When I walked into my first night class at Baltimore City Community College this spring, I didn’t immediately feel out of place. In a school where 90 percent of the students are categorized as minorities, it’s not unusual for me to be one of just a few — or even the only — Caucasians in a room. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, though, I had a new revelation. I was one of three U.S.-born students in the classroom.
My classmates hailed from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Korea, Kenya, Jamaica, the Philippines, Bulgaria and Maryland. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a multicultural classroom.
That level of diversity is a hallmark of Baltimore’s immigrant population. Unlike many other major cities, where the majority of immigrants have just a few origins, the immigrant population in Baltimore comes from all over the world. This is no “little Oaxaca” or “New Korea.” It’s a melting pot in the true sense of the phrase.
“Immigrants here face a situation very different from those in many other cities in important ways,” wrote Elizabeth Clifford, a local academic and researcher at Towson University. “In the early years of the 21st century … the city government officially and warmly welcomed them, in an effort to stave off population decline, whereas in many cities local governments are hostile to immigrants.”
Many businesses and community leaders have recognized newcomers for what they are: consumers, the potential saviors of the economy.
Baltimore has a long history of welcoming refugees. Among those who have made homes in the area over the years have been 3,000 German Jews fleeing persecution by the Nazis, tens of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing in wake of the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Russia and other Soviet Republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This history, combined with the relatively warm welcome, has made Baltimore a good city to resettle refugees. “The rent is low and the available services are relatively high; there’s a decent mass transit system, not great, but decent,” says Robert Warwick of the International Rescue Committee. “Johns Hopkins University, too, makes this a better place for resettlement, because they are usually able to help refugees with special medical needs.”
At my community college, refugees are more than welcome as students. “Refugees further culturally enrich an already diverse city,” one professor told me. “What’s not to like about that?”
Of course, it’s not all roses — when it comes to immigration, it never is, as the recent law in Arizona has illustrated. Baltimore has its fair share of gang-related problems, and newcomers can easily fall victim to gang-related crime. The Baltimore public school systems are challenging for everyone, both native resident and immigrant. Learning the ropes is hard, and fitting in is never an effortless task.
Warwick told me one anecdote about three high school-age Bhutanese boys, recently arrived to the U.S., picking out clothes for school. “They went straight for the brightest, pinkest jackets … because where they came from, that’s what boys wore, and that was what was considered fashionable. We said, ‘We’ve got to tell them … not to not wear the jackets, of course, but, you know, just explain … if they do, they’re going to get a bit of a reaction from some of their new classmates.’”
Back in my own class, little cultural differences crop up every day. Americans, it turns out, tend to have much more rigid standards for personal space than other cultures do; I found myself fighting discomfort when the student at the desk next to me continually let her books, papers, elbow and arm overlap onto my own small desk. Once she even put her head down on my desk, leaving me with less than a paper width to work with. In return, I seemed standoffish, rude and unfriendly to her. Eventually, we realized the source of our tension and had a good laugh over it. Now she tries to keep her things out of my bubble, and I try not to let her lack of one throw me off balance.
As the semester wore on, the phrase “in my country …” began cropping up more and more often as we all loosened up. Since the class fell just after the dinner hour, one woman began bringing in home-cooked cuisine from her home country. Soon, an informal, international cooking club started up as we all shared food before class.
It may be a cliche, but it seems like the starting point for so much cross-cultural bonding is right through the stomach. What can I say — food is a simple, basic, easy thing to share, and it reminds us of the basic truth — we’re all human beings who need to eat, so we may as well break bread with one another.
“Adjusting to and understanding a different culture is one of the hardest things to do,” one man told me between bites. “But it’s almost always worth the effort.”
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.