on that, he was studying English and studying to be able to become a truck driver, which would pay more and offer more opportunities to reach his goals. Often, I watched in dismay as some ignorant co-workers would mock his halting speech and ask him what his name was and treat him like the village idiot. He would patiently tell them his name was Lubomir and invariably they would ignore that and call him “Big Lou”. Lubomir seemed surprised that I knew where Bulgaria actually is, as most times when he told my co-workers that, it was met with, “Never heard of it!”
As Christmas drew near I decided to bake an assortment of Christmas cookies and take it to the apartment where they lived. I love baking, so I happily mixed and baked away and I had a large round metal Christmas tin can awaiting my cookie assortment. Then one of my sons came in the kitchen and I chattered away about how I was going to take Christmas cookies to my Bulgarian friends from work. Quickly, he started casting doubt on my gift idea. It started with questions like, “Mom do you realize that Bulgaria has quite a few Muslims and you don’t even know if these people are Christians?” He went on to fill me in on all the reasons why I shouldn’t presume they celebrate Christmas. I began doubting my project. Finally I told him I am not trying to convert them, I’m merely giving them a gift to let them know I value their friendship. His stream of over-thinking a simple goodwill gesture permeates how American society operates though, but he did have me wondering if my cookies might offend them.
I drove over to their apartment and the young daughter answered the door. She told me her parents were sleeping, which I expected as they worked the overnight shift in our store. This young lady possessed gracious manners, spoke impeccable English and offered the warmest smile when I told her I was friends with her parents at work. I didn’t want her to wake up her parents, so I just handed her the can of Christmas cookies and she said with just the slightest accent, “Thank you very much!”
Several thoughts struck me as I drove home. I thought about how we brag about how by the second generation immigrants assimilate and mainstream into American society and this young lady seemed well on the way toward that. Then I thought, why do we settle for the second-generation of immigrants assimilating – why not make it a commitment to assimilate new immigrants to America and turn as many of them as possible into American success stories. Why accept that it’s natural that the first generation toils away on the outskirts of American society, never really finding their way to being a real part of American society? I’m not talking about new federal programs, merely suggesting we start noticing the immigrants in our own communities, try to get to know them and treat them like neighbors. Assimilation into a community doesn’t come about through federal programs, it comes by making friends and accepting people into your group. It doesn’t even have to cost as much as a can of cookies – it can be as simple as talking to people and letting them know you’re willing to help them.
That conversation with my son came to mind last night when a friend mentioned cutting off aid to drug addicts and turning our backs on them until they clean up their act as part of the remedy to deal with that problem. As one who doesn’t think federal hand-out programs solve problems, I have no problem with eliminating many of these programs, as they fuel dependency and vicious cycles of poverty. In our communities though we, especially those of us who do celebrate Christmas, still need to try to find ways to help people in trouble, even though it would be easier to cast them aside as not part of our neighborhood. And on a lighter note, my Bulgarian friend’s name, Lubomir, means “love and peace” and if that wasn’t a good sign that my Christmas cookies would be welcome, I don’t know what is;-)